Gregg Olsen on His Approaches to Writing
By Gregg OlsenJune 2, 2021
I come from the rainy and murderous Pacific Northwest near Seattle, a place where we know a thing or two about serial killers here because we’ve had some of the most notorious call our neck of the woods home. I can look across the water from my home and see the city where Ted first killed a girl. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, displayed several bodies in a cluster within a mile or two of where I worked at the time. And better (or worse) yet, Robert Lee Yates, a serial killer from Spokane dumped a body one road over from where I live today. Everything I have ever written has been rooted in experiences I’ve had as a true-crime writer. Hanging out with cops, talking to victims of crimes, and living in a wonderfully dreary place, are the creative forces behind my novels.
I’m 62 and this past year was the best year of my life as a writer. My first book (eventually a NYT bestseller on a reprint—thank you, Target—was released in 1990. Were you even born then? The reason I tell you my age is that this writing life is littered with one-hit wonders, writers who hit it big and never get there again. My sales figures have had their ups and downs, for sure, but I’ve always seen this as a life, not necessarily a career. Maybe you understand? And I’m proof that if you hang in there long enough, good things are possible. In 2020, my True Crime book, If You Tell, was Amazon’s bestselling ebook. My novel, The Last Thing I Ever Did, was number 64 for the year.
I have worked as a writer full-time for the past 24 years. By full-time, I mean I’ve been employed by The Boeing Company. I’ve done all my book writing (as my kids used to call it) on the side. For a few years, my wife and I tried the see-saw life of waiting for royalty checks while we raised our twin daughters. I went back to work so that my girls could go to college. They did. And I’m very proud of that.
I have a system of rewards to spur me on to writing because I don’t find writing particularly fun. It’s work. Every thousand words I write (always on weekends) I give myself a treat. Right now, it’s a dirty martini (four olives, please). Sometimes it’s as simple as a shower in very hot water. A walk on the beach. I write out my goals for the day and the companion list of rewards I’ll receive when I get each 1,000 words.
In many ways, this writing life has taken more from me than it has given. Yes, I’ve enjoyed bestseller status, being on TV (Barbara Walters was a huge deal to me), and all that comes with creating. At the same time, this compulsion to write someone’s story (or a story of my own invention) has taken up a lot of my time. Friendships have lapsed. I’ve missed travel opportunities. I’ve missed hanging out with friends after work.
I have never felt good enough. Maybe you think that of yourself too. I have very few friends who are writers because I hold others up so high and have always felt I don’t measure up. I look at their work and marvel at what they do and yet I don’t see that in myself. Maybe you don’t see it either, but that’s fine. I always do my best and give 100 percent of myself to whatever I’m researching and writing. It wasn’t until after I published a novel (A Wicked Snow) that I felt I could call myself a real writer. After all, telling someone else’s story is being a channel, not an author. I think the idea of not feeling superior is what has made me work so hard.
Writing is a job. At least that’s how I view it. Some think it is an art and for them it likely is. They’re probably smarter than me. I’ve always approached my life thinking about how I could support myself by doing something that I would find fulfilling. I liked people. I liked stories about people. I decided that my writing life would start with a journalism degree. Back then, at least, newspapers and magazines had a clear career path.
I have written a book or two merely to meet a contract. Those are excruciating. Seriously. Nothing is harder than writing a book for which you have no love, no skin in the game, no nothing. It’s not worth it. So, if you can, write what you are interested in and not what someone else tells you needs to be your next book. People ask me all the time why I write crime books and I always tell them it is because those are the books I was reading. Those were the stories that held my interest as a teenager and older.
I know something that other working writers know. Even the prize winners. The best books in the world are probably in someone’s computer, someone’s drawer. Their creators might have failed in knowing how good they are. That happens a lot. Yet, if they dared to send them out to the world and got nothing but rejection and then stopped, the failure is on them. My first book (not to be confused with a prize winner—remember, I don’t think I’m any good) didn’t sell. It was not “big enough” or something like that. In any case, I started another. I didn’t quit. I just knew that I could do it. And I did do it. I sold the next book. What would happen if you gave up after a single no? A tenth no? And yet you had the best book the world had ever seen on your laptop? Keep going.
True crime or fiction? I get questions about that a lot too. To me, there is nothing greater than the two-way trust of telling someone else’s story. It’s huge. It’s bigger than anything anyone can imagine. Think about telling your story to a stranger and hoping for the best. Putting your heart out there in a way that (especially today…thank you, Twitter) can only invite the naysayers and the trolls as they wriggle out of the internet and tell you what a piece of crap you are. Fiction is like making a puzzle and then putting it together. It feels free, a release from reality. And though the subjects are dark, it’s fun.