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Meet the WritersImage of Steve Olson
Steve Olson
Good to Know
When the weather is pleasant, Olson likes to write on yellow legal pads while walking through his neighborhood -- though he reports that "the people I meet sometimes suspiciously ask me what I'm doing."

Olson says that he often tells people that he's not a "very good writer," but admits that "I don't think I've ever met anyone who I would consider a better re-writer."

Olson became a serious swimmer about 10 years ago. Says Olson, "a close friend of mine who's also a swimmer once described swimming as an act that's as close to flying as human beings will ever know."

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In the fall of 2002, Steve Olson answered some of our questions.

What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It seems strange to me now that this book had such a profound influence on me, because Pynchon's writing is so so allusive, elliptical, and ultimately distant. But Pynchon showed me that the literary imagination could encompass science -- and that science was therefore a legitimate object of literary attention.

What are your favorite books -- and why?

  • The World of Mathematics (4 volumes), edited by James R. Newman. The selections in these books were magical to me as a child, and they still remind how exciting it can be to learn new things.

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I read this book many times when I was growing up, and each time the story seemed new.

  • Stories by Anton Chekhov. As perfect as any set of stories can be.

  • Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron. Most writers who aren't from the South discover its literature through Faulkner. My introduction came from Styron's first novel.

  • Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. I've heard that you're supposed to read this book three times -- once when young, once in middle age, and once toward the end of your life. I'm due for my second reading.

  • Hiroshima by John Hersey. Everything I know about structuring stories I learned from John Hersey.

  • The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Twenty-five years after I read this book I can still visualize scenes it contains.

  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I grew up in a small town in eastern Washington State, and this book incorporated so many elements of my family's experiences that it seemed Stegner must have lived right next door.

  • The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. I liked this book for the same reason I liked Angle of Repose, though they are much different books.

  • Ulysses by James Joyce. I was in Dublin earlier this year and had a Guinness at Davy's Pub. Someday I'll retrace all the other steps Leopold Bloom took that amazing day.

    Favorite films?
    I tend to like either big, sprawling sentimental epics, like Lawrence of Arabia, the T.V. adaptation of Lonesome Dove, or The Lord of the Rings -- to take a more recent example -- or quirky offbeat movies, like Spanking the Monkey or Being John Malkovich.

    Favorite music?
    The buttons on my car radio are set to the classical music stations and the alternative rock stations, and that's what I like: Shostakovich and Brahms, System of a Down and the Foo Fighters. Among my all-time favorite albums are The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, Quadrophenia by the Who, Bachelor No. 2 by Aimee Mann, and It Came from Nashville by Webb Wilder.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of “Nature Vs. Nurture” by David Moore. Moore patiently explains how absurd it is to see our genes as the source of any human trait, from intelligence to skin color.

    Who are your favorite writers?
    This is a tough question, because these days I tend to read broadly rather than deeply. But I still have favorite writers who attract my attention: John McPhee, Richard Bausch, Anne Tyler, Gregg Easterbrook, Cormac McCarthy -- those are the ones who come to mind.

    What are you working on now?
    A narrative account of the 42nd International Mathematical Olympiad that was recently held here in Washington, D.C.

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  • About the Writer
    *Steve Olson Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes, 2002
    *Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition, 2004