In the more than three decades that she’s devoted herself to the study of the elderly, Lehigh political science professor Laura Katz Olson has researched and published five books on aging politics and policies. All were well-received scholarly works that helped establish Olson as a foremost expert in the field.
Her recently published first novel provides a marked contrast.
“I found that writing fiction is really quite different, and in some ways, more difficult, from writing academic books,” says Olson. “In the latter, you can say a person walked in and out of a room. With fiction, you have to describe the room, what the person is wearing and how he or she feels about it. For me, it was an entirely new experience that challenged me every step of the way.”
Nonetheless, Olson persevered, devoting spare hours to writing about a topic with which she had a degree of familiarity. Six years later, she finished.
(Krummholz Publishing, 2005), which plumbs the dynamics of human relationships and the complex experiences of self-discovery, centers on six characters who meet once a week in a therapy group. Over a seven-year span, the characters replay their life’s disappointments, achievements and conflicts and face the unpredictable and jarring consequences of growth and change.
“With time,” says Olson, “they gain tiny flashes of insight, which allow them to dissipate, often imperceptibly, many debilitating forces from their past as they gain greater control over their lives. The road isn’t as straightforward or smooth as they discover that it’s difficult to relinquish the treacherous familiar for the healthy but precarious unknown.”
The group is led by Dr. Stein, a psychologist who provides a structural continuity throughout the work: prodding, analyzing and examining the group’s progress.
“His periodic interpretations and insights allow for the clarity that paves the way for each person’s emotional growth,” says Olson, who participated in group therapy for 12 years, and found that she was fascinated by both the complexity of human character and the dynamics between and among members.
Despite his central role in the novel, Olson found the psychologist’s character to be the most challenging to flesh out.
“In therapy, the therapist doesn’t share his life or personal thoughts,” she says. “In my first draft, he was a cardboard figure, and I had to work hard at giving him life.”
Still, she describes the entire process as “one of the most fulfilling endeavors I have engaged in. I know it’s only a first novel, flaws and all, but it was a great adventure, a labor of love.”
It was also absorbing, says Olson.
“Once I started writing,” she says, “I’d get so wrapped up in it that I would lose track of time. Some nights, I would dream paragraphs. And as the novel progressed, I found that the characters sort of took on a life of their own – they wouldn’t do or say certain things, even if I wanted them to. During the time I worked on the book, the characters became very real to me and a part of my life. Even now, they are still with me.”
The lessons she drew from her group therapy experiences also endure, and she attempted to impart some of them in the novel.
“One thing that was invaluable to me was realizing that if there are nine individuals in a room, you’ll get nine different reactions to any particular comment or incident,” she says. “I used to think that everyone perceived events similar to how I did.”
Olson says she also learned to accept that the behavior and opinions of others toward her tend to reflect their own personal life history and inner concerns rather than anything she has done or said.
“That’s such an important lesson, and I’m really grateful to group therapy for helping me realize that,” she says.
A childhood dream fulfilled
Olson says that when she initially wrote her novel she did not expect to get it published.
“It was really something I’d always wanted to do,” she says. “Even as a child, I wanted to be a novelist.”
When it was completed, she began sending out a synopsis to literary agents to gauge their interest. She picked her way through the publishing world, learning by trial and error, and quickly discovered that the industry is consumed with “niche publishing.”
“Publishing a work of fiction is difficult – I knew that going in,” she says. “No one wants to publish something that isn’t a guaranteed blockbuster, or something that doesn’t fit into the company’s particular niche – like the civil war, life in the mid-west, or even religious themes.”
She sent out a synopsis and draft to a series of agents, a few who responded positively to her writing but issued dismissals such as “sounds interesting, but too depressing.” Most of them never read it at all, she says.
Eventually, she connected with a publisher friend in Colorado who was willing to take on her novel, and provided the final step toward the conclusion of her long-held dream.
Her advice for other fledgling novelists?
“If you want to write a novel, you better be really, really, really interested in writing, not really, really, really interested in getting published,” she says. “That’s what I would tell someone. Don’t focus on the outcome. Focus on the rewards of the writing process itself.”
With one novel under her belt, Olson is running on separate tracks with other writing projects. She is working on a book about elder care and Medicaid, but is mulling over plot ideas for a second novel as well.
“It might be set in a nursing home,” she says. “That would be one way to combine my academic interests with writing fiction. We’ll see what emerges.”