Asked what he’s reading now that work on his psychologically compelling fifth novel is complete and the book will soon arrive in bookstores, Olaf Olafsson says he is rereading the novels of his father, the award-winning Icelandic novelist Olafur Sigurdsson.
“My dad passed away in 1988,” Olafsson explains during a call to his home in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill neighborhood, where he and his wife—now parents of two adult sons and a teenage daughter—have lived since 1989. “We were very close. It’s strange, in that his voice is so clear in his writing. It’s like he’s here again.”
Those close paternal ties are certainly not shared by Magnus, the central character of Olafsson’s latest novel, One Station Away. Magnus, a New York-based neurologist, grew up in England, the only child of a narcissistic mother who believes the world has ignored her great talents as a pianist and a hustler father who lovingly caters to and promotes his wife’s injured ambitions. Without musical talent or creative interest, Magnus is largely rejected by his parents, whom he is expected to call Margaret and Vincent, rather than Mom and Dad.
No wonder then that Magnus’ research interest involves another kind of alienation, the separation of mind from body. Magnus and his scientific colleagues search for consciousness in people who are believed to be brain dead, with unexpected repercussions.
“I came upon an article years and years ago about a British neuroscientist who had begun to search for consciousness in people who were believed to be ‘vegetables,’” Olafsson says of the origin of the novels. “To me this state of being fully conscious but unable to communicate at all is the definition of hell.”
Olafsson, who seems to be drawn to conjoined themes and multiple plotlines, also read about a British pianist named Joyce Hatto, “who got involved with her husband in a fraudulent exercise” to pass off the recordings of other musicians as her own work. Olafsson used quite a bit of Hatto’s story to fill in the love-deprived background of his nonmusical central character. The result is a novel that braids together these seemingly disparate themes and thus raises as many profound questions about personal relationships and love as it answers.
“Needless to say, I like gray,” Olafsson says. “Everybody will come to different conclusions. I want my characters to be complicated.”
Olafsson wrote his first work of fiction as an undergraduate studying physics at Brandeis University in an international scholarship program. “I grew up reading a lot of literature, so when I came here, I wanted to study something else.” His first collection of stories was published in Iceland in 1986 to critical acclaim.
“My physics professor had a higher opinion of me as a physicist than I do,” he says with a laugh. “And he wanted me to finish my Ph.D. I said I didn’t think so because I didn’t have the passion for it, and I was writing my first book. To make a long story short, he introduced me to a former student of his who was supposed to persuade me to continue in physics. That gentleman had just left science and was the CEO of Sony. When he couldn’t help my professor convince me to spend my life doing physics, he offered me a job.
“It never occurred to me that I would go into business. I thought I’d try it for a couple of years. At least I’d learn something that I could use in a book.”
“Needless to say, I like gray. . . I want my characters to be complicated.”
To his surprise, Olafsson became an exceptionally successful businessman. He worked first on a brand new technology called the CD-ROM, and then led the introduction of the Sony Playstation in 1995, for which he is viewed as a sort of demigod in some quarters.
About this gaming legacy, Olafsson demurs, “Back then there was the hope that this form of storytelling would mature and develop and stop being a toylike activity. I don’t follow it very closely now, but I think it’s still pretty rudimentary. It just looks better. And sounds better. I’ve always looked at technology as a set of tools. It serves a purpose, but you can’t be a slave to it. What I was interested in then was introducing a new product and building a business, which I enjoyed back then. And then I left it.”
Since 1999, Olafsson has worked as an executive at Time Warner. Yet he has somehow continued to write fiction. “If there’s one thing I’m decent at, it’s discipline with time,” he says. “If I can write two or three hours before I go to the Time Warner offices, I’m happy.” He writes mainly in an office at the top of his house in Manhattan, but also in outbuildings at the family retreats in Iceland and on Long Island.
Today Olafsson, who along with his wife remains an Icelandic citizen, is executive vice president of Time Warner. “I have a green card. I’m what you call a resident alien,” he says, laughing. “At Time Warner, I’m in charge of corporate strategy. Time Warner has a lot of different businesses so my job is basically to figure out the right composition of assets within the company. So I guess my work is predicting how the world is going to evolve.”
So how is the future looking?
Olafsson laughs. “The media landscape is changing enormously. At dinner with my wife and my publisher last night, we were saying that we’ve been through all kinds of technology changes. But the smartphone? The only thing to call it is a revolution, because of the behavioral changes it has brought through the years. But my hope is that the future is also looking good for books. Needless to say, for me personally, that’s the thing I care about most.”
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook
(Author photo by Johann Pall Valdimarsson.)