By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
April 27, 2014
It's possible that Matthew Olshan didn't fully become a writer until the day that his future boss ordered him to dig a ditch.
On that day in the late 1980s, the boss, a carpenter, eyed the short kid with the soft hands. He saw a young man with no experience in the building trades, a new degree from Harvard University and a bewildering mix of aspirations that combined literature and woodworking. The older man understandably was skeptical.
"Show up tomorrow and we'll see how you do," he told Olshan. The next day, the boss handed his would-be apprentice a shovel and a wheelbarrow and told him to start moving dirt.
Olshan did his best, but by late afternoon, he was so tired his arms could no longer lift the wheelbarrow. His boss volunteered to take over the cart while Olshan kept digging. At the end of his shift, his dirt pile was unimpressive. But the Harvard grad wouldn't put down that shovel.
"OK," his boss said. "You're strong enough to do this job."
Olshan learned that day that he could persevere at a brutally difficult task even when he was tired and discouraged, and that he could persevere even when there was no end to his labors in sight.
Who knew that excavating earth would be such good preparation for a life spent excavating words?
Olshan, 47, a Baltimore resident, has been delving beneath surfaces in one way or another for more than a quarter-century. Though he's written several manuscripts that languish unread in his file cabinet, it's only in the past few weeks that his first adult novel was published and began attracting attention from literary power brokers.
The New York Times published a long, thoughtful review in late March that described "Marshlands" as "a work of insistent witness."
In addition, Booker Prize-winning British novelist Julian Barnes was so impressed with Olshan's prose that he broke his own rule and submitted a quote for "Marshland's" book jacket.
"I very rarely blurb books," Barnes wrote in an email. "But, 'Marshlands' was well-imagined, formally bold (the backward structure works extremely well) and compelling in its subject-matter. It is also of wider resonance given your country's military and quasi-military involvement in various parts of the world."
Olshan's novel, which grapples with such themes as imperialism, moral culpability and the eradication of an ancient way of life, begins at an unspecified time in the future and then rewinds into the second half of the 20th century. The first section takes place in a city that resembles Washington, while the setting of the second and third (but chronologically earlier) sequences is reminiscent of the marshes of southern Iraq.
In "Marshlands," an elderly military doctor named Gus is suddenly released into an unfamiliar city after being imprisoned as a war criminal. He has no place to go, and his health has been broken by decades of confinement, but he's rescued by a middle-age museum worker with a mysterious link to his past. In the book's second and third sections, the readers learn the nature of the doctor's crime, why he committed it and how he is connected to his rescuer.
Gus' story is woven into that of the Mesopotamian marshes. Readers might perceive parallels between events in Olshan's novel and Saddam Hussein's systematic destruction of the wetlands, the tribal people, and 5,000-year-old civilization that the marshes supported.
Olshan based Gus loosely on Sir Wilfred Thesiger, a British explorer and Lawrence of Arabia-like figure who in 1964 published a book called "The Marsh Arabs."
"What interested me about Thesiger was that he was such a high product of his civilization," Olshan said.
"He was an aristocrat who went to Eton and Oxford, but he couldn't stand being around his own people. He would search out these corners of the world where modernity had not interfered. He would live with the marsh Arabs or the nomads of the Sahara. He loved being in a 120-degree, flea-bitten hovel and drinking coffee in a reed guesthouse."
As Olshan describes Thesiger's contradictions, there's a sense that he also could be talking about his own drive to venture forth into new terrain.
A native Washingtonian, Olshan is a former chorister for the National Cathedral who as a boy performed at Carnegie Hall and on television. He has published three children's books and writes a weekly column for a Perry County, Pa., newspaper, where he and his wife have a weekend farm. He's a professional cabinetmaker, a skilled cook and a restorer of antique contraptions that include pinball machines, a spinning wheel and a 19th-century cider press.
As his friend, children's novelist Garret Freymann-Weyr, puts it:
"Matthew is a really good writer for all the same reasons he's a really good woodworker and a really good cook and a really good friend. Before he takes on a new project, he does his homework. He is willing to put in the hard work, and he pays attention to detail. He cares about craft, and he is good at learning things and figuring them out."
Olshan performed most of the work of gutting the kitchen of the family's Roland Park home himself, and there's hardly a system in the house that he hasn't worked on. He's married to a woman he's known since they both were 15 years old — the age that the couple's daughter, Nina, is now.
He can draw well enough so that he briefly considered attending art school after college. He has earned master's degrees in fiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University (where he studied with Barnes in the mid-1990s) and in Hebrew and Jewish studies from Oxford.
Oh, and he's also certified as a private airplane pilot. "The older you get, the harder it is to do new things," he said. "But I like doing hard new things."
Olshan insists that he's not one of those people who is naturally good at everything. What sets him apart, he says, is that once he sets a challenge for himself, he won't quit.
"Some things, like carpentry, do not come easily for me," he said. "If I have succeeded, it's because I have been determined."
If Olshan isn't easily daunted, it's partly because a lifetime of doing hard things has left him with great self-confidence.
"Matthew, like a lot of men — he has an enormous faith in what he's doing," Freymann-Weyr said. "He really believes he can do all of these things, so he cannot be dissuaded."
She teases her friend for making such pronouncements as, "It took me a while to work my way out from under the shadow of Kafka."
Though such statements can come across as ponderous, Freymann-Weyr said that impression is misleading. Her friend sees himself not as a master of his chosen art form but as a servant of it. There's no sacrifice he wouldn't gladly make to be an incrementally better writer today than he was yesterday.
"The great thing about Matthew," Freymann-Weyr said, "is that he can say things in all sincerity that make him sound like someone you'd like to punch. But he still manages to be someone you're really glad you know."
Olshan may be working the hardest at his writing when to a casual observer he appears to be installing the ductwork in his kitchen.
"I get to the point in my writing life when I have to stop and do something with my hands and engage a different part of my mind," Olshan said.
"Carpentry is less forgiving than writing because you're dealing with physical forces and actual materials that dictate how you can use them. If you build a story badly and the story collapses, no one will care. But if you build a porch badly and the porch collapses, that's a different level of problem.
"Part of the beauty of writing a story is that you have the freedom to imagine the world as you wish it to be. But carpentry is a discipline. You have to wrestle with the world as it is."
If you go
Author Matthew Olshan will read from his new book, "Marshlands" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.
Residence: Roland Park
Born: Washington, D.C.
Books: "Marshlands," 2014 (for adults); "The Mighty Lalouche" 2013 (picture book illustrated by Sophie Blackall); "The Flown Sky," 2007 (self-published chapter book for young readers); "Finn: a novel," 2001, (young adults).
Education: Harvard University, bachelor's degree, 1988; the Johns Hopkins University, master of fine arts in fiction writing 1996; Oxford University, graduate diploma (equivalent of a master's degree) in Jewish studies, 1997
Personal: Married to a woman he's known since his teens. Matthew and Shana have a 15-year-old daughter, Nina.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun