Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?
Paul F. Olson: I spent the first eleven years of my life on what had once been an operating farm in Wisconsin, and then my family moved to Mackinac Island, Michigan—a small island located between the state’s two peninsulas, in the straits that link Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The island is a major tourism and summer travel destination. Motor vehicles are banned there, so transportation is by foot, bicycle, or horse and carriage. In the winter months, the visitors and summer folk leave, the snow comes down, the lake freezes over, and the island becomes a virtual ghost town. The entire school, kindergarten through to twelfth grade, had fewer than one hundred kids. There were three in my high school graduating class. I tell that to people now, and they say, “You mean three hundred.” No, I mean three.
So yeah, I had a lot of formative experiences growing up, both in Wisconsin and on the island. My family owned a bookstore on the island, and working there introduced me to a world of writers and reading that I never would have experienced otherwise. Later on, I created and ran a branch of the store selling used and rare books, which was another invaluable experience. Going to such a small school was important, too. By default, I became responsible for a lot of my own education, which turned me into a lifelong learner. And the fairly limited range of extracurricular activities also helped nudge me in certain directions—for example, editing the school newspaper for three years, which taught me a lot.
Later on, in my mid-twenties, I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area for ten years, before eventually returning to northern Michigan and settling in a more typical “small town” of about five thousand people. So, I’ve lived in a wide variety of places. But growing up in fairly atypical, isolated circumstances left its mark in many ways. If nothing else, it made me more independent, self-reliant, and introspective, which it turns out are all helpful qualities for a writer to have.
Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?
PFO: Like many writers, I’ve had to go back and forth several times in my life between full-time writing and balancing my writing with a “day job.” I’ve been writing stories since I was seven or eight years old, and taking it seriously since seventh or eighth grade. I first began to realise—or at least hope—that it could be my career when I was fifteen or sixteen and working in my family’s bookstore.
I was fortunate to be able to make my first break to full-time writing when I was in my late twenties. I was managing bookstores for a large chain (B. Dalton Bookseller—anyone remember them?) in the Chicago area, and left to launch my magazine Horrorstruck: The World of Dark Fantasy, a non-fiction trade publication for fans and pros. The magazine did well. At the same time, I was selling some stories. The late Dave Silva and I put together a proposal for a ghost story anthology called Post Mortem, which got us an agent, the wonderful Lori Perkins, who got us a fantastic publishing deal with St. Martin’s. Lori also was able to sell my novel The Night Prophets to New American Library. So with all of that going on, I was able to write and publish full-time for a couple of years, which of course was an awesome, amazing experience.
Then life happened. The horror boom of the 1980s went bust, and almost simultaneously my wife and I became the parents of twin girls. I hung on for a while, wrote and did the Mr. Mom thing while my wife went back to work, but eventually a day job once again became a necessity. I did a couple of years as a marketing director for a non-profit arts organisation, but we wanted to get out of Chicago and get back up north, which led us to the small town of Manistique, Michigan, and took me in an entirely different career direction.
I did two stints as the editor of the weekly newspaper in Manistique, separated by three years as news director of the local AM radio station—seventeen years in all, the majority of it spent working twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days, six or seven days a week. I remember waking up one day around 2010 or 2011 and realising that other than a few long weekends here and there, I hadn’t had a vacation since 2001. And worse: it had been longer than that since I’d written anything that wasn’t a news story. I stuck it out for a couple more years, but then one day hit the wall hard. I was fifty-two, the kids were grown and out of college, I was getting a divorce after thirty-one years of marriage, and I was about as physically and mentally burned out as it’s possible to be.
I made big changes after that—moved a few hours away and slowly, sometimes painfully, taught myself to write fiction again. I felt like a guy who was once in great shape but spent twenty years sitting in an easy chair. He joins a gym to get fit again, and yikes, he finds that every single muscle in his body has atrophied. He needs to build up those muscles again. He needs to relearn how to use them. It’s long and it’s not easy. That was me five years ago. But the story has a happy ending. Today I’m writing, teaching English and creative writing to at-risk high school kids in the Upward Bound programme every summer, and doing a lot of community volunteer work.
You know, I don’t think I came anywhere close to answering your question. But that’s the story, for better or worse.
Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?
PFO: The day I sold my first short story was probably my most rewarding day as a writer. I’d been trying to sell things for several years, without success. I didn’t mind the rejections, which I knew were par for the course. And every once in a while, the form letter would include a little personal note of encouragement scribbled on the bottom, which felt like a tremendous victory in those days. But like all beginners, I did spend a lot of time wondering if I was chasing a pipe dream. Is it ever going to happen? Am I good enough to make it happen? One day in 1983, I sent a story to Dave Silva at The Horror Show, which was really just getting started back then. Dave rejected it with a lovely handwritten note, asking me to send him something else, which of course I did the very next day. Lo and behold, he bought it and sent me a cheque for $10, a quarter of a cent per word. I photocopied the cheque before I cashed it, and I still have that photocopy. It’s one of my most cherished possessions. But I don’t have to look at it to remember the thrill I felt, not just that day but for several weeks afterwards. It felt, literally, like I was walking on air. I’ve had much larger sales and many bigger paydays since then, but none was ever quite as satisfying. It was the answer to the question I’d been asking. Yes, I could make it happen, if I was willing to work hard enough.
Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?
PFO: You’d probably have to ask them that question! But seriously, it is a difficult question to answer, in part because I’ve never been anything but a writer. It’s not as if I spent twenty years selling insurance or building houses and then suddenly threw it all aside to write books. The people who know me have never known me as anything else. It’s normal to them. It’s who I am. Even if the writing I was doing was a marketing brochure or an article for the newspaper, I was still writing.
Something else that just occurred to me: I am a fairly private person and hold my writing close. I can be gregarious and outgoing when I have to be, if I’m teaching or doing a workshop or giving a reading. And among a group of writers, I can talk about the craft and the business for hours on end. But I don’t do that with friends and family. I don’t talk about the daily ups and downs, the word counts, the business setbacks, the editing woes. I don’t talk about my plots and characters. In fact, I never talk at all about a work-in-progress while it’s in progress. I’m sure there are days, maybe a lot of them, when it comes through anyway, when people think I’m angry or sad or under the weather, but really I’m just lost in whatever story I’m working on. I do make an effort not to inflict all of that on others. As to whether I succeed . . . well, like I said, you’d have to ask them.
Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?
PFO: My list of influences is huge, and it’s still growing. It’s a special joy to know that I’m fifty-eight years old, have been a professional writer for thirty-five years, and still regularly encounter new writers who impress me, excite me, and make me want to get better. Just a short time ago, I discovered the work of Paul La Farge, whose book The Night Ocean was so good that I almost couldn’t move when I finished it. I was knocked flat by his talent. This may sound strange, but it’s a real treat to come across a writer so good that you immediately feel excited and energised, ready to sit down and write the Great American Novel, yet simultaneously want to retire from the business forever because you know you’ll never be half that good.
Looking farther back, I’ve been influenced by everyone from Dickens to Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, you name it. Wallace Stegner is my idol. John Barth. Phillip Roth. Vonnegut. The list goes on and on.
In the horror genre specifically, I grew up reading and loving all the classics, but it was specifically the trio of Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber who taught me how to escape the past and become modern. Later came Ira Levin and Tom Tryon, then King and Straub and my real role model, Charles L. Grant. Charlie is on my mind every day, every time I tap a key on my laptop. He heads up my list of favourite writers, regardless of era or genre. And he was an editing god. I tried so hard to sell a story to Charlie and never made it, but the kindness he showed me, the advice and encouragement he provided, will be with me forever.
Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?
PFO: I hope all my stories capture a piece of who I am. I suppose that’s a process that happens naturally. As opposed to having a story say what you wanted it to say, which for me seems to be a much more elusive goal. I don’t know how many times I’ve started to write about X and ended up with a tale about Y. That’s part of the magic, the journey you take when you start out to write. It’s like a walk in the woods, and it’s easy to end up on a different path than the one you started on. Or to lose the path entirely and end up hacking your way through the underbrush. I enjoy that exploration. Writing would be boring if the route was smooth and clear and all the mile markers showed up where they were supposed to be. That’s one of the reasons I don’t outline very often. Having a GPS is great when you need to be to your cousin’s wedding on time, but otherwise I’d rather just go wherever the road takes me.
From time to time, when you’re really lucky, there is a story that veers off in an unexpected direction but still ends up where you wanted it to be. There’s a story in the Whispered Echoes collection, “Faith and Henry Gustafson.” I had a very clear picture in my head of where I wanted that story to go, and I was brimming with confidence, sure the writing would be easy. But suddenly, three or four pages in, I went right off the path and crashed into the trees. Just like that, I was writing about something else entirely, and a story that was going to be fairly straightforward was suddenly anything but. If I was a younger writer, I might have stopped for a day or two and thought things over, or even dropped the story in my desk drawer for a while. But I’d been in the business for a while by that point, and I knew enough to trust my heart and just keep going. I’m glad I did. When I was done, I was shocked to discover that the story said everything I had originally wanted to say, but in a much different—and better—way than I had ever expected.
Writing the final story in Whispered Echoes, the novella “Bloodybones,” was a similar experience. I had some definite plans for that story. I even had a few set pieces mentally sketched out before I started to write. I was almost certain I knew exactly where I was going. But the story, apparently, had different plans. By the time I was finished, almost nothing in it was what I’d originally envisioned. Yet, somehow I’d managed to encompass all the themes that are important to me, and I’d told a story I really liked a lot. I’m very proud of that one.
Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?
PFO: Gee, Joe, why do you ask? Have you been spying on me?
It doesn’t feel good to miss my target (which is 1,500 words, by the way), but really, I don’t worry about it too much. The longer you do this, the more perspective you gain. There will always be days you miss the mark, but often they are followed by days where you exceed it. I’ve had days where I struggled and fought and sweated my way to 500 words, and finished utterly exhausted, then cranked out an easy 2,000 words the next day. It all balances out in the end. And for beginning writers, it’s important to remember that writing every day is more important than how much you are writing. Doing 1,500 words is great. But you know what? Even ten words is better than none. The critical thing is sitting down and doing those ten.
Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?
PFO: That’s an interesting question. Because I tend to write quiet horror, a lot of people might expect me to say I have trouble writing about violence, about blood and gore. But that’s not really true. I can do the “wet work” when I have to. I just prefer not to. I like my chills a little subtler.
One thing I’ve tried and failed repeatedly to write is humour. I admire the great humourists of the world, past and present, and often, when I’m at the bookstore, I find myself searching for a great new comedic novel to read. But when I try to write it myself, I just can’t get there. Sometimes I’m able to fool myself for a while. I tell myself, “this is really working.” But then I print it out and read it and, nope, the words are just lying there flat on the page. It’s the opposite of funny. It’s anti-funny. I’m not sure why. Maybe my wit is so dry that it just crumbles to dust and blows away. Or maybe I’m just no good at it. In real life, people think I’m very funny. I can “leave ’em laughing” with the best of them. On the page, not so much. But I keep trying. Maybe one of these days, I’ll finally get it.
Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?
PFO: I guess I’m always thinking about writing, although not necessarily the project I’m working on at the time. I sort of automatically compartmentalise those things. When I step away from the keyboard, the project moves down to another level of my brain, where the unconscious continues to tinker away with it until it’s time to write again. Sometimes I’m shocked at the things that have developed when I sit down to start a new day of work. Where did that come from? I certainly didn’t think it up myself. Except, yes, I did. It just happened somewhere deep down, way below the surface, when I wasn’t looking. Meanwhile, the top level of the brain is always busy looking for new ideas, processing the things I see and running them through the writing filter to see if they have potential, storing away descriptions, capturing snippets of conversation. There’s probably a third level in there somewhere, too, where all those new ideas go to be worked on until it’s time to finally write them down. It’s probably best not to question the whole process too much, to just let it happen. It’s like seeing how the sausage is made. Once you understand it, you can’t eat any more ballpark hotdogs.
Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?
PFO: I’ve heard it said that an author is someone without any useful skills. That’s a humorous remark, but I hope it’s not true. I like to think the skills writers possess are very useful. Most of them are craft-related, but a few are more general. How to engage with the world yet remain apart from the world at the same time. How to talk to people of different backgrounds, and more importantly how to listen to them. How to cope with rejection. How to cope with failure. The importance of persistence. How to be alone for long stretches of time. Self-awareness. Self-motivation. Imagination. Empathy. Come to think of it, you can’t really put any of those things on a résumé. In that case, there’s always “good spelling and grammar.”
Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?
PFO: I like to think it kept me from changing. Being a writer has enabled me to maintain a lifelong love affair with magic and mystery, adventure and discovery. Most people grow up at some point and lose their sense of childlike wonder. I’ve been able to hold on to mine, to keep my imagination alive, much longer than the average person. I consider that a great gift.
Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?
PFO: About four years ago, out of the blue, I received a Facebook friend request from a successful writer and editor who told me that my 1989 novel The Night Prophets was one of the first horror novels she’d ever bought, and that it had helped kick-start her career as a writer. Those were powerful words. Keep in mind, I’m not a household name and that novel had been out of print for several decades at that point. It had been years since anyone had even mentioned the book to me, and suddenly here was someone telling me that reading it had been a formative experience for her.
In the early days of Facebook, I also received a note from someone who went on at length about the boom days of the 1980s and how much he had enjoyed my magazine Horrorstruck. I’ve been blessed with a number of comments like that over the years. I only produced the magazine for a couple of years, but many people still seem to remember it fondly, which is extremely gratifying. But then he went on to mention my writing. He said that back in those days, he always looked for my name on magazine content pages, and if he saw it, he automatically bought the magazine. Comments like that are beyond wonderful. You work alone, you send your stories out there, if you’re lucky they get published, and then, often, you never hear another word. You wonder if anybody is reading it at all, or if it matters. And suddenly, years later, you get a note like that. Talk about making a writer’s day! That’s one of the reasons I like to get in touch with writers whose work I admire. Artists too. Everyone in this business needs—and deserves—to have their day made once in a while.
Joe: What is your lifelong goal as an author?
PFO: On the simplest level, it’s just to do good work, to write good stories and entertain people. On a deeper level, I have to go back to my role model, Charlie Grant. He was the guy I wanted to be when I was starting out. He wasn’t insanely successful. He wasn’t a name brand like Stephen King. He didn’t earn millions of dollars or have Hollywood knocking on his door. But he made a living writing, he did incredible, ground-breaking work as both an author and an editor, he was respected and admired by his peers, and he did it all while being a good, decent guy. Thirty or thirty-five years ago, that was all I ever wanted. And it still is.
Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
PFO: I’m insanely proud of my daughters, who are now 28 years old and both incredible human beings. I don’t need any more legacy than that.
If you mean a writing legacy . . . of course, I’d love to be in print forever. But I know that’s asking a lot and probably unlikely. But if someday, somewhere, in some distant future, somebody stumbles across a story or novel that I wrote, reads it, and says, “Hey, that was a good story,” that would be more than enough for me.