March 26, 2010
Originally published by Press Media Group and appeared in the 24 February 2010 issue of The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper and subsequent issues. Photo by Amber S. Clark.
Read the reviewPretend this is either an episode of Charlie Rose or a New Yorker podcast and I am a bewhiskered Deborah Treisman with an exorbitant amount of testosterone. For those of you just joining us, I am talking with New York based novelist, Greg Olear, author of the murder mystery/social satire Totally Killer (Harper, 2009). And by talking, I mean I e-mailed Mr. Olear and he didn’t report me to the FBI for stalking.
Jeffrey Pillow: Totally Killer takes place in the dog days of summer 1991 with a plot driven in part by political, social, and economic ramifications of the time. The final months of Bush 41. Beginning of an employment dip. Economic recession. Fast forward to 2009 where the story ends. Bush 43 has just left the White House and left with him the beginning of an employment dip and an economic recession unmatched since the Great Depression. The more things change the more they stay the same. Why ’91 and ’09?Greg Olear: It’s a turning-point year. And not just from one decade to the next. The Yale historian Eric Hobsbawm uses 1991 as a bracket year for his books; The Age of Extremes he locates at 1914-1991. This is not arbitrary—the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were huge historical turning points. The eminent astrologer Dane Rudhyar wrote a book called Astrological Timing, in which he pinpoints when the New Age will begin; the final phase of the Piscean Age—or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, if you will—he locates in 1991. Plus, the web browser was invented in 1991. That might not be on par with, say, the printing press, but it has to be in the same league with television, radio, telephone, and telegraph.
As for 2009… I turned the book in at the end of 2008, which would have been more neatly parallel to 1991, what with a Bush in the White House, but because it came out in 2009, they wanted it set then, to make it current. I didn’t think I could set it any further in the future than July 4, 2009, which was six months after I’d turned it in. Luckily, nothing earth shattering happened in the interim. But if Todd was really writing in mid-2009, he’d have mentioned Twitter, and made more of a big deal about Obama, I think. Perhaps I’ll correct that in the French language version, due for release in le printemps of 2011.
JP: And the setting, the East Village of NYC?
GO: Because it’s the coolest place on earth. Or was, in ’91, before Giuliani and Starbucks.
JP: Wasn’t Giuliani’s first wife his second cousin? Your thoughts on kissing cousins and the recent findings regarding King Tut’s incestual genetics?
GO: I can’t claim to know much about Giuliani’s genealogy, but nothing about him would surprise me. Something readers of the Ledger might not realize is just how much Giuliani was reviled in New York City in the days leading up to 9/11. If he had run at that exact moment, he would have been crushed. Now, of course, everyone in New York loves him, even if we’re somewhat chagrinned by his shameless politics. A bureau chief at AP remarked to me, back when I worked there, that he had never witnessed such a dramatic political turnaround. In 24 hours, his response to the attacks rehabilitated the Mayor’s bruised reputation, to such a degree that his endorsement helped Bloomberg win the election that November. Stunning.
Re: quasi-incest. FDR and Eleanor were cousins. (That’s a good trick question at parties. Q. What’s Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name? A. Roosevelt. Teddy was her uncle). If you read your Sitchin, and really everyone should, you’ll discover that among the original “gods,” whom the Egyptians emulated, incest was not only smiled upon, it was necessary for certain lines of succession. So the King Tut stuff doesn’t surprise me.
JP: Interestingly enough, the same day I cracked open your novel I also received the January issue of Harper’s which contains the short story, “My Pain is Worse Than Your Pain” by T. Coraghessan Boyle. In Boyle’s story, the narrator is a peeping Tom, who at one point, is atop his female (and recently widowed) neighbor’s tin roof wearing a black ski mask, spying inside hoping to catch a glimpse of her nude. It’s winter and the ice on the roof gives and the peeping Tom goes tumbling off, breaking his leg in the process. Despite this guy having serious issues, you develop sympathy for him and grow to believe his intentions are at least somewhat noble even though in real life you’d consider this guy the neighborhood perv whose house the neighborhood children would doubtlessly egg on Halloween or sling a flaming bag of dog poo against the front door. (Or maybe that’s just how it was where I grew up)
I think a great story does that—creates empathy within the reader for a flawed character whose sanity or mental stability the reader would normally call into question as a red flag if this person existed in the flesh. Reading your novel, that is what I found most striking: your ability to create very believable, three-dimensional lead characters who push the flow of the plot along. How did you go about sculpting these characters? I was rooting for these guys so hard, I felt like I should be wearing some sort of licensed jersey or apparel.
GO: Thanks, I appreciate that. It’s not something you consciously think about, this business of three-dimensionality; it’s something you hope is achieved when the dust settles and the smoke clears.
Asher Krug, whom I think of as an homme fatal, was the first of the characters to appear. He arrived more or less complete in the original incarnation back in 1993. In 2006, while writing this new version, I learned things about him. It occurred to me, for example, that he was a Republican. I didn’t decide to make him a Republican. He just was. I have a very good sense of who he is, what he wants, and what he looks like.
Todd Lander has much in common with the book’s author, but there are, of course, many traits we do not share. I’m not particularly obsessive, nor am I friendless. And he is much more of a Doors fan than I am (another thing that occurred to me while writing—he loves Jim Morrison, of course he does).
As for Taylor Schmidt, the protagonist was always a young woman, but it was only in this version that she acquired her shall-we-say sex appeal. I think there’s a correlation between sex and murder, and it follows that someone with a laissez-faire attitude toward sex might have a similar feeling about offing someone. Bloodthirst aside, she is an amalgam of a bunch of people that I know.
I think Lydia Murtomaki is my favorite character in the book. I like the way she sort of takes Taylor under her wing. She has some of the best lines, and we never do learn very much about her. Maybe there can be a sequel just about her? Only if everyone in the Lynchburg environs runs out and buys a copy right now.
And Greg Olear does appear in the book, somewhat anachronistically. He goes by Roger Gale, which is an anagram of my name. A neat trick I purloined from Vladimir Nabokov, who inserted himself into his books as Vivian Darkbloom.
JP: When I originally sat down to write my review, my goal was to script it around the Billboard 100’s Top 25 songs of 1991. Considering the titles, this was possible but I felt it wouldn’t have allowed for my true exuberance for this book (and more truthfully because I realized I’m not that creative with the English language and would fail hopelessly). So instead, I’ll ask you to do it. If your characters were a song, what song would the following be. Songs from 1991 only please:
- Asher Krug – “Sir Psycho Sexy,” Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Todd Lander – “More Than Words,” Extreme
- Taylor Schmidt – “Wicked Game,” Chris Isaak
- Darla Jenkins – “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” UB40 (because a UB40 is an unemployment form in the UK)
- Lydia Murtomaki – “Disappear,” INXS
- Trey Parrish – “I Saw Red,” Warrant
- Walter Bledsoe – “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over,” Lenny Kravitz
JP: No Color Me Badd or Rhythm Syndicate?
GO: No. But I feel like we should have at least one GNR track on there. “Get in the Ring,” maybe? “Live and Let Die”? “Civil War”? What do you think?
JP: Hmm. “Get in the Ring.” Vasectomy. Obituary. “Live and Let Die.” What does it matter to you / When you’ve got a job to do. “Live and Let Die” it is.
JP: I burned through your novel. Red-eyed, tired, and in dire need of sleep, I refused to close this book I loved it so much. Humorous, suspenseful, satirical. You name the adjective, Totally Killer had it. As a writer and a reader, what is a book that’s done the same for you that you’d suggest our readers go out and buy?
GO: Banned For Life by D.R. Haney, which I believe is in your queue, is unputdownable. If you want something that straddles genres like TK does, Citizen Vince, which I just finished, is about as good as it gets; Jess Walter might be my favorite writer right now.
JP: Mustard or ketchup?
GO: Ketchup. And it has to be Heinz. I hate going to a restaurant and asking for ketchup, only to be presented with some “gourmet” variety. I don’t want gourmet ketchup. I want Heinz. It’s “fancy.” It says so right on the bottle.
JP: Thank you for your time, Greg.
GO: My pleasure. And thank you, Jeffro, for putting this together.
Greg Olear is the author of the novel Totally Killer (Harper, 2009) and Senior Editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He grew up in the Jersey suburbs, went to school in DC, spent his formative years in the East Village, and now lives with his wife and two young children in the Hudson Valley. While in college at Georgetown, Olear once played flag football with Allen Iverson. Visit him online at www.gregolear.com.