Monday, September 16, 2013

Interview with Brian Olsen

Brian Olsen is a very dear friend of mine (in real life, too!  It's true!).  We met in NYC in 1998 and would spend most Saturday nights dancing to the 80s hits at various dive bars in the city and doing terrible theater in awful little spaces whose productions were one step of from a high school forensics Dramatic Interpretation competition.

His debut novel Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom is going like gangbusters.  His book sports a perfect 5.0 stars on Amazon and features a fantastic cast of characters.  If you've ever lived in New York or endured the joys of temping in corporate culture, you'll find yourself identifying with so much of the world he creates in this sci-fi slice-of-life thriller. Sci-fi slice-of-life thriller?!? Yes, my friends.  Yes.

Why did you write Alan Lennox?
I’ve worked in theater my entire adult life, first as an actor and then as a director. My day job has me working evenings and weekends, and that time commitment has kept me from doing much theater of my own. My creative urge was going unfulfilled, and that’s a pretty terrible feeling. You, Kate, had been an inspiration to me with your own books, and writing seemed to have brought you so much happiness, I thought I would give it a try. And I’m so happy – and grateful to you! – that I did.

But that’s really why I started writing in general. As for why I wrote Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom specifically – years ago I used to write plays, sketches and monologues for the stage. Never all that seriously; I wrote to give myself projects to act in or direct. I had an idea for a serialized karaoke musical comedy – yes, really – that had been kicking around in my head for a few years. When I sat down to write a book, that idea transformed itself into Alan Lennox. It’s very different from what was in my head – Alan and Dakota are the only characters who survived the transition, and the thrust of the plot is almost entirely changed – but that was the seed of the idea.

What is it about this project that makes you happy or proud?
So many things. I’m happy, and surprised by, how well writing this book satisfied that urge to make art, in a way I always thought only theater could. I’m proud of the final piece, I think it’s a very good book (although I may be biased). And I’m both happy and proud that readers seem to be enjoying it so much.

What was one of the first books to inspire your interest in this genre?
I’ve been reading science fiction as long as I can remember. Robert Heinlein was the first author I really fell for. Time Enough for Love changed my life. Heinlein wrote hard science fiction, which isn’t exactly my niche, but he got me started.

Who influenced your voice as a writer?
Douglas Adams was a big influence. He mastered a mixture of humor, science fiction and character development with the Hitchhiker’s Guide series that I can only dream of. And Neil Simon, strangely enough – he influenced a lot of my early playwriting when I was a kid, and I think a thread has carried through.

How did you learn how to write?  How did you develop your style?
I’ve spent years directing for the theater, and in fact have my MFA in Directing. When you direct a show you have to understand it backwards and forwards, you have to know precisely what story you’re telling the audience and how every part of that story – every actor, every costume, every prop, every lighting cue – contributes to it. So I learned storytelling from the theater, I think. Beyond that, I learn by doing. I’m definitely still learning.

What is your process when you begin a new project?
When I have the initial idea, I get it down. I sit and write without thinking, just setting down everything and anything that comes to me. No structure, just ideas. I may play with that initial document for a while, filling it out, seeing where it might be going, determining what the story is and what exactly I’m trying to say. Then I outline. I break down, chapter by chapter, exactly what’s going to happen. I usually know exactly where I’m starting and where I want to end up, and most of the work goes to connecting the two. I’ll spend days doing nothing but outlining, until I have a pretty good idea of the structure of every chapter. Only then do I actually start writing.

What are some writing tips or tricks that work for you?
My biggest problem when I started was finding the time to just sit down and write. I would get home from my super-stressful day job and didn’t know how to fit writing into all the things I needed to get done in the short amount of time before bed. I felt like there was no point in starting if I wasn’t going to have time to accomplish anything significant. A friend suggested I set a timer for fifteen minutes every single day, and at the end of fifteen minutes I could stop. The important part was, if I stopped after fifteen I wasn’t allowed to feel guilty about it. So I tried it. Often I found I had done more than fifteen minutes, but even on days when I didn’t, I still got something accomplished and was satisfied. I started writing every single day and haven’t stopped.

What is one of the happiest moments in your writing career?
The first positive review I got from a complete stranger. Somebody who had no reason to say anything good about my book, but liked it enough to do so anyway.

What advice do you have for people who want to become writers?
Write. Self-publishing has changed everything. There are no barriers to you becoming a writer now except for those you put up yourself. If you want to be a writer, start writing. I say that knowing it’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds, but it’s true.

What upcoming projects are you working on?
Right now I’m working on Caitlin Ross and the Commute from Hell, the sequel to Alan Lennox. I’m sort of simultaneously working on the last two books in the series as well – they’re in outline form, and I’m revising them as I work on Caitlin Ross. I’m also digging out some of my comedy sketches to see if they merit revival. Most of them are around twenty years old, so they need some serious revising!

For fun:

You're in heaven (so anything is possible) and you own your own television network.  What shows are on your channel?
It’s twenty-four/seven Doctor Who. The classic show, the new show, the spin-offs, the behind-the-scenes documentaries, even the movies with Peter Cushing. Nothing else. There is no need for any other television, ever, because Doctor Who covers all genres. (And since anything is possible, all of the missing episodes from the sixties have been found. And I get to watch them first.)

What is your favorite pen to write with?
It’s a cheap Bic black pen, I don’t even know the specific name of it. They’re actually terrible pens, they fall apart easily, but I stock up on them. No reason, except that I’ve gotten used to them. I’ve never been one for fancy pens.

Favorite beverage while writing?
Water. I don’t drink much besides water. Isn’t that boring? After the writing is over for the day, vodka tonic.

Name five books you love.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go (and the rest of the Riverworld series) by Philip José Farmer.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
Another Fine Myth (and the rest of the Myth Adventures series) by Robert Asprin.

Leather bound editions or paperbacks with a great pulp fiction covers?
I can’t have both? I’ll go with the paperbacks. I love those old sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks with the gorgeous painted covers.

Tell us about your favorite teacher and how he or she influenced you.
I’ve had a lot of great teachers, but as far as writing goes, and theater as well, I have to talk about my high school French teacher, Mister Lepage. I had him in my junior year, and he used to make us break up into groups and write “dialogues,” little scenes in French which we would then memorize and perform. I always ended up doing all the writing for my group, and the scenes were funny and ridiculous. (Teenage boy funny – the only one I remember was about the administration turning into zombies and eating the faculty. It wasn’t exactly sophisticated fare.) Mister Lepage also helped with the school theater program, and at the end of the year I submitted a proposal to him to direct the play The Mouse That Roared in my senior year. He suggested I spend the summer writing a play to direct instead. I was a pretty insecure kid, and I was astounded that he actually thought I was a good enough to attempt something like that. I ended up writing and directing my first play, Grave Matters. It went very well, and I eventually choose theater, and now writing, as a career because of the confidence that experience gave me.

What is your favorite quote about writing?
I’ve got two. I’m indecisive.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King. I’ve done the first my whole life, and I’m now discovering the joy of the second.

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” – Virginia Woolf. I’d better not say which of these I’ve done.

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