To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed dilettante. If you have read Parts One, Two, and Three in our series, then you know about Olshaker’s collaborations with FBI profiler John Douglas, television producer Paula Apsell, and actor Kenneth Branagh. In Part Four, Olshaker shares some of the lessons he has gleaned from his professional life.
Part Four: Lessons from a Professional Dilettante
“I’m a professional dilettante. I mean, that is really what I do. I do things that interest me, and then I write about them, and I’ve been fortunate enough that in a lot of cases people have been willing to pay me for it. That is the benefit of an English major and a liberal arts education, but like everything else I think it is what you make of it.”
As an author, Olshaker hopes that his works will inspire others and inform public debate––but he recognizes that such goals can be difficult to accomplish. “Every writer wants to think that he’s changing things, and probably very few of us are. All we can hope for is… to inform people and communicate with people about what we think is right and wrong with things. Does writing actually change anything? Probably not. In W.H. Auden’s great poem ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats,’ he has a line that says ‘But poetry makes nothing happen.’ This is probably true.” At best, writers are commentators and communicators. “What we try to do at our most effective is join the public debate, and try to steer it in the direction we want.
For his part, Olshaker has participated in the public debate by advocating for the rights of crime victims. “I’ve spoken a lot to victim’s groups… and I try to get that [issue] out before the public and make clear how important it is. When I hear people say, as I have at many forums, that… ‘victims shouldn’t have any say in the criminal justice system’ and ‘the effect on the victims shouldn’t affect sentencing,’ I disagree with that strongly… Once an offender commits a crime, he creates a relationship, and that’s not a relationship the victim wanted, but is there… and so that victim absolutely has a right to take part in the justice process, in my opinion.”
Having adapted his own novel for the silver screen and others’ books for television, Olshaker recognizes the benefits and limitations to adapting art from one medium to another. An author who starts from scratch, for example, has complete storytelling freedom but must “figure it all out” without the aid of a guide. Says Olshaker, “You sort of know where you’re going, but you have to figure it out along the way.” To illustrate his point, Olshaker offers a quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
In contrast, Olshaker remarks, “If you’re doing an adaptation… you have the advantage that you know what’s going to happen; you can pick out the best scenes and use them and throw away the rest.” Writing for film is particularly challenging. “You have to figure out how to get a four or five hundred page manuscript into a 120 page screenplay (with a lot of white space in it).” The successful screenwriter must continually refine the original story, and portray it “as much as possible in a non-verbal way, by scene and setting and action.”
All this without the ability to point a camera, which depends upon the film’s director. “What you lose from novel writing is the novelist’s camera, if you will: point-of-view. The novelist can direct the reader’s point-of-view anywhere he or she wants; you lose that when you’re writing screenplays.” So adapting a story is all about “problem solving… figuring out a different way to tell a story.”
Olshaker is attracted to fields where he can find a narrative, or at least fields in which he can “imaginatively come up with one to impose on the situation.” In most cases, a narrative thread is easy to find. “It’s not coincidental that the professions that interest me to write about––whether we’re talking about detective, or lawyer, or doctor––these are professions that have to be good at storytelling. I mean, for a detective to be effective, he or she has to be able to take a set of facts and put them into a coherent story. In the same way, for a doctor the absolute tentpole of medicine… is still the medical history. You have to be able to hear a collection of symptoms and be able to tell a coherent story in order that makes sense. Probably three of the great forms that we have come up with in western culture––the drama, the mass, and the trial––are all about storytelling.”
Although Olshaker has embraced the storytelling potential of film and television, he considers a foray into “new media” unlikely. Largely due to a generational gap, he says that blogging, podcasting, and text messaging are “just not natural for me.” He particularly disparages Twitter. “I don’t understand why it’s interesting, why anybody would bother with it, it just strikes me as so much navel-gazing. Why do I care what you or anybody else is doing at a given point in the day?… It just seems like a huge, monumental waste of time and effort. But, again, I’m not part of this generation and I don’t understand it… My generation is going to be left behind on this, I mean we still read newspapers on paper and things like that.”
Despite doubts over his own participation in new media, Olshaker is hopeful for what he sees as the future of media. “When I was your age, there was network television and network radio and independent stations, and––strange as it may seem now––if you wanted to watch something on television, you had to watch it when somebody else told you to. Now I think we are getting to the point where the media are all merging together, the computer and the internet and radio and television, so that there will come a point where you can have your own studio just like CBS does, and if your stuff is more worth watching than CBS’s, you are going to have your own network.”
“Because of the means of dissemination, it does seem like media is becoming more and more democratized. Now that can be good or that can be bad: obviously it’s good in that everybody has access to it and everyone has equal means of expression; what’s bad is that a lot of the stuff on the internet is bogus, it’s phony, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is authoritative and what’s not. So like everything else, there are positives and there are negatives to it.”
In the end, Olshaker would prefer a good book over the latest videogame. “The real magic is taking a page of words and just looking at them and being able to conjure up this imaginary world… That’s the great parlor trick, and I don’t think that will ever change.”
To learn about Olshaker’s current activities in D.C. and his ongoing involvement with GW, visit the blog Friday afternoon for Part Five of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.