This week, Irene Olson took time out of her preparations for the release of her new novel, Requiem For The Status Quo, to talk to me about her inspiration and how she keeps herself from giving up.
Hi, Irene, Welcome to Read A Lot.
Q. Had you always planned on becoming a published author?
A. Not at all. I was my father’s primary caregiver when he had Alzheimer’s disease. It wasn’t until five years after his death from that same disease that I decided to honour him by writing a novel capturing my experiences loving him through that time. I started writing Requiem For The Status Quo on December 29, 2012 and knew absolutely NOTHING about the writing craft. Fortunately, I’ve learned quite a bit since then.
Q. What inspired you to write Requiem?
A. My first answer provides my primary inspiration but added to that was my time as my sister-in-law’s secondary caregiver when she battled the same disease as my father’s when she was diagnosed just one month after his death from Alzheimer’s.
My brother was a stellar caregiver for his wife and I volunteered as his go-to person where her care was concerned.
Additionally, as an Alzheimer’s Association caregiver support group facilitator, I heard many stories that provided peripheral story lines for Requiem. I wanted their voices to be heard.
Q. What made you choose the genre?
A. I had a difficult time selecting the genre because although Requiem certainly qualifies as Women’s Fiction, it has far reaching implications as a family drama. My characters are female and male; Alzheimer’s is no respecter of genders.
With over 44 million cases recorded in the world as of this writing, the disease is bound to have an impact on every person’s life. My author website characterises my work as Mainstream Contemporary Fiction.
Q. What is the book about?
A. The title reflects how a person’s life is irrevocably changed once dementia invades a family’s peace. The caregiver and the person being cared for crave normalcy, status quo, and that easy going status flies out the window soon after diagnosis.
Family caregivers are oftentimes ruthlessly challenged by uninvolved family members who are quick to condemn, but reticent to offer assistance. Although that was not the case for me, such is the case for Colleen Strand, a widow who recently found her own footing who takes on the task of caring for her father, Patrick Quinn, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Her older brother, Jonathan, criticizes Colleen at every turn and verbally abuses the father when he has the gall to exhibit symptoms of his disease. In short, Jonathan travels down the road of denial, leaving Colleen to deal with all matters regarding their father’s care.
Connected tenuously to a father who barely remembers her and a brother who has become an enigma, Colleen faces the moving target that is Alzheimer’s disease, determined to clothe her father with the dignity he deserves, while struggling to squeeze every minute of time she can from him.
Q. Do you find it easier to write with a schedule or with no time restrictions?
A. I’ve participated in two NaNoWriMo events (National Novel Writing Month) that take place each year during the month of November. I didn’t write Requiem in a month’s time, but my other two novels were written during November of 2015 and 2016.
Requiem, however, took a couple years to write. I wrote out a list of episodes – from personal experience – that I wanted to somehow include in my novel. I then created characters that might participate in those episodes.
The protagonist, Colleen Strand, is certainly based after me, but I took great liberty in changing many aspects of her character.
For my subsequent novels, I used a program called Snowflake, an extraordinarily efficient program that helps writers flesh out their characters and story lines.
The writer answers numerous questions about their characters, e.g., their physical appearance, their worst and best life experiences, their interests, etc. and by the time the author fills out their profiles, he or she has a pretty darn good idea of how the story line will evolve. I highly recommend the program.
Q. Can you choose a favourite character from Requiem?
A. Boy, that’s difficult, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick Pilar Madrigal. Pilar is Colleen’s best friend – a woman who’s not afraid to tell it like it is where Colleen’s welfare is concerned. Her brutal honesty helps, rather than hinders, Colleen’s survival as a lone caregiver.
As a rule, the family caregiver, whether caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or any other number of debilitating or terminal diseases, needs a cheerleader as a friend. That cheerleader, however, must also know when to be painstakingly firm when it comes to insisting on what is in the best interests of the beleaguered caregiver.
Q. Was there ever a point while you were writing when you wanted to give up?
A. Yes, as a matter of fact, I had all but lost hope that Requiem would ever get published. After querying close to a hundred agents and being told time and again that the story-line was one with which they weren’t comfortable – I guess some agents wore the same mantel of denial as does Jonathan, the antagonist in my novel – I concentrated on my other two novels, forgetting that I had also submitted Requiem to a few independent publishers.
When my publisher, Black Rose Writing offered me a contract earlier this year, I was glad I hadn’t closed the book – so to speak – on the project about which I was most impassioned: Requiem For The Status Quo.
Q. What is the worst part of the writing process for you?
A. Quite simply, starting. I enjoy creating and designing characters, but starting Chapter One, Page One, is the most difficult step in the process. I must say, when I started writing my first novel, I thought creating dialogue would be the worst part about writing, but I’ve been told that I do a great job of giving voice to the characters; that their speech patterns are true to life.
And let me tell you, this is not me boasting about that apparent ability of mine, rather, it’s expressing shock that I’ve managed to do that aspect of the craft some justice.
Q. Do you have a favourite piece of writing advice?
A. Yes. Doing NaNoWriMo taught me that the first draft is just that, a first draft. Don’t edit as you go or you’ll never complete it. Just start writing and for the most part, don’t go back over what you’ve written until you’re done.
The first draft will never be the final work product. As author, Anne Lamott has said, “It’s just your shitty first draft.” Once you resign yourself to that fact, it’s quite easy to just pound away at the keyboard and put words, paragraphs, and chapters to paper.
Q. Where can people learn more about your books?
A. My author website will provide ongoing updates. If people sign up, they will receive the latest and greatest news about my writing projects. REQUIEM will be released by Black Rose Writing on July 20th. The paperback is currently available on my publisher’s website for preorder, and is also available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A week later, it will be available in ebook format.
Q. What have you learned since you started writing?
A. That’s easy: just because you want something published, just because you love and believe in your story, doesn’t mean the publishing world will. It’s a painful kick in the heart when you learn this fact, but you can’t take it personally.
This industry is a very subjective one so just because you get turned down, doesn’t mean you’re a failure. As a matter of fact, I go by this saying, “A winner is just a loser who tried one more time.” That was the case for me, and even though I don’t consider the term “loser” a user-friendly word, the adage still holds true for me.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I am currently in the process of presenting my 2nd novel, Backseat Driver, to agents and independent publishing houses. In a nutshell, it captures the dilemma between vulnerability and pride. There is no easy way to say it: when a magnifying glass is held up in front of a person, it is virtually impossible to ignore the imperfections and scars it reveals. It is what one does with those revelations, however, that marks the true essence of a person.
My 3rd novel, Mountain Slide, is in its final first draft stages and just as with my two previous novels, I’m loving the characters and what they manage to accomplish in their lives.