Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker (’72) Part Two

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 dilettante who has collaborated with notables including John Douglas, Paula Apsell, and Kenneth Branagh. Before reading about Olshaker’s career as a professional writer, catch up on Part One of the interview in which he describes his formative experiences at GW.

Part Two: Author of True Crime
Olshaker’s undergraduate experiences as an English major prepared him well for a career as an author. “For me, ending up as a professional writer, being an English major at GW was something of career training. Not that I became a great literary writer as the people we studied, but certainly studying the best gives you a sense of who you’d like to be, and who you’d like to emulate.”

“Like a number of people in my era I was a disciple of (the now either forgotten or legendary, depending on your perspective) A.E. Claeyssens, who was a professor here. A tremendous charismatic and cult figure, he certainly influenced me in profound ways… He made literature come a live and made writing seem like a very exciting thing to do.” Claeyssens, who passed way in 1990, is remembered fondly by members of the English Department; a prize in poetry is named after him, as is a prize in playwriting.

“I’m a good advertisement for a liberal arts education, because I’ve pursued things that have interested me. Given the structure of my work in film and in books and even in journalism, it’s allowed me to do that.” Olshaker considers his specialties to be criminal justice and public health, although they developed “unexpectedly.”

In retrospect, he has identified two commonalities between those fields that might explain his interest in them. “The commonality in the first case is the idea of the mystery. In both crime and in medicine, and particularly in public health, you are trying to solve mysteries for the greater good. Who committed this crime, who killed this person, who robbed this person, and why? How did it happen? And of course the same thing is true with disease: what’s wrong with this group of kids, why did it happen, why did it happen to them? … The other commonality, I would suppose, is in both cases you’re looking at the human condition writ large. You see people in the extremes of passion and emotion, love and hate and fear and anger and suffering and distress and joy, and all of these things. And you see the human condition at its extremes. To a writer, that’s very interesting.”

Olshaker traces his involvement in crime fiction to two now-famous novels by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. In 1992, while writing for the PBS television show Nova, Olshaker saw an opportunity to tell the story of the real people behind Harris’ novel, such as FBI profiler John Douglas. “I actually parlayed The Silence of the Lambs to my own advantage. I’d been doing some work for Nova and I went to the executive producer Paula Apsell and said, ‘Look: I read this book, I really like the book, I understand they’re making a movie of it. If the movie is half as good as the book, I think it will get a lot of attention.’ I had no idea how much attention it would get. I said, ‘why don’t we try to get in on the ground floor, let me do a film about the real people behind this.’

Apsell was initially hesitant to back the project, but Olshaker continued to pursue it. “I called the FBI out of the blue––in those days, those pre-9/11 days, it was much easier––and they said ‘Come down and we’ll show you around the academy at Quantico’… I went back to Paula and said, ‘Let me do this.’” In October of 1992, the Nova episode “Mind of a Serial Killer” aired based on Olshaker’s research, with narration by Patrick Stewart and interviews with FBI profiler John Douglas. It was met with strong ratings and an Emmy nomination.

A few years later, Douglas contacted Olshaker when he was retiring from the FBI. “He called me and said, ‘Do you think anybody would be interested in my story?’ I said, ‘Well I certainly would! I’ll take you to New York, we can talk to my agent, and we’ll see… We ended up writing seven books together.” These books included the 1995 New York Times bestseller Mindhunter, The Anatomy of Motive, and 2000’s The Cases That Haunt Us. The duo have been on hiatus since then, but Olshaker hints at possible future collaborations. “When we stopped writing books together, which was about 2000-2001, I really felt that we had exhausted the major things I had to say in those regards… But if the right story comes along, and there’s one were actually considering right now, I would definitely work on that again.”

Today, Olshaker is developing a new fiction series focusing on the crime victims’ movement. The novels “will still be mystery oriented and thriller oriented,” but Olshaker wants to keep them grounded in reality. “I think one interesting thing about writing true crime is that your tolerance for the phony stuff, or fiction, goes down… How many times have you see a book jacket that reads: ‘The hunter becomes the hunted in a dangerous game of cat and mouse in which everything is on the line and nothing is for sure’? I’ve seen so many of those now.”

Olshaker disparages the cliches and misconceptions that plague contemporary crime fiction. Book jackets also like to advertise ex-FBI or ex-police authors who “have the rare gift (or is it a curse?) to be able to get inside the mind of criminals and think like criminals.” According to Olshaker, “this is a bunch of hooey too, because if you are a detective, if you are an FBI agent or a police officer, you better be able to think like a criminal… that’s the least of it; if you can’t think like a criminal, you’re in the wrong business.” Although criminals do hold advantages over police in terms of avoiding detection and capture, crime fiction ignores how stupid most criminals are. “That doesn’t come across in crime fiction; they’re all these great geniuses of crime, masters of disguise, and that’s not true. I remember ten or twelve years ago, when Andrew Cunanan was on the loose, the killer of Gianni Versace. He was being made out by the press as this master of crime, master of disguise, this arch serial criminal who was going to go on a rampage… John Douglas and I knew, just from the type of crimes they were, that this was ridiculous; this was a desperate, stupid man who was coming to the end of this rope. We wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal and we said, he’s either going to be captured, or set up a suicide by cop situation very quickly. It actually happened that night; the night that the article appeared Cunanan was cornered. If I can do anything in fiction, it is try to be more realistic than most of the writers out there, and still be entertaining, because of course that’s what the job is.”

For more about Olshaker’s jobs in theatre and film, check back Wednesday evening for Part Three of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.

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