Exclusive Interview: Outbreak Author Melissa F. Olson

With her new novella Outbreak (paperback, Kindle), writer Melissa F. Olson is concluding the Nightshades trilogy she started with the titular tome in 2016 and continued the following year with Switchback. But in talking to her about the third and final book in this vampiric series, she confessed that none of it would’ve happened if she hadn’t stopped to enjoy the TV version of comfort food: procedural crime dramas.

Melissa F Olson Nightshades Switchback Outbreak

For those unfamiliar with this series, what is the Nightshades series about?

Let’s put it this way: an Amazon reviewer referred to the series as “Criminal Minds with vampires,” and that’s remarkably on point.

Cool. And what is Outbreak about?

I actually would prefer not to say, just because your readers may want to start with the first book, and there’s not much I can say about Outbreak that doesn’t give away the earlier plots.

Fair enough. Given that Outbreak and the other books are about vampires, it would seem these would be horror stories. But they’ve also been called thrillers, and kind of sound like they might be urban fantasy tales as well. Is that a fair assessment, or do you think there’s some other genre these fall into a well? Like maybe noir or something?

I don’t think I would say noir, no. The Nightshades trilogy does fit the general definition for horror, urban fantasy, and thriller, so hopefully it may appeal to fans of any one of those. If I’m asked to describe the genre, though, I usually use the term “supernatural procedurals” because that’s how I think of it, and that’s the through-line I started with.

My original intention for the series was to write a procedural cop story, meaning each installment would be a self-contained narrative about solving a single crime. At that time in my life — this was six or seven years ago — I was in grad school, I had a toddler, and I was trying to write books, so whenever I could watch television I mostly watched procedurals. People make fun of the format a lot, and many shows deserve their mockery. I’m looking at you, CSI: Miami. But the procedurals that do it really well — the first eight or so seasons of NCIS, the first few seasons of The Mentalist, much of Bones, Longmire, etc. — have a certain quality that I find both entertaining and comforting. It’s like a puzzle that clicks together just right, giving you that ahhhh feeling of satisfaction while you’re enjoying rich characters and engaging action sequences.

But while there were plenty of supernatural stories and plenty of procedural stories, both on page and screen, I didn’t find many shows or book series that contained both elements. One of my guiding principles as a writer has always been “write the book you want to read,” so I decided to come up with my own.

In deciding how the vampires would behave in Nightshades, and thus Switchback and Outbreak, what kind of vampires did you go with, why did you decide to go with that kind as opposed to another kind, and what depictions of vampires in movies, TV shows, and video games inspired or influenced your depictions?

I have a different, more traditional urban fantasy series, The Old World series, which is set in a world where magic exists, along with a number of magical creatures. I wanted to do something different here, and so in these books vampires are created by a virus that fundamentally alters their physiology. I wanted the biology to be as realistic as possible, which, frankly, can be kind of a pain in the ass because it eliminates my best shortcuts; I can’t just make up a magical thingy that fixes everything. Instead, at every step, I had to keep stopping and asking myself, “Okay, but how would this work if it were all real? How would people react? What would happen on social media?” This meant a lot of research for me, but hopefully the books ultimately feel more like science fiction than fantasy.

As far as influences go, three stand out for me. In my head I refer back a lot to the original Blade movie — or maybe just to my ten-year-old memory of the original Blade movie — quite a bit. I believe the key to writing any kind of fantastical creature is to make everything around it as real as possible, because that’s how you sell the fantasy. Blade does such an excellent job of creating a dark, gritty, real-feeling New York that it completely sells the vampire under-culture.

In a completely different way, I think Nightshades borrows a lot of its comforting procedural elements from The Mentalist, of all things. That show is very indicative of a typical procedural setup: quirky outsider joins existing law enforcement unit, which then gels into an outstanding crimefighting team. Since I wanted the novellas to basically be episodes of a procedural show, I spent a lot of time diagramming the structure of The Mentalist episodes.

Finally, in terms of style and worldbuilding, I was also very influenced by Christopher Farnsworth’s President’s Vampire series [Blood Oath; The President’s Vampire; Red, White, And Blood; and The Burning Men]. Reading Chris’ work gave me a lot of ideas for how develop the Nightshadesworld, both in the things I wanted to incorporate — multiple third person perspectives — and things I wanted to do differently. For example, the President’s Vampire world has all kinds of beasties; I wanted to stick with vampires only.

Melissa F Olson Nightshades Switchback Outbreak

Your books also feature an organization called the Bureau Of Preternatural Investigation. Was that at all inspired by the Bureau For Paranormal Research And Defense from the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics?

Actually no, other than the similarity in names. I enjoyed the Hellboy movies very much, but I haven’t read much of the comic series. Other than the name and the team aspect, I wouldn’t say Hellboywas a particular influence. When I was trying to come up with a name, I struggled to find an acronym that wasn’t already being used in the urban fantasy world, but still sounded like it could be a branch of the FBI.

I’m not sure I succeeded at either, but hey, it’s way too late to change it now.

So aside from the stuff we just talked about, are there any other movies, TV shows, video games, or comic books that had a big influence on Outbreak, but not on Nightshades and Switchback?

That’s an interesting question. For Switchback I looked a lot at suburban stories, and even wrote an article discussing the influence of suburban horror on that book [which you can read here]. While I worked on Outbreak, however, I had a lot of things on my to-do list: wrap up the Hector storyline, write a somewhat self-contained crime story, and tie up lots of minor loose ends to complete the trilogy. Breaking a story of that magnitude felt really daunting until it hit me that if you were outside the B.P.I. unit, Lindy’s actions at the end of Switchback would look shady as hell. I had already been building the story of a mole within the unit, so having Lindy be falsely accused of being the mole became the book’s driving force. I didn’t do as much research as on the previous two, but I did think a lot about The Fugitive and other stories where a main character is trying to clear the name while on the run.

How about more literate influences; are there any writers or specific stories that had a big impact on Outbreak, but not on Nightshades and Switchback, or, for that matter, any of your other books?

I think all writing has some influence on me, even subconsciously, but nothing immediately springs to mind, mainly because these stories were designed to be an experiment in genre. The original question I started with was “can you turn a one-hour police procedural into a novella-sized vampire procedural?” That was the idea I was interested in playing with, so the extensive use of genre motifs is quite deliberate. I wanted to write something entertaining, playful, and maybe a little comforting. I was never really aiming for Proust…thank God.

Some writers who’ve ended trilogies have later expanded these sagas with either second trilogies or side stories. Kameron Hurley is expanding her Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy [God’s War, Infidel, Rapture] with an upcoming collection of linked novellas called Apocalypse Nyx, while K.B. Wagers is following her Indranan War trilogy [Behind The ThroneAfter The CrownBeyond The Empire] with a second series that starts October 9th with There Before The Chaos? Have you given any thought to continuing the Nightshades saga in some way?

I’ve absolutely considered it. There is, however, a degree to which the decision is above my pay grade. I’ve enjoyed a wonderful relationship with, but I can’t really speak to where they’ll want to go in the future. And even if they call me tomorrow and beg for another trilogy, I’m currently under contract to 47North for two more books in my Boundary Magic series, so that requires my attention before anything else. It would be at least six months before I could start another Nightshades story.

That being said…yes, I’m very interested in continuing, especially exploring the current events angle of the story. My original hypothesis for Nightshades was that if tomorrow we found out that there’s a real-life vampire virus and vampires have always been among us, social media would lose their shit for two weeks and then we’d all move on. It’s like when there’s a natural disaster on the other side of the world: theoretically, we all care about the loss of human life on a macro level, but on a micro level we don’t really want to think about it, because we’re all really busy trying to get through the day.

That was several years ago, and obviously the world has changed quite a bit since then. I think the concept of real vampires would be even more interesting in a post-Trump world, in terms of the media response and public reaction. I can just picture a massive movement of vampire-deniers that insists the whole thing is a ploy made up by the government to distract everyone from politics.

Melissa F Olson Nightshades Switchback Outbreak

The other thing with trilogies is that some people wait until they’re all available and will then read them all in a row. Is there any reason someone should or should not read Nightshades,Switchback, and Outbreak in rapid succession?

Now that the third book is available, people can read the Nightshades trilogy as fast or slow as they want.

In a broader sense, however, I have to caution people against the “wait until they’re all released” strategy. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, too, but there’s one major problem with that approach: If you don’t read book 1 there may not be a book 3. Publishers make decisions about whether or not to continue a series based on sales, so if you don’t buy book 1 when it comes out, they might not publish any more in the series. I’ve seen this happen to a number of writer friends, and it sucks for everyone. So I recommend buying the books and hanging onto them [until they’re all available]. Yes, that means cluttering up your bookshelves with books, but come on — you were going to do that anyway.

Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Outbreak, Nightshades, and Switchback. But has there been any interest in turning any of these books, or the series as a whole, into a movie, show, or game?

You know, the adaptation business is having an interesting moment where TV and film producers are desperately looking for new IPs [intellectual properties], and the IPs are out there, but they’re not finding them. So there’s a breakdown in the metaphorical bucket line, which I assume is how we keep ending up with remakes of remakes and revivals of dead shows. Last Man Standing? Really?! As far as my work goes, let’s just say I’m working on closing the gap in the bucket line, but nothing I can talk about yet.

And do you have a preference as to what you’d like Outbreak,etc. to be?

Definitely TV.

Cool. So if the Nightshadesbooks were to be adapted into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?

This is always a fun game, isn’t it? Hadley, who is one of my favorite characters, was actually inspired by Amanda Righetti from The Mentalist. I could see James Wolk [The Standford Prison Experiment] for Alex in a heartbeat. David Anders [iZombie] for Hector, Taylor Momsen [Gossip Girl] for Giselle. Lindy is always a bit of a mystery, though. I go back and forth a lot for her. She’s one of the oldest and most powerful vampires in the world, but I wanted to buck the “leather and guns” trend popularized by Underworld. So Lindy looks like a wholesome, curvy kindergarten teacher.

Melissa F Olson Nightshades Switchback Outbreak

Finally, if someone enjoys Nightshades, Switchback, and Outbreak, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why?

Maybe none of them. In terms of style this trilogy is quite different from my other work, which is more traditional urban fantasy. If you want to try anyway, I suggest either Dead Spots or Boundary Crossed as a starting point.


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