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Interview: April 11, 2008

April 11, 2008's Joe Hartlaub recently spoke with Gregg Olsen, bestselling author of seven true crime books and two novels, including the newly released A COLD DARK PLACE.

In this interview, Olsen describes the highly unusual real-life news story that inspired the plot of his latest work of fiction and explains how his family gave him insight into how to portray female characters realistically. He also compares and contrasts writing fiction and nonfiction, shares his thoughts on the influx in television police procedural dramas and reveals who most influenced him in his career. The heart of A COLD DARK PLACE featured what might be called a very innovative method of artificial insemination carried out by an incarcerated serial killer. Was this based on a real-world occurrence, in whole or in part, or was this your own creation?

Gregg Olsen: The inspiration for that conception did come from real life. The case of a Milwaukee inmate who sought to confuse DNA analysis on a crime scene by sending out a sample of his semen in a ketchup package made the news several years ago. He figured if his DNA was found outside while he was in jail, it would make the case against him suspect. His girlfriend helped him set up a phony rape. But in the end, he was found out.

BRC: I liked the way you handle the life of Emily Kenyon, a police officer who is also the single mother of a teenaged daughter. She attempts to balance the demands of investigating a multiple murder, being involved in her daughter’s life and dealing with her own personal issues. She makes a couple of realistic mistakes --- the kind that guys scratch their heads over --- that ultimately make her a more sympathetic and realistic character. Did you find Emily an easy or difficult character to conceptualize? What made you ultimately decide to feature a female, rather than a male, protagonist?

GO: I liked Emily very much --- so much, in fact, that I’m bringing her and her daughter Jenna back in my next book, HEART OF ICE (Pinnacle, 2009). She certainly is flawed, but hey, we all are, right? I liked working with a female character on the side of good for a change (in my true crime writing, many of the killers are female). What I liked about Emily is the idea that she is a cop, of course, but first and foremost, she’s a mother. She’s like all of us who have families. She has a job, but it isn’t always on the front burner. There’s a conflict there, of course. That’s what makes me care about her.

BRC: I also was impressed with the way you got into the psyches --- good and bad, bright and dark --- of all your characters. From Emily’s erstwhile boyfriend --- in some ways, one of the scariest players in the book --- to Jenna, Emily’s teenaged daughter, each character was fully developed. How did you keep all the players so true to life?

GO: I’m not writing about my own life, but I do have an advantage here. As the father of twin daughters, I’m constantly reminded how women/girls think. I’m so glad that you think the characters are realistic. Flaws make all of us a little more interesting, don’t they? I have plenty of my own.

BRC: One of the issues that A COLD DARK PLACE raised, in a subtle way, was the pros and cons of adoption, both for the children and the families. In your opinion, in what ways does the process currently work correctly? How could it be improved?

GO: This is a far bigger question than I can handle with any authority. But I will tell you this: My heart goes out to those who open their homes to children in need of love, nurturing and a family. Certainly, some children bring insurmountable issues with them when they come into an adoptive home. During my research for the novel, I talked with people on both sides of the issue --- children who adored their adoptive parents and had no interest in finding their biological folks, and those who felt a longing for that missing piece of their history. Years ago, I remember talking to an adoptee who said that his sister (also adopted) regretted the day she met her biological parents. For her, it ruined everything.

BRC: Another issue that is raised, if not necessarily resolved, in A COLD DARK PLACE is that of nature versus nurture as the primary influence in an individual’s development. In your opinion, which, if either, has the greatest effect?

GO: Nurture, of course, is crucial. I’ve seen it over and over in the true life cases that I’ve written about --- from Mary Kay Letourneau to Eli Stutzman. I always tell people that a murderer is on the road to killing someone long before they administer poison or pull the trigger. We see that kind of evidence in serial killers all the time (torturing small animals, etc.), but we also see patterns emerge in childhoods of murderers.

BRC: You have become very well known not only for your fictional works but also for your nonfiction, true crime books. What are some of the similarities and differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? Which do you prefer? Do you find that one genre is easier to write than the other? And have you ever been inspired to write a true crime book based upon something that your research uncovered while writing a work of fiction?

GO: I could spend all day answering this, and probably get myself into trouble. I think writing fiction is more liberating, for sure. The loose ends of a story can be tied up easily --- if the author chooses that route (I didn’t in A WICKED SNOW but did in A COLD DARK PLACE). In the true crime stories I’ve written, the facts are just as they are. I think that both genres require different shades of the truth. With fiction, the events and details must ring true or the reader will toss the book out the window. With nonfiction, the events must be true or the judge presiding over a libel case will throw the book at the author. The last part of your question is exceedingly interesting. While I have been inspired by true-life cases for my novels, the reverse hasn’t been true --- so far. Now that you mention it, if I could find a true story about a place like Angel’s Nest...

BRC: The central theme of A COLD DARK PLACE that runs through all of your fiction and true crime works is the etiology of violent crime and its unfortunate after-effects. How did you first become interested in this topic?

GO: I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t interested or drawn to crime stories. I’ve always wanted to know the why of some terrible act.

BRC: What is your opinion of the proliferation of criminal procedure programs, both fictional and real-world, on television? Do you think that they function as a deterrent to criminal behavior?

GO: I’ve thought about that from time to time, wondering if criminals were watching and taking notes so they won’t get caught. And I do think the shows have made the average person more knowledgeable --- we all know so much more about DNA and forensic science than we did years ago. But I don’t see "CSI" or "Cold Case" as deterrents. Many crimes are committed without reason. The cold, calculating ones capture the headlines. So, for every Ted Bundy, there are a zillion Joe Blows who got mad, got drunk, and didn’t think about what they were doing until it was too late. It is only AFTER the act that they try to think of a way out.

BRC: We have many readers who aspire to be writers. What inspired your own writing career? How did you get started? And what is your writing schedule like? Have you found it difficult to stay on a set working schedule, particularly when you have a lecture schedule as well?

GO: I’ve always treated writing like a job. I have a word count quota that I pretty much stick to without fail --- 1,000 words a day. Some days they might be really great words, and other days they need a lot of help. But if I don’t hit that magic number, I haven’t done my job. Like most writers, I’ve always been a writer. I can look back on some of the schoolwork that my mom saved and I can see that I was on that journey long before I thought I could make a living at it. I have little books I wrote back then that are a far cry from anything criminal. I actually wrote stories of rabbits hopping through the woods --- not a knife in sight!

BRC: When you are working on a novel, do you start with an outline, or begin writing based on an idea and see what occurs?

GO: So far I’ve started with a very simple two-page description of what I’m going to write and I just wing it from there. This, of course, is the opposite of true crime writing. In those books, I’ve had to plot out each moment because, well, it was a true story! With fiction, I’m having a ball seeing where the story takes me.

BRC: Who has exerted the most influence on your writing career? And, if you can remember, who wrote the first crime novel you ever read?

GO: Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series, does that count? It is hard to say who has exerted the most influence on my writing career --- there have been so many. Beyond the great teachers I’ve had along the way (big thanks here to my high school English teacher, Sandra Clark), I’d have to say my wife and daughters have played the greatest role. After all, they’ve put up with my clacking away on the keyboard for all these years.

BRC: A COLD DARK PLACE almost begs for a sequel. Do you have any plans to revisit Emily Kenyon, or, more pointedly, the alumni of the Angel’s Nest Adoption Agency?

GO: Angel’s Nest is history, for sure. But Emily and some of the key folks from the book are back, five years later, in HEART OF ICE. Hold on tight. I think you’ll like it.

BRC: What are you working on now? And in the future, do you plan to focus on fiction, nonfiction, or both?

GO: I’m delighted to say that my publisher has signed me up for three more thrillers, which will keep me busy for the next few years. I also completed my next true crime book, which will be out sometime next year. I like the mix of doing nonfiction and fiction, and I hope to continue to keep a kind of balance between the two.