When I was 23, I dropped out of a PhD program in American history because the flourescent lights in the library made a buzzing noise that put me to sleep every time I opened a book. Maybe they’ve fixed that by now.
That summer, before I decided to quit, I was at a public pool trying hard to finish two incompletes from the school year. While in the deep end thinking about the cultural history of the 1930s, I started talking to a woman with a French accent. It turned out she had just helped to open the American office of a small French publisher that made large, popular, illustrated history books. Two weeks later, I had a job as a researcher, writer, and editor. My incompletes stayed incomplete.
Since then, I’ve finished a few things. I wrote for and edited an American history magazine at Scholastic. I edited a section of the kid’s version of Parade magazine. I edited books for Scholastic, including a series about evil-doers in history called Wicked. As an independent developer, I produced collections of classroom books for struggling readers. As a magazine writer, I traveled the country to report on the school shooting at Columbine, the murder of Matthew Shepard, drunk driving accidents, homeless kids, kids whose parents are in jail, and other only slightly more uplifting topics.
In the meantime I moved to Vermont, got married, and had two beautiful kids. I also decided to get my MFA at Vermont College (now Vermont College of Fine Arts). I studied under some immensely gifted and generous children’s authors. I learned to think of myself as a writer.
Since then I’ve been trying to do what I failed to accomplish in graduate school: make history come to life. I’ve written the How to Get Rich series, a set of fictional journals “authored” by young people who set out to make their fortune in 19th century America. I am currently working on the LOST series, narrative nonfiction accounts of some of the greatest survival stories in history.
All of that work comes from the same impulse: to tell good stories. That is the most challenging, most fun, and most important work I can think of doing. And that’s why I don’t fall asleep over my books anymore. Most of the time.
Tod Olson is author of the historical fiction series How to Get Rich and the narrative nonfiction series, LOST. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Vermont with his family, his mountain bike, and his electric reclining chair.