March 31, 2009

Crime Author Gregg Olsen Talks about His Trade

By: Sean DeButts

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2009 edition of "Alumni News: WWU Journalism Department" and edited by Katie Dreke.

When it comes to exposing the sinister lies beneath a facade of domesticity, New York Times bestselling author Gregg Olsen has made prolific use of his Western Washington University journalism education - and he intends to keep it that way.

"Readers are fascinated by what takes someone, especially a woman, to the dark side," said Olsen, a 1981 graduate of Western's journalism program. "That's true whether I'm writing about a mother who killed her kids or a wife who poisoned her husband."

An author-of-seven true-crime books and two novels, Olsen has received numerous local awards and has made the New York Times best-seller list for the re-release of his first novel, Abandoned Prayers, a story about an Amish serial killer.

He has interviewed a fascinating and disturbing array of criminals, including Mary Kay Letourneau for If Loving You is Wrong, and has been publicly honored by Washington's Secretary of State for his journalistic contributions to state history.

During his time as a Western journalism student, Olsen served as managing editor of The Western Front. Professor Carolyn Dale said Olsen was also the first student to serve twice as Klipsun's editor-in-chief, and that his leadership motivated reporters to turn out relevant, savvy Klipsun editions.

"I knew I was going to be a writer, and Western was and is the best journalism school in the state," Olsen said. "We got our hands dirty and did actual reporting."

Olsen said he learned the strategy for reporting crime first by interviewing police and officials, then by reviewing court documents and transcripts, and finally by interviewing the families of the victims and perpetrators.

"I think my favorite story was [when] I had a big scoop on a prostitution ringin [Western's Birnam Wood Apartments],"Olsen said. "I got to cover that, and that was very exciting. Here I am a kid from Bellevue - a suburban city, not that exciting- but this idea that we have these hookers going to college there, and we had this pimp running these girls up to Canada, was just very, very bizarre."

Olsen said crime always fascinated him, and he has long been an avid reader of local true-crime successes Jack Olsen (no relation) and Ann Rule, a biographer of Ted Bundy.

"Jack and Ann's books inspired me," Olsen said. "I could see them on TV or at book signings, so they were more than just names on a cover. I could visualize myself as an author of their kind of work. I consider both of them working journalists."

Olsen said that to break into publishing nonfiction, a writer needs to show publishers a good idea and credentials - and Olsen had both. After being published in 1990, Abandoned Prayers became the number-one-selling coupon book of the year in the Doubleday Book Club.

"It was successful almost to the point of my detriment," Olsen said. "I kept thinking, 'I'm going to sell millions and millions of books,' but it wasn't uphill all the way."

Olsen said competition from crime shows, such as CSI, has made success as a true-crime author more elusive than it was in the '90s, which he considers to be the golden age of true crime. Many of Olsen's friends and fellow writers gave up the genre.

"The guy next door might be a thousand times better at writing than I am, but I look at writing like a job, and I know every single day I've got to open the laptop, add details and shoot for 1,000 words," Olsen said. "That's the way 1 move myself forward since I don't have a daily deadline ... Most people don't have that discipline."

Olsen said that, ultimately, the market determines what heroes and villains he puts in his novels and which true-crime stories he reports.

"You want a story that has some national interest, or a good strong regional interest, but is not overexposed," Olsen said.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, unraveling the mystery of the killer's method and motive until all is laid bare is essential to the success of a crime book, Olsen said. In this regard, Olsen considers Starvation Heights, the story of a female doctor who starved-to-death more than 40 patients, as one of his greatest achievements.

"I'm very proud because that book was my little discovery," Olsen said. "The story of Dr. Hazzard [of Olalla, Wash.,] if not for me, would have been lost forever. I interviewed people who are dead now. By capturing their stories in the book, I've preserved a little bit of history."

Much to Olsen's excitement, Pulitizer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tracy Letts will adapt Starvation Heights into a film.

Since the best-selling re-release of Abandoned Prayers in 2002, Olsen has published two novels and a fourth, "Heart of Ice," is scheduled for release in March 2009. One of the scenes from the book will take place in Western's Buchanan Towers residence hall - although Olsen gives the building and Western's campus other names in the book.

Olsen said he finds writing fiction liberating because he is allowed to make up stories and borrow events and places from his own life. He has several additional serial-killer novels in the works.

"At 75 or 80, I would love to be one of those people who stays in the game, Olsen said. "I might have a less demanding schedule, but I'm a writer and I want to be able to write until my fingers don't work or there are no more stories left to tell - whichever comes first."

March 12, 2009

When Savagery Meets Civilization

By: Sean DeButts

Ethan Gage embarks on a quest for Viking treasure in the American frontier

   Ethan Gage returns in another adventure filled with innuendo, intrigue and pagan treasure. This time he travels the American frontier in 1801, in The Dakota Cipher (March 2009) by William Dietrich. While in The Rosetta Key Gage sought to keep the Book of Thoth out of Napoleon’s hands, this time Gage seeks a powerful Norse artifact called Thor’s Hammer. In tow are a cycloptic, axe-wielding Norseman seeking to use Thor’s hammer to free Norway, a captive Indian maiden in search of her homeland, a spirited but under-sized French trapper, and an enigmatic, aristocratic couple who match Agrippina and Caligula in perversity.

   As in Napoleon’s Pyramids, Gage ignites and fans his misadventure by getting friendly with the wrong woman.

   After bedding Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s overly sociable sister, Gage narrowly escapes being turned into a human fireworks display by mysterious assailants. Ethan flees to America as a French ambassador with the Norseman Magnus Bloodhammer. Recruited by Thomas Jefferson to investigate the West, Ethan makes his way through the bustling post-colonial towns to trading outposts filled with mingling Indians, French and English, through the Great Lakes and finally to the windswept Great Plains, recently emptied by smallpox. At each step of his journey, Gage’s assailants trail him in his quest.

   The Dakota Cipher proves worth reading and bears Dietrich’s trademark, vivid descriptions. Dietrich makes the crowded trapper towns and the desolate plains almost tangible. The focus on Norse mythology and on Viking settlers in the new world also is an interesting shift from the series' previous focus on Egyptian mythology. However, The Dakota Cipher lacks the spark of the previous Gage novels. It has less of the over-the-top excitement and MacGyver-inspired gadgetry that made Rosetta such an adventurous romp. As an adventurer in the same vein as Indiana Jones, Gage is in his element in ancient Middle Eastern cities, where he can steal treasure from ancient temples and escape snake pits.

   That said, The Dakota Cipher sets the stage for an exciting and emotionally complex sequel. Count Silano, the arch-villain from The Rosetta Key, was only part of a larger group of illuminati who have perverse designs for the world and who want Ethan dead. The ending guarantees that Ethan can no longer remain a carefree spirit when he returns to the Mediterranean in Dietrich’s next installment, and he has a vendetta to settle.

Bill granted an interview before the release of The Dakota Cipher on Mar. 24, 2009.

The Inkwell Review:
A common theme of the Ethan Gage adventures is the inter-connectedness of ancient myths. For example, Magnus Bloodhammer draws strong comparisons between Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, and the tree of life in the Bible. Researching these different myths from different cultures and religions, has it given you any insight into mythology or human nature?

William Dietrich:
I was struck by the commonality between the different myths. The same ideas come up again and again. I had never heard until I researched this book that Odin, for example, was hung or crucified on a tree, that he was stabbed in the side by a spear. You don’t know at what point those stories entered Norse mythology. Were they Christian ideas that had filtered north, were they originally in the Norse, or were they coincidental?

IR: Which of the texts you researched and individuals you interviewed were most crucial in forming the story?

WD: I read quite a bit of information about Thomas Jefferson and about that period of the United States. I read a book on the Internet, I think it was written by Henry James, about America in 1800, and that was quite useful. I read theories about how the capital of D.C. had Masonic origin, and then quite a bit about Indian culture, and the experience of white captives with Indians. These captives were writing about what life was like with the Indians for two or three years at a time, until they managed to get back to civilization. It gave a you-are-there immediacy to what I was reading.

IR: You didn’t seem to buy much into Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage.

WD: No … it was obvious that the absence of civilization does not bring out any particular nobility, and what was interesting about the Indians was they have the same joys and sorrows that any other society does.

IR: For experiential research, did you travel to the Great Plains or similar areas?

WD: I did. I started in Detroit, actually, and made a circuit of the Great Lakes, more or less following the path Ethan did, but I was mostly on land. And then into Minnesota, and across that state. When I was in Minnesota, there was a violent thunder and lightning storm that inspired, in part, the conclusion of the book.

IR: Who were the inspirations for Aurora and Somerset? In terms of sheer evil, they seemed up there with Agrippina and Caligula.

WD: [Laughs] They were products of my imagination. They got more ghastly as time went on. For example, the sort of incestuous relationship came to me later on, while I was trying to make Aurora even less appealing. In some ways, memorable villains are even more important to a story than memorable heroes. I’m looking for ways to have these characters stick in your mind, and have you rooting for their eventual demise.

IR: That’s what happened to me at the end of the book. I wanted Aurora to get her comeuppance. What’s coming next in the Gage Saga?

WD: In the sequel, Ethan returns to Europe and winds up on a mission to the Mediterranean, and gets caught up with the Barbary Pirates, and he meets a number of characters from the earlier books, and there’s sort of a lot of twists and turns that I think people will find quite interesting. I don’t want to give away too much, but his personal life is getting more complicated all the time.

IR: Is there anything else you were hoping to say?

WD: One other thing I would add is the whole idea of whether the Norse preceded Columbus, and to what degree they did, is an interesting archaeology controversy. It’s a long way from being established that they went anywhere beyond Newfoundland, but there is some intriguing evidence, and there’s some quite serious people who are looking into it, and I had fun including that in the novel as well.

IR: Whether they actually ended up in Minnesota is tantalizing. Bill, thank you for interviewing again.

WD: Thank you, Sean.