Mark Andrew Olsen
Mark Andrew Olsen is a full-time writer, novelist and screenwriter who recently collaborated with Tommy Tenney on the novel HADASSAH. He grew up in France the son of missionaries, and is a Professional Writing graduate of Baylor University. He and his wife, Connie, and their three children make their home in the mountains of Colorado.
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Novelist and screenwriter Mark Andrew Olsen is the author of THE ASSIGNMENT (a Christy Award finalist) and has co-written RESCUED with John Bevere, and both HADASSAH and THE HADASSAH COVENANT with Tommy Tenney. In this interview, Olsen talks about why he chose to set his latest novel, THE WATCHERS, in Nigeria; further explains "spiritual genealogy," one of the concepts explored in the book; and shares a few thoughts on what readers can look forward to in future works.
Question: Nigeria seems to be in the news these days, with frequent reports of attacks on and kidnappings of Westerners. Did you pick it as a major location of THE WATCHERS for that reason?
Mark Andrew Olsen: No, I picked Nigeria as a primary location for another newsworthy aspect of the nation: its thriving spiritual climate. Several years ago, I was asked to assist in the drafting of a brochure describing the enormous Christian gatherings and spectacular manifestations occurring there, and I was immediately fascinated. The world's largest church, and largest general meetings of believers, happen to be in Nigeria. This is despite a challenging infrastructure, crushing poverty, and an entire half of the country under the thumb of repressive Islamic law. Assuming that many believers are as unaware of this as I was, I tried to provide, without slowing my plot, some of the more intriguing facts about Nigeria in THE WATCHERS.
Q: THE WATCHERS explores an unfamiliar concept, that of "spiritual genealogy." Can you explain what you mean by that, and how you think it could enrich the lives of your readers?
MAO: The idea came about quite by accident, as I explored the themes my plot naturally presented to me. I had sought to create a sort of continuous family line dating back to the origins of Christianity. As I did, it occurred to me that for many of us, our spiritual genealogy, or the tracing of our spiritual lineage, intersects our physical family only haphazardly at best. Yet most of us can only trace that lineage back one or two spiritual "generations." Although this lack of knowledge helped my plot, it also struck me as regrettable. I think it would be a fascinating and edifying exercise to know about the historical figures who lived higher up in one's own spiritual family tree. One major disclaimer, though: I don't intend for this concept to supplant in any way the primacy of a far more important family tree, that of the Body of Christ. God is our true Heavenly Father, and all other progenies fade by comparison.
Q: Another theme of the book is racial and gender disunity in the Body of Christ. Did you set out to address these issues at the earliest stages of your planning THE WATCHERS?
MAO: I must admit that it wasn't my original intention to explore the topic of divisions within the Church and particularly between the races. My story line, and the specific needs of my plot, led me by the hand into these topics. However, I'm now quite proud that THE WATCHERS addresses this issue. It goes to the heart of why so many of us have no clue of what's happening in places like Nigeria. We're too self-segregated by a laundry list of divisions. Even if we don't always worship together, and even if we welcome a wide diversity of worship styles, we can still extend solidarity, caring, and fervent prayers on each other's behalf.
Q: The personal relationship between Dylan and Abby seems to be unresolved, although evolving intensely, at the end of THE WATCHERS. Do you intend to follow or pursue these characters in any other works?
MAO: I do intend to continue the relationship between those two characters in a whole series of novels based on the premise of coordinated, strategic prayer. I half-jokingly refer to it as a spiritual "Tom Clancy's Op Center." I can't say more than that, except that Abby and Dylan's relationship will continue into those books, with a great deal of fascinating twists and turns.
Q: Reviewers of your last solo novel --- THE ASSIGNMENT --- have pointed out your mix of the supernatural with the conventions of the global action thrillers. Is this going to continue to be your style in the future?
MAO: Yes and no. I do have many more novel ideas that feature that specific blend. And I continue to be fascinated by the opportunities presented by this new subgenre. One main reason is that I believe it presents an accurate view of things: there truly is a vast, ancient war raging all around us, which we glimpse only through the briefest flashes of glory. However, as time goes on I hope to present some other stories more straightforward in subject matter. Some of them could even be categorized as secular stories, in that they have little spiritual content but are just good, uplifting yarns.
Q: You've been involved with some high-profile collaborations, notably HADASSAH, which not only became a bestseller, but the successful movie One Night With the King. Do you intend to continue writing solo novels along with collaboration projects, or focus just on your own work from now on?
MAO: It's funny but I never set out to become a frequent collaborator, yet God has led me to work with such a rewarding and productive pair of authors that I haven't been able to tear myself away. However, my long-term vision is to focus on my own novels. But as long as God presents me with the kind of ministry opportunities as I've been blessed with so far, I'll probably continue to be tempted into working in teams.
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FaithfulReader.com contributing writer Bethanne Kelly Patrick spoke with Mark Andrew Olsen about his debut solo novel THE ASSIGNMENT, a spiritual thriller. Here, Olsen talks about the book being compared to THE DA VINCI CODE, researching the past and other religious histories that are included in the novel, and what it was like to work on this project as opposed to collaborating with another author, as he did for HADASSAH.
FR: Tell us about the catacon, "the restrainer of destruction who will be taken away just before the end of time," from II Thessalonians. How did you decide to write a novel about this figure?
Mark Andrew Olsen: I wish I had an entertaining answer that involved a victorious flash of insight and a blast of muses. However, the fact is that my novelist friend Stephen Bransford, years after turning me on to the idea of my original main character and his unique identity (I'm trying to avoid throwing any plot spoilers in here), also encouraged me to employ a long-dormant gem of his about giving the "restrainer" or Catacon of II Thessalonians a human face rather than only a spiritual one. My first drafts had simply featured the main character drifting through the centuries without any clear mandate, and he really needed something. Right away, the idea of the Catacon and his "assignment" to restrain evil infused my plot with more momentum, pace and narrative drive than it had featured before. I'm very grateful to Stephen.
FR: Given that you frame your story with a secretive and driven Catholic order, comparisons to Dan Brown's blockbuster THE DA VINCI CODE are inevitable. Were you inspired by his book in any way? If so, how? If not, how did you develop the Order of St. Lazare?
MAO: Actually, THE ASSIGNMENT has been in drafting stages for many years --- years before THE DA VINCI CODE was ever released. To digress a bit, there were a variety of reasons for its circuitous route to publication. At first, I wondered if the book could and should be marketed to the general (or "secular") publishing market. Several top New York editors came very close to buying it, including the man who would one day edit THE DA VINCI CODE. A publishing friend gave the manuscript to, of all people, the president of Doubleday (CODE's publishers), who was in the process of evaluating it as a possible joint-market release when it was read by Bethany House's legendary Carol Johnson. Carol's enthusiasm for the manuscript persuaded me to release THE ASSIGNMENT into the so-called Christian market.
As for THE DA VINCI CODE itself, my Doubleday friend gave me the novel when it was still in galleys. Ironically, since he knew my chronology, my friend thought that if anything, it was inspired by circulating drafts of THE ASSIGNMENT (although to be candid, I believe the similarities merely owe to a genre whose time has come). Still, nothing about the novel or its execution led me to believe that it would turn into the monster hit it became. I read it and considered it a decent, ingenious thriller, nothing more. Because I grew up as a missionary kid in France (hence all the French references in THE ASSIGNMENT), I snickered at the book's countless factual errors before I even ran into the more serious distortions of theology. (Brown referred to "the mountains north of Paris," and let me tell you, Kansas looks like the Rockies compared to the terrain between Paris and the English Channel. I know. I lived there. He refers to a chateau as "le Petite Versailles," a gender conflict that even a ninth-grade French-language student wouldn't make. And those are only the tip of the iceberg…)
That being said, I took the book as further evidence that there is ample demand for thrillers filled with old secrets, moldy and mystical locations, and pivotal spiritual conflicts. I take CODE's success as an encouraging sign that the public's hunger for such stories is in fact enormous. I offer up THE ASSIGNMENT as another proof that you don't have to toss out the truths of God in order to offer those elements in a thriller. Faithful Christianity can be the spawning ground for plenty of ancient and intriguing secrets without the need to dust off old, discredited books of Gnostic heresy for fodder. Beyond that disclaimer, any comparisons to THE DA VINCI CODE, given its sales, are just fine by me…
Regarding the Order of St. Lazare, I knew that my hero would need a sustaining group of helpers to reasonably survive the ordeals of his life. So I merely invented a monastic order to give this group a little bit of extra allure. As for Father Stephen, I actually stumbled onto him as I tried to figure my way into the first scene. But his youth, his struggle with doubt and the strength of his personality seemed to make him come to life --- he ended up becoming one of those secondary characters who threaten to take over one's novel.
FR: Your story is told from several different points of view. Did you choose that structure, or did it unfold as you wrote? Did you find one viewpoint "easier" to write?
MAO: In fact, "whose story is it?" was a thorny and central issue for me. I feared, perhaps needlessly, that my main character would prove too exotic and otherworldly for readers to actually relate with. I thought the story would be far more approachable, and maybe even enjoyable, if it was also told from the point of view of ordinary folks being drawn into a deep mystery and uncovering its various "onion-skin layers" along with the reader. I've been gratified to read some reviews stating that my central character was more human and relatable than I feared he might be.
As for my favorite viewpoint, if there's one that I found the easiest and most fulfilling to write, it's that of the hero's journal entries --- if you can call that a "viewpoint." Much to my surprise, I loved the linguistic fiddling that came with altering my syntax and adding a light veneer of antiquity to his recollections.
FR: The death camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz are central to your plot. Have you visited Oswiecim (which is the Polish name for Auschwitz)? How did you research the history of the Holocaust that you use in your novel? Similarly, how did you research Roman Catholic/Papal history for your book? Tell us about how you developed the very sympathetic character of Pope Peter II, who appears only briefly but is very important to the book's denouement.
MAO: I have not visited any death camps, but as someone who spent some of his boyhood in Normandy surrounded by veterans and sites of the War, I have always harbored a strong interest in its history. I conducted a great deal of Internet and library research on the camps. The Kommandatur building now-turned-Catholic retreat center is real, and described just as it appears in current photographs, for example. I also consulted several books on the Vatican Archives and architecture. All of the Archive descriptions, the Tower of the Winds passage and even the Passetto passageway leading from the Apostolic Palace are factual. As for the papal character, I leaned on the curious ambivalence with which so many evangelicals regard John Paul II. While we certainly do not ascribe to him the holiness that Catholics do, many of us admire him as a man of great personal piety, conservative doctrine, and political courage. As a result, in the context of a novel I have no qualms about painting my fictional pontiff as an entirely sympathetic character --- although I was also pleased to balance out the scales with warts-and-all glimpses of past Popes and medieval Catholic practices.
FR: Some modern Christians are wary of the Roman Catholic Church and its trappings, yet an historical thriller like yours cannot exist without taking them into account. Still you might have chosen to bypass the present-day Vatican and present-day Catholicism altogether. Why did you not?
MAO: Fascinating question. As someone who likes to write about foggy old castles, millennium-old histories, and secrets that trace back to the birth of Christianity, I have to fess up: I can hardly avoid the Catholic Church and all its cool trappings. If Protestants had ancient Archives, secretive monastic orders and centuries-old abbeys, I would gladly use ours instead. On the doctrinal issues, even though no reasonable person would call me liberal or theologically "mushy," I must admit that I'm probably on the more tolerant side of the evangelical spectrum when it comes to Catholicism. I have encountered Catholics who set off all of my spiritual "radar," who radiated a deep walk with our Lord. I believe our God is one who looks beyond institutional dogma to the state of our hearts. I believe His Word when it says, and I'm winging it here, "…a broken and contrite heart you will not despise." And I find it hard to believe that He would reject someone who believes Jesus Christ, His divinity and His atonement, walks with Him, and lives their life by His commandments, merely because of imperfect church teaching. (And by the way, I don't think any institution's teachings are beyond the possibility of error.) In fact, I think the implicit message of the Parable of the Vineyard is none of us had better get too cocky or legalistic about whom God lets into His kingdom --- that He, the maker of the rules, may well bend them through His grace and surprise a few of us at the final hour.
FR: While your narration (from all viewpoints) seems grounded in The Spirit, you do not preach --- nor do you have a conventional witness/salvation scenario in the book. Why?
MAO: The features you mention are conventions of so-called "CBA fiction," which don't appeal to me, at least as dictatorial imperatives. I think a novelist who has to resort to outright preaching or contrived conversion scenes has lost the battle. And I think as it matures and becomes more sophisticated (in a desirable connotation of that word), the industry is starting to abandon those requirements. Again, I'm not against those elements; merely against them being forced down authors' throats, if and when that happens. I think a message is far more powerful and palatable when it emerges organically from the story --- both its plot and its characters. However, if you ask, "Does THE ASSIGNMENT have themes, or a message?" I would reply that I definitely hope so. I simply hope the message is artful and subtle. Today's readers, saved and unsaved both, are too savvy to be moved by anything else.
FR: Talk about the different strains of Christian and Jewish spirituality you highlight in this book --- e.g., the Celtic traditions from Andre's time in Ireland, the Knights Templar, etc.
MAO: Again, I was led to some of Christianity's more ancient strains by the requirements of a plot that spanned 2,000 years. But once there, I found some fascinating territory. I'm a bit ambivalent about all things Celtic. I'm just beginning to learn about the deep strain of authentic, Celtic Christianity. And I have a completely human soft spot for all things Irish and the outer trappings of Celticism. However, I'm also deeply skeptical of the modern, neo-pagan obsession with Celtic culture. In fact, my editors convinced me to cut out several speeches where I have my hero elaborate even further on the true evils of cultic, druidic Celticism. On another front, my father, who is now a pastor and a true scholar of the Word and church history, has imparted to me an alternative view of the so-called Cathar heresy briefly mentioned in the book. And my mother, whose father converted to Christ from the bosom of a large, Jewish family, gave me a deep appreciation for the tenuous and poignant bonds between Jews and Christians.
As for the Templars --- I tried, I really tried to resist bringing them into the story. But I failed. How does a self-respecting religious thriller writer leave them alone? They're just too perfect --- too dashing, mysterious, colorful, and mythical. I am not resourceful enough to let them lie. However, in my own defense, I did not invent the fact that Templars swore their oath by Mary of Bethany, among others. That coincidence proved too tantalizing for me to ignore… (I won't elaborate for fear of a spoiler alert.)
FR: You also involved a great many contemporary intelligence organizations in your plot --- the Israeli Mossad, the CIA, etc. Did you research these groups, and if so, how?
MAO: I have to admit that I only researched the contemporary intelligence community as much as necessary --- just enough to know the CIA's directorates and the rivalries between them, for instance. The rest came from general knowledge and a lot of secret-agent movies. Menwith Hill, however, is a true installation in England, as is the NSA's Echelon project.
FR: There was one "conflict" in your book's logic that you then resolved quickly and neatly: the question of how Andre's diaries came to be neatly bound and legible in a modern tongue. Were there other quandaries like that as you wrote that you found yourself needing to solve?
MAO: I've rewritten especially the beginning portions and reorganized whole portions of the book so many times that my old --- what I call "housekeeping-type" decisions --- have become quite muddled in my brain. I know that one key logistical problem was how an enemy neutralizes an opponent who he cannot kill. The answer is that you immobilize him. You imprison him in an impregnable place --- a castle wall, a concrete slab, a forgotten dungeon. But how would that be bearable for a remotely ordinary person? I then invented the angelic interventions, in which the horror of his confinement was broken by visits from angels who whisked him to blissful scenes and otherwise kept him company.
Another question was how my hero would gain the opening in which to actually conquer his demonic foe. I stumbled onto the idea of the archdemon being unable to flee while he was in the process of consuming another foul spirit or damned soul. I also completely fabricated a reason for them to go to Ireland --- that a pivotal portion of his diaries was kept in his Irish home. I needed them to be there in order to discover that section's big surprise, as well as to soak in some wet, Celtic ambience.
FR: Will there be any kind of sequel or follow-up to this book?
MAO: That's a good question, one that I imagine will be determined by readers. I have a series of very strong sequels in mind, but I have to make sure I can pack plenty of surprise and freshness into the premise a second time. That could be a tall order, but I believe I can do it. And if THE ASSIGNMENT proves successful enough, I'm confident that I'll be given the chance to write one.
FR: This is your debut solo novel (you've collaborated with Tommy Tenney). How was the experience of writing entirely on your own different? What were the challenges?
MAO: First of all, the drafting of THE ASSIGNMENT preceded that of HADASSAH by several years, release dates to the contrary. When I signed on to collaborate with Tommy on HADASSAH, Bethany House decided to delay the release of THE ASSIGNMENT, although it was already finished, out of a thought that HADASSAH would provide my strongest introduction onto the market and therefore should come first.
As for the difference between the two drafts, I'd answer in two parts. First, I truly like collaborating with someone as brilliant and talented as Tommy Tenney. He had already conducted vast amounts of research when I came on board, and had a powerful vision for the book. And when my draft was complete, he proved to be an incredibly creative, thorough and inventive editor. Secondly, though, the drafting process itself always occurs between an individual and either a computer keyboard or a blank page. That stage left me completely solo, so I felt remarkably like I did writing THE ASSIGNMENT when I filled those four-hundred some odd pages of HADASSAH. The biggest difference was that instead of second-guessing myself and agonizing over creative choices, I had Tommy's initial vision to guide me and his surprisingly keen storytelling instincts to bounce off when I finished.
FR: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
MAO: I'm currently at work on another spiritual thriller with roots back in ancient history tentatively entitled THE WATCHERS. It will also take readers across the globe, although to vastly different places, and it will dwell on an aspect of the Christian life few writers of either fiction or nonfiction have ever engaged before. And I'm planning on an emotional powerhouse of an ending I hope no one will ever forget. I'm very excited about its release from Bethany House, sometime early summer of 2005.
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