Interview with Matthew Olson-Roy

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Matthew Olson-Roy grew up in Ludington, Michigan where he learned that bears sleep under sand dunes, asparagus has a queen, fudgies have a season, and hands make good maps. He spent many years studying the works of famous authors at universities in Michigan, Washington, and abroad until they gave him a Ph.D. and asked him to make something of himself. Along the way he picked up nine languages, served as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Stockholm, Sweden, and taught Swedish, English, and World Literature to college students eager to learn about meatballs and Pippi Longstockings. He lives with his family in Luxembourg, where he is writing a series of children’s books inspired by local tales of dragons, giants, witches, werewolves, and elves. “Our Monstrous Family”, published in issue 1.2 of The 3288 Review, is his first work of published fiction. Read more about Matthew Olson-Roy at his website.

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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Matthew Olson-Roy: Maybe I should credit the independent bookstore in the town where I grew up, the ironically named Read Mor, with my love of reading, and consequently my interest in writing, or at the very least the importance of copy editing. On its shelves I found one fantasy world after another by authors such as Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. Tolkien. And if you hadn’t already noticed from that list, I always had to read a series because I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving behind the characters whose lives had touched me in some way.

By the time I became eligible for the Young Authors and Illustrators contest in sixth grade, I realized that I too had a story to tell. My book was called—spoiler alert—Milo and Blooper Break the Spell. After the contest, I started a sequel, of course, but never finished it. I never got around to naming it either, but I’m sure its title would have been something equally revealing like Blooper Dies in the End. Subtlety and the art of suspense are skills I apparently developed later in life.

While I continued to read fiction, and even spent many years in grad school studying to become a literary scholar, I left the writing of fiction behind until a trip home to Michigan for Christmas in 2010. Hidden in the basement among old boxes of books, my mom had found the original drafts of those sixth grade stories. For the next few nights I read them to my children before bed. When we reached the start of the ninth chapter of the sequel, there was only one word at the top of the page. “Milo…” Well, hell hath no fury like the wrath of two children whose storytelling has just been cut short, so I had to promise my little monsters that I would finish the sequel for them. That’s when I reimagined Milo into a character in my first novel, and I’ve been writing ever since.

3288 Review: Being multilingual opens up whole worlds of literary influences. How do you feel your facility with multiple languages has influenced your writing? And do you write fiction in languages other than English?

Matthew Olson-Roy: I should preface my answer by explaining that my family moved from the United States to Luxembourg in 2011. It’s not the first time I’ve lived abroad—I’ve also lived in Sweden and Finland—but living in Luxembourg has been a uniquely multilingual experience. There are three official languages here: French, German, and Luxembourgish. Sixty percent of the residents in the capital are expats from all over the world, which means that being multilingual is a way of life. A perfectly normal day for me might include exchanging a few words at my favorite café in Luxembourgish, listening to the news in French, researching folktales in German, reading a novel in Swedish, and of course writing my own books in English.

Because several languages weave themselves into the fabric of my everyday life, they find their way into my characters’ lives as well. The influence of other languages on my writing might be small, like the use of French menu items in “Our Monstrous Family”. Then again, languages may play a prominent role in the plot, as they do in a middle grade spy novel I am writing in which my eleven year-old main character suspects his multilingual dad may be a CIA operative. Or simply having access to literature in other languages might open up whole new worlds to explore, like the traditional Luxembourgish folktales collected and published in German in the 19th century, virtually unknown outside of Luxembourg, that have inspired my own series of fairy tales.

Even though I read and communicate in other languages, there is still no substitute for my native English when writing fiction. There was a time after I moved back to the United States from Sweden when I wrote poetry in Swedish, but it wasn’t necessarily by choice. When you’re comfortable communicating in more than one language, you find that a specific language can anchor itself—to a situation, an emotion, a group of people, a time in your life—and it won’t let go. During that period, Swedish became the only medium through which I could express ideas of love, loss, language, and identity. Studying the great Nordic poets on my road to a Ph.D. certainly had a lot to do with it, but so did the experiences I had at that time in my life and the language in which I experienced them. Other languages still make guest appearances in my writing today, but English will always play the lead role.

3288 Review: Books in translation published in the U.S. seem to have a different tone or aesthetic from books written domestically. This often comes across as a very particular rhythm to the language, or noticeable patterns to word choices. Do you notice this when you read untranslated work (or work translated from English into another language)? Is this an artifact of the translation process or is this more due to, for instance, varying varying grammars and “default” common words in the original writing?

Matthew Olson-Roy: Literary translation is tricky for several reasons. First, you have to deal with the idea of expansion. For most language pairs, the translated text will contain more words than the source text to express the same idea. This is a natural effect of the translation process, but it can impact the perceived flow of the text.

However, the issues that strike me as the most difficult to deal with in literary translation rarely involve grammar and vocabulary, although they can present their own unique challenges (especially when word play and idioms are involved). Instead, cultural references pose far greater difficulties and can make translations feel clunky and foreign to the reader if they aren’t rendered appropriately in the target language. The translator must constantly ask him/herself a series of questions. Do I keep this cultural reference? Do I explain this reference somehow in the text so that it makes sense to the reader? Do I change this passage to a cultural reference that has more meaning to the target audience? Then you face the dilemma of remaining faithful to the original versus creating a book that will read well in another language and culture. It’s not an easy task.

As a former translator and a writer, I’m looking forward to working with a literary translator someday. I can already see which passages in my own writing might give a translator a headache, and I’d love to prepare some guidelines to make the translator’s job easier.

3288 Review: Tell us something about your story “Our Monstrous Family”. Where did the idea come from? When did you start writing it? And what kind of comments are you getting from readers?

Matthew Olson-Roy: “Our Monstrous Family” is the story of a couple, Nate and Mark, who suspect that their new foster children, five year-old Andy and three year-old Ben, may be vampires. To confirm their suspicions, Nate and Mark develop a series of tests, which quickly devolve into a comedy of little terrors.

I began working on “Our Monstrous Family” in the summer of 2014 as an experiment in freeform writing. Instead of the outlines, world-building, character development, and research that guide my novels, I wanted to write something driven by nothing more than the story itself to see where it would lead me. The result was a very personal journey, inspired by actual events in the life of my family.

Before adopting our two sons, my husband, Sean, and I acted as their foster parents for a few years. We lived in Seattle at the time, and when we drove from cloudy Western Washington over the mountain pass to our cabin in sunny Eastern Washington, our kids would shrink away from sunlight as if they had never seen it before. Twilight was set in Western Washington for a reason. We laughed at their aversion to the sun and started calling them our vampire children. Thus the idea for the story was born.

We have found that making up funny origin stories for our family brings us closer together. The stories open a safe space where we can discuss the difficulties the boys have experienced and transform them into something fun and fantastical. In Sean’s version of our story, we win the boys from a claw machine at a carnival. We can’t pass a claw machine now without giving it a go. Sisters don’t grow on trees, you know. You’ll usually find them hiding beneath a pile of adorable stuffed animals.

It was a tremendous honor when Caffeinated Press nominated “Our Monstrous Family” for the Pushcart Prize. The comments I’ve received so far have pointed out that the story is both moving, funny, and difficult to put down. If I can strike that balance in more stories in the future, I’ll be a very happy writer.

3288 Review: What is the Luxembourg writing/literary scene like? Is there general support and appreciation for the arts? And is there much interaction between writers from different linguistic backgrounds?

Matthew Olsen-Roy: Luxembourg has a thriving, relatively new literary scene despite the obvious challenges associated with serving a reading public in multiple languages. Most of the local publishers today focus on publishing fiction and nonfiction in Luxembourgish or on works of particular interest to the Luxembourgish market in other languages. There is government support available for authors who work in any of the three official languages in addition to English. This year’s National Literary Competition, for example, will award two monetary prizes—one in children’s literature and one in young adult literature. Authors can also apply to the Ministry of Culture for monetary grants to support specific projects, and publishers can receive public assistance to publish a certain number of works in translation each year. The National Center for Literature in Mersch helps to educate the public about Luxembourgish literature through public events and research archives.

A variety of book expos take place throughout the year as well—sometimes with a specific theme (such as children’s literature), sometimes in association with a specific event (like the Cultural Festival)—but the largest is the Walferdange Book Days. There are book signings, public readings, roundtable discussions, publishers’ stands, prizes, and performances.

Because the large expat community here is very mobile, there have been some literary organizations for expat writers that have come and gone as well. Writers tend to band together to share ideas and support each other in smaller groups despite language differences. In my own group of writer friends, for example, we have French, Austrian, Danish, British, and American writers. When we offer critiques, we break into smaller groups of people who can read the language of a particular writer. Three of us will be attending the SCBWI Belgium Spring Writer’s Retreat at the end of April, where will attend seminars, write and illustrate, and receive one-on-one feedback with British children’s author and editor Catherine Coe. It will be a great opportunity for growth and community. I’m really looking forward to it.

3288 Review: Let’s circle back to something you mentioned earlier – “researching folktales in German”. Is this research for a story? Are these folktales that would be familiar to fans of the Brothers Grimm?

Matthew Olsen-Roy: My research into Luxembourgish folktales originally published in German is the basis for a series of stories I am working on called Tales from Little Lucilinburhuc. Each story in the series is based on local folktales, history, and geography, which I then weave into an original fairy tale.

Few of the folktales would be familiar to fans of the Brothers Grimm, with the possible exception of the stories about the mermaid Melusina, although the themes and mythical creatures would all be very familiar. The stories were collected from across Luxembourg by a large group of teachers and students during the period of National Romanticism that was sweeping across Europe in the 1800s. Emerging nations struggling with the idea of what it meant to have a national identity often turned to the stories of their own people to help create or support that identity. Such was the case with the collected folktales of the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s, Elias Lönnrot’s epic poem The Kalevala assembled from Finnish folktales in the early to mid-1800s, and the folktale collections published in Luxembourg in the late 1800s by Nicolas Gredt and Edmond de la Fontaine.

Gredt’s work, Sagenschatz des Luxemburger Landes [Myths and Legends of Luxembourg], has since been fully indexed and republished. Interested readers can look up stories associated with specific villages, structures and ruins, historic figures, and even geographic features such as woods, streams, and rock formations. It contains a treasure trove of stories, which have not only inspired my own work, but have helped my family to connect with this place we now call home.

3288 Review: Can you give us a brief synopsis of The Tales from Little Lucilinburhuc? And when can we expect to see them in print?

Matthew Olsen-Roy: Thanks for asking! The Tales from Little Lucilinburhuc series holds a lot of meaning for me because it has really allowed me to explore some new territory in my writing. The stories in the series can be read independently, but they all take place in the tiny, fairy tale kingdom of Little Lucilinburhuc. The first story is about a boy named Mikael and a dragon named Frybert who form an unlikely friendship that threatens to rekindle an ancient conflict between dragons and humans. They learn that the secret to the age-old truce between their two races was a trick, and they set out to trick both sides again to maintain the peace. I am currently in discussions with a publisher in Luxembourg to release this novel in 2017.

The second story in the series is about a young girl named Mathilda who isn’t so sure all the village tales about trolls are true, so she decides to find out for herself. She ignores the warnings and heads into the Forbidden Forest, where she wakes a slumbering troll with fits of uncontrollable laughter. The ruckus wakes other trolls in the valley who are less friendly, quite a bit hungrier, and ready to steal Mathilda away for a midday snack. The conflict over what to do with Mathilda forces the trolls to summon a meeting of the trolls, called a quake, to determine Mathilda’s fate. This story is a complete novelette, which plays a role in Mikael and Frybert’s story as well.

The third story, which is in the works, is about a farmer named Siegfried who always thought he should be king. He talks to his cows as if they are royal maidens. The villagers refer to his wheat fields as Siegfried’s gold. Everyone in his hometown thinks he was crazy. Outside of his village, the rumors are believed to be true. When Siegfried travels the countryside, the rumors precede him, and he finds it surprisingly simple to found his new kingdom. With a kingdom, a castle, and a beautiful new queen, Siegfried believes all his dreams have come true, but there’s a reason no other king wants to rule Little Lucilinburhuc. There are all sorts of creatures hidden in Siegfried’s new kingdom—witches and wizards, elves and dwarves, dragons and trolls. When his queen disappears, he needs their help to track her down, but he learns there’s something fishy about his beautiful bride. When he discovers the truth about her past, he has to decide if he wants to save his marriage or pursue the mysterious, new rival who has stepped up to take her place.

The four other stories I have planned for the series will each focus on a different group of mythical creatures who inhabit the kingdom of Little Lucilinburhuc. I am also working on a middle grade comedic spy novel and a young adult sci-fi novel that are not part of the Little Lucilinburhuc series, so the release schedules will depend on publisher interest.