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Sex offenders. Murder. Domestic terrorism. Global pestilence. Think of a pathology, and chances are Mark Olshaker has brought it into your home.
A lifelong Washingtonian, Olshaker, 46, possesses the uncanny ability to latch on to the weird and then to communicate its essence to the fascinated masses. Flitting with apparent ease among novels, nonfiction writings, and documentary films, Olshaker has done Theodore Kaczynski, Hannibal Lecter, and Ebola, and lived to tell the talerather lucratively, one might add. “I like to say that I’m the stable boy for the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” Olshaker says. “I write about stuff that scares the shit out of me.”
Olshaker’s immediate projecta long New Yorker pieceis so hush-hush that he had to sign a confidentiality agreement before embarking upon it. The only thing I could glean is that it’s about infectious diseases, and that tidbit only came out because his collaboratorMinnesota’s state epidemiologistwas riding shotgun in Olshaker’s Range Rover when he picked me up at the Metro station. (Had I not recognized the passenger’s name from my own writing about emerging infections, I wouldn’t have come away with even that.)
Olshaker has been interested in disease since the mid-1980s, when he hung around the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta while preparing Unnatural Causes, a 1986 novel set during the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Then, last year, he followed up with with Virus Hunter, a memoir he co-wrote with the colorful infectious disease researcher C.J. Peters.
Yet unlike Richard Preston, who made it big with The Hot Zone, Olshaker has found a meal ticket that’s human-size. For several years, he has collaborated with former FBI investigator John Douglas, the man who pioneered “profiling” at-large serial killers and other violent criminals. Recently, the two men have even gone into business together.
The Douglas connection began in 1990, when Olshaker convinced skeptical PBS officials to green-light a Nova installment titled “Mind of a Serial Killer.” “I said, ‘Look, I just read this obscure book called The Silence of the Lambs, and they’re making a movie of it. If the movie is half as good as the book is, then you should let me get the real story.’ They thought it wasn’t hard science, but I guess they needed the ratings, so they let me do it.”
While filming his Nova episode, Olshaker became friendly with Douglas, so when the FBI veteran was ready to retire in 1995, he asked Olshaker if he thought anybody would be interested in his story. “I said I certainly would be,” Olshaker recalls. Their partnership spawned the 1995 book Mind Hunter, a behind-the-scenes look at the law enforcement officials who pry open the psyches of serial criminals. The book hit No. 1 on the paperback best-seller lists, and a follow-up volume focusing on victims’ stories, Journey Into Darkness, was released earlier this year. This week sees the publication of the pair’s third book, called Obsessionabout “rape, stalking, and sexual murder,” according to Olshaker.
While these books were under way, Unabomber Kaczynski was arrested. Quickly, Olshaker and Douglasalong with a full-time assistant, Douglas’ longtime agent Jay Acton, and Olshaker’s wife Carolynwere hired to do a so-called “instant book” about Kaczynski. They clocked in with a manuscript in a breathtaking six days.
“How did we do it?” Olshaker asks for me. “Without sleeping. We were a ragtag band who knew we were competing with Time-Warner, which was able to throw just about all their magazine staffs at it. We finished ours first, though because anything John wrote had to go through pre-publication FBI review, we got it out two days later than they did. It actually took more time in FBI review than it did for us to write it.”
Olshaker and Douglas did as well as they did because Douglas had worked on the Unabomber profile, beginning years earlier. “So we knew most of the story already,” Olshaker says. “We assimilated every public source we could, plus John’s own experiences with other cases, and other interviews we could do along the way. Neither ours nor Time-Warner’s was a best-seller, but we thought we’d be on the shelves for only about a month, and so far it’s still on the shelves. Of course, it sidetracked me while I was doing Virus Hunter and Journey Into Darkness. Now I know that three books in a year is ridiculous to attempt.”
Olshaker says he knew he wanted to be a writer beginning sometime in high school or college, “but I must admit that the exact reasons are now lost to antiquity.” A graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in the Districta class behind future New York Times columnist Frank RichOlshaker earned a degree from George Washington University in 1972 and segued briefly into advertising. “I didn’t like it very much,” he says. “The agency specialized in real estate sales, and I found myself in the first several weeks doing endless permutations of ‘elegant, spacious, contemporary, and charming.’”
So he decided to give it up for a free-lance career. A family friend hooked him up with Ray Hubbard, a television executive who eventually became his mentor. Olshaker’s first TV work consisted of documentaries for Post-Newsweek Productions that were pegged to the U.S. Bicentennialpatents, immigration, and the like. One of theseA Moment in Time, about the history of photographyinadvertently launched Olshaker’s book career at age 25 by leading him to a gig writing the unauthorized history of the Polaroid company. Though it earned good reviews, the book was hardly an instant hit. “I think the book was cited or quoted in more books than the number of copies we actually sold,” Olshaker says.
While working part-time for Xerox (writing manuals and producing sales-training films, of all things), Olshaker read a short newspaper dispatch about how Albert Einstein’s brain had been removed from his corpse to allow scientists to study pieces of it. Earlier this year, a long Harper’s piece gave this weird tale new life, but at the time the story was little-noticed. “I said to my wife that someone could write a good novel from it,” he says. “Then, a few days after that, I decided that I could write a good novel from it.”
That was the genesis of Einstein’s Brain (1981), the first of Olshaker’s four novels. Since then, he has written Blood Race, a historical-science novel set against the backdrop of the Nazi atomic bomb program and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the CDC novel Unnatural Causes, and The Edge, which turned out to be a precursor to the Olshaker-Douglas collaboration, as the 1994 book included Douglas as a character. Continuing that lucrative franchise, Douglas and Olshaker are soon slated to write their first novel together.
Along the way, Olshaker also wrote and produced Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, and Roman City, four family-oriented educational shows for PBS based on the work of artist David Macaulay. All four were half-animated, half-live action, and Roman City wound up winning a national Emmy. Olshaker also wrote an unproduced Hollywood screenplay based on The Edge, as well as a script for Stormchasers, an IMAX film about severe weather. (Stormchasers predated Twister, and Olshaker grumbles that it may have been the unwitting source of several camera shots in the Hollywood blockbuster.)
If that isn’t enough, Olshaker is also passionate about another medium: theater. Almost a decade ago, he trekked to Birmingham, England, to watch Derek Jacobi figure out how to direct a cast of talented Shakespearean actors in a new staging of Hamlet. The role of Hamlet was filled by the not-yet-internationally-famous Kenneth Branagh. Out of the episode came a 1990 television film called Discovering Hamlet. Narrated by Patrick Stewart, the film became a minor cult hit among the artsy set.
Oddly, Olshaker says, his interest in theater isn’t as random as it might seem. “Living with the actors for five weeks, then watching what detectives and profilers do, I realized that they’re really doing the same thing,” he says. “An actor and a detective will start with a scene and look at what’s there on the surfacethe dialogue and stage directions, or the physical evidence and bodies. Each is trying to figure what really happened between the charactersthe subtext or the motivation. It was a revelation to me. When I spoke to a number of actors and detectives, they said they’d never thought about it that way before, but they agreed that it seemed to be true.”
Seeking to apply his theory to practice, Olshaker invited Stewart to his home when the actor was developing his interpretation of Othello for his recent Shakespeare Theatre appearance. “I brought him and Douglas together for lunch at this very table, back in September or October,” Olshaker says. “The ideas they shared definitely informed Patrick’s performance.”
With that problem solved, Olshaker is looking to do more in Hollywood. “I think movie work is interestingit’s lucrative and it’s a real challenge after writing novels,” he says. “For a movie, you have to find a very interesting character and pick out the most interesting 100 minutes of their life.” Later, asked which accomplishments he would like to be remembered for, Olshaker pauses. “If people can remember that I was around,” he finally says, “that itself is a pretty good testimonial.”CP