The Many Layers of Mourning with Kaki Olsen

This week’s interview is with multi-genre author Kaki Olsen. Find out more about her at http://kakiolsencreative.com/.


Dianna Gunn: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to this Spoonie Authors’ podcast, a podcast where we explain the life and stories of a different disabled author each week, I’m your host, Dianna Gunn, and today we are joined by Kaki Olsen. Kaki Olsen never met a fairytale she couldn’t reframe or world she couldn’t make a little more complex. Since her debut novel, Swan and Shadow was published in 2016, she has written things ranging from the modern Jewish story of The Nutcracker to how the world coped with the first astronauts lost in space. She works an office drop by day, reviews the arts by night and travels as much as time and public safety allows, which isn’t much these days.

Dianna Gunn: [00:00:43] Hello, Kalki. It’s nice to see you.

Kaki Olsen: [00:00:47] You too. It’s great to be here.

Dianna Gunn: [00:00:49] So can you tell us a little bit about your project, Just One Chance?

Kaki Olsen: [00:00:54] Well, this is actually kind of one of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on, and it’s something that I’d like to expand into a larger universe. It was part of a charity, an anthology that featured marginalized characters, and we had a list to choose from. And so I ended up choosing three traits which were made in Time Traveler and Android and writing the story of how this dragon smuggling android managed to save a human colony by convincing them to have an unusual sense of compassion and they have a lot of stories that are based around that universe, as well as the raising of a dragon on this spaceship and various things like that, but I think it’s a fascinating way to kind of integrate space travel and the promise of a new world, but also to see how things can go horribly wrong under the wrong circumstances.

Dianna Gunn: [00:01:46] Sounds awesome. I am always a fan of science fantasy, the whole genre mashing is an adoration. So what inspired you to write this story and start building this world?

Kaki Olsen: [00:02:05] Well, specifically, the story began with the title of the publisher. It was the dragon’s rocket ship. And when I found out that my friend was working for it and that they were looking for stories, my first instinct was what kind of moron puts a dragon on a rocket ship? That’s probably impractical. And then my brain came up with this story and it blossomed into this absolutely necessary thing. And it really I didn’t expect it to go as far as it did, except it it got to influences from Doctor Who. It got influences from World War to history and the siege of Leningrad in the way people were able to support each other and on the other hand, what compromises they had to make. And so I found a lot of different ways to integrate things that we know about with, of course, what science fiction and fantasy deal with, which are the great unknowns.

Dianna Gunn: [00:02:59] Awesome.So speaking of those great unknowns, why have you chosen to use supernatural elements, things like dragons as metaphors for personal obstacles that we face in real life? What is the power of these these tools as metaphors?

Kaki Olsen: [00:03:21] Well, not to stigmatize it or anything, but I remember reading a fascinating round robin discussion during high school, I took a horror writing elective class and we read an article called In Pursuit of Pure Horror in which they talked about The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and considered the things that people were afraid of during his time. And what is the corollary in modern times would be and one of the things that they came to a consensus of is that one of the things that modern people both avoid trying to understand and to try to gain a better understanding of his mental illness, because it’s something that not everyone can understand on their own. Not everyone will experience it on a diagnosable scale, but they know that it is a presence and they know that it is something that is going to have an effect on their lives. And a lot of times that unknown is what it affects, their interpretation of it. And so I see a lot of parallels with that, with things that we can’t understand or can’t put into our own frame of reference as something that we can do in terms of exploring strange new worlds for better of lack of a better word for it.

Dianna Gunn: [00:04:40] Interesting. And so how does that that process actually shape the stories that you tell with it in this world?

Kaki Olsen: [00:04:52] Well, I’ll give you a specific example. With an upcoming story that I’m working on, I had discussed with my group kind of what coming of age events would occur within this world where they are literally on a generation shift. So some of the people who boarded the ship will be too old to actually survive to the landing. And so they have also these entire families of people who have never set foot on normal land. And that’s an unusual thing. So they we were discussing what things they might have instead of, for example, a driver’s license. And we ran into this problem that putting a dragon in a spacesuit in an oxygen rich environment with the dragon having a bit of a panic disorder would be a recipe for disaster. But on the other hand, it’s unjust to let anything deny one person the specific experience just because you’re not willing to make an accommodation for it. And so we started exploring ways in which they could extend this experience not only to the dragon, but to other people who may not be able to cope with that kind of challenge, to other people who may have various reasons or various circumstances that make them feel set apart, make them feel unusual or unable to integrate in what we might consider a typical environment and so I think a lot of that can have a parallel, personally speaking, to a lot of people’s different experiences. I mean, it doesn’t have to be neurotypical versus quote unquote atypical or the people with the disorders versus people who do not consider themselves to have disorders. But I think that a lot of this I mean, you can take it as a metaphor, but you can also take it as a straight up in development or evolution of human understanding. So I think I really go into these things to explore what we can do when we are faced with extraordinary things that we have to treat as ordinary life.

Dianna Gunn: [00:07:03] Yeah, I love that. So how do you actually approach the mental health and particularly mental illness in your stories? You said that your Dragon character has a panic disorder.

Kaki Olsen: [00:07:22] He mostly has. Well, this is a slightly drawing on my experience. I have post-traumatic stress disorder as well as depression myself. And a lot of times I found that the day to day experience of my PTSD resembled a lot more of a panic disorder than it did anything else. And this was actually an observation that a friend shared with me and I realized to be true. And so. It ranges be his typical response ranges between a little bit of a social anxiety and outright panic into outright terror of things that are beyond his control. He has. All right. Sorry, I keep on misjudging him. His name is Novas, which is the male name, but her name is nervous and therefore is a female dragon. So I apologize to my dragon for surrendering her. But sorry, I know I’ve lost track of the question. Oh, OK, sorry. What was mental health and yes, we talked about the panic disorder and then I got onto a tangent. I swear, sometimes I just talk ahead of my brain. Sorry. Anyway, I find out that it’s not necessarily something that I consciously do with my characters. For example, in another of my projects, the one that I mentioned in my biography with the modern Jewish retelling of The Nutcracker, there is no real diagnosis for what the main character is going through. But she has just lost her mother to cancer. And so that has a definite effect on it. As Spock might say, he is emotionally compromised. Also. There is a character in my debut novel named Ashlynn who people actually consider her to be something of a special needs character when really it’s a lack of understanding and lack of wanting to put things into humanizing her because they just don’t take the time to actually know her. But it’s really something that kind of I listen to the characters as they talk to me about what things are their greatest fears of what things are there, safe places. A wonderful example that Gilkerson Levine, who wrote Ella Enchanted, told me once was that if you need to understand a character, you have to go through their pockets to see what they cannot live without, see what they might always be forgetting, see what they consider to be their essential part of their lives and to go from there. And so I think sometimes character development is a matter of seeing that. In reference to specifically the mental health, one of the most illuminating conversations I had with a character was when I wondered what her greatest fear was and she couldn’t very well articulate it. But a few months after that, the Boston Marathon bombing happened and my character let me know very clearly in my head that this was her actual greatest fear, was her worst case scenario. And so there are things where we can certainly set down a list of diagnosis is a list of. Symptoms or behaviors, but as with any mental illness or mental health or even with any person lacking those shoes, it’s something that has to be a conversation in an ongoing evolution.

Dianna Gunn: [00:11:03] Definitely, that is a fascinating approach. I really like the quote about going through a character’s pockets.I definitely think that’s you know, there are a lot of things that we’re told to look at in character development that are just like mundane things like what’s a character’s favorite color? And I don’t think those details necessarily have much import.Like unless your character’s, you know, an artist or a fashionista, their favorite color is probably not going to be super important to the story, or particularly even that much of an important part of who they are but you do like what they carry on them, what they’re forgetting all the time. Those details absolutely do make a huge difference and can actually tell you if you look at them right and you consider why a person’s carrying that or forgetting that can also really give you a deeper picture into someone’s mental health.

Kaki Olsen: [00:12:17] Well, I’d actually like to reference something that I admire about a particular author who is occasionally written on people with atypical mental statuses, and her name is Jodi, because I’m sure you’ve heard of her. I don’t know if you’ve read her, but in one one book called The House Rules, she has a narrator with Asperger’s and he insists on wearing the same colors for each day of the week. So on Monday, it’ll be orange. On Tuesday, it will be blue, and Wednesday it will be green. And the this even corresponds to his food. And until you get into the character’s perspective, you don’t really realize that it is not just a preference for that day of the week with that particular color. It’s a matter of routine. It’s a matter of safety and what he can predict and what he can control. So I love that she included that just because your thought on the main character’s favorite color being a thing. But I saw that in how she portrayed it and how it was useful.

Dianna Gunn: [00:13:21] Yeah and it can be useful. It really does depend on the character but for a lot of characters that’s, you know, really passionately, especially in science fiction and fantasy, where a lot of the characters are going to be, you know, wearing uniforms or in circumstances that kind of dictate what they wear and they don’t really have much choice.

Kaki Olsen: [00:13:42] That is very true.

Dianna Gunn: [00:13:45] Like, I don’t know, your characters are on a spaceship because they live on that spaceship all the time. I’m assuming they don’t spend all their time in uniform, but I’m assuming quite a few of them do spend considerable time in uniform or in a spacesuit. 

Kaki Olsen: [00:14:00] Or When they’re not in one. For example, I have a lot of civilians on that ship. And while they would love to go out and get something new at the mall, there is a limited number of days are a lot of restrictions on kinds of threat that they’re able to do. There’s a certain rationing for clothing allowances. And obviously this is something that they can work with. But it’s kind of like wearing a school uniform for the suit, the civilians, where you have to take what you’re given and make it your own.

Dianna Gunn: [00:14:28] Yeah. And, you know, that kind of world building kind of nullifies that. But yes, you know, in other worlds, certainly in our own world, I can see it being a bigger deal. I just don’t really know a lot of contemporary writers anyway.

Kaki Olsen: [00:14:51] Well, you’re talking to someone who talks nonstop about talking so I can understand that.

Dianna Gunn: [00:14:57] Yeah.

Dianna Gunn: [00:14:59] So we’ve talked about how you approach mental health and mental illness in your own stories. How would you like to see mental health and mental illness approached in other stories? How would you like to see representation change in the media landscape, not just publishing, but all of it?

Kaki Olsen: [00:15:24] I’m going to refer to two different circumstances. One of them fictional, one of them not, and is approach how I would like to see that kind of change. The fictional one. I had the privilege of editing a book in which the main character at the time that he turns 16 develops a certain behavioral set, but he also develops a certain mentalities. And we eventually discover that what he has is bipolar disorder and he uses these traits of the disorder as actually his superpowers. But the problem was that the author in question actually aside as bipolar people are angry all the time or they can’t actually get out of bed. And I have many friends who have bipolar disorders of either Type one or Type two. And I have extensive, more extensive experience with those things because I have seen the ways in which it will manifest. And so I would like to see more representation in fiction where people have given real research into what traits they’re ascribing to their people. To use another one of my projects, I have a high functioning autistic princess who a lot of her mannerisms, a lot of her feelings about the world around her are why she actually be friends in this story, a pack of dragons who are terrified of humans. And so I had to do a lot of research into her simply because she actually walked into my brain and wouldn’t talk to me. And eventually I figured out that she had a verbal output disorder and it took me four weeks of research to find out which one. But I feel like authors would benefit from giving that kind of consideration to any time that they feel the need to make their characters different from what you might consider to be an average fictional character, on the other hand, in the nonfictional world. I remember the death of Robin Williams and how people were suddenly very invested in understanding depression better. And I feel like this is something where a lot of people in this world I’m not saying that it’s just because of the pandemic, but I’m seeing a tendancy towards what I have seen described as positive talks to see where people are so overwhelmed with the experience of what we’re going through that they do not want to see that people are struggling with this. They want to see that people are able to keep their chin up and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but they don’t want to understand the level of problems that people are having. I actually started taking medication for the first time in years because of the way that I had to deal with all of this. And I’m glad that I was able to draw on those resources that I would like to see a greater understanding and a greater need. To get inside each other’s head than we’re currently willing to do, I have no problem with people wanting to get through this as best and as positively as they can, but I would love to see a lot more a lot more compassion between all areas of the spectrum for those who need to take it in a different way.

Dianna Gunn: [00:18:49] Absolutely, and I think the other side of that, too, is, you know, it really becomes toxic when you say that positive thinking will cure all of your problems because, you know, a lot of people’s problems are systemic. They’re outside of themselves. I guess when it’s a mental illness, there are a lot of things that we can do to actually make it better to live with and to, you know, find a way to build our lives around it. But there’s a pandemic out there. Millions and millions of people have lost their jobs. Thousands and thousands of people have died. It’s you know, and then there’s civil unrest everywhere. And it’s it’s been a really hard year. And those aren’t problems we can solve with positive thinking. Those are problems that need to be solved with, first off, acknowledging that those problems are real and then taking real action and those toxic positivity. People don’t even acknowledge those problems, really. They just bury their heads in the sand and they don’t ever take the action that is needed.

Kaki Olsen: [00:20:03] Mm hmm. I think one of the least helpful responses I’ve seen is a friend who has the virus and has had an unusually difficult time with it. They posted about it and about their hospitalization. And while many people did what I wish people would do and have compassion for them and worried about their well-being and wanted to know what it was they would need, I saw a few people telling them to brush it off and they saw people saying, are you sure you can’t just take a supplement to get over this? And I think for me, that just goes back to the idea of I don’t want you to experience this, not because it would be difficult for you, but because it’s a problem I don’t want to deal with. And so I feel that the best response in any circumstance today or in the future is really kind of what I saw best in a Disney movie where Kristoff in Frozen to sees that his beloved honey is in distress and he says, I’m here. How can they help? That is not expecting us to understand each other’s struggles. It’s not expecting us to fix them, but is expecting us to just be present and be willing to work within the other person’s needs.

Dianna Gunn: [00:21:24] Exactly. I think that’s really important. I think that’s important for us to have in our regular interactions. And I would honestly love to see more of that kind of interaction in fiction, more truly supportive relationships and friendships. I understand that relationships and friendships are an easy place to mine for conflict, but I do think that we default to that too easily and we don’t portray enough strong relationships for people to even really know what a healthy, strong relationship looks like.

Kaki Olsen: [00:22:04] This is something that I actually could have had, but not necessarily a pet peeve, but something I try to overcome is the trope of people not being honest with each other on an emotional level. I can understand and circumstantially being dishonest with someone to protect them, etc. But I love fiction where I can find characters that rely on their families who are able to talk to their friends, who are not afraid of telling things that the way they are.

Dianna Gunn: [00:22:39] Yeah. Absolutely. I hope to see more of that. Yeah, and I think that brings us to the end of our questions. It’s been lovely chatting with you and you chance to wrap up. Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?

Kaki Olsen: [00:23:00] Well, with me specifically, you can always look for me at kakiolsencreative.com that’s K-A-K-I-O-L-S-E-N creative dot com. I also am the co-host of a podcast on Tolkin and full of philosophical themes that we can explore together. And that’s a sacred fellowship which is found on iTunes. Between those two, you can probably find every mode of contact with me. And also on Facebook at Kaki Olsen, the author page, and Kaki Olsen Creative for the Facebook group.

Dianna Gunn: [00:23:39] All right, OK, so since you were on this podcast, I have a bonus question to ask you specifically, your bio says that you have never found a world you couldn’t make more complex. How would you complicate Middle Earth master of world building? How would you complicate his work?

Kaki Olsen: [00:24:01] Oh Gosh. Well, for one thing, I would bring everything that we don’t know that is explained in things like the Silmarillion and the history of little. Are there so many books that are out there that give us a little more insight to things? But in terms of the Middle Earth, as we see it in the books themselves, I would definitely drain a little of the innate humanity that he has in the characters because he is wonderfully flawed characters and wonderfully able characters that are able to overcome astounding things. But if they were a little more selfish or if they were a little less confident in their ability to explore the unknown, it could have had very different endings. So I think I would give people a little less perspective of their role in the greater story, and I think that could change everything.

Dianna Gunn: [00:24:54] So what you’re saying is that you would make other people a little more like Boromir?

Kaki Olsen: [00:25:00] Yes, wonderful reference.

Kaki Olsen: [00:25:05] I would do a lot. Well, not necessarily Boromir. There’s Denethor, there is- Oh, there are so many characters who are just a few degrees shy of being an evil overlord if they’re the wrong circumstance. But yes, I would make people a little more centered on the wrong things. 

Dianna Gunn: [00:25:25] Boromir is just the one I assume everyone else will know, right?

Kaki Olsen: [00:25:29] Yes.

Kaki Olsen: [00:25:30] Well, my co-host actually has never, ever read the books and so does not yet know who Boromir is. It’s going to be fun to get her through that.

Dianna Gunn: [00:25:38] Oh, wow. This sounds like a very interesting podcast. I’ll have to check it out. All right. We’re done. Thank you so much for joining us. And good luck surviving the rest of 2020. 

Dianna Gunn: [00:25:51] Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the Spoonie Authors’ podcast. The Spoonie Authors podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network, a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spoonie Authors Network. To learn more or become a contributor, visit Spoonie Authors Network DOT Blog. And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast, make sure to leave a five star review on your favorite podcast streaming platform.

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