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Five questions with Gregg Olsen
PORT GAMBLE — Gregg Olsen, famed author of true crime nonfiction books, has a knack for what makes teenagers tick.
His latest project, a young adult fiction series called “Empty Coffin,” takes place in Port Gamble from the perspective of 15-year-old twin girls. Locals will recognize the real place settings, such as Kingston High School and the sometimes-creepy woods surrounding Port Gamble.
The second book in the series, “Betrayal,” will be released Sept. 4. Olsen is hosting a national book launch party that evening at the Hood Canal Pavilion in Port Gamble, 6:30 p.m. Meet the author and have your own questions answered.
NKH: What do you want your readers to learn or take away from your novels?
Olsen: First of all, I want them to have a really great read, and follow the mystery of what has happened to these twin girls ... I want them to get hooked. There are true crime-ish elements in each book. The first book featured a cyber bullying story, inspired by a real case. I want [readers] to know how awful [cyber bullying] is for teenage people, what [teenagers] can do about that. The second book is a little look at the Amanda Knox story. There’s an exchange student who comes to Port Gamble and comes to her demise.
It’s really about media ... [Amanda’s] personality was presented in a certain way in the media ... therefore she had to be a bad person. What people say online and what people post about themselves ... it really isn’t who they are. [My books are] good mystery stories, but also good things to think about and talk about.
NKH: What are the challenges writing for a young audience?
Olsen: I write exactly the way I do for my adult audience. I’m honest and direct. Some of [my books] are very dark, but I never really use bad language. They’re appropriate for teenagers to read anyway.
The protagonist are these 15-16 teenage girls and their friends. I’m focusing on their lives and what they’re doing and overcoming challenges within their families, within their friends. The big difference [is] instead of writing about an adult doing it, I’m writing about a teenager doing it. There are graphic autopsy scenes ... [but] young people today have a greater awareness because they’ve seen it all. It’s a different world and I try exactly to be in the world they’re in.
NKH: With so many young adult series out there, and growing in popularity outside young adult readers, are you pleased with the response from the series?
Olsen: I do like the idea of people reading the book and going to visit Port Gamble. When you read a story and you feel compelled to get closer to it ... I really tried to make it accurate to what Port Gamble really is. You can go by house No. 19, that’s where Haley and Taylor Ryan live in the book. It adds a fun element.
The book has been published in nine languages. [The books are] bringing more attention to Port Gamble in other parts of the world, which is great.
NKH: What do you continue to learn from your visits to Port Gamble?
Olsen: Port Gamble is inspiring because it is a beautiful place. In my true crime I’ve written for adults, to me the most compelling characters are pretty or successful and they do something evil. Port Gamble is sort of that kind of a town. You can just sort of wonder what goes on ... What’s going on behind those doors. I can think of a million stories of people who have lived there or in my mind the characters I’ve made up.
[Port Gamble] doesn’t even look real because [it’s] so perfect. Back east, there are towns like this. In the Northwest this is like our only little pocket of beautiful, fake New England in the middle of Puget Sound. I like creepy behind the pretty.
NKH: What is your favorite part of the writing process?
Olsen: This is the first series that I’ve done, and I’ve signed a contract to do another series, an adult series. All my other books have been a one-off. That’s what I just love about this one. I can see the evolution of the people these characters I’ve created ... it’s exciting to write that. Before, I was intimidated: How do I keep track of what these people are ... [but now] it’s really exhilarating. I never really got it until I wrote my series, these are people with lives and I want to see them get out of this mess they’re in. Good mystery is satisfying because it’s finished, but if it’s a little unsettling its a better book.
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Olsen’s first book in the Empty Coffin series, “Envy,” was chosen as this year’s official selection for Washington State to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
“I’m really proud [and] excited for Port Gamble and for people that know the book that we’re the book pick,” he said. “I’ve been in the business for a long time, [but] I’ve never had as much fun with a book that I have with this series.”