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Interview with Paul F Olson: Whispered Echoes

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“Billy, you time tripping again?” ___Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

“Time it was/And what a time it was.”  ___Paul Simon, Bookends Album

“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!”  ___Richard O’Brien, The Rocky Horror Show

Fasten your seatbelts, and embrace your inner H.G. Wells.  Sheila M. Merritt is taking you on a time machine ride in this interview with author Paul F. Olson.  Paul’s collection Whispered Echoes is a recent release from Cemetery Dance Publications.  The volume encompasses several stories from horror’s heyday, the 1980s, as well as a couple of tales from the 1990s.  It culminates with a new novella published in the book for first time.

Diabolique: Whispered Echoes has a fantastic cover by renowned artist Jill Bauman, and a brilliant essay by esteemed author Chet Williamson, entitled Paul F. Olson’s Upper Peninsula.  How did you score the participation of such creative heavy hitters?

Paul F Olson: I suppose I should invent a couple of wild stories involving the grand, flamboyant gestures I made to win Chet and Jill’s support. I could tell you how I hired skywriters to etch my pleas between the clouds high above Camp Necon, or how I stood outside their windows with a Peter Gabriel tune blaring on my old boom box. Or maybe I could tell you about our protracted legal negotiations, which were only saved when Jimmy Carter stepped in at the 11th hour to broker an agreement. But alas, nothing like that happened. Since Jill and Chet are two of the nicest people in the business, I think the combined time to get both of them aboard was less than five minutes.

As I was putting the finishing touches on the collection, it suddenly occurred to me that I was going to need an introduction. I started thinking of who I might want to ask, and Chet immediately popped into my mind. I’ve been fortunate enough to know him for many, many years – probably more years than either of us want to admit – and there are few people in the business I respect more. So I sent him a Facebook message, one of those “I don’t know if you’d be interested in this, but . . .” sort of messages. A few seconds later, he responded: “I’d be delighted.”

Flash forward a few months. Cemetery Dance now has the completed manuscript of the book, and my editor, Brian Freeman, asked if I had any thoughts about a cover artist. I did. Unlike my long friendship with Chet, I’ve never met Jill Bauman in person, but I’ve been a devout fan of her work forever. I bought my first Bauman print at a World Fantasy Convention in 1981 or ’82 – the cover art for Charlie Grant’s A Glow of Candles, in case you’re interested. I purchased others after that. She is my all-time favorite genre artist. So when Brian asked who I might want to do the cover for Whispered Echoes, I wrote back and said, “I’ve had a dream my whole career of having Jill Bauman illustrate my stuff. So if you could make that outlandish fantasy happen, that would be fantastic.” I wasn’t kidding when I called it an “outlandish fantasy.” I couldn’t conceive of a universe where something I wrote would ever be worthy of getting a Bauman cover. But within minutes of sending that note to Brian, I received an e-mail from Jill herself, saying she would be happy to do the job – oh, and teasing me a bit about that “outlandish fantasy” remark, too.

So it was literally that easy. I’m clearly the luckiest writer on the face of the planet. Chet’s introduction is brilliant. It makes me sound so much smarter than I am. And Jill’s cover is beyond incredible. It’s dark, eerie, and utterly gorgeous. I’m so grateful to both of them for being part of this project.

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Diabolique: Wow.  Peter Gabriel song on the boom box imagery!  We really are time tripping.  Back to the questions: Your introduction in the book emphasizes the callow youth aspect inherent in your early works.  Despite having matured as a writer, do you sometimes miss or get sentimental about such literary guilelessness?

Paul F Olson: Oh, I miss those days all the time. I miss them a lot. And, of course, what I really mean by that is that I miss the writer I was back then: somebody who just wrote all of the time, easily, almost effortlessly, without regard to suitability, marketability, or let’s face it, even quality. I just wrote for the sheer, explosive joy of writing. Horror stories, mainstream stories, epic poems, action tales, Lovecraft pastiches, Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiches, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch pastiches, one-act plays, westerns, mysteries, and thousands of fragments – from a few paragraphs to a few pages – that never developed into anything at all. I recently came across the manuscript of a novella I wrote when I was twenty-one, called “The Returners.” Fifty-seven pages, single-spaced. Why did I single-space it? I have no idea. I never did that before or after. I suppose I was running out of paper at the time. Anyway, the story is about what happens when a torrential rainstorm strikes a small town and washes part of the local cemetery down a hill. It’s dark and wild, packed with action and horror. And it is, without a doubt, one of the worst things ever written. I kid you not. It’s just absolutely terrible, abysmally awful. But I remember the pure, unfettered joy I felt when I was writing it. I can still feel the hard wooden stool under my butt and hear the clatter of my Olympia typewriter. I remember the words coming so quickly that the typewriter hammers would jam up at least once every few lines, and I remember how annoying it was to have to stop writing long enough to get them unstuck. Did I know I was producing dreck? I’m pretty sure I did. I must have. Somewhere, far in the back of my mind, I had to have been aware that tale was never going to see the light of day. But did I care? Did I let it stop me? Did I hesitate or slow down for even a moment? No way. Why would I stop when I was having the time of my life? Why would I stop when I was in the white-hot grip of creativity, energized, fully alive, and completely free. As you get older, or to use your words, when you mature as a writer, a lot of that energy goes away. What’s left gets channelled into other concerns – creative concerns, market concerns, business concerns, deadlines and bottom lines, self-editing, self-doubt. Most of those things are actually quite important in the adult world, and in any case, they’re pretty much unavoidable when writing is no longer that secret thing you do when nobody is watching and becomes your business instead. If you’re really lucky, you can still catch a moment of that earlier magic now and then, a fleeting surprise that comes out of nowhere on those days when the words are flowing well and the real world moves a little farther into the background than usual. But while those moments are still exciting, still joyful, they’re never quite the same.

Diabolique: Ah, a variation on “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” You have stated that the short form is not really your forte, that you feel more adept at writing novels or novellas.  Your new novella, Bloodybones makes its debut in Whispered Echoes.  How do you think it measures up to the short story reprints included in the book?

Paul F Olson: There is absolutely nothing better, more wonderful, more perfect than a great short story by a great writer. I’ve been reading them all my life and I’m still awestruck every time I encounter one. I’m like someone who lived the first twenty years of his life in a tropical rainforest seeing snow for the first time – amazed, excited, reverent, giddy. Which is why I’ve spent most of my life hating the fact that short fiction is so difficult for me to write. I wish it weren’t true. And I’ll never stop trying. I’ll never stop believing that if I just keep hammering at it hard enough, long enough, I’ll break through that invisible wall and all the perfect short stories trapped in my head all these years will come pouring out in a torrent of literary greatness. In the meantime, I continue to be better at the longer stuff. My brain works better in long form, where it can spread out, move through time, jump locations, explore backstory, discover lots of new characters, learn all about them, and then follow them around to see they do. I love reading short stories but I love working on bigger canvasses. Novel-length is wonderful, and in many ways, novellas are even better. In his introduction to Whispered Echoes, Chet Williamson said, “The novella is a perfect length for horror. There’s plenty of room for development, but no necessity for padding.” I agree completely.

I’m very proud of Bloodybones and delighted to have it in the book. For a variety of reasons, some artistic, some personal, it’s one of my favorite creations. At 36,000 words, it’s able to pull the reader in and hold on to them tightly for a good long time. It’s a fun story and, I hope, an emotional one. As for how it measures up to those earlier tales, that’s harder to say. Better to let others judge. I think it echoes and expands some of the themes that have always been inherent in my work, and deals with some of them in new ways. Obviously, I think it also shows my growth and maturity as a writer, compared to the ancient artifacts that come before it in the book. But none of that means anything if the readers don’t think it’s a good yarn. I hope they do.

Diabolique: And having Bloodybones published by Cemetery Dance is quite a coup.  Cemetery Dance Publications has a substantial reputation in the horror field.  It is known for the high quality of its printings and for a roster of writers that’s a veritable genre “Who’s Who.”  How big an ego stroke was it when Cemetery Dance’s Richard Chizmar approached you about the Whispered Echoes project?

Paul F Olson: It was a tremendous ego boost, but it took a while to sink in. I’ve known Rich for a long time. We go back to the days when I was publishing my magazine, Horrorstruck, and he was getting ready to launch his magazine, Cemetery Dance. So I’d never dare suggest that I doubted his sincerity, even for a moment, or that I was afraid he’d lost his mind. Still, I wasn’t sure quite what to think when he wrote and suggested they publish a collection of my stories. I was blown away when I got that e-mail, but again, I didn’t quite allow myself to believe it. There was a long time that I kept expecting the project to get derailed. I thought Rich would come to his senses, that something would come up, that circumstances would change, that . . . I don’t know. I just had a hard time believing it was actually going to happen. I went through a couple of years where I got nervous every time I received an e-mail from Cemetery Dance. I’d think, “This is it. They’re canceling the book.” Yes, I admit it: that’s my picture in the dictionary next to “Insecure Writer.” But now that it’s too late for them to change their minds, now that the book is actually here, it’s incredibly exciting and gratifying. I know a lot of writers who have “get published by Cemetery Dance” on their bucket lists. I can now cross that one off mine.

Diabolique: Addressing the time machine theme of this interview, if you could go back to those early years of your writing career, what would you change?

Paul F Olson: Probably not much. There was a point – several points, actually – where I made some very foolish business decisions. Those were times when my career had become a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, and I naively went into the cave instead of following the path through the woods. But by and large, all of that came later. In the days we’re talking about, the earliest days, I was very fortunate. I had the opportunity to write the things I wanted to write and to try to break into publishing at a time that the field was rich with smart editors and good markets, not to mention eager readers. I was blessed to meet wonderful people who read my work with an understanding eye, gave me great advice, rejected me when I needed to be rejected, and when I was finally ready, gave me the breaks I needed. I was part of one of the most exciting periods in the centuries-long history of horror. I had a career and I made friends for life. Why would I want to change any of that?

Diabolique: As a corollary to the previous question, if you could bring back something from horror fiction publishing of the 1980s/1990s, what would it be and why?

Paul F Olson: Well, the wealth of markets is an obvious choice. I doubt we’ll ever again see such a vast universe of non-professional, semi-pro, and professional markets all co-existing at the same time – nearly unlimited opportunities for horror writers to hone their skills, launch their careers, and actually make money. But as much as I miss that, I miss the genuine sense of community that existed back then even more. Sure, social media is a wonderful way for us all to keep in touch, build networks, do business, promote our work. But most writers, when they’re being honest, will tell you that some days social media is more an obligation than a pleasure. And that’s not even taking into account the dark sides of Facebook and Twitter, which are becoming more obvious all the time: constant grandstanding and self-promotion, unbelievable bullying and harassment, endless political battles. That’s not a community. It’s a bad day at the office. At the risk of sounding like an old man, fondly remembering my five-mile walk to school uphill through the snow, I’ll take the days of the old GEnie bulletin board service, or before that, the world of snail mail and newsletters, over Facebook any day.

Diabolique: We’ve covered the past and present, so let’s move on to the future.  What can readers look forward to from you?

Paul F Olson: I’m hoping to have the first draft of a new novel finished this fall. And, of course, I’m still trying to write that perfect short story.

Diabolique: The Diabolique community looks forward to what you have in store.  Thank you for joining me on this time machine ride.  It was great fun!

Paul F Olson: Thank you so much for asking me. It was an honor – and a fun ride, too!

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About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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