Gregg Olsen always has murder on the mind. His job as a true crime writer takes him across America visiting crime scenes, interviewing killers and studying various murder methods scarier than the ones we see on TV and movies because they’re real.
Recently, Olsen took his crime expertise and turned it into a fiction series featuring teenage twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan, who use their otherworldly powers to help solve crime. It’s edge-of-your-seat fare that will have you looking over your shoulder in the dark and obsessively checking if your doors and windows are locked.
Gregg recently came to Manila to meet his fans, sign books and scare Super and its readers silly with stories about insane murder methods, creepy stalker moves and other macabre details from his job.
What made you decide to write for a younger audience?
My publisher suggested: “We like what you write for crime for adults, and we think that there may be some interest in having you do something for young adults. Have you considered that?”
And I had not. But then I started looking at books that were like “The Hunger Games”—that’s a great book—and some of these other young adult books, and I found out they weren’t really young adult in content and that I could write in that genre.
Kevin Ryan, the dad of the twins in “Envy” is a true crime writer, just like you. How much of yourself did you put in your character?
A lot of that is similar (laughs). The books in the (“Empty Coffin”) series, the dad’s a crime writer and he has twin daughters, which I have in real life, too, and when my girls were small and we would go on vacation, we’d always go to the crime scene because I was researching a book. At night at the dinner table, we would talk about crimes and what would happen. Where other families might talk about whatever they’d talk about, we were a crime family because that’s what Dad did for a living. So there’s a lot of me, there’s a lot of of my girls—though not exactly—in the book.
Your daughters were that exposed to crime growing up?
Yes, very much. I’m not kidding you, every vacation we ever went, we would go see some beautiful tourist destination, and then we would scurry over to the crime scene, where I was researching a book.
How did you manage to write in a teenage girl’s voice so well?
I got a very good compliment. Someone said that I channel teenage girls very well. I only have my two daughters, my wife and I have those girls which meant all we ever had around our house in the teenage years were teenage girls, so I think of the friends they have and it’s very easy to remember some of those details. Also, when I wrote the book, before it went to the publisher, I let my daughters see it, and I’d never done that before with my other books. In fact, my daughters have never read any of my books.
Not a single one?
No. But they read this one and they gave me suggestions. “Oh Dad, that’s the wrong pair of jeans, this would be better.” They gave me some tips to make it more current, and I really appreciate that.
Were they the ones who also taught you how to use the word “hottie”?
Having been surrounded by crime and criminals, do you have trust issues?
I’m not suspicious of people. I believe people are mostly good; evil and darkness is something very small in this world, that’s why we write about it because it’s shocking to us. Most things and most people are good, so I have no trust issues with people. I’ve been afraid a few times, interviewing people that have been killers or related to a killer, that maybe they might harm me, but never to the degree that would stop me from getting the information I needed.
Who would you say was the worst criminal you’ve interviewed?
I would say Stella Nickell. The reason I find Stella’s story so frightening is that she didn’t care about anybody. She only cared about herself, she killed her husband and then she put that poisoned product out in the grocery stores, making any one of us a target. This is the only murder case I can think about. Normally murder is about a bunch of things going on, family situations, greed, all these different things going on and if you’re in that kind of family you sorta know you’re in trouble. But if you are not in that family, we’re just normal people. Could you imagine, you could just go in a store, pick the wrong bottle and end up murdered for doing nothing? So that is the most chilling one.
Having interviewed people who’ve done terrible things, how do you get to the truth?
I know when I’m interviewing criminals, they’re always going to lie to me about the big thing, and the big thing being about the murder, ’cause they’re all innocent. I have never interviewed anyone that’s ever said they were sorry; they would say it’s someone else’s fault, that the police made mistakes, or the prosecution was crooked or some reason.
When I interview them, I’m only interviewing them about details that’ll help make my book good, more believable, and those are details like, “What was it like growing up?”, “What was your home life like?”, “What was your relationship like?”, “Did you have a pet?” All those kinds of details that help make a character come alive I feel like I can trust them on that. I can never trust them on the crime, so I almost always never bring it up.
So your true crime books are more a glimpse into the person’s formative years?
Into the person and into their life. I take the reader from the very beginning—from birth, family, to the path they went on in order to commit that crime, because I believe that it always starts in the beginning, a 35-year-old woman doesn’t
decide to become a killer in that day, she’s on that path long before.
What commonalities did you see between these criminals and their backgrounds that would lead you to think that this is a contributing factor to their lives of crime?
Many of the people I’ve talked to were either abused as children in very devastating ways. It could be sexual, it could be physical abuse. I’ve also seen, like in the case of Stella, she was in a couple of house fires before she was nine, burned badly both times. She was sitting there at the kitchen table as a young girl and her brother died right at the table. She had a baby at age 13, so these are all terrible things happening. And then you think, “Well, what kind of person would do those things?” Well it’s a person like that, a person that’s been harmed and made into that from a very early age.
What would be the worst part of your job for you, apart from the obvious?
Well, the part I love the most is meeting new people and getting to tell their stories, even if it is a family member of a killer. And I’ve a duty to do a good job and try to present their stories in the fairest way that I can, so I like that part of it. The biggest challenge is knowing I can’t include everything, that people will tell me what they think is so important and my job as a writer at the end of it is to pick and choose what’s gonna be in the book. And I know that sometimes people are disappointed because they feel they had something important to say but it did not fit.
Kevin Ryan mentions that he would leave out some more salient parts of the story out of the book to spare his interviewees from more pain. Have you found yourself doing that in real life as well?
Yes. I have done that. There are some things that are personal and devastating and they’re not needed to be in the book. I have left out things even though I felt they may sell more copies, but what does that matter?
Who are your writing influences?
Famous true crime writer Ann Rule is a big influence, she’s also based in Seattle where I live. I read those books that she wrote and it made me want to write those. For fiction, Stephen King. I love Stephen King’s books, I think they are literature and powerful reads. They resonated with me because they usually involve young people, like “Carrie” or “The Shining”, there’s always young people in them and those books really inspired me.
How different was the reception you’ve gotten among your teenage readers versus your adult audience?
It’s so much better. The young audience is more engaged and involved in the whole process of a book. They’re excited about the cover, they do a blog entry just showing the cover ’cause they’re excited about that. Adult readers don’t. They love a book, they read it, and maybe set it aside and not think about it again, or give it to somebody.
A young adult will hold onto that book and obsess over it (laughs). They’ll ask about the characters, what music they’ll listen to, which makes me so excited to be writing for young adults, because they’re exciting.
So you created your characters’ music playlists? You actually listened to Taylor Swift?
Yes, I did! Oh my gosh, don’t you? (laughs)
“Envy” is a story that was ripped from the headlines. Which crime did you base it on?
There was a case a number of years ago. It was a girl named Megan Meier, who was the victim of cyberbullying and she was abused by her neighbor. The neighbor created a fake profile on MySpace, and pretended to be a boyfriend and then ended up suggesting that the girl go kill herself, and she did. She was 15 years old, and it turned out that the woman who had done it was the mother of a girlfriend of Megan’s. The mother created all this havoc that ended with a girl’s death.
So I was inspired by that. My story isn’t that exactly, but there are elements, like the idea that whoever is online might not be who you think it is and on the Internet, there is so much cruelty.
On the Internet, people put up nasty pictures that aren’t even really that person or they say bad things and spread it around to everybody and it doesn’t go away, and I feel that that’s what the story is about, the idea that the Internet is a very dangerous place and our kids, they’re vulnerable there, we need to watch out for them.
What Internet rules did you have for your kids growing up?
What I tell people now is you need to be aware of what your kids are doing online, you need to pay attention. If they’re spending a lot of time alone on the computer, you have a right to find out what they’re looking at and who they’re talking to. And you do this not to stop them from expressing themselves, you do it to protect them, we have to do that. All of us.
Did you really tell your kids how to evade abductors like your character does in the book?
Oh yes, those are my rules! My top tip is always this: you’re being abducted, the only moment you can save yourself is in the moment of abduction. That means if that person grabs you, that is your chance right there to get away. Do not think “I’ll get away after when I’m in the car”, or “I’ll get out of the van” or whatever. It’s too late then. In that second when you are grabbed, you fight for your life like it depends on it, because it does.
You mentioned in the book that the Ryan family’s mailbox would be full of Christmas greetings from “baby killers, arsonists and murderers.” Does that happen to your mailbox, too?
Yes. Particularly now. In the old days I would get letters from those people, or they would call me collect. Lately though, I have one of them as a friend on Facebook. She killed her baby, and I wrote about her in my book “Cruel Deception.” Tanya went to prison, got out of prison, and one day I found a friend request from her on Facebook and I accepted her.
You recently held a tour around a crime scene to raise money for charity. How was that like?
It was hugely successful. We raised around $30,000 for our libraries because people love to go to a creepy place.
Your book touches on the paranormal, a departure given your experience writing true crime. Do you believe in these elements?
I’ve had a couple of moments. One was when my mother died, she died a couple of years ago, and it was sudden and we had not expected her to die, it just happened. We were devastated about it, and the next day, these two birds appeared at my window. They were birds I had never ever seen in my life, and they were standing on the deck rail, and then they flew away. I looked up what those birds were and they’re called mourning doves, and they are associated with grief.
I have lived my entire life in the Seattle area, I have never ever seen those birds. Ever. I felt it was a message from my mom. It wasn’t paranormal, but it was something like that.
I believe when something bad happens, there’s a residual element still there. It isn’t so much as we know something bad happened there but you feel it, and that is like a message coming from some other space. We’re not really sure where it’s coming from, but I do believe it’s true. You feel a sadness, a heaviness that lingers coming from tragedy.
Are you still going to write true crime?
I’ve got one that I’m finishing now. It’s about Josh Powell and his wife Susan who went missing a couple of years ago, in Utah. It looked like he had done it, he had two boys, and they moved back to Washington and he ended up taking a hatchet to those two little boys and burning down the house with him in it, and Susan has never been found. It’s a huge story. This is the creepiest story ever.
Do you ever feel like a detective, wanting to solve the crime yourself?
I always feel like I am a detective as a writer, I’m out there trying to find the truth, and my truth is always different than the prosecution’s because the story they’re trying to sell to get a jury to convict is only a piece.
How do you come up with the murder methods in your books?
I am inspired by true cases. There’s a scene in one of my books, “Victim Six” with the head, that happened in real life, you’re going to be so disgusted now when you read it, I got it from a real-life case. My wife says people say to her, “Your husband is seriously effed-up with the things in his head.” And I’m like, “I don’t have it in my head, I am getting it from what other criminals have actually done.”
Since most of your books have been optioned for films, who would you want to see play Kevin Ryan/you?
Someone with more hair. (laughs)
“Envy,” “Betrayal” and other Gregg Olsen titles are available at National Book Store and Powerbooks.