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Originally published by Press Media Group and appeared in the 24 February 2010 issue of The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper and subsequent issues. Photo by Amber S. Clark.

Photo by Amber S. Clark

Read the reviewPretend this is either an episode of Charlie Rose or a New Yorker podcast and I am a bewhiskered Deborah Treisman with an exorbitant amount of testosterone. For those of you just joining us, I am talking with New York based novelist, Greg Olear, author of the murder mystery/social satire Totally Killer (Harper, 2009). And by talking, I mean I e-mailed Mr. Olear and he didn’t report me to the FBI for stalking.

Jeffrey Pillow: Totally Killer takes place in the dog days of summer 1991 with a plot driven in part by political, social, and economic ramifications of the time. The final months of Bush 41. Beginning of an employment dip. Economic recession. Fast forward to 2009 where the story ends. Bush 43 has just left the White House and left with him the beginning of an employment dip and an economic recession unmatched since the Great Depression. The more things change the more they stay the same. Why ’91 and ’09?Greg Olear: It’s a turning-point year. And not just from one decade to the next.  The Yale historian Eric Hobsbawm uses 1991 as a bracket year for his books; The Age of Extremes he locates at 1914-1991.  This is not arbitrary—the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were huge historical turning points. The eminent astrologer Dane Rudhyar wrote a book called Astrological Timing, in which he pinpoints when the New Age will begin; the final phase of the Piscean Age—or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, if you will—he locates in 1991.  Plus, the web browser was invented in 1991. That might not be on par with, say, the printing press, but it has to be in the same league with television, radio, telephone, and telegraph.

As for 2009… I turned the book in at the end of 2008, which would have been more neatly parallel to 1991, what with a Bush in the White House, but because it came out in 2009, they wanted it set then, to make it current. I didn’t think I could set it any further in the future than July 4, 2009, which was six months after I’d turned it in. Luckily, nothing earth shattering happened in the interim. But if Todd was really writing in mid-2009, he’d have mentioned Twitter, and made more of a big deal about Obama, I think. Perhaps I’ll correct that in the French language version, due for release in le printemps of 2011.

JP: And the setting, the East Village of NYC?

GO: Because it’s the coolest place on earth. Or was, in ’91, before Giuliani and Starbucks.

JP: Wasn’t Giuliani’s first wife his second cousin? Your thoughts on kissing cousins and the recent findings regarding King Tut’s incestual genetics?

GO: I can’t claim to know much about Giuliani’s genealogy, but nothing about him would surprise me. Something readers of the Ledger might not realize is just how much Giuliani was reviled in New York City in the days leading up to 9/11. If he had run at that exact moment, he would have been crushed. Now, of course, everyone in New York loves him, even if we’re somewhat chagrinned by his shameless politics. A bureau chief at AP remarked to me, back when I worked there, that he had never witnessed such a dramatic political turnaround. In 24 hours, his response to the attacks rehabilitated the Mayor’s bruised reputation, to such a degree that his endorsement helped Bloomberg win the election that November. Stunning.

Re: quasi-incest. FDR and Eleanor were cousins. (That’s a good trick question at parties. Q. What’s Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name? A. Roosevelt. Teddy was her uncle). If you read your Sitchin, and really everyone should, you’ll discover that among the original “gods,” whom the Egyptians emulated, incest was not only smiled upon, it was necessary for certain lines of succession. So the King Tut stuff doesn’t surprise me.

JP: Interestingly enough, the same day I cracked open your novel I also received the January issue of Harper’s which contains the short story, “My Pain is Worse Than Your Pain” by T. Coraghessan Boyle. In Boyle’s story, the narrator is a peeping Tom, who at one point, is atop his female (and recently widowed) neighbor’s tin roof wearing a black ski mask, spying inside hoping to catch a glimpse of her nude. It’s winter and the ice on the roof gives and the peeping Tom goes tumbling off, breaking his leg in the process. Despite this guy having serious issues, you develop sympathy for him and grow to believe his intentions are at least somewhat noble even though in real life you’d consider this guy the neighborhood perv whose house the neighborhood children would doubtlessly egg on Halloween or sling a flaming bag of dog poo against the front door. (Or maybe that’s just how it was where I grew up)

I think a great story does that—creates empathy within the reader for a flawed character whose sanity or mental stability the reader would normally call into question as a red flag if this person existed in the flesh. Reading your novel, that is what I found most striking: your ability to create very believable, three-dimensional lead characters who push the flow of the plot along. How did you go about sculpting these characters? I was rooting for these guys so hard, I felt like I should be wearing some sort of licensed jersey or apparel.

GO: Thanks, I appreciate that. It’s not something you consciously think about, this business of three-dimensionality; it’s something you hope is achieved when the dust settles and the smoke clears.

Asher Krug, whom I think of as an homme fatal, was the first of the characters to appear. He arrived more or less complete in the original incarnation back in 1993. In 2006, while writing this new version, I learned things about him. It occurred to me, for example, that he was a Republican. I didn’t decide to make him a Republican. He just was. I have a very good sense of who he is, what he wants, and what he looks like.

Todd Lander has much in common with the book’s author, but there are, of course, many traits we do not share. I’m not particularly obsessive, nor am I friendless. And he is much more of a Doors fan than I am (another thing that occurred to me while writing—he loves Jim Morrison, of course he does).

As for Taylor Schmidt, the protagonist was always a young woman, but it was only in this version that she acquired her shall-we-say sex appeal. I think there’s a correlation between sex and murder, and it follows that someone with a laissez-faire attitude toward sex might have a similar feeling about offing someone. Bloodthirst aside, she is an amalgam of a bunch of people that I know.

I think Lydia Murtomaki is my favorite character in the book. I like the way she sort of takes Taylor under her wing. She has some of the best lines, and we never do learn very much about her. Maybe there can be a sequel just about her? Only if everyone in the Lynchburg environs runs out and buys a copy right now.

And Greg Olear does appear in the book, somewhat anachronistically. He goes by Roger Gale, which is an anagram of my name. A neat trick I purloined from Vladimir Nabokov, who inserted himself into his books as Vivian Darkbloom.

JP: When I originally sat down to write my review, my goal was to script it around the Billboard 100’s Top 25 songs of 1991. Considering the titles, this was possible but I felt it wouldn’t have allowed for my true exuberance for this book (and more truthfully because I realized I’m not that creative with the English language and would fail hopelessly). So instead, I’ll ask you to do it. If your characters were a song, what song would the following be. Songs from 1991 only please:

GO:

  • Asher Krug – “Sir Psycho Sexy,” Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Todd Lander – “More Than Words,” Extreme
  • Taylor Schmidt – “Wicked Game,” Chris Isaak
  • Darla Jenkins – “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” UB40 (because a UB40 is an unemployment form in the UK)
  • Lydia Murtomaki – “Disappear,” INXS
  • Trey Parrish – “I Saw Red,” Warrant
  • Walter Bledsoe – “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over,” Lenny Kravitz

JP: No Color Me Badd or Rhythm Syndicate?

GO: No. But I feel like we should have at least one GNR track on there.  “Get in the Ring,” maybe?  “Live and Let Die”?  “Civil War”?  What do you think?

JP: Hmm. “Get in the Ring.” Vasectomy. Obituary. “Live and Let Die.” What does it matter to you / When you’ve got a job to do. “Live and Let Die” it is.

JP: I burned through your novel. Red-eyed, tired, and in dire need of sleep, I refused to close this book I loved it so much. Humorous, suspenseful, satirical. You name the adjective, Totally Killer had it. As a writer and a reader, what is a book that’s done the same for you that you’d suggest our readers go out and buy?

GO: Banned For Life by D.R. Haney, which I believe is in your queue, is unputdownable. If you want something that straddles genres like TK does, Citizen Vince, which I just finished, is about as good as it gets; Jess Walter might be my favorite writer right now.

JP: Mustard or ketchup?

GO: Ketchup. And it has to be Heinz. I hate going to a restaurant and asking for ketchup, only to be presented with some “gourmet” variety. I don’t want gourmet ketchup. I want Heinz. It’s “fancy.” It says so right on the bottle.

JP: Thank you for your time, Greg.

GO: My pleasure. And thank you, Jeffro, for putting this together.

Greg Olear is the author of the novel Totally Killer (Harper, 2009) and Senior Editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He grew up in the Jersey suburbs, went to school in DC, spent his formative years in the East Village, and now lives with his wife and two young children in the Hudson Valley. While in college at Georgetown, Olear once played flag football with Allen Iverson. Visit him online at www.gregolear.com.

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Jeffrey Pillow JEFFREY PILLOW is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and Hoops Addict. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife, daughter, and dog -- three separate entities. A certified basketball junkie, he also loves cheddar cheese and poorly crafted science fiction thriller films involving cold-blooded animals and bad acting. SEE Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. His work has appeared on Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and 16 Blocks magazine et al. Visit him online at www.jeffreypillow.com.

35 Responses to “Quid Pro Quo, Part II: An Interview with Novelist Greg Olear”

  1. Oh, so much interesting stuff in here! Love the song list, had no idea about Vivian Darkbloom (and I love Nabokov), and think it’s very cool the way Greg just knew Asher Krug was a republican. Greg is a real, true, and talented writer!

    Thanks for this.

    • When Greg responded in the interview saying he had inserted himself in the novel as Roger Gale, I thought, as the cutout scientists from the Guinness ad so proudly stated, “Brilliant!,” quite the Nabokov literary chess move. I was a bit disheartened in myself for not recognizing this cunnery.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Jessica. Much appreciated. You are now added to the list of Awesome Writers I Will Ask to Blurb Book #2.

      Joyce also inserted himself into Ulysses, or so Nabokov claimed in his lectures on the book. He, Joyce, was the man in the mackintosh (M’Intosh) who shows up at the funeral, the one Bloom doesn’t know.

      And no one else is going to mention me with Nabokov and Joyce, so I gotta do it myself.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh my God.

    When I have a business card, I’m totally getting ‘Homme Fatal’ put on it.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I like homme fatal. You never see it mentioned. Noir is so sexist.

      The best business card ever was Redford’s in Indecent Proposal. A calling card, technically, with just his name on it, nothing else.

  3. Well, indeed, you ARE un homme fatal. What else would you put on your card?!

  4. Roger Gale?

    Now I feel like an idiot.

    • Greg Olear says:

      But here I am, for all intents and purposes laughing at my own joke, an idiot.

      There are also physical clues — Gale lives in New Paltz, and he rocks from side to side, which I do in real life, but which you couldn’t possibly know. A lot of friends of mine read that and didn’t get the anagram, either. I will say that K-Dub got it really quick…I don’t think anything in the book surprised her.

  5. Greg Olear says:

    Jeffro, I say again, thanks for doing this the first time around, and thanks for re-posting it here. I enjoyed doing this; it was nice to be asked about the book. A fine job you did.

    • Thanks to you too for doing the interview and writing the book. I e-mailed you back about a week ago but got an error message that it didn’t go through. Didn’t realize that at the time. Anyway, look for the newspaper clippings in your mailbox Tuesday or Wednesday. The review ran one week and my editor broke the interview up into three separate columns so you and your book alone got a solid month of press in The Lynchburg Ledger. I just got copies. Since I write for them out of Charlottesville, I don’t get to the see the paper until I return home to visit my family.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Jeffrey,

    Tell Greg that that is a great tree and to get an ascot for the cover photo on his next book,
    and there will be a next book soon, I hope, because Totally Killer was a wonderful read.
    Ask him to write a lengthy one so we can enjoy it for a longer time!

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Irene.

      I’m writing the next book as we speak. Well, not exactly as we speak, because I’m now speaking, not writing the book. But you get the idea. I don’t think it will be longer than TK — if so, not by much — but it will be “denser.” Soon, I may even get to reveal the title…

      [Note to self: get ascot]

      • Irene Zion says:

        Hell Greg,

        Think BIG!
        You can’t have one ascot, you have to have a drawer full of them.
        (And it wouldn’t hurt to get a red velvet smoking jacket, either.)

        • Irene Zion says:

          Dibs on a signed copy of the next one!

          (I called it, too bad for the rest of you slow-pokes!)

        • Greg Olear says:

          Done and done. Someone has to bring the ascot back. May as well be me.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Well, Duke,

          I agree that his daytime, outdoor wear should absolutely include spats, now that he is famous.
          I would argue that the ascot and the red velvet smoking jacket would match better with bespoke slippers, black leather, lined in red satin.
          Of course, this is a personal style choice.

          You know, Duke, now that you are famous, you might want to gussie up your wardrobe also. You have to look the part you are now playing of the successful writer. If you want, I can work on what style suits your aura best.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Spats just make me think of the villain in Some Like It Hot. Also, they don’t work with Doc Martens.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Yes, well, I suppose the villains in SLIT weren’t getting it on with Marilyn. I think she’s possibly at her very sexiest in that movie.

          And Irene? I’ll consult you when I am for a fact famous. I’m approximately a billion miles from that mark at the moment, and if I were playing the part of a successful writer, it would require a lot of playing indeed.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Pshaw!
          Pshaw, I say to you, Duke Haney, published author!

  7. Nice work, Jeffro. You and Greg as a dynamic duo make this piece at least as cool, if not cooler, than the East Village before Giuliani and Starbucks. Rage on, write on…

    • Greg Olear says:

      Rich, have you seen this doc called Beautiful Losers? I hadn’t seen it before writing the book, but it’s about this art scene that cropped up on the LES in the early 90s. Cool flick — you’d dig it, I think.

  8. Thank God Greg O. is a ketchup man. I was about to throw away my “Totally Killer” LEGO murder set.

  9. Slade Ham says:

    I love how you mention the way character traits just “occur” to you. That’s the most beautiful thing about writing, I think – the way certain things just happen and are suddenly very real without our having made a conscious decision about them. The muses and whatnot…

    On a different note, you know I still lean toward Get In the Ring, hahaha. And Sir Psycho Sexy is a great song off of a near perfect record. *end music rambling*

    • Greg Olear says:

      I hesitated even mentioning that, because certain writers have a tendency to take it too far…Salinger and Holden come to mind…but it did in fact feel that way. Almost like music, where you have a melody in your head, and you have to figure out the right chord. It’s already there, but you don’t know it yet.

      She said, “Get out and spread your legs,” and then she —
      She tried to cop a feel

  10. Richard Cox says:

    Man, I totally missed the Roger Gale thing. What a fool.

    This is a great interview, so good job to both of you. Great questions from Jeffrey’s side, and I love some of the details Greg revealed. Especially about Taylor’s sex appeal not emerging until this draft…I can’t see the story working without it.

    And Todd Lander as “More Than Words”? Perfect.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Yeah, “More Than Words” fits, because it’s a sweet-sounding song, but when you listen to the words, it’s really really creepy. Also, those guys have not been around since 1991.

      In the first draft, Taylor’s name was Beth, and she was a cipher — the idea, insofar as there was one, was that the reader would project her- or himself into the character. Lame, lame, lame. That version was third person, and Todd was not involved. To make a heroine drool-worthy, you also need an obsessed guy to drool.

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    “Because it’s the coolest place on earth. Or was, in ’91, before Giuliani and Starbucks.”

    Don’t get me started, my man. Don’t get me started. So many great memories of St. Mark’s Place. Sob.

    Also, I was obsessed with “Wicked Game,” which in fact dated from 1989, though it became a hit two years later. I liked both videos for the song, including the earlier one, which few remember, in which Chris Isaak and band are simply “playing” the song in black-and-white half-light, intercut with color bits from Wild at Heart. I liked it because I thought Chris Isaak was wearing the coolest suit I’d ever seen. It looked like it had been made from the kind of fabric usually used for sofas — burlap or somesuch. Anyway, that video was erased from people’s minds when Herb Ritts shot another one, which featured almost-naked Helena Christensen.

    Of course it goes without saying that I greatly appreciate the shout-out.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Have you been to St. Marks Place lately? It’s a sad, sad sight. Dojo is a lame BBQ joint. Coney Island High is condos. And that big weird white building that claimed to be some sort of arts center, but was really just a place weird people sat on the stoop? Quizzno’s.

      I remember the two videos. I really like that song a lot, although none of his other stuff comes close to the quality — I bought that album and the other nine tracks were not worth listening to even again, or so I thought at the time.

      There was a story about the Ritts shoot, where CI thought he and HC had chemistry going, but as soon as it was a break, she was all, “See ya.” Wicked game, indeed.

      And you’re welcome re: the shout-out. TNB readers will, of course, be familiar with BFL, but my answers were written for the Lynchburg audience.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I’ve heard that CI considers himself God’s gift to women, or did, so good on HC for teaching him it ain’t necessarily so. Yet she later went on to marry a jerk of my very casual acquaintance. And, yes, I have been to St. Marks Place fairly recently, and it’s pretty pathetic. The sob referred to the olden days.

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