Gary W. Olson is a writer of horrific and fantastic stories. In his own words, he says his “fiction tends to blend aspects of the genres of science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror, if only because I don’t believe that the boundaries of these genres are or should be all that firm in the first place.”
His book, Brutal Light is recently released from Damnation Books, and he’s kindly stopped by to discuss it, the writing life, and things that scare him…
As is my wont, I sent Gary a list of a bazillion* questions and asked him to answer 6 or 8 of his choice. In return, he’s offered to give away a free copy of his book to one lucky commenter…
Tell us a little about Brutal Light.
The story centers around a young woman, Kagami Takeda, who has a connection with an enigmatic and godlike sea of light she calls the Radiance. This connection affects others around her, either causing some form of insanity (in the case of her family) or bestowing heightened abilities (in the case of her lover, Nick Havelock). As a result, she has all but withdrawn from human contact, save for those few she’s already affected. But there are many others who covet her for the power they believe she can be made to yield, and when she is provoked to use this power, they come after her. Worse, the Radiance itself appears to have manipulated her into creating her own nemesis, with the power to destroy her.
The action takes place in both the ‘real,’ physical world and an unreal world that I’ve named the Noumenal (loosely inspired by Imanuel Kant’s definition of ‘noumenon’ as an unknowable, indescribable reality that in some way underlies observed phenomena). In the book, it mainly takes the shape of a primal, dark forest, with all sorts of beasts hidden within, but this is because Kagami’s connection with the Radiance is so dominant she can force a shape to it that others have to accept. Left to its own, it is a free-flowing mix of dream, nightmare, and memory–save that if you encounter something that is a memory, there’s no guarantee it will end the way you remember it, or that it will even be your own memory. It gave me a way of having present action take place within flashbacks, and a rather unnerving way for characters to learn what other characters would rather stay hidden.
What scares you?
An assortment of things. Very intense-looking guys with axes, for instance. Torture–I probably shouldn’t be entrusted with any state secrets, because I’d spill it before the first scalpel is waved at me. Mental trauma, especially–either something that leaves my mind intact but unable to operate my body or speak intelligibly, or something that affects my ability to think. I’d almost rather face the guy with the axe.
Then there’s loss of identity, in all the many forms it can take. We work so hard to define ourselves by our work, our physical characteristics, our locations, our beliefs, and those who we let in, and when any of these are shaken or stripped away, we have to face what we’ve been covering up. There’s the lurking idea that, beneath it all, there’s nothing there–there’s an emptiness beneath that nothing can fill, for which death would be a mercy. I sometimes think my motivation in writing now is to push against this fear, to find something beneath it all that is not simply a bandage over the abyss.
Have you ever written something that you’re afraid to let other people read?
I had a general trepidation about letting people read my writing. In the case of Brutal Light, it was pretty heightened, because of all the dark places in my mind I felt I was baring. It’s not just a matter of worrying about what people will think about the violence or the sex — it’s about whether people will read the book and start wondering if, like my characters, I have murderous thoughts or a bad case of self-loathing or what have you.
And since the book is sprinkled with true thoughts, albeit distorted or amplified and mixed in with made-up ones, being understood is almost as second-thought-provoking as being misunderstood. But one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever read (from a source I sadly no longer recollect) was “If it doesn’t make you squirm, it won’t make the reader squirm.” That to me means facing your fears and your dark places, writing in a way that is honest, no matter how vulnerable that makes you, and ignoring the internal censor that asks ‘but what are people going to think about you when they read this?’
What is the toughest part about being a writer and how do you get past it?
There are two tough parts for me: getting started and everything after. Getting started in particular because I have a tendency to get bogged down in outlines, and trying to make sure I’ve thought every last thing through. Sometimes I just have to set to writing and trust that what’s coming out will lead somewhere.
The other tough part comes once I’m past the initial idea and plotting and I’m deep into writing the story. The excitement of the new has faded, and there’s still this long road to go until I reach the end. Inevitably, on that road, there are other ideas that come to me that seem much more exciting than what I’m working on at the moment, and the challenge is to stay focused and see my current story through. I don’t know if it’s true of writers in general, but I have to work hard at avoiding bright, shiny distractions.
What are your thoughts on the future of books?
Bookstores are slowly fading, and e-reading is on the rise. I count myself as a recent convert to e-reading, thanks to the Kindle app on my smartphone. I think that this trend will continue, though it will be a long time before paper editions of books entirely disappear. That may be a long time coming, if it ever does–I think regular print books will become for certain readers like vinyl records are now for certain music lovers–an aesthetic choice as much as a means of reading stories. But as more and more kids enter the world of reading through electronic gateways, and grow up thinking that it’s ‘the way’ to read, I think paper books will see an eventual end.
How long did you write before you had anything published? What was your first story or novel that was published? Where was it published?
I started writing in 1989, for a humorous shared-universe fiction group called Superguy, and it was through one of the friends I got to know who also wrote for the group–Greg R. Fishbone, who’s gone on to published writing success of his own–that I got my first publication in 1996: a serialized novelette called ‘Electricity in the Rain.’ Unfortunately, Mythic Heroes, the magazine it was in, folded before the serialization was done. I had a couple short stories published in Outer Darkness magazine in 1999 and 2001, but for the most part was focused on my first novel.
That took a long time, both for life reasons (getting married, moving around, etc) and because I was dissatisfied with the novels I’d attempted. Finally in 2004 I started on what was to become Brutal Light, finished my final draft of it in 2007, and spent another four years looking for a publisher. The good side of this is that I feel I learned a lot about writing during this time; my next work should take much less time.
How do you feel now about your earlier works?
The temptation I always feel is to look at them and see the flaws–the awkward phrasings, the paucity of necessary detail–but after a while, I generally come to see the parts I liked and made me feel as if I’d done good–the storytelling, some bits of incisive dialogue, things like that. Sometimes that backfires; I can take a look back on something I wrote and say ‘wow, that was good… so why can’t I write that good now?’
Where can we find you online?
I am far-flung across the net; my user accounts are legion. The hub of it all is my website, GaryWOlson.com, which hosts my main blog and has information on everything I’ve written, what I’m working on, where I’m going to be, and so on.
The full list of these journals, RSS feeds, and social media sites–which, since it seems like I’m always adding stuff, I’m usually good about keeping up-to-date–is on my links page.
There’s also a slightly abbreviated version on the right-side column of every page of my site.
Excerpt from Brutal Light.
When Kagami appeared in the front seat, Nick Havelock knew his night was only beginning. Her hair was wild and dirty, her skin brown, green, and red. Intense light snapped across her eyes and in the spaces between her fingertips. She smiled, revealing the red in her teeth.
Havelock kept his cool. She was not his first vision of blood.
“It would be good,” he said, “if you let me get off the freeway first.”
He was on westbound I-696, just passing the Southfield Freeway. The Telegraph Road exit was only a few miles further. The eleven o’clock traffic was light, and he thought that with a little luck, he could be ready for her in his apartment in ten minutes. Kagami leaned close. Freeway lights gave her a pulsing beauty.
“Nick,” her voice came in a whisper. “Let the monkey drive.”
“No,” he answered, as the memory of doing exactly that two nights before came to him. “You said it was dangerous, and it was.”
“There’s no time to be safe,” she replied. “Are you going to do this, or am I gone?”
She gave him no time to answer. A blink, a shiver, and she was nothing.
He stared at the empty seat. His heart hammered his ribs. His eyes could go no wider.
A car horn’s blare snapped his attention back to the freeway. There was a merging SUV to the right, a Camaro nearly in his blind spot to the left and back, and a U-Haul truck in front. He accelerated, and then shifted hard into the lane to his left. SUV and Camaro horns blared.
Screw ’em. I have to get home. I have to–
I have to go.
Nick passed the U-Haul and shifted right. The Camaro sped past, giving him one more horn blast in parting. He paid it no mind, instead focusing on the hypnotic blur of yellow strips. He let his breathing grow regular, and let the road fill his mind. The hum rose all around. The road uncoiled. He opened his mouth and drank in her noise–
Only it was not just her noise anymore. There were other sounds, other tastes that lingered on his tongue and in his mind. There was blood in the stream. Bestial roars in the white noise of the world. They spoke of fear and terror.
He felt his body quake. It felt so far away.
The abyss drew him down again.
Buy Brutal Light
* A ‘bazillion’ is somewhat exaggerated. The list was closer to thirty…