Neil Olson’s first novel, The Icon, has ethnic family drama, World War II flashbacks, and a plot that weaves a conspiracy around a mysterious religious object in the manner of The Da Vinci Code. If it sounds like a best seller concocted by a savvy agent, it is. Olson, who has represented everyone from Mario Puzo to Robert Stone, sold it as an anonymous submission to HarperCollins for a healthy six figures. Olson talked to Boris Kachka about his publishing coup.
So you were always secretly hankering to be a writer?
I don’t know anyone who grows up and wants to be an agent. Well, maybe since Jerry Maguire they do, but not in my youth. But when you’re building a career, when you’re taking care of all these writers, you have to say that comes first. You can’t say, “Well, I’m gonna put in my time agenting, but I’m really a writer.”
So why write a book now?
I never stopped writing. But during the formative years there was a lot more taking care of the clients, going to parties, getting drunk—and a lot less writing. And then seven years ago, when I came back from the Frankfurt Book Fair, I was on European time, waking up at six in the morning. My wife said, “You know what? You should just keep doing this and writing.”
How has your business sense invigorated your writing?
It’s made me much too aware of what works and doesn’t work. The idea that I would write purely artistically is a naïve idea. I don’t mean to make this sound cynical or schematic, like I’m thinking, This is just what they’ll need! But what subject matter you choose, how you shape your later drafts, is done with a definite sense of what might be more salable.
How did your publisher handle the last-minute revelation of your true identity?
It was done anonymously at the suggestion of my agent. They were told that it was somebody in the publishing industry, and that name would be revealed. There was some concern at HarperCollins, where they said, “We’re ready to make an offer here, but we want to know whether this is someone we’re gonna have trouble with.” And I told my agent, “Go ahead and tell them.” So they called back and said, “Neil Olson—oh, we love you.” And I thought, Should I be insulted? I mean, I’m an agent!
Did you have any disagreements?
The jacket was one. When I first saw it, I was a bit taken aback that they wanted to go with such a commercial gloss. These big gold letters; there’s my name an inch high. I’m like, Who the fuck is Neil Olson? And it took the united efforts of my wife, my editor, and my agent all bludgeoning me as a team and saying, “Get out of your own way.”