Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Melissa F. Olson?
Oh, boy, I suddenly feel like I’m in Defending Your Life! I’m going to resist the temptation to write in third person, and just say that I’m a writer, a mother, and a bewildered chinchilla owner. By that, I mean that my chinchilla bewilders me, not that the chinchilla himself is in a constant state of bewilderment.
Your new novella, Nightshades (which I enjoyed very much), will be published by Tor.com this month. How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
I hope there will be more Nightshades! One reviewer recently described it as “Criminal Minds with vampires,” and although I’ve never seen Criminal Minds, that does kind of feel right. The book is about the moments right after vampires – or shades, as they’re called in this world – are discovered to be real. The focus is on the government agents who have to deal with all shade-related crime.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
One of the things that brought me to this book was that in most of the urban fantasy I’ve seen, the world of magic is either hidden from the public, or it’s been out in the open for years. At the very beginning of the Sookie Stackhouse books, for example, vampires have been “out of the coffin” long enough for the government to have passed specific legislation about them. In Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series, vampires have been out since vampire Marilyn Monroe tried to turn JFK in the Oval Office. But nobody ever seemed to discuss the five minutes right after the world realizes that vampires are real, and that interested me.
At the same time, I was also very attracted to the idea of writing a procedural. Nightshades was actually originally conceived as a TV pilot, believe it or not. As novellas began to become more popular, I realized that a one-hour TV pilot could translate well into a shorter novel, and Nightshades was officially born.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
Oh, jeez, I’m not even sure I remember. Probably Michael Cricton, actually. When I was a kid I was a pretty voracious bookworm, and since I couldn’t drive myself to the library I tended to devour anything my parents had lying around – which is why I’d read all the Robert B. Parker books before I turned 13. My parents mostly liked mysteries, but Dad read some Michael Cricton, and I started burning through them around fifth grade. (Except for Disclosure. They hid that away because of the naughty bits.) Jurassic Park, Congo, Sphere, Andromeda Strain — that was my way in.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love my job. I figured out a long time ago that I am not temperamentally suited to working in an office, or having a boss (especially if he’s a jerk). Being a writer lets me build my own professional life the way I want it, and that’s breathtaking.
Of course, there are downsides. The publishing industry is a fickle mistress, but then again, it’s a lot better than my last mistress, Hollywood, who is the ficklest of them all. This metaphor got away from me.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I like the “Pomodoro” method of time management. I have an app that counts down on my computer so I can work for 50 minutes, then spend 10 minutes goofing off online. Fifty, then ten. Fifty, then ten.
As for research, a writing teacher once told me never to stop and research something while I’m in the middle of writing. In some ways, this doesn’t work for me – if I’m writing about, say, a Romanian mythological creature, I may need to go back and remind myself of something in a book or online (my office is full of books with titles like Encyclopedia of the Supernatural). If I’m using a real-life location, I need to make sure they’re open when I need them to be, and maybe what freeways my character would take to get there, and so on. So I will stop and look those things up, because otherwise it may turn out later than the whole thing doesn’t work and I need to scrap it.
On the other hand, this advice has helped me refrain from looking up my own stuff while I’m working. If I’m writing book three and I need to look up, say, a character’s favorite movie that was mentioned in book one, I will mark it in the text as “XXX” and keep going. Then when I’ve finished the first draft, I do a search for “XXX” and go back and fill all that stuff in. That has saved me a ton of time and writing momentum while I’m drafting.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Oh, boy. I was a bit late to start writing. I always joke that creative writing was my “backup career,” which is ridiculous, but also kind of true. In college I double-majored in film and English Lit, and I planned to work in television development at one of the studios. I got laid off twice in the space of five months, and just basically ran out of money. I moved back to Wisconsin more or less on a whim, and while I was trying to earn money and scrape my life back together, I started messing around with fiction. I started with trying to write up conversations I’d had that were funny, and fine-tuning them to make them even better, and then I realized I was having fun. That was my gateway drug, but I never took a creative writing course until I was twenty-three or twenty-four.
I don’t really look back on this with fondness, except maybe the way you look back on something you survived, like, “Yeah. Look at me, I made it through that.” At the time, I had just dumped my entire life plan and everything was in upheaval. I had no money, and I worried constantly about being able to buy food for my dog. Writing was like this bit of rope that I found and started playing with, and then foot by foot I actually used it to pull myself out of that situation.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
In some ways, the urban fantasy genre is a mess. It’s oversaturated, a lot of it is repetitive, and there are wild discrepancies in quality and price, which tends to turn off readers. There’s also been a sort of merging with paranormal romance, which is great for people who love that genre, but kind of confusing and dismaying for everyone else. Urban fantasy is also a genre that’s favored by indie authors, and they can often turn out new books much quicker than the majority of print publishers, which has lead to readers having expectations that not all of us can meet. It’s complicated, and sometimes frustrating.
At the same, time, though, all the things that always made UF great are better than ever. It’s still a place where strong female writers can write strong female characters. There are no limits to what you can imagine, and you get to play around with thousands of years’ worth of myths and monsters. And every time I think I’ve seen all the varieties of urban fantasy, I come across a book that blows me away and makes me insanely jealous at the same time.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Well, this summer is being kind of eaten up with conventions and book promotions which is fine by me. I love that stuff, too. I’ve got a rare couple of months where I’m not under contract to anyone, which is both refreshing and terrifying. I’m working up proposals, and editing my upcoming 47North release, and kind of waiting to see who hires me to write something.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I drive a lot, so I’m usually reading one book and listening to an audiobook at all times. At the moment I’m reading an upcoming novel for blurbing (probably shouldn’t mention the title; didn’t get permission), and I’m listening to the audiobook for Skin Game, the latest Dresden Files book. I read the book the week it came out (of course), but it’s been awhile and I’ve forgotten a lot of the story, which means it’s time for James Marsters’s delicious narration.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m actually a huge gym rat. I’ve belonged to the same gym for about eight years, and unless I’m injured I go two to four times a week. It really bothers me when I’m at the end of a deadline and I don’t have time to go to the gym. It bothers my kids, too, because they think the playroom at the gym is better than anything we’ve ever had in our house.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I know I should say book releases or signing contracts or something like that, but honestly, it’s Hawaii. In March I’m going to Left Coast Crime in Honolulu, and I’m taking the husband and kids. I can’t wait for my daughters to experience the culture, the beauty, and the natural wonders. Oh, jeez, I sounded like a brochure just then.