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The Advocate



John B. Olson Interview

by Rel Mollet

"As a writer, I get to go wherever I want. The sky's not the limit. Every day is an adventure. One minute I'm a palaeontologist running from a band of soldiers across the deserts of Iraq, and the next minute I'm a beautiful woman eating a gourmet dinner with a homicidal monster - and my wife doesn't even mind!" -- John B. Olson


John Olson is a novelist and computational biochemist who lives with his wife, Amy, and children, Peter and Arianna, in San Leandro, California. John earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and did postdoctoral research at the University of California at San Francisco. After almost eight years as a director and principal scientist at a scientific software company, John now devotes himself full-time to a ministry of writing and speaking. He is the author of Adrenaline and, with Randall Ingermanson, the Christy Award–winning Oxygen and its sequel, The Fifth Man. See John’s Web site at www.litany.com.


Rel: Why Christian fiction?

John: Why not Christian fiction? I love stories and I want to write about the deepest, most important truths in the universe. What other choice do I have?

You are a scientist with a PhD in Biochemistry ~ what on earth are you doing writing novels?!

What? I'm on earth? I thought I was on Mars or in an alternate dimension or in Pakistan… (Or is Pakistan on earth? I always get that mixed up.)

Back when I was working as a scientist, I never got to go to any of those places. A few trips to Russia or England or Sweden, but never Pakistan or Mars. And I never got to do anything exciting either. But now… As a writer, I get to go wherever I want. The sky's not the limit. Every day is an adventure. One minute I'm a palaeontologist running from a band of soldiers across the deserts of Iraq, and the next minute I'm a beautiful woman eating a gourmet dinner with a homicidal monster - and my wife doesn't even mind!

Don't get me wrong. Science is exciting, but it just doesn't compare to writing. I worked years and years automating the resonance assignment of proteins using two and three dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectra, but do you think the people I meet at potlucks want to talk about it? I can't tell you how many potluckers have been injured falling asleep in their green bean casserole. But writing is a completely different story… I've gotten dozens and dozens of angry emails from irate readers who stayed up all night to finish one of my books. Life doesn't get much better than that.

A couple of years ago you took the plunge to leave your career in Biochemistry and write full time - tell us about that decision.

I wrote Adrenaline while I was in the middle of a series of very demanding deadlines at work. Not only was the ordeal exhausting and painfully stressful, but I ended up neglecting the people I love the most. After that experience I agreed with God that I wouldn't write any more books until I had quit my full-time job.

I ended up taking almost three years off from writing while I finished up an important project at my old company. Then, as soon as the project was finished, my wife and I started preparations for cutting the umbilical. At first things went like clockwork. I didn't have any book contracts yet, but God was leading and providing for everything else, and my wife and I knew we could trust Him. Then, about a week before I was scheduled to give my two weeks notice, a guy from a movie company called me up and asked me to write a novel to go along with a screenplay they were planning to produce. Amy and I were so excited! God was providing a way for us!

Then I read the screenplay. Uh oh… I couldn't write that story. Maybe someone else could, but that someone definitely wasn't me. So I called the guy back and turned him down. It wasn't easy, but I knew it was the right thing to do. And it was…

The guy called me back a few days later and asked me what I would have done differently. I told him I would have written a completely different story. A thriller instead of a drama - perhaps something set in Iraq. Something about a fossil hunter maybe… A scientist who finds something that doesn't square with evolutionary theory… And thus Katie James was born.

The movie company actually paid for me to write the story - which gave us a chance to get the book pipeline going again. It's been a wonderful adventure. God has provided for our family every step of the way. It's amazing how many more miracles you get to see when you're living life on the edge - homesteading in God's wild and woolly frontier. It's a great place to visit, but be careful… You might decide to live here.

You have a lovely wife and two talented and energetic kids ~ what does a typical writing day look like for you (if you ever have one!)?

Yes, she is lovely… and loveable. I'm lucky because those two adjectives don't always go together. And my kids are certainly talented, but not so energetic these days. They haven't exactly been burning their candles at both ends. It's more like they chucked them in the fire and had done with them all together. But that doesn't tell you anything about my day - which is about as exciting as watching mud dry.

So here it is:

I get up at around 7AM and take a nice hot shower. That's pretty much it - at least that's the productive part of my day. I do some other stuff like staring at my computer for nine hours, but the shower is where all the new ideas come from. It's where I get to watch plots develop and talk to the characters as they come to life. If anyone ever invented a computer that worked in the shower, I'd buy stock in their company.

Fossil Hunter by John B. OlsonOn Fossil Hunter

What's a bloke doing writing romantic suspense?

I'll have you know blokes are absolutely essential to a good romance. And I'm a particularly romantic bloke. Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book, and Ever After is one of my favourite movies. I like to write what I like to read, and I like to read books that are full of adventure, suspense, mystery and even a little humour.

I love your character Katie James ~ why did you give her a debilitating phobia?

For realism. Katie is extremely intelligent, but intelligence comes with a price. It isn't just an ingredient you can add to a character like sugar or salt. The human brain is much more tightly integrated than that. When a person has a huge strength, they usually have one or more huge weaknesses that are directly tied to that strength. I call these weaknesses strength shadows, and you can see them clearly in most geniuses you encounter in real life. Unfortunately they're not quite so common in the world of literature, but that's because most literature isn't written by the geniuses who are plagued by such strength shadows. Katie's phobia comes as much from her difficulty in processing body language and social cues as it does from the trauma that triggered it in the first place.

Take a walk in Katie's skin while she's searching through the desert. See the way she processes her surroundings? Now imagine her trying to process all the complex nuances of human faces and body language and verbal inflections in the same way. You can see how she'd be overwhelmed.

What was your favourite scene to write?

I don't want to give too much away, but there was a scene in which Katie and Nick were being chased through the desert by soldiers, and Katie has to stop to use the little girl's desert. That's about all I can say without ruining it, but it was particularly fun to write. Rel knows what I'm talking about…

I also had a lot of fun with the Big Bill scenes. He was a very naughty character. Whenever I tried to write his scenes, his personality would take over and steal the show. I would have fought him for control, but I was too busy laughing.

How do you go about choosing names for your characters?

Katie was named after Jessie James's wife, but I got Nick Murad from a combination of common American and Pakistani names. Big Bill Turner made up his own. (He couldn't go by his real name so he created an alias off the top of his head.) He must have taken it subconsciously from The Pirates of the Caribbean, but I didn't realize it at the time. If I had noticed, I wouldn't have let him use it, but unfortunately I didn't.

Any ideas who you might cast in a movie of Fossil Hunter?Adrenaline by John B. Olson

Actually, I've given it a great deal of thought. The whole time I was working on Fossil Hunter, I had to consider how easy it would be to adapt the book into a film. It was an interesting exercise. I thought the movie company would want me to avoid stunts and special CGI effects, but they didn't really have a problem with those kinds of things. So what did they have a problem with? Basically the same thing Katie has a problem with. Crowds. Stadium scenes, shooting on busy city streets…

But I digress… Since I was thinking about adapting the book to film, I always pictured Katie and Nick as two actors in particular. I know it probably won't happen, but I couldn't help it. For Katie I was thinking Mrs. Potato Head and for Nick I was thinking Mr. Potato Head. Have you seen the new Taters of the Lost Arc action figures? Very Katie James…

Underlying the pure entertainment of this adventurous tale is the debate between evolution and intelligent design ~ tell us about your considered view on this topic (ok, I know, huge question but, hey, you're a writer so the Reader's Digest version would be great!)

Okay… Reader's Digest version:

I'm excited about ID, not so much because of the evidence or arguments that may or may not support it, but because it focuses the debate on the most pivotal question of our age: was the universe designed or not? Until I've answered that question, I don't really care how the designer (I call him God) did it, and I certainly don't care how long it took Him to do it.

I think we Christians have done the world a huge disservice by focusing people's attention on the how rather than on the Who. Especially since the how is still open to debate.

Somewhere along the way, I think we got our priorities mixed up. And I think the reason that happened was because we were afraid. Fear--the polar opposite of faith. Evolution seemed like a terrible enemy at the turn of the twentieth century. It was undermining one of our shiniest and newest apologetics tools. But rather than roll up our sleeves to help with the investigation in an attempt to discover the truth, we dug in our heals and started an all-out war. We're still fighting that war today. Not for our faith - one can certainly be a Christian and believe God created life through a process that looks like evolution - but because we were too busy pointing out the biases of those who opposed us to consider our own biases.

What impact do you hope this book has upon the reader?

I wanted to give the reader a more honest view of the ID/evolution debate than what is usually portrayed in Christian literature. In particular I wanted the reader to see the biases of both sides of the fence. Scientists aren't the enemies. Ignorance and bias are the enemies. All truth leads to God.

Shade by John B. OlsonA sneak peek at your next novel Shade please, and tell us why are you nervous about it's release?

Shade isn't your grandma's prairie romance. It's pee-your-pants intense, mind-bendingly complex, chillingly nightmarish and a tad bit weird. Okay… Maybe more than a tad. There's more going on beneath the surface than even the most brilliant reader will be able to pick up on, and it could very well be frustrating to readers who are used to having their stories served to them in nice bite-sized chunks. I'm not just nervous about it's release; I'm chew-my-fingernails-up-to-my-elbows terrified.

And I'm excited. I've waited ten years to be able to publish Shade. It's more vulnerable and unfiltered and ME than any book I've ever written. I can't wait to get people's reactions. They aren't all going to be positive reactions, but I think they'll all be good. And I think the story will rumble around a lot of heads for a long long time.

What writing project are you working on now?

I just started working on the next book in the Shade universe. It's a supernatural thriller about a gypsy girl who has been kept completely isolated from the rest of the world by her grandfather - right up to the time he's murdered by ten dead men.

The codename for the project is Powers, and it won't be released until next year, but because you've been such an encouraging friend and supporter (and because I feel bad about taking so long getting this interview to you), I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to give you and your readers a sneak preview of the completely unedited rough draft (which might not even survive until the release):

Smooth moonlight, soft and timid as a sleeping babe's breath, seeped through the forest canopy, painting Old Man Oak's mossy beard with twisting ribbons of silver and shadow. The swamp folks were full awake now. All stoked up with joy, singing hallelujah for the tolerable coolness of another summer night. Bachelor bullfrogs barking out their steady bass against a piercing cicada trillody. Crickets and peepers and creepers hollering their praise full on top the other, singing out to the Lord for the blessings He hath made.

It was a glorious song, filled with deep magic and considerations of awesome wonder. It made a body thankful to be alive. Squish-squashing through soft cool mud. Hopscotching dead wood and fresh fallen branches. Pausing to look out across dark star-dusted waters where the proud Cypress sisters, skirts hitched high above dark boney knees, waded through reflections of ringing light. Swaying and sighing to the night music. The sounds of blessed freedom and sweet never-ending joy.

Freedom. Mari turned from the water with a sigh and felt her way back into the pressing darkness. Grandfather would be getting home soon. He was going to be busting out mad when he found out she was gone. But she couldn't just sit there and let him lock her up. She was a proper lady now. A full-grown woman. Miss Caralee said so herself. Proper ladies didn't stay locked up in diddlecars. Proper ladies had work to do. Washing and cooking and tending to the nets.

Do you read much yourself? If so, some favourites, please?

I'm actually illiterate, but I love to sit and look at the pictures. My favourite picture books include: Pride and Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings, Perelandra, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Great Divorce, Tarzan of the Apes (yeah, yeah, I know Burroughs was a eugenicist, but it was the first adult book I ever read, and I still love it today), Skeleton in God's Closet, The Princess and Curdie, The Chronicles of Narnia, Taliesin, The Brothers Karamazov, Beau Sabreur, Prisoner of Zenda, The Mad Scientists Club, Harry Potter, The Bourne Identity, etc.

What are you reading at the moment?

I've been reading Lois McMaster Bujold and several other books that haven't been good enough to mention

Favourite movie and favourite line from a movie?

I'll skip over Ever After and the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice and jump right into Buckaroo Banzaii: Adventures Across the Eighth Dimension. There are so many great quotes:

"No matter where you go, there you are."

"Character is what you are in the dark. History is made at night."

"Don't tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to."

Please share some of your faith journey...

I'm still trying to figure out what a faith journey is. I think with me it was a child-like leap into the void when I was six – followed by many many years of testing, questioning, struggling, observing, experimenting, and accumulating experience. I'm still not done, but I know one thing for certain. Every time I step out on faith and trust in God, He holds me up and prospers me. When I try to do things on my own, I fail and I'm miserable.

Some essential Aussie questions:

When/if you make the trip Down Under what do you want to see first:

1. A platypus or a koala?

A kangaroo!

2. Barrier Reef or Uluru (Ayers Rock)?

Ayers rock.

3. A cricket match or a game of Aussie Rules Footy?

Definitely Aussie Rules Footy. I can see cricket anywhere (anywhere north of France and west of Denmark, that is), but Aussie Rules Footy is totally unique - and bizarre

Rel MolletRel Mollet is a lawyer, wife and mother of three young daughters and lives in Melbourne, Australia. Reading has been her passion since childhood. She is a Book Club Co-ordinator and has her own website ~ relzreviewz ~ dedicated to reviews and author interviews with the sole aim to support authors writing from a Christian worldview. She believes Sir Francis Bacon's (1561 - 1626) creed, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body".