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."

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