Norman Ollestad is the author of New York Times bestselling memoir Crazy for the Storm, a story about survival and the bond between fathers and sons.
Tell me about the transition from your first novel Driftwood (which was fiction) to Crazy for the Storm.
Well when I first realized that I wanted to write the Crazy for the Storm book, you know, about my life with my father I immediately decided, before I even get too deep into that…I’d written several short stories, had a couple published but that was in college, or just after college, and then I began writing mostly screenplays so my little novel was a sort of warm-up training for Crazy for the Storm. I spent about six months and just wrote it in a couple drafts and that was it. I just went for it. And I enjoyed the experience and enjoyed the feedback and the reaction…just the whole thing about having a book (Driftwood) that was a tangible thing that existed as opposed to a screenplay, which is sort of like a sketch or something else. That really fired me up and I just dove headlong into my story and I’m writing down what really happened. It was definitely a memoir; there was enough here to sustain a true story that would be compelling. So I just went for it.
How did the structure of Crazy for the Storm come about?
Structurally…probably screenplay writing has helped me with the challenge of making the characters drive the story and telling a story in motion through what’s happening. Now I live my life, I did live my life and I still live my life, as sort of an adventure and so that fits with the way I wanted to write this physical sense of the book, the visceral sense of the book. Also a lot of my favorite writers, from Hemingway to Cormac McCarthy, even Jhumpa Lahiri in her own way, even though Jhumpa has a lot of internal stuff she puts it in motion, puts it in a scene. So those are the things I liked to read and that’s how I like to write. So I wrote all the drafts in chronological order; I didn’t intercut the scenes, I just wanted to lay out what happened and let people interpret it itself, editorialize the scene. And just at the very end right before it went to my agent, a few week before I went to look for an agent, I decided to intercut from the crash to the years leading up to the crash because I felt that, in chronological order, it did not reflect my experience. It was sort of all happening at once, all my past was in play in the present. And so I decided to do that.
Though the crash story is truly remarkable, I really felt that the book was about fathers and sons. Was that the intention?
I had zero motivation to write about how I survived an airplane crash, the crash story and I would’ve not included the airplane crash if it didn’t…it’s such a poignant and dramatic and unavoidable part of my relationship with my father where all the seeds were forced to mature in a mature of minutes, all the seeds he had planted. So to not show that just didn’t make sense. Yes, you’re right, it’s a story about fathers and sons and the bond between parent and child. I felt that his approach and perspective on life was so unique and so universal at the same time. That was the story I wanted to tell.
What kinds of things are you working on now?
I wrote a little piece for Newsweek, a teeny tiny thing, I’m going to do some larger pieces for Men’s Journal. Hopefully in the next month to two months I will start to get into that. I hope that will be my transition into my next book which at this point, I’m thinking and taking notes, it may be about when I was 21 onward, I don’t know how much exactly in terms of time span, but that sort of next phase of life where you have to become an adult and have these ideas, all this trial and error, romantic love and finding out who you are and how you fit into this world. I took of for Europe when I was 21, took a year off college and went there alone and returned to where my father had taken me when I was four or five years old, a little village in the Alps with great skiing. It was interesting to just plop myself into a place that’s sort of the total unknown but has this incredible past attached to it for me. So I want to explore that and see where that goes.
So another memoir? Would this be a sequel?
It’s sort of a next stage of a life and I’ll try it as a memoir, and if it’s not, if it doesn’t have enough drama to it, it’s great material for a novel. But I want to attempt it as a memoir because I think the publisher would appreciate…it’s easier to say, ok, here’s another apple. Not an orange with an apple before. It’s just easier to do.
Did you have to learn how to write effectively in the first person? I have a lot of trouble with it.
It’s hard. I’ve been working on it for years. I went back to the short stories I published and they were from the first person when I was a kid going out on adventures. I learned a lot from the voice I used there, it’s not exactly what I used in the book, but it got me back into that. I worked on some different voices as I was sort of putting scenes together, just trying to figure out the book, and just came upon this looking back through my eleven year old eyes and started to feel comfortable with it, getting confident with it. I’ve been honing my writing for many, many years. This one I could feel that I was locking into the voice, the style, the rhythm, sort of that frankness, if that’s a word, I was always looking for it and I found it in this book. So hopefully I continue with it. A different voice in the next book, but a similar style.
Have you always seen yourself as a writer?
My next book is about when I was 21 and I went to Europe…I was always writing but I didn’t even think about being a writer. I didn’t even understand it. Even though I’m hiking glaciers and skiing with, one of the guys I was skiing with got killed, it was a crazy time, and having all these romances and trying to find myself. All the little adventures and journeys were pointing to me writing, being a writer, and loving writers, all these things. My life became a writer’s life, I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s what the book’s about. And then many years later I had to make a decision with, you know you have years and years of meager success that I wouldn’t even call success, just enough to keep you going. Lots of rejection, lots of attrition, looking back. Do you like sitting in a room and writing? Not showing, not getting published, not making money…do you just like sitting in a room and writing? If you do, then just keep writing and if you don’t you just gotta stop. And I realized that I did. But then I kept writing. Now that this book is doing well, it’s sort of different. It’s like, OK, not only am I a writer, but I feel like now in a position to just write without that monkey on my back, without that weight of “What am I going to do with this rough spot?” I feel like, OK, now I can really go do my thing. I’ve found a place, a path, so to speak.
It’s not a walk on sport. You can’t just be fast and jump high, can’t just start playing basketball when you’re eighteen or nineteen and a year later you’re in the NBA. It’s ten years if you’re lucky.
Is it weird seeing your book in Starbucks? I imagine there’s some backlash that comes with that.
First of all, it’s great to see the book out there, it’s just a wild experience, you go into an airport and you see it, go to a bookstore and there it is. It’s like the screenwriter going into the movie theater to see your film. It’s just awesome, it’s just such a great confirmation of all your hard work. So that’s wonderful, but you can’t do it for that. And it doesn’t make writing easier, I’ve written a couple essays since and it’s just as hard to write a good sentence yourself, none of this is going to help you. The backlash is that writing’s hard and mostly rejection and frustration. Writers have a hard life, I’ve lived that life. And I have noticed from people that are not real close to me, people that I know pretty well, that are definitely (and I don’t blame them) looking for reasons to say “Oh, he’s that” or “He’s this” now…I guess I’ve just picked up some small things of envy, I guess you could call it. Looking for little ways to give you that sleight. It might be, “Oh I noticed on the New York Times list that you were at five and you slipped to tenth!” Or something like that. It doesn’t make me angry, it doesn’t make me dislike them, I kind of understand. I wasn’t that way. I had some friends who made it pretty big screenwriting and I just went crazy! I got really into it. I’m sure there’s moments when I was like, “Damn, I wanna do that too!” But not when it was happening, just when I was alone. It’s total human nature, it’s just the way it is. Writing’s just brutal. A brutal business.
I don’t exactly love when reviews make too much of the cultural aspects surrounding the book rather than dealing with the book itself.
To tell you the truth, in a funny way that’s what I expect from The New York Times and The New Yorker. I read both of them religiously and that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to give you a little shit for being picked by Starbucks. I think everyone realizes that. At first I went, “Oh, God!” But then I got calls. I’m talking tons of calls from publishers or writers, “What a great review in The New York Times.” And I’ve been fortunate, I’ve got a lot of strong reviews.
A lot of your stuff comes from the Southern Californian perspective…will that continue?
That’s a really good point. I think it just is how it worked out. I have lived and traveled all over and I really think I understand other cultures and places, not the same way I understand this, the way it will always be seen through this print. And I think that’s important because I decided a few years ago to really embrace my California beach upbring and say “Well that has a place in the literary world too.” I don’t have to mimic some other point of view that’s already been done. I’m really into that, it was appreciated in Crazy for the Storm and that proved that it has a broad appeal. That point of view will always be there and a part of what I’m writing, but again, the next book is going to be about this American in Europe trying to find himself. Then there’s traveling all over the South Pacific, Indonesia, and so forth…I have other milieus but it’s going to be seen through, and I’m not saying there’s not some third person stuff (which I have a couple ideas for), but mostly through my Southern California eyes.
You've got towrite what you know.
There’s a great LA sort of legacy. Mine is different because it’s more earth, waves, snow mode. It comes from that kinesthetic sensibility, I would say. So that makes it different. But there is a tradition for the LA voice.
Norman Ollestad Interview
Photo By Jules Revelle