Friday 13 March 2015


After reading and enjoying All the Old Knives, I was having a mooch around the author's website, when I thought  - I wonder if I could snag the author for a Q+A session? 
More in hope than expectation I pinged an e-mail to his publisher and forgot about it. 

I was like the proverbial dog with two doo-dahs, when I got home from work a few hours later and had a response from the man himself. I’m really busy right now but everyone likes talking about themselves, right? So let’s give it a try. 

With grateful thanks to Olen for his time.....  

Q. Was there a career before becoming a full-time writer?

Not really. I was cursed by an early realization (age 19) that I wanted 
to be a fiction writer, so it ruined any chance of me devoting myself to
something more practical. However, before getting published I worked
 in a number of libraries and found that to be the best sort of life for me. 
Had I been unable to live from writing, I might have gone to earn a Library Science degree.

Q. Did you suffer many rejections on the way to becoming published?

Enormous numbers, almost all for short fiction sent off to magazines. 
I have to mention, though, that I didn’t let it get me down because I interned for a 
few months at Mercury House, a wonderful small publisher in San Francisco, and 
was able to see the over-the-transom submissions from the general public. I saw 
how overwhelmed any publisher is by unsolicited manuscripts, and how it can 
become a cynical game: How quickly can you reject a manuscript and shorten 
the pile left to read? If that sounds terrible to an aspiring writer, it is, but remember 
that, at least in my case, I was the sole person to deal with 4-5 unsolicited novels a day, 
on top of my other duties. 
This taught me two things: 
1) Take your manuscript seriously—don’t give anyone an easy excuse to reject it—
and 2) never take rejection too seriously: Just send it out again.

I wrote three novels before publishing my first, but they’re far from gems. 
Luckily I knew at the time that, while they might have had promise, they weren't 
good enough for the public, and so after a couple halfhearted submissions then 
filed them away for good.

Q. What’s been the highlight of your writing career so far? 
Do you have a favourite book that you've penned?

Highlights are hard to pinpoint. There have been some lovely moments, 
as well as miserable ones. Winning the Dashiell Hammett Award for 
The Nearest Exit was wonderful. And when George Clooney optioned 
the rights to The Tourist back in 2007—that was a nice one, because it was my 
first brush with Hollywood, and while the film was never made the money 
from it helped me, after six books, finally raise myself out of debt! 

As for a favorite, I’m usually most keen on my latest. 
However, my second, The Confession, was probably my most personal.

Q. On your website, you highlight the fact that your early books were 
”crime fiction” and then they gradually morphed into espionage, 
do you anticipate returning to crime fiction at some point?

I started with “crime” fiction because of the influence of Raymond Chandler, 
who taught me that genre fiction can excel in all ways—a lesson it took 
me far too long to learn. After a couple books, however, I found myself drawn 
into espionage, simply because I found it marginally more interesting. 
Will I return? Honestly, I don’t know. I've got too many projects ahead of me 
right now to know where it’ll all end up.

Q. Do you think your attention will be drawn back to the current 
situation in Europe…..Putin, Russia, the Ukraine and the worsening 
relationship Russia has with Western Europe currently?

I spent five books looking at the Eastern European fringe of the USSR 
and thought by the end that I’d had enough of the Russian sphere of influence. 
Other writers were dealing with post-USSR Russia quite well. But you’re right 
—things have really developed, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to ignore Russia much longer!

Q. What’s a typical Olen writing day consist of?

These days, I try to wake up a few hours before my daughter and get in 2-3 
hours of writing. Laptop, and usually on the sofa (I’ve never been good at 
maintaining an office). Once she’s up we start schooling—because of the
 amount of travel we do, we’re trying our hand at homeschooling, which takes
 many hours a day. Then, to be honest, it’s the life of a parent—we take our
 daughter to ballet and gymnastics, shop for groceries, work around the house, 
and occasionally I take business calls. Boring, right?

Q. Do you have a target word count for each day or do you write for a
 set number of hours, or do you have a specific point in the story you want to get to?

My writing is scattershot—rather than pushing through a quick first draft, I work 
slowly, trashing and editing and writing, so that by the time I reach the end (a year 
or more later) most all my work is done. As a result, I don’t have a word- or 
page-count to keep track of. Often, I wake to a problem—either I have to fix something 
I’ve already written, or I need to get a character from point A to B—and as long as I've
 answered it I feel like I've done a day’s work.

Q. Are you a plotter? Do you have a beginning, middle and end all mapped
 out before you start, or does the story unfold of its own accord as you write it?

People talk quite a bit about my plot twists, but I think that if my plots are interesting
 it's because I don’t know anything about the story when I start. The twists and turns
 are usually a result of me writing myself into a corner and having to find an inventive 
way out of it. So I’ve got nothing mapped out. I’ve said somewhere else that, to me, 
writing is a form of thinking. Therefore, if I knew the whole story going in there would
 be no reason for me to write the story—why think through something if you've 
already thought through it? I’d rather reach my conclusions and discover the surprises 
along the way.
Q. Who are you reading and enjoying?

Right now, David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten—I’m new to his work but am loving him.

Q. Is there one all-time favourite book you wished you had written?

One of them would be The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
That book is magic incarnate, and forever inspires me.

Q. Favourite activity when not writing?

Drinking in a hotel bar with my wife and daughter, while laughing.

Q. What’s the current project in progress? How’s it going?

A novel about leftwing domestic terrorism, but set now rather than in the 60s or 70s. 
This one’s been a fight—I’ve been working on it, on and off, for nearly two years, but can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m hoping to be finished by the end of April. 

I also recently finished the film script for All the Old Knives, which the
producers are currently trying to cast. Fingers crossed on that one.

All the Old Knives was on the blog yesterday and was published earlier this week.

You can find out more about Olen and his books at his website.


  1. Great interview, and some interesting insights into the writing process. Thanks to both of you.

    1. Margot thanks - glad you enjoyed it. How come all the authors I've "met" are such a nice bunch of people?

  2. Great interview. I've not read him. Maybe I'll get there....

    1. Keishon - thanks. I hope you find time to try at least one of his books....and of course, that you then like it!

  3. Great interview questions, Col, and very thoughtful answers from Olen. You know how much I love all of this author's books, except for the two I haven't read yet. So this was very, very interesting to read.

    1. Tracy thank you - I hope you get to the unread two-some soon!

    2. Well, I went ahead and bought ALL THE OLD KNIVES today. So ... THE AMERICAN SPY first, and that one later in the year.

    3. Wow, well done! Hope they live up to expectations, they should do!

  4. Col, congratulations! You nailed an interview with a terrific author. and I'm saying this even though I haven't read Olen Steinhauer's novels yet. I have THE VIENNA ASSIGNMENT on my shelf. I enjoyed reading about the way he devotes his time to his family and to his writing, and be successful at both. I'm not surprised THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera is one of his favourite books. Many would agree with him.

    1. Prashant, cheers. I enjoyed his responses also. Very expansive, as opposed to monotone replies. A very nice guy, I think.

      I've heard of Kundera's book, who hasn't but I don't know too much about it. I ought to look into it.

  5. That's quite a coup, getting him on the blog, well done! And very interesting answers to the questions. As you know, this is a new author that you and Tracy introduced me to, so I'm really pleased to find out more about him, and this helps with planning my next book from his list....

    1. I think you'll enjoy his books for years to come, Moira - I hope so. I was delighted to be able to feature him. I perhaps ought to retire the blog now!
      Maybe I'll see if Lawrence Block has a spare hour or so......haha

  6. Great stuff, Col! And congrats on your scoop!

    1. John, cheers - do you read in the spy genre?