When Justin Olson was an undergraduate at the University of Montana Western, he was supposed to write a small batch of short stories for his thesis.
But Olson had other ideas. He thought, “I’m just going to write a novel.”
He says that “overwhelmed” his thesis adviser, but it was just the beginning of some 13 years of diligent and fervent writing in all kinds of forms — poetry, plays, fiction, scripts — for the 33-year-old Butte native.
Olson says he revised that manuscript 12 times. And since then, he says he has completed seven other novels.
While most of them haven’t yet made it into readers’ hands — and some may never arrive on bookshelves — all Olson’s hard work paid off on April 16, when his first novel was released.
Set in Whitehall, “Earth to Charlie” is a young adult novel about a boy who comes up with a fantastical explanation — alien abduction — to explain a baffling but probably terrestrial mystery: why did his mother disappear?
As he scans the Jefferson County skies waiting for a UFO to reunite him with his missing mom, Charlie begins to see that the actual answers he’s looking for might be right in front of him.
But while the book hinges on aliens and UFOs, Olson says, “It’s not really about that.”
Instead, he says, it’s about Charlie’s sense of loss and his “longing for a connection” and the ways in which the paranormal provides an explanation where, otherwise, only confusion would exist.
The seed of the book was planted six years ago, in another part of Olson’s life: the world of Los Angeles film and television production.
It was there, at a film meeting, that someone offhandedly mentioned the idea of a movie involving kids and UFOs.
“Something about that stuck with me,” Olson said, leading him initially not to a story but to “a picture in my head of kids out in the forest, looking up, searching for UFOs.”
“When I sat down to write this, I had no idea what it would be about,” he added.
And that’s just how Olson likes it: “My favorite part is that blank page, that first draft.”
While that’s his favorite part, it’s not the only part, he says. There’s also a long process of repeated revision, and “Earth to Charlie” was no exception. It took him four years to write and another two just to get from signing a book deal to seeing its release.
“So I’ve been living with this for a long time,” Olson said.
But Olson has done more than furiously write and revise fiction since graduating from Butte High School in 2004.
He has also worked as a substitute teacher in Butte, been a high school teacher four years in Helena, earned a master’s at the University of California Los Angeles, and worked as an independent film and TV producer in Los Angeles.
Among the projects he’s pursued in Los Angeles is a television adaption of a novel, “Fobbit,” by another Butte writer, David Abrams. Olson says he’s been working to make that happen for seven years and “it’s still alive.”
His work as a producer has Olson in California a lot, but he tries to spend time in his hometown, too, in part because it helps spark his desire to sit down to yet another blank page.
“I love Butte,” Olson said. “It gets my imagination going.”
While there’s little doubt his imagination will continue to propel Olson forward, it’s not clear where his imagination will take him. And he’s okay with an open-ended process with uncertain results.
“I just down and write and see where things take me,” Olson said. “Why write the book at all if I’ve already thought it through?”