A Visit with Jimmy Olsen
For fans of Jimmy Olsen’s writing, this interview will be a visit with an old friend. For those of you who have yet to enjoy Jimmy’s way with words, this is your introduction. – Kent Graves
Kent: Like many of your fans, I’m familiar with you and your writing. I’ve known you since we served together in the U.S. Navy. But, give us a brief account of your background, career, school days, the kind of car you drove, home town, that sort of thing.
Jimmy: Nobody ever asked what kind of car I drove. Suppose you mean the first one – a black Ford Fairlane 500 two-door hardtop with a T-Bird V-8 and dual glass packs, properly burned out so I could rap my pipes on Main Street. Main Street, Hoffman, Minnesota. The town with the best looking women in America. Still is. I kept the house I grew up in and the flowered “davenport” my mom had in the living room and the workbench my dad built in the 1950s, where I still repair my grandchildren’s bikes and skateboards.
An only child, I spent a great deal of time alone, exploring the river courses of the Chippewa and the Pomme de Terre, climbing wooded hills, building campfires, sleeping under the stars and reading anything I could find. I learned to swim, scuba dive, hunt, fish, row a boat and paddle a canoe. Outside town was a site of an ancient Indian camp where I hunted for arrowheads and dreamed of becoming a warrior.
Spending so much time alone I think was healthy. I learned to appreciate the land and form opinions about country. Learning the names of animals, trees and underwater things became a lifelong passion, because if you know those things you’re more akin to them and your place in the world is more secure, your writing more precise.
School was another matter. I was a total flop. The most important thing I learned in school was how to type fast.
Kent: I know you’re married and have children and grandchildren. Tell us what you said to your wife on the first date that showed her what a silver-tongued devil you are and convinced her she was the one for you.
Jimmy: I’d gone out with two girls before and didn’t get a second date with either of them. The woman who became my wife was my opposite in school – popular, likely to date jocks and class presidents. I took her to a dance, though I couldn’t dance. But that’s what you did then. Clopping around on the dance floor, clinging to the poor thing to keep my balance, I thought a bit of humor might lighten things up so I whispered in her ear, “You sure don’t sweat much for a fat girl.” (She wasn’t fat.)
I don’t tell this story often. When I do, women gasp and the men shake their heads in wonder – there’s a guy out there even dumber then they are. But my future wife threw back her head and laughed. It dawned on me that she was a very special kind of woman. Years later, I married her.
Kent: Many writers credit some teacher, maybe an English teacher, with getting them interested in writing. Is there one person, teacher or mentor, who shaped your interest in writing?
Jimmy: As I said, I endured high school. I loved to read but every English teacher seemed determined to turn joy into boredom. This is often still true. Too many English majors dislike reading and pass that on to their students. They don’t seem to appreciate a good story or understand the vital role stories play in our lives. As a result, I think Americans are a people so starved for meaningful stories they’ll even watch television.
Kent: I know you spent years in the tropics, teaching, working as a scuba instructor, owning a dive shop and dive boat. Tell us about those days.
Jimmy: My high school teachers inspired me in one way – to try teaching myself. I taught one year in Minnesota and five years in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The characters for my second mystery, Poison Makers, came from those five years in the Caribbean, and some of the short stories in The Hero of Blind Pig Island as well. Hemingway said that if you leave off writing to go on African safari hunts, fishing trips, or enjoy too many bullfights, you will “dull the instrument you write with.” On the other hand, he continued, you need to refill the well or you won’t have anything to write about. That’s good advice for any writer. You only have to witness the bestseller production line in publishing today.
The Santo Domingo years are still with me. I just finished a new novel – Scuba – which doesn’t take place there but on an imaginary island which just happens to have an ancient shipwreck very much like the one we discovered along the coast West of Santo Domingo.
Dominicans are a warm and hospitable people. And great baseball players. I enjoy writing about them and I hope my Dominican and other Caribbean stories are honest and faithful to the people and culture.
Kent: You discovered a shipwreck?
Jimmy: Long story. One I tell in the opening of the new novel, Scuba. But, briefly, I grew up dreaming and reading about sunken treasure, secret old maps of mysterious Caribbean islands. Kids stuff most give up on finally, but I spent many adult years researching, studying archives of sea battles, and I was a diver of course. In the 70s I found Imperial, a 120 gun French man-o-war. Outlandish, unrealistic fantasizes aren’t supposed to come true but this one did.
Kent: Okay. So what motivated you to trade all that in, to give up your idyllic life in Margaritaville and move to Alabama to study writing as a journalist?
Jimmy: Stupidity. No, I’m kidding. Or maybe not. Truthfully, it was the weather.
Kent: The miserable sunshine and warm tropical nights?
Jimmy: Exactly. Caribbean weather is as perfect as weather can be, and therefore, boring to a native Minnesotan accustomed to snow storms, sub-zero temperatures, high winds and summers filled with mosquitoes and biting flies. One day I was relaxing on my patio, Caribbean spread out beyond, maid had just brought another cold beer and lit my cigar. I studied the sky above the ocean to the south and thought I recognized the same cloud there that had appeared for as long as I could remember. It depressed me. Always a nice day, and who can stand that? I left.
Kent: Talking about mentors. We weren’t, but if you tell me again you left the Dominican Republic because the weather was too nice I’m going to dial 911. So you came back to Minnesota. No self-doubt about writing fiction? Or maybe someone there who kept you from backsliding into a tragic return to paradise?
Jimmy: Certainly there was a mentor – probably the best anyone could have – Jon Hassler. I began writing early. Wrote nonsense. Read stories, and was motivated to write my own. Got published rather early, in college. A national sporting magazine sent me that first check and I decided the whole thing was a snap. I wrote fiction too, but never thought much about publishing it until I sold my last dive shop some years ago. Had time then. Minnesota is home to some fine writers and has been for many years. The first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American was to Sinclair Lewis, from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. And the list goes on from F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.F. Powers and Jon Hassler. Both Powers and Hassler encouraged me but Jon became my long-time friend and dedicated mentor. And at those dark times when I did doubt myself, he would say “Don’t lose faith in your writing.”
What I learned most from Hassler was not to deny my natural humor. In his writing, humor plays a central role. I had too often forced myself to be serious. But reading and writing should be fun. There’s enough dread in living.
Of course, if I really wanted to tell the truth, I still doubt myself every day.
Kent: In your second novel, Poison Makers, your protagonist gets involved with voodoo. How real is the voodoo culture in the Caribbean or is it just a Hollywood creation?
Jimmy: Voodoo (Vodoun) is both those things – Hollywood and real black magic with a 5,000 year history. In Poison Makers I decided to explore this more deeply, drawing on a pretty good background of personal experience with voodoo, and a great deal of reading and research. Over the years I’ve noticed that people seem to make two very different but tragic mistakes with voodoo. One, they think it’s funny. Two, they think it’s good. There is nothing funny or good about desperate poverty and mind control. I was signing in a Midwestern bookstore awhile ago when I noticed a small carrousel near the cash register containing little voodoo necklaces and charms – skulls, bones, dolls and symbols. A young mother was trying them on her little girl. Something cute to show off at daycare. Voodoo is not a joke and harms millions of people every day.
Kent: How do you go about the process of researching the voodoo culture without becoming a zombie yourself?
Jimmy: Actually Kent, I am a zombie.
Kent: I understand that Poison Makers received a national award and that The Hero of Blind Pig Island, your short story collection, was a finalist. How important is that kind of recognition to the success of an author?
Jimmy: National awards are great for patting yourself on the back, but there’s really no significant means of cashing in unless it’s the Pulitzer or National Book Award or other such prestigious thing. Even authors who’ve won Pulitzers didn’t always receive large bumps in sales. Most writers don’t make money, but we all love awards because at least somebody is telling us how good we are.
In any case, I’ll be only too pleased to accept any award anyone chooses to give me, but the best one is a satisfied reader.
Kent: You received good advice from your mentor. What do you say now to someone wanting to pursue a career writing fiction? Go for it or buy a boat and move to the tropics?
Jimmy: I’d say go for it. But be realistic. If my waiter leaned over and told me he wanted to be a movie star, I’d say the same thing – be realistic. Are you talented? Can you wait tables for twenty years until you’re discovered? Do you really want to act or write – or is it just the hope of money and fame? Because if you want to make money, get a regular job. But if you read and love the written word, believe in your heart that you have a special gift or story to share, then don’t let anything stop you. Of course, there is one essential ingredient no writer can do without – talent. Make sure somebody tells you the truth about that first.
But even so, you can fail. If you owned a Napa Valley vineyard and made there a really fine Pinot Noir, and no one purchased it, how would you feel? Can you be content drinking alone?
Too often someone lingers after a book signing to inform me they too, are writing a novel. What’s it about, I ask? They’re still working on that part. Well, I say, what do you like to read? Oh, I don’t read much. And then I wish them good luck, and good night.
I’ll add one more essential thing – don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy your work. If you’re having fun then the reader is too.
Kent: One more thing. What do you read?
Jimmy: My tastes are eclectic but I like the fast read less and less. Appreciate most the books I’m sad to finish and set aside. But I usually pick them up again later. If it was good the first time, it’s almost always better the second.
Kent Graves is a career print and broadcast journalist in New Mexico. He recently retired and was elected a municipal judge in his hometown.