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Interview: May 13, 2005

May 13, 2005

Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek of interviewed Neil Olson, author of THE ICON. Olson, who has a background in the publishing industry, talks about the most rewarding aspect of being on the "other side" of the publishing spectrum with the publication of his debut novel. He discusses the inspiration for some of his characters and the events that transpire in the book, and explains the many challenges he encountered during the writing process. The plot of THE ICON involves the search for a painting of the Blessed Mother --- specifically, the Holy Mother of Katarini --- a sacred icon believed to have been destroyed. In fact, the icon has been secretly held for decades in a private collection. Is there a similar icon that provided you with the inspiration for your novel? If not, what inspired it?

Neil Olson: There is no one icon upon which the Katarini Holy Mother is based, nor any one incident that the events in the novel echo. There are, however, countless stories of Germans looting art from all of the occupied territories in WWII, and many thefts of icons and mosaics throughout the 20th century, specifically in Cyprus since the Turkish invasion of the '70s (see Hector Feliciano's THE LOST MUSEUM or Dan Hofstadter's GOLDBERG'S ANGEL) and I used bits and pieces of those stories. Ten years ago in my grandmother's village in Macedonia, my mother's cousin told me a tale of some German soldiers trying to break down the door of the church, within which was a precious 10th century icon of the Holy Mother, but finally giving up the attempt.

BRC: THE ICON spans decades and continents in its telling, and is an extremely ambitious work, especially for a debut novel. Did you anticipate that you would be painting on such a broad canvas when you first started writing THE ICON, or did the work gradually take on a life of its own?

NO: I could tell from the start the novel might range far and wide, but I tried not to think too much about that, as it could have been paralyzing! I knew something hidden happened that summer night in 1944, and that the action would wrap up in New York in the present, but precisely how things would turn out --- in either place and time --- and who would be traveling where was not clear until I was far down the road.

BRC: Your biographical information indicates that your grandparents were Greek. Were you raised in the Greek Orthodox faith? How did you become so familiar with the intricacies of the practice of the Greek Orthodox religion? And did stories --- religious or otherwise --- told by your grandparents or other family members inspire or in any way influence your writing in THE ICON?

NO: My grandfather was a casual atheist, like Andreas. My grandmother was very religious, but had her own direct dial to Mother Mary, so there wasn't a lot of church-going, except weddings, baptisms, funerals. Indeed, I consider my relative ignorance of church practice one of my blind spots, so I'm pleased you found it convincing. I did read a lot by and about the church fathers --- Eusebius to Kallistos Ware --- and on Christian Orthodox philosophy. As noted above, family stories were perhaps the greatest and certainly the earliest inspiration for the novel, including my grandfather's tales of being a guerilla fighting against the 400-year-old Turkish occupation in 1912, or my cousin Billy describing what the German occupation of their village in Kozani had been like in the 1940s.

BRC: Notwithstanding your cultural background, how much research was involved in the writing of THE ICON?

NO: There was no deep research such as interviewing slews of experts or digging around in archives, but an enormous amount of reading on Byzantine art and history, Greek 20th century history, art theft, art trading, etc. And speaking casually to those family members or curator friends who had useful information, even if it was years before I knew it would be useful!

BRC: Have you always had an interest in art? Do you personally collect art? Did you have to conduct any special kind of research while creating the character of Matthew?

NO: My mother is a noted artist and teacher in the Boston area, and I majored in art history in college, so yes, the interest goes way back. I do not collect, except a few pieces by friends. I began creating Matthew without a real sense of how a curator at the Met operated, but a discussion with a young curator there --- who, as a favor to my wife, gave us a backstage tour of the place, and who did not know I was writing a novel --- allowed me to add and alter certain details, so I feel more confident of the portrait.

BRC: Who were the inspirations behind your leading characters in the Kessler, Spyridis and Dragoumis families?

NO: As noted, the character of Andreas Spyridis owes more than little to my grandfather, Speros Papazoglos, who was a soldier, andarte, amused skeptic --- though very unlike Andreas in many other respects. Some of Speros's playfulness, in fact, went into Fotis, a character more purely of the imagination, though cobbled together from many sources, living and fictional. He was the most complicated character, and the most fun to write. Ana Kessler must have elements of many women I know, though I couldn't point to one specifically (and wouldn't, if I could).

BRC: Did you write or outline the scenes set in the 1940s before or after you wrote the later story, or did you write from beginning to end, changing time periods as the plot necessitated?

NO: I wrote --- and rewrote! --- the original scene in wartime Greece, and part of the next one, before moving forward into the present tense action, but it was necessary to go back and further revise those parts to meet the needs of the later story. With the exception of certain scenes, the novel was written chronologically, which I ascribe to mere luck.

BRC: How did you research the events of the 1940s?

NO: Mark Mazower's INSIDE HITLER'S GREECE was of enormous use to me, as was John Hondros's OCCUPATION AND RESISTANCE, and other books. Also, I benefited from the memories of some of my elder cousins who remembered the German occupation from their childhoods. My brother, an amateur military historian, was of great assistance regarding details of weapons, troops, tactics, etc.

BRC: What is your daily writing schedule like?

NO: Six AM to eight AM every morning is the plan (though I am not always able to stick to it), and indeed that is all the time a full-time job will allow me. If I'm closing in on the end of a major section or draft, I will take time off to work more intensely for a week or two. I usually take Saturday off, reread and make notes Sunday morning, and back to it on Monday.

BRC: What challenges, if any, did you encounter while writing THE ICON?

NO: Where do I begin? Lack of information hung me up for weeks at a time until I discovered --- or invented! --- what I needed. Lack of inspiration or motivation were more insidious problems, and at one point, having more or less abandoned the novel, I wrote a play on a similar theme (it was performed in a workshop production last year) in order to rescue anything of the work I'd done. That diversion gave me the breather I needed to go back and wrestle with the monster again. I think Annie Dillard says somewhere that every writer reaches that stage in a novel where they realize it cannot be written, there is some fatal flaw in their structure or theme or imagination... and then they find some way to do it anyhow.

BRC: You have a background in the publishing industry. Did you find this to be an asset or deterrent in getting THE ICON published?

NO: Certainly the fact of being a peer caused the agents to whom I sent the novel to read more quickly, but I don't believe it helped secure me one --- if anything, I'd expect the reverse to be true. It's a brave agent who takes on an agent as a client, and I tried hard to stay out of my agent's (Sloan Harris's) way. I think it's been very useful to all sides that I know publishing shorthand and why certain decisions are made, and that's probably made the process go more smoothly. Also, my wife (Caroline Sutton) is an editor, which not only gives me access to free --- sometimes painful --- editorial advice, but gives me someone who really understands the pains and pleasures of the business to share all of the ups and downs with.

BRC: What authors have influenced your work, and in what way(s)?

NO: There is no author I consciously emulate, but any number of writers --- from Robert Stone and Michael Ondaatje, to Alan Furst, Robert Wilson, Joe Kanon, etc. --- have inspired me. And in every case the inspiration comes from the ability to pair rich, intelligent prose, and complex, credible characters facing moral quandaries, with dramatic action, never feeling one has to choose between the two.

BRC: What has been the most rewarding aspect of being on the "other side" of the publishing spectrum with THE ICON's publication? What about the most surprising and challenging aspects?

NO: The most rewarding aspect has been being treated to the kind of publisher support --- from selling rights all over the world, to doing a brilliant editorial job, to creating a truly eye-stopping package, and on and on --- that I know better than anyone is very rare, and I have Dan Conaway, Jill Schwartzman, and a cast of thousands at HarperCollins to thank for that.

BRC: Do you have any plans to write another novel? If so, when can readers expect to see it?

NO: Yes, for better or worse, and as to when: your guess is as good as mine, but I would love to have something new in the world by '07. We'll see.