by C.J. Darlington
Mark Andrew Olsen Interview
"It is fairly easy to write a couple of thousand words. But it’s even easier to write nothing: to think about writing, talk about writing, drink a cup of coffee in preparation for writing, then eventually to castigate oneself for not having written." -- Mark Andrew Olsen
Mark Andrew Olsen is a full-time writer who collaborated on bestsellers Hadassah and The Hadassah Covenant. His novel The Assignment was a Christy Award finalist. He grew up in France, the son of missionaries, and is a Professional Writing graduate of Baylor University. He and his wife, Connie, and their three children make their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Mark: Words have always played a huge part in my life, as a missionary kid who wrestled with language differences and a chaotic school experience. I taught myself to read as preschooler, almost by accident, then kept my nose in fiction seemingly my whole childhood. But it wasn’t until a short story of mine was published in an elementary school anthology that I really told myself I wanted to be a writer. I was around seven at the time. I started wasting classtime by scribbling novellas into small notebooks, with really cool seven-year old boys as my heroes, of course. I’ve known since then that writing would be not only my livelihood, but my identity.
Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?
Books were more of an obsession than simple diversion for me growing up. One year in France, my Dad kicked out the television and every night, read to my brother and I from various classics. The Narnia series, the original Robinson Crusoe, Little House on the Prairie, and others. It was the best year our family ever experienced. I also devoured some of Moody’s young adult paperbacks. Later, I would gravitate to the Lord of the Rings, and then the works of Ray Bradbury as a teenager. Of those, I think C.S. Lewis’ mystical-yet-Christian worldview influenced me the most.
You grew up in France, the son of missionaries. What was that like?
During our second term as missionaries, my family lived in a tiny village in Normandy surrounded by ancient forests. I would spend free hours exploring old castle walls and half-buried ruins. That was the fun part—the less enjoyable aspect was being singled out and relentlessly picked on at school for being an American, something none of my classmates had ever seen. All in all, I suppose it was the perfect blend of free-form exploration and social alienation to produce a fiction writer.
Any interesting stories you could share about your growing up years?
In the first two weeks of our second term, some close friends and fellow missionaries from a nearby town showed up at our doorstep, unannounced and scared out of their wits. Seems a very intense Arab wanderer had shown up on their doorstep, asking to spend the night in their garage and muttering strange invectives against Zionism and the Jews. This was 1972—the heyday of the PLO and hijacked jetliners. After allowing him in their basement with great reluctance, our friends eventually found safety to be the better part of valor, and left for our house. In the morning, our fathers got up early and returned for a careful look. The guest was gone, but they tracked him to a bus station where he had bought a ticket for Brussels. A few days later, the PLO attacked the 1972 Olympics. When the dead terrorists’ faces were shown on French television after the final shootout, our friends’ strange overnight guest turned out to be the operation’s second-in-command. I was told never to speak of this incident throughout my childhood, as American missionaries were all too subject to accusations of being CIA plants in those days. I hope to adapt this story into a novel. Of course…
When did you decide to make your parents’ faith your own?
Somewhere during my ninth year, I became fixated on Christ’s teachings and started taking my French-language New Testament on my forest wanderings. I found myself strangely convicted by His words, then changed inside as I pondered them. Even though it’s not a single event, I mark that period as my conversion rather than the VBS-conversion day of four years before, when I “went forward” four times in a row because of a serious crush on one of my counselors.
Your latest novel The Watchers literally spans the globe. Could you tell us a little bit about the kind of research you had to conduct for this book?
I wish I was financially able to say that I hopped on a plane and personally visited London, Nigeria and Jerusalem’s Old City. Unfortunately, I had to make especially good use of the Internet and my local Barnes and Noble. With today’s mapping software, it’s unbelievable how much one can discover without leaving one’s desk. At one point, I found myself scanning individual stream drainages in Nigeria with my mouse. I was looking for just the right kind of rain forest with a perfectly oriented body of water, within a particular distance of Lagos, the capital city. Not only did I find it after much gnashing of teeth, but the search also led me to a little-known archaeological site which suited my needs perfectly: the Sungbo Erebo wall, crumbling boundary to a long-lost jungle kingdom. I find that really vigorous research tends to produce those kinds of apparent miracles.
What surprised you most in your research on Nigeria in particular?
My research on Nigeria was indeed quite challenging and fascinating. I was only able to find a single travel book which actually dealt with Nigeria, owing to the country’s dismal reputation as a tourist destination. When I began to dig, I found a remarkable dichotomy between the country’s decimated infrastructure, appalling corruption, brutal tribal warfare and awesome income gaps and, on the other hand, the awesome resiliency and spirit of its Christian population, who have made Nigeria the fastest growing spiritual harvest field on earth, including several of the world’s largest churches.
What was the hardest part about writing and/or researching The Watchers?
The Watchers was a publishing orphan in my life; a contracted book which kept getting delayed and bounced around because of my numerous collaborations with other authors. So when I sat down to write it in earnest, I had been toying with various plot synopses and opening fragments for over five years. One plot point I didn’t resolve until the actual drafting stage was how to get Abby over to Nigeria. This might seem obvious given the way the plot turned out, but at the time all I knew was that I had a strange burden to write about Nigeria, and I wanted Abby to discover the truth about herself there. The rest, thank God, unfolded as I wrote. One good friend and writing collaborator pointed out that my style changes dramatically after Abby reaches Nigerian soil. And I had to agree: I think I felt liberated when I reached that point in my work, and my sense of relief showed up in the work.
How did you come to work with Tommy Tenny on Hadassah and the upcoming The Road Home?
I was introduced to the Hadassah project, Bethany House and Tommy Tenney through the efforts of agent/publisher Jan Dennis. The team was searching for the right fiction collaborator and Jan graciously showed a draft of my first novel, The Assignment, to Bethany House’s Carol Johnson as a writing sample. Carol blessed me by not only asking me to consider working with Tommy on Hadassah, but signing me as a solo author, with The Assignment as my first release.
Does your collaboration work like the Jenkins/Lahaye team in that you do the actual fiction writing (like Jerry) while Tenny works on the theology aspects (like Lahaye)?
Almost, but not exactly. Tommy comes to a story with a very strong theological premise, often contained in a companion non-fiction bestseller, but also with a good sense of the story’s tone and direction. After I’ve finished my first draft, the difference becomes even more pronounced, as Tommy steps in and becomes a very thorough and resourceful editor. So I would say that he has a far stronger hand on the finished prose than in other collaboration teams. However, on balance, I am still very much the writer of the books.
Tell us a little bit about The Road Home.
The Road Home is far different from anything I’ve written, especially with Tommy, and I must admit that I’ve developed a deep affection for the story and its characters. It’s part modern retelling of Ruth and partly a deconstructed Thelma and Louise. A perfect novel for the post-modern, unstarched Christian fiction audience. Instead of taking you from Bethlehem, Israel to the Land of Moab, it takes you from Moab, Utah to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And rather than being ready-for-primetime biblical heroines, our Ruth and Naomi are beat-up, disillusioned, incredibly relatable modern women. Ruth in particular, is no one your preppy young boy would likely take home to Momma. And yet she’s a wonderful and attractive heroine in her own right. By the end, I hope you’ll find yourself cheering for her, and seeing the Ruth account in a whole new light.
Did you face any particular challenges adapting the Ruth and Naomi story into a contemporary setting?
We did, and we overcame them in an unusual way: Tommy rented an RV and we literally rode our way across America, tracing a likely route between Moab, Utah and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was a unique way to spend our usual confab time of brainstorming and outlining, and I’m so glad we did it that way. Seeing the landscape flow by in a steady stream, rather than page by page on a map, really made it come alive. I tried to weave the changing terrain into the novel as a metaphor for the two women’s evolving relationships. The final sections take place in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, and to avoid coming off as a couple of hapless Beverly Lewis wanna-bes, we worked to approach a few things differently. As a result, I discovered an obscure Mennonite sect which is actually stricter Old Order than most Amish. At the same time, Beverly, whose expertise and virtuosity on this subject I wouldn’t dare try to rival, urged Tommy and I to make certain our descriptions of the Old Order were totally accurate. So I threw myself into research even more than usual. I learned a great deal about the Anabaptist tradition as a result of going to the extra trouble.
What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?
What a great question! I have a long quiver of novels burning a hole in my keyboard, of many different genres from political to psychological horror to science fiction. But probably the one I would most love to write someday is a novel that would go down as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the abortion issue. I’m passionate about defending life, and I would love to bend my pen in the service of affecting public opinion in any way possible, and help protect the unborn.
What motivates you to get out of bed and head to your keyboard?
Hah!––paying the rent! No, while I feel that way sometimes, it’s not the deepest motivation. On any given morning, what literally gets me out of bed is the desire to prove worthy of the privilege of working at home as a bonafide professional writer, seeing my works not only in print but touching people’s lives and occasionally enriching their spiritual walk. I don’t take any of that for granted, as someone who paid his dues for many, many years.
Are you the type of writer who outlines everything before setting down one word, or are you the type who likes to discover the story as you write?
I tend to outline, although I give myself the freedom to discover new plot points and fresh directions when I actually draft. I don’t think I know of any successful thriller writer who writes without an outline. The plotting is too dense, and offering the right number of reversals and surprises just doesn’t fall out of the sky. It has to be planned, at least in my experience.
Where is your favorite place to write?
My favorite place to write is the coffee shop at my local Barnes and Noble. Being around books, and people who are excited about books, and consuming books, and talking about books, and even writing books of their own, just gets my juices going. I grab a couple of hot thrillers from the new arrival displays, read the first few pages, pump myself up by reassuring myself that I could write something just as good, and then set out to try and prove myself right.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
I wish I’d known a long time ago how quickly time passes when you’re not writing. How quickly the years accumulate, leading one to look back and ask, “what did I do with my time? Why didn’t I finish something?” A true writer measures time, I think, in terms of pages written, and stories finished. In other words, I wish I’d known how easy it is to let a day go by without committing any words to paper––or pixel. It is fairly easy to write a couple of thousand words. But it’s even easier to write nothing: to think about writing, talk about writing, drink a cup of coffee in preparation for writing, then eventually to castigate oneself for not having written. Either activity, writing or procrastination, consume nearly equal amounts of emotional energy at the end of the day. One activity results in a book and the immense rewards of having finished. The other results in self-loathing and the most corrosive question of all… “what if…”
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
First, that despite writing about spiritual warfare and such, that I grew up a Conservative Baptist. I jokingly call myself a charismatic wannabe.
Second, that I have a degree in theatre, and once did a great deal of acting.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
This might sound like the stock/politically-correct answer, but I love hanging out with my family. I have a wonderful wife who’s been my best friend for as long as my failing brain cells can recall, a great son with whom I laugh harder than anyone, and the two most beautiful and charming daughters Central Casting could have ever sent down. After that, I’d have to say exploring the mountains of Colorado. With my family.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?I ate steel-cut oatmeal and a slice of turkey bacon. And a cold beer. HAH!––just kidding, just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Leftover pizza, homemade salsa and Laughing Cow cheese.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
This time of year (summertime), a big tall iced coffee with no cream or any of that chi-chi stuff.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
I want to learn that something I wrote actually influenced a real life person to follow Christ and place their trust in Him. And just maybe, a slot on the New York Times Bestseller wouldn’t bother me, sometime along the way.
When was the last time you cried?
An hour ago, watching the death scene in “End of the Spear.” Just a little tear, mind you, nothing unmanly…
Three words that best describe you:
Verbal, intense, curious. (Ask my wife for the truth!)
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
My iPod currently features, among many, all of U2’s discography, Bethany Dillon, my old friend Nichole Nordeman (who sang at my wedding, just months before signing her first recording contract), all of Bruce Cockburn’s albums, Nancy Griffith, David Wilcox, a lot of praise music, and, thanks to the wonders of ordering singles digitally one song at a time, random tunes from my youth like “I’m not in love” (TenCC) and “Don’t dream it’s over” (Crowded House.) All-time greatest feel-good song: “Saturday in the Park,” by Chicago. Hands down.
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
One of the most amazing parts of being a writer is releasing one’s work, executed in relative isolation and private, only to realize months later that wonderful people are actually investing hours of their life in reading and reacting and caring about what you’ve done. Readers are one of the most extravagant gifts I could ever imagine. And if I ever quit being grateful for them, I hope somebody slaps me. Hard.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.