Saturday, July 28, 2007

Karen Olson on the Joy of Good Pizza, the Realities of Adoption, and the Art of Writing Mysteries

Hi, Karen! Thanks for chatting with me.

You say that you grew up with “a love of books and great pizza.” I must say that I share your priorities—but is one love stronger than the other?
This is like comparing apples to oranges. Love a great book, love a good pizza. Love to eat pizza while reading a great book.

Although that would get grease on the pages--otherwise I'd do it all the time. :)

You adopted a little girl from China. My sister was also born there; my parents adopted her from a Hong Kong orphanage in the 1960s. The vast majority of children coming out of China for adoption are female. Does it amaze you that the Chinese don’t value these beautiful girls?

Wow. From pizza to this. Such a complicated issue. The one-child law as well as Asian culture that reveres boys as the ones who will carry on family names and care for elderly parents have both unfortunately contributed to many girls ending up in the country’s orphanages. But I don’t think the Chinese do not value or don’t care about the girls. In fact, when we were in China, most Chinese were thrilled that we were adopting and bringing our girls to the U.S., where they would have opportunities not available to them in China. The adoption process was so thorough, and I truly believe the Chinese government is very careful in placement of the children. We have been so blessed with our daughter, who is proud of being Chinese but is also so totally American. We are part of a national group called Families with Children from China, which is a great way to meet other families like ours. There are regional chapters all over the country.

That's good to hear.

Here is the power of connotation: ever since I read the title of your first book, Sacred Cows, years ago, I have connected your name with farms. Have you ever lived on a farm?

I lived next door to a horse farm and across the street from a dairy farm, but that had no affect on the title of Sacred Cows. The title has a double meaning: In the book, New Haven sponsors a CowParade, which features fiberglass cows painted by local artists and then put up for auction for charity. The second meaning is that to a newspaper, a “sacred cow” is something that unjustifiably cannot be criticized. In the book, it happens to be Yale University.

My second title started out as Birds of a Feather, because there are chickens, but because of Jacqueline Winspear’s book of the same title and my editor’s fear I would become the farm animal author, it was changed to Secondhand Smoke.

And not to give too much away, the third book has bees. I’ve abandoned the animal/insect theme, however, in the fourth book. But there is a male stripper named Jack Hammer in that one.

Hmmm! Sacred Cows is on my reading list for the summer; what’s it about? How did you come to write it?
In Sacred Cows, New Haven police reporter Annie Seymour investigates the death of a Yale student found in the road after plunging from a high-rise apartment building balcony. The girl, she finds out, had a secret life as an escort. The story was “ripped from the headlines,” a real-life crime story in New Haven in which a prostitute was found dead in much the same way. But the story was not considered priority because of who she was. I kept thinking: But what if she were a Yalie? Would the story have disappeared so quickly?

A great question. You started your writing career as a journalist. Do you still write for a newspaper?
I left the newspaper business last summer after a more than 20-year career for various reasons. I now edit a medical journal at Yale part-time, which gives me a lot more time to spend on my fiction writing and with my family.

Your second book, Secondhand Smoke, also features your reporter protagonist, Annie Seymour. Do you foresee many books in this series?
There will be at least two more books in the Annie Seymour mystery series, because that’s what I have a contract for. Dead of the Day will be out in November from NAL/Obsidian and Shot Girl will be released in 2008. Both of those books will be released as paperback originals. I’d like to see the series continue after that, but it’s up to the publishing gods and the buying public (and not in that order) whether it will. Because I’m a realist, I’m writing each book like it could be the last one.

What are you writing now?

I’ve just finished Shot Girl and am tweaking it before I send it to my editor. I’m also playing around with an idea for a standalone that would be part traditional mystery, part noir, and part thriller.

On your website Sacred Cows is described as “Anthony Award Nominated,” but under the Secondhand Smoke page it says that Sacred Cows was “award winning.” Does this mean you won the Anthony, or was it a different award?
Can you tell I hate for any mystery not to be resolved?

Sacred Cows was nominated for a Gumshoe Award, not an Anthony. It did win the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award for Best Debut Mystery from Mysterious Press. Unfortunately, there’s no mystery here!

I guess the real mystery is why I don't read more carefully, Karen!

Who are some of your favorite writers in the mystery genre?

My favorite mystery writers vary from day to day, depending on what I’m reading at the moment. I’m always uncomfortable naming “favorites,” because there are so many! I do lean toward darker books.

You have some amazing reviews on your website, from writers and publications alike. Did you ever get a bad review?
What you see on my Web site are the reviews I’ve gotten. The only criticism I’ve received, and it’s mostly from readers, is that Annie likes certain four-letter words and uses them liberally. It’s the way journalists talk. None of it is gratuitous. After 20 years in a newsroom, I’m not making that up.

And there are plenty of other occupations where those words are prevalent.

You are a member of a group blog, or grog, with three other mystery writers, and it’s called “First Offenders.” Who came up with that fun title?

I’ve never heard the term “grog.” Anyway, we all came up with the name of the blog; it was pretty easy, since all of us were first-time authors at the time we decided to start it. We thought about becoming the Repeat Offenders after our second books came out, but it was too much trouble and we were already known as First Offenders.

Do you enjoy blogging? Have you met all of your fellow “offenders?”

Blogging is an interesting interaction with other writers and readers, and I like sharing the writing process and the occasional YouTube video. Alison Gaylin, Lori Armstrong, Jeff Shelby and I met at Bouchercon Chicago in 2005. We were on a panel for first-timers, and since we didn’t know many other people at the con, we hung out together all weekend. Jeff brought up the idea for the blog at about 2 a.m. on the last night in the bar. Since we’d had a few cocktails, it sounded like a great idea. And it was. About two weeks later, the blog was up and running. I consider Alison, Lori, and Jeff among my closest friends now, and even though we’re spread out all over the country, we’ve barely gone a few days without emailing each other since that first weekend we met.

The magic of the internet! On your website there’s a great picture of you standing in front of what seems to be a gorgeous brownstone. Do you live there?

That brownstone is actually where Annie lives in New Haven, in the city’s Wooster Square neighborhood, which is what visitors call our Little Italy.

You have a big appearance schedule on your website. Do you set up your own appearances, or do you have a publicist?
I have set up most of my own appearances, with some help from Susan Richman, my great publicist at Warner Books, which is now Grand Central Publishing. I’ve moved to NAL/Obsidian for the next two books and have yet to work with their publicist. But I expect it to be about the same as with Warner. Most authors have to do the brunt of their own promotion these days, whether published by a big house or not. I don’t mind, it’s part of the job, and it’s fun after spending months with characters in my head to get out and talk with actual real people, booksellers and librarians.

Since you are a pizza aficionado, I’ll ask this: assuming we could fly around on broomsticks like Harry Potter, and I happened to fly to your house, where would we go for pizza?
Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street in New Haven, hands down. Thin crust, fabulous sauce.

Pardon my drool. How can readers find out more about Karen Olson?
Visit my Web site at, which actually will be updated within the next month or so with my new author photos, links, and the inclusion of Dead of the Day. (It’s got a totally kick-ass cover that’s completely different from the others as a result of my move to NAL.) Readers can also visit the First Offenders blog.

Thanks again for talking with me, Karen.

Thanks so much for having me, Julia!


Anonymous said...

Julia, I am always happy to read of other families who have enriched their lives through adoption. My husband and I adopted our son (1990) and our daughter (1992) from South Korea. I agree with Karen Olson, the South Koreans, like the Chinese, value their children and work very hard to make good placements in American homes. It was also interesting to read that you have an adopted sister from China. Back in the 1960's the process must surely have been different than today. I have been in WI and now will be traveling to Winnipeg for vacation, so although I haven't been frequenting your blog, when I did get the chance, it was a good interview to read. Mary Beth

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Mary Beth! And how neat to meet another family who has found children through international adoption.

Winnipeg sounds like a great place to go! Let me know how you like it.