Ronreads interview: Gregg Olsen

This post was supposed to go up yesterday, but I was too busy puking my guts out to actually finish going through the transcript. I may have caught a little something-something, because even as I type this up now I have snot literally dripping from my nose.

This interview with Gregg Olsen happened about a month ago. Going into the interview, I quite honestly expected something else. If you do a Google image search of Gregg Olsen, you end up with pictures of a stern-faced man with a rather impressive moustache, and I was prepared to interview someone with no sense of humor at all.

Happily, Gregg Olsen is far from being someone with no sense of humor. In fact, meeting him in person, you’ll quickly find no one likes laughing more than Gregg Olsen. In this interview, he talks about making the move from non-fiction to fiction, the humor he tries to put into his work, and what he really thought about the Philippines before coming here.

RONREADS (RR): How did you first find out that you were going to be here in the Philippines?

GREGG OLSEN (GO): I found out from my publisher. I was going to the Hong Kong literary festival, and there was some interest from the Philippines, would I like to go? And I had never thought that I would ever come to the Philippines. It just seemed too far away, too exotic. So I sad yes. It wasn’t something that I had planned. It was just good fortune that I had.

RR: What was your idea of the Philippines before arriving here?

GO: You really wanna know (laughs)? Survivor’s set in the Philippines this year, so I’m looking at all of that and I’m thinking how beautiful it is, and I’m also thinking that I cannot be on that show.

But before, I would say that I might have been a little intimidated of the Philippines, to be honest. It’s so exotic and so different from the US that I might not feel comfortable. And I have found that that is so wrong. I’ve gotten here and met all these people and seen how beautiful, clean, and nice everything is. From what I have seen, it’s gorgeous! I want to come back for a vacation. If you asked me a week ago if I wanted to take a vacation in the Philippines, I would have said no. And now I gotta find a way to get back.

I haven’t been to the beaches or anything like that. I don’t even know how far they are from here. I was reading a travel magazine on the plane on the way here and there was a spread about haunted places in the Philippines. I got really intrigued by that. I need to go to one of these ghost places and have one of these ghost people work on me.

It’s a different culture from what we have in the States, but it’s a lot the same. I’m watching a music video in my hotel room. I don’t know who your singers are, but it’s the same as us. Comfortable yet very different.

‘Abandoned Prayers’ made it to the New York Times Bestseller lists.

RR: You’ve had a lot of success and critical acclaim writing non-fiction. What made you venture into fiction?

GO: Non-fiction was going really well. I had a New York Times bestseller, I was making good income from non-fiction crime stories, but I always had this part of me that wanted to write fiction, but I did not feel good enough. Could I make something up, could I create a character or situation that anyone would want to read about? I didn’t have the confidence.

Finally, one day I said I just have to try it. I wrote my first novel and it was okay. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t so bad to make me stop. I thought I could do better than that, and I did better and I sold that book. Since that time, I have now written more novels than I have written non-fiction, and I have more books in fiction than in non-fiction, so it turned out pretty good for me.

RR: Was it a different adjustment to a different genre?

GO: The difficulty wasn’t with me once I had my confidence. The difficulty was publishers want you to write one kind of thing. They prefer you sticking to the same thing over and over because you have an audience. That’s the barrier, that’s the difficulty. But once I started writing it, and I realized that I can write from my own heart and from my own experiences and not someone else’s, because true crime, I was writing what other people were thinking and feeling. With fiction, even if it was not me, it could be me.

RR: But what about your fans? Was there an outcry? 

GO: When my first novel came out, “Wicked Snow”, the killer in it is a woman named Claire Logan. I got emails from people saying that they want to know more about this murderer that I wrote about, but they can’t find her on Wikipedia. My fans were confused!

I do have two kinds. I have true crime people, who only what that, and then you have the fiction people. And I think the fiction crowd are a little more open to reading the true stuff, while the true crime people don’t want any of the fiction stuff.

RR: What made you shift to YA then? Because that’s yet another genre.

GO: They’re all the same when you think about it. My true crime books and my adult serial killer thrillers, and my YA, they all have the same component, which is somebody gets murdered, and we have to find out why and stop that person. They’re all the same in that regard.

When I shifted to YA, it was all because I thought it would be more character-driven. It was a series and I’ve never written a series before. All of my books, even my fiction, are standalone. With the series, it was a different challenge, but it was exciting enough to make me want to do it. Young adult books are not baby books. They’re not books written for a 10-year-old. They’re written for somebody who is 12 to 15 going on 40. They are people who know the world, they see what’s on TV. I don’t dumb it down, I make it the same way I would for adults. The only difference is I have young people as the central characters. The young people are leading the readers through the story.

RR: Did you have more confidence going into YA since you already had your teeth sharpened in fiction?

GO: Yeah (laughs). I did have more confidence because I felt like I could write this. But if you spend any time with me and you read any young adult book that I’ve written, you’d hear Gregg’s voice telling you the story. If you read my adult stuff, it’s some other person.

RR: How much of your own life is in your YA? Because the father in the story is also a true crime writer. How much of your life did you cannibalize?

GO: I cannibalized a lot. Not everything, we didn’t kill anybody in our family. But when my girls were growing up, since Dad was a crime writer, all of our vacations were centered around crime. We would go to Disneyland one day, and then the crime scene. When you’re a writer and you’re starting out, it’s a struggle. You have to blend your life with your dreams and your hopes and all that. When the dad in the book talks about tips on how to avoid serial killers, those are the same things I told my kids growing up. I told my girls what they needed to do to save their lives if a serial killer had them, The dad does that in the book and the girls roll their eyes just like mine did. They think dad’s overprotective or whatever, but there’s a lot in there.

RR: When you first started writing the series, did it start out YA supernatural or did it change along the way?

GO: Really good question. It started out more straight crime thriller for YA, and then  when we were talking about the twins, we started talking about that connection. What is that paranormal experience that some twins have that other people don’t have? My twins don’t have it, but other twins say they have. Young people would want to believe that fantasy element. It could happen.

RR: Are there skills you acquired in your non-fiction writing that you now find useful in your fiction writing?

GO: Particularly in the crime stuff. I spent so much time going to prison and interviewing killers, I feel like i really understand that sort of personality.I don’t say I understand why exactly they did the crime, but I understand people that are narcissistic, people who think that the world revolves around them, people who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

I always tell people that my training in true crime and adult was all leading me up to this moment of writing YA fiction. Blending my family stories into it seem to make perfect sense.

RR: What I loved about the book was the humor. Is that humor present in your other work or is it unique to your YA?

GO: There’s a little bit of it in some of my true crime. I feel like that’s my personality. I feel like that’s what makes the book fun. You know a girl like that. We all do. We know who these characters are. They are a creation but they are familiar enough to make you laugh.

RR: Did you self-censor yourself when it came to how far you could push the humor? Or was this something you had to discuss with your editor?

GO: The idea for me was that I would make this book true to how kids are today. I think they’re the same everywhere. They’re the same here as they are here, as they are in Hong kong, as they are in Seattle, Washington. They’re all the same. I felt that it was important to be true to that.

There was only a couple of things that I left out, like sex. I didn’t have to let it happen on the page. There’s a girl in the book who thinks she may be pregnant. You can figure out what happened, but I don’t show it. I don’t use any swear words, but I don’t do that in my adult fiction either. I feel that it’s not necessary. It can still be shocking, scary, and fun without being trashy.

Gregg Olsen reading his very first story at the launch in Powerbooks.

RR: What’s the best thing about the different genres that you write in?

GO: For the true crime, since I’m writing a true story, it gives me a passport into other  people’s minds. I can knock on someone’s door and say I want to find out everything about you.

I can’t say the best thing about adult fiction because I feel like my experience now with young adult readers has changed how I feel about everything. The connection between the reader of young adult and the author is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I have never in my life experienced people draw pictures, sing a song, email me, tweet me, all these kinds of things that young readers do.

One of the reasons why I really wanted to come here was because of this girl named Pauline, who lives here in the Philippines. Six months ago, she wrote a review of “Envy” on her blog, and I thought here’s a girl on the other side of the world, and she read my book and she loved it.

That is so much different than adults. Adult readers will read a book and enjoy it and maybe give it to a friend or something. Young readers will do their own thing with it. They turn it into a fandom. It can be small, but it inspires me.

RR: How much does that relationship with readers play into what you write, especially that you’re on social media? How much do you take in and how much do you shut out so the voice remains yours?

GO: One thing that I get from reading reviews of my book is that some people love the book, some people don’t. That’s what it always is. But I really listen to the readers. I understand that they love the characters and that they want them to do more things. They also want more action. In the second book I gave them more action.

Another bit that I feel is valuable to me is that a lot of readers don’t like third person. They love a first person book. It’s more immediate to them, they’re in that character. I’m working on a new book and it’s my first time writing first person, something I thought I could never do. But so far I’m loving it.

The readers tell me what they love and what they didn’t love, like that texting business in the first book. That was not my idea (laughs). That’s the part that no one likes (laughs)! They love the book but they hate that part! That should never have been there. The next book is not like that. It’s the way people really do text.

RR: Obviously, research figures a lot in your non-fiction. But is it as important to your  adult fiction and YA?

GO: It isn’t unimportant because it’s all cumulative. I feel like everything I’m doing, from crime and relationships and police work, all that stuff, from my non-fiction background to my adult fiction, I’m bringing all that with me.

For research, I looked at cyberbullying cases. I wanted to find out more, how things happened and what are we doing to protect kids from predators online. A little bit of research, but not so much that it’s a true story.

RR: Since your books are based on real life cases, how do you prevent it from becoming exploitation rather than inspiration?

GO: That’s a good question. In all my non-fiction books and my adult fiction books, there’s usually a case that kind of inspired me. I have been very careful with that. An inspiration is a starting point. If a reader is very much into that case, they will say that this sounds a lot like that. But I think 99 percent of readers won’t know that because I don’t want to be exploited that way. I do want a good story, and truth is a big support.

Gregg Olsen signing books at the Powerbooks launch.

RR: What’s the best reaction from a fan that you’ve gotten, across all genres?

GO: That’s a hard one. I’ve had fans dress up as the characters, which is really fun. I’ve had fans make things for me. Those kinds of reactions, coming from them, is really great.

On the cyberbullying stuff, I’ve heard from some readers who’ve said that they’ve been cyberbullied. In some small way, the book has helped them. The books are entertainment, but there’s information about places where they can go and talk. It’s been gratifying that way.

RR: How many books are there going to be in the Empty Coffin series?

GO: At least three. In each book there is a crime, but the series really is about those girls, what happens to them, and why do they have these powers. When you get to “Betrayal”, at the end there’s a big moment and the betrayal comes from somewhere unexpected.

RR: Do the killers you interview ever stay in contact with you?

GO: We get Christmas cards from them. We get all that stuff. Once you write about a killer and you do a fair job, they usually don’t hate you. If you’re a killer, there’s a period of time where you get visitors. Family, friends, and then people stop coming. People move on. The one who doesn’t move on is the writer (laughs). They’re the one’s sending letters and asking for more information. They become your friend.

RR: I’ve read that there’s going to be an adaptation of “Starvation Heights”?

GO: It’s going to be a horror movie, which is fantastic. It’s going to be the same production company that made “Twilight”. They’re looking at adapting “Empty Coffin” for TV.

RR: Are you worried about how faithfully they’re going to adapt these books?

GO: I don’t care (laughs). I know that it’s a different medium, and I know those people are artists like I’m trying to be, and we just have to be grateful that they want to take it. You can’t be mad about it. It looks ungrateful and say that it’s not a true adaptation to your book. You sold the rights.

RR: Do you ever sometimes want to write something cheerful?

GO: Yes (laughs)! I think I’m cheerful! There are moments of lightness in the books.

There is a novel that I’m trying to sell, it’s called “The Crime of My Life”, and it’s about a true crime writer and one of his fans is murdered and he’s blamed for the murder. It’s a funny book, and it’s very hard to sell. It is murder, but it’s funny!

RR: Is there any topic that you want to explore and write about?

GO: I would like another great survival story. I wrote about a mining disaster where two men survived after eight days underground. That was a meaningful and important book for me to write. Something that has heart and is not about murder, but is uplifting.

RR: Can you talk about the new book you’re working on?

GO: It’s first person and the protagonist is a girl. Fifteen-year-old girl, she doesn’t know her real age, her real name, and it’s because her family always changes their names and they keep moving around. She’s not in witness protection but she’s unaware of some things that have happened in her past. She comes home with her brother from school and their dad is stabbed to death. She sees a message written on the floor, which is the family’s code word, and the code word is run. She learns the truth about her family and that is they are a family of serial killers. Now she’s coming after her real dad and she’s going to kill him. It’s been a blast to write.

RR: Is it important for you to have all these strong female characters?

GO: Very much so. I didn’t have too much romance. I wanted girl characters that were powerful and could do something. I feel that even with Hayley and Taylor, they’re resourceful and intelligent, and there are moments of real courage. With this new character, I just want to kick butt. I’m a dad of daughters. Women are important to me, and empowered women are important. I just would like to see women be powerful and strong on the page.

RR: Do you feel that’s why a lot of young female readers gravitate towards your books?

GO: I think they do. They see themselves. Maybe they can identify with one of them or want to be one of them. With this series, I hope i’m creating strong, believable, female characters that readers can root for.

RR: What advice would you give to young people who want to become writers?

GO: It’s your story. The struggle is not easy. You have something about you that wants to get a message out, so the most important thing is practice everyday. Write on it everyday. The day you do not do it is the day you will fail. Don’t ever stop.

I wrote my first book, the publisher liked the writing but not the story. That book was thrown away. I know a lot of friends who are much better writers than I am who gave up. I didn’t give up. I wrote the next book and that became a New York Times bestseller. If I had stopped with the first one, I never would have come to the Philippines! Don’t give up.

For young writers today, they have the internet. They can have a blog. The exposure is there for them. You have the opportunity to get your name out there. The gatekeeper isn’t as powerful as they used to.

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