Having just turned 60 years old, Joseph Olshan sits nonetheless wearing a baseball hat with the name of a ski resort on it while he eats breakfast at Odeon, the long-standing media hangout in Tribeca. He was in New York City to celebrate this milestone birthday but also to talk about his forthcoming book, Black Diamond Fall (Polis Books, September), a literary mystery about a 50ish man, Sam Solomon, who heads to Utah to ski a particularly challenging back country peak only to end up badly injured. Prior to the accident, the man had been trying to recover from a devastating breakup with a college soccer player—a relationship he had tried unsuccessfully to avoid.
In his professional life, Olshan, who lives in Vermont, tends to wear more than one hat: he is both the editorial director of Delphinium, a small publishing house with two employees and a mission of seeking out what he calls “small gems”. He is also an author with a more than three-decades long career including a best-selling novel, Clara’s Heart, which was translated into 16 languages and repurposed as a successful movie starring Whoopie Goldberg. Ian McEwan blurbed it, Julian Barnes attended the U.K. launch party.
Olshan was 27 when he hit it big with this debut novel that jumpstarted a writing career that has relied for the most part on a gay or bi-sexual perspective. Black Diamond Fall is his tenth novel. The literary mystery represents a shift in direction for Olshan whose agent “very smartly impressed on me the need for a wider audience.” His previous canon might be called, (his words), “gay fiction”, though he adds that “the sexuality (in his books) is more incidental than that of other writers of gay fiction.”
Olshan succinctly explains the impetus for this shift: “The gay market Is shrinking”. During the “gay epidemic with its harsh death sentences”, he posits, there was more interest in books with a homosexual point of view. “Things are changing from gay to multi-culti now,” he says, offering a New York Times book review about a large Mexican-American family as evidence.
That’s not the only change Olshan has experienced firsthand in the course of his publishing career—and on both sides of the business. “A lot of really good books aren’t getting published now because of the pressure to perform,” he says, wearing his publisher’s hat. “Publishing is not nearly as intimate as it used to be. It’s really changed, and not for better. Now folks may fall in love with a novel but they won’t acquire it. Plenty of people with names can’t get published now.”
Olshan is aware of these changes but his own experience at Delphinium, he says, is different. “We may be the last people who publish a book because we love it.” As a rule, the house publishes only about five books annually. “We pay a small advance. We don’t even look at a book if we know they are after a big advance. We look for gems,” he says. “They are out there.”
His job at Delphinium also differs in another significant way. “When I edit a book, I try to give it everything I didn’t get in my career (as an author),” he says. He works closely with the writer and respects the work but he is also intricately involved in the reshaping of it. “Because I am a novelist, I can go into a manuscript and create a scene.” Olshan says the business still has many great editors: he cites Nan Graham and Gary Fisketjon. “But a lot of editors don’t edit any longer.”
And, then there are the agents. “Every agent has his or her contacts. They will only acquire the book—even if they love it—if they can sell it to their contacts,” he explains. “There are a lot of good writers out there without an agent but editors don’t have the time to look at unrepresented manuscripts.”
Olshan himself doesn’t have an agent at the moment. He charted his own path to getting Black Diamond published. He first published it as a short story with the title Wolverine Cirque. He chose Open Road, the e-publisher affiliated with Delphinium, for it premier after initially considering Ploughshares, a literary magazine. He thought it would have more reach online. After the story appeared, he realized that it was, in fact, the basis for his next novel.
Olshan decided to send the completed manuscript of the novel to people he himself knew in the business after he realized he “was not really connecting with the people he was meeting for agents.” He quickly received three offers but chose Polis Books, a newer small house, because it could turn the manuscript around in nine months, “as opposed to 18 months at HarpersCollins,” Olshan says. There was another reason as well: “I felt an affinity with Jason (Pinter, the founder) because, like me, he is a novelist who runs a publishing company and like me, manages writing books and publishing books. I thought there might be much we could exchange and no doubt much I could learn from him,” Olshan points out.
This September, Black Diamond Fall will hit the bookstores. (He changed the name from Wolverine Cirque because Google searches kept pulling up the Marvel Comics character). Olshan’s already lined up several launch events at East Coast bookstores this fall.“Combining literary with mystery is hard,” Olshan said. He admits that his book is not as “hard-boiled” as some in the mystery genre. “I’m less interested in the investigation aspect than the characters and what has happened to them.”
The book opens dramatically with a skiing accident. “The center of the story in the new book is the relationship between the older man –the injured skier—and a younger man—an injured soccer player.” In the novel, the younger man, a college student, disappears, and the older man is among the few people who are suspected of having something to do with the disappearance. The “disappearance” is based on a real-life incident, Olshan says. A student from Middlebury College in Vermont, who was staying on campus during winter break, disappeared, and the body wasn’t found until months later in a nearby river.
So does Olshan think this kind of “who-done-it” will bring him a more diverse audience than his previous books? Or, will it, too, get typecast as “gay fiction”? Sales will tell. Maybe the culture is ready, after all, for that genre to appeal to a more mainstream audience. When Olshan is asked to condense Black Diamond Fall’s cultural appeal, he reduces the book’s plot to pop culture references. “Black Diamond Fall is . . .” he pauses, “Brokeback Mountain Meets Call Me By Your Name.”