Neil Olson is president and senior partner of the Donadio & Olson Literary Agency, as well as the author of The Icon.
What was the genesis of your novel?
My grandfather was a guerrilla fighter against the Turks during the Balkan wars. Hearing the stories of his days as a young man put the germ of the idea in my head. I was an art history major, and about eight years ago there was a show of Byzantium art at the Metropolitan Museum. I saw a painted icon there that had a mysterious hidden compartment and that fascinated me. Something clicked, and all the history I had been hearing for years filled in the backstory.
When did you start working on it?
It's hard to say—probably 1998. It's been a fairly long odyssey. I've been writing on one thing or another since college. Like most writers, I have three manuscripts sitting in my desk drawer right now, and if fate is kind, they will never leave that drawer.
Your agent submitted your manuscript to publishers under a pseudonym. That must have been interesting.
Yes, it was. I wanted to put it out under my own name, but my wise agent, Sloan Harris, said, "It's fine for you, but think about the editors who are sitting there knowing it's your manuscript on their desk while they're trying to call you about other business. It's just too awkward." We made it clear it was a pseudonym, that it was by someone in the industry and we weren't trying to pull a fast one. It was strange because I did have occasion to talk to some of those people while they were reading my book, and there was a temptation to say, Hey, did you get something in by this guy who's writing about Greek icons? But I didn't do it.
Do you think your being a published novelist is going to change how you work as an agent?
I hope not. I believe writers feel that, Well, he thinks he knows what it's all about. Now he's really going to find out. You know what? They're exactly right. It's one thing to have seen it a million times and think you know what an author is going through and another to see your first book making its way through this process. I'd think, Oh my God, I'm doing all the things I told them not to do. I've been experiencing all those same fears that they have. I think, if anything, it will make me far more sympathetic, empathetic to my clients.
Do you check your Amazon rating every day?
I have not started to do that obsessively—I only check it about once a week. I know that when your rank moves up into the thousands that it can jump impressively on relatively few copies sold. I expect my mother to buy at least five copies, and I'll be sure to check then.