Twenty years ago, Catholic World Report editor Carl E. Olson and his wife Heather entered the Catholic Church. Both were converts from Evangelical Protestantism; both had attended Evangelical Bible colleges. Carl went on to receive a Master’s in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas, and to work as director of catechesis and evangelization for Nativity of the Mother of God, a Byzantine Catholic parish in Springfield, Oregon. From 2002 to 2004, he was editor of Envoy magazine.
Today, in addition to serving as editor of CWR, Olson also edits Ignatius Insight. He has written numerous articles and essays on the Catholic faith for many publications, including Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, The Catholic Answer, and the Catholic Herald. He has also authored and co-authored several books, the latest of which is Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
Carl and Heather live in Oregon with their three kids. I recently spoke with Carl about his work as an editor and writer, and his creative process.
CWR: Your main published work could broadly be described as that of Catholic apologetics—would you agree?
Carl E. Olson: That’s more than fair when considering the three books I’ve authored or co-authored, each of which has been a work of apologetics: Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? (Ignatius, 2004), which focused on the dispensationalist eschatology of various Protestant Christians; The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius, 2005), co-authored with Sandra Miesel, which takes on the many historical errors of a certain best-selling novelist; and Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? (Ignatius/Augustine Institute, 2016), a popular apologia for orthodox belief in the Resurrection of Christ.
But I’ll hasten to add that all of those books feature a good deal of theology and Scripture, which have always been foundational to my writing. Both are front and center in Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (Ignatius, 2016), which I co-edited with Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ. Both Scripture and theology are key to chapters I wrote on the New Testament and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Also, for nine years I wrote a weekly Scripture column for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, and those are being compiled into a rather hefty volume. Much of my writing for Catholic World Report tends to be about current events, not only in the Church, but also outside, and so I dip into political, cultural, and social commentary on a regular basis as well. And every so often I write something about music for Progarchy.com, which I co-founded with the indefatigable Brad Birzer; there I am known as a “the jazz guy,” but I have also written essays on Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, Kansas, and Soundgarden, to name a few.
CWR: Apologetics is such a huge area—how or where do you start on a project?
Olson: Almost all of my apologetic work has been focused on a specific, occasional challenge to the Catholic faith and truth. My first book, a detailed examination and critique of the “Rapture” (or, in more technical terms, “premillennial dispensationalism”), came out of my own experience as a former Fundamentalist and Evangelical, but was brought into focus by the remarkable popularity in the 1990s of the mega-selling Left Behind novels. I was encouraged to write the book by Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ, one of my professors, after I wrote a paper on the topic, and Mark Brumley of Ignatius Press (now my boss, and himself a former Evangelical Protestant) helped bring it to fruition through his valuable editorial insight. The Da Vinci Hoax was a response, of course, to Dan Brown’s ultra-mega-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, and reflected my interest in New Testament scholarship, early Christianity, heresies, and art. That book built on some shorter essays I had written for Envoy magazine. And, really, that is how all of my books have developed, generally speaking: I write some essays on a topic or related topics, and then the outlines of book reveal themselves.
CWR: When not writing you are editor of the Catholic World Report—is it hard to switch from editor to writer?
Olson: Yes. I’d like to say that I glide between the two like some sort of limber gazelle, but in reality it can be difficult to change hats. I’ve become fond of saying that I write to upset my enemies, and I edit to upset my friends. I like to think I am a writer’s editor (something like a “player’s coach”), but the fact is that each requires a different, even if related, set of skills. Exactly how accomplished I am at those skills is open to discussion and debate!
CWR: In general, how much time is spent in research compared to the actual writing of an essay or book?
Olson: It’s hard to gauge, but I think it might be, overall, in the 50/50 range. I recall that in writing my first book I once spent numerous hours in the University of Oregon library looking for just one quote. That’s a rather extreme example, but I do like precise, illuminating quotes. Writing about Scripture is aided a great deal by having taught a weekly Bible study at our parish since 2000, which is wonderful in many ways, including helping in my authorial duties.
CWR: When and where do you write—is there a set routine?
Olson: There used to be, before we had children (who are now ages 9, 12, and 16). I wrote almost all of my first two books between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am. But I simply cannot do that anymore, so it is far more fractured. I tend to mull an idea for days or even weeks, and then will write very quickly. But I need to be confident in the structure and shape of what I’m writing; I don’t like to write “open ended,” as if an article or chapter will magically come to a neat conclusion. I have to see it in my mind first, at least in broad strokes. In that way, I think, I actually write as I paint, something I did obsessively in my youth.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for the next project come to you?
Olson: I often write in response to either attacks on Catholicism or misrepresentations of the Catholic faith. But I also think it is important to write more positively, in an affirmative way, as being defensive on a regular basis isn’t always healthy or helpful. Which is why I enjoyed writing the study guides for two of Bishop Robert Barron’s video series (“Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King”); they were wonderful ways to present the beauty and truth of the Faith without feeling the need to react or defend at every turn. And that certainly is the case with Called to Be the Children of God, which proclaims the astounding truth about the nature of salvation: that we are not only saved from sin but ultimately saved for perfect, transformative union with God, who truly does make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
Many of my ideas come from thinking about current events, trends, or movements in light of the Church’s great tradition of theological development, philosophical insight, and cultural expression. I am currently working on a book that digs into a number of popular clichés, or clichéd expressions, and reflects on the assumptions they reveal and the perspectives they promote.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Olson: Not so much a “block” as much as an occasional “bump.” But, then, as hinted at above, I sometimes work myself into a bit of a mental fever before putting pen to paper (or finger to keys). When I have struggled at times to get a piece going, I’ve learned that I usually need just to write freely and without any concern for polish or even coherence, then go back and edit it as severely and objectively as possible. The best writers, in my estimation, are often very harsh critics of their own work, and will not settle for vague, bloated, or lazy writing.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?
Olson: That’s an intriguing question, and I could probably write an essay on it. As a youngster, I thought of myself as a poet who could draw well. In fact, I was not a good poet, but appreciating poetry has been important to my writing. I was a far better painter, and that has also influenced how I approach writing, as I noted earlier. I often “see” an essay or chapter in a visual form—not as words, but as a visual composition. Music is also a constant presence; I usually write with classical or jazz music playing; I will often pick a specific piece by Bach, Haydn, Keith Jarrett, or Brad Mehldau (I have a fondness for keyboard music, whether piano concertos or jazz trios) to help me along when writing by establishing a sort of logical, creative flow. I rarely write while listening to music with vocals, but I often will think through a piece of writing while listening to something by Sinatra or Van Morrison or some obscure Scandinavian progressive rock band.
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Olson: King David, Ezekiel, St. John, St. Luke, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Venerable Newman, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Ronald Knox, Russell Kirk, Jean Danielou, P.G. Wodehouse, Frank Sheed, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Josef Pieper, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, and Dana Gioia are a few of my favorites.
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Olson: One book that I have recommended many times and try to re-read every couple of years is Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection (first published in 1969) of essays by Flannery O’Connor about writing and being a Catholic author. Although the book focuses on fiction, it is a must-read for any writer or anyone interested in good writing (which I hope is everyone). Another book on writing that I think many writers will appreciate is Jacques Barzun’s Simple & Direct. That said, I believe the best thing for writers to read are really well-written books by great authors. To that end, I highly recommend reading nearly anything by Ronald Knox (who was incapable of writing a bad sentence), G.K. Chesterton (who was incapable of writing a boring sentence), and William Shakespeare (who was incapable of writing a banal sentence).
What I have noticed, over 20 years of writing and editing, is that far too many writers today lack a good sense of rhythm and cadence, even when they put together pieces that are grammatically perfect and full of strong content. Reading good poetry—Shakespeare, Eliot, Browning, Gioia, and Richard Wilbur are personal favorites—helps develop a better sense of “beat” and “flow.” Not everyone can be a stylish, elegant writer, but every author should strive to avoid clunky, inelegant writing.
CWR: What is your understanding of the writer’s vocation?
Olson: To receive, to respond, and—to the best of one’s ability—to reveal. All vocations, of course, should be ordered toward the good and God; part of the writer’s vocation is to show truth, beauty, and goodness, whether one is writing a sonnet, a work of apologetics, or a book review.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?
Olson: That writing and reading are, at best, part of a great and mysterious conversation—or even communion—that transcends time, geography, and cultures. Writing can and should reveal our limitations and expands our limits; it should challenge us to see, know, and treasure what it true, good, and beautiful. And so writing is both a joy and a responsibility, and in that way it is somewhat analogous to being a disciple of Christ: it is full of demands and full of graces.