NYC author Neil Olson on what it’s like to work in publishing today

Neil Olson is a mainstay in the New York City book scene.

The Massachusetts native started out as an assistant to esteemed literary agents Candida Donadio and Eric Ashworth in 1987, fresh out of Maine’s Bowdoin College with a degree in art history and English. That firm would be the only one he’d work at to this day; in 1996, Olson became a partner at what’s now Donadio & Olson.

The Upper East Side resident is also an author himself. Olson published his first book, “The Icon,” in 2005. His sophomore novel, “The Black Painting,” about a mysterious Francisco Goya piece, is out Jan. 9 (Hanover Square).

Olson gave amNewYork some insight into getting published in New York City.

What is it like to be an author here?

A novelist spends lots of time alone, so it’s great to stand up, stretch, walk out the door and be in New York. I might get more work done in a Montana cabin, but I’d probably kill myself. Also, New York has so many weird and wonderful locations for scenes.

Does living in the five boroughs make it easier to get a book published?

Working in the business is an advantage, though no guarantee of anything — I don’t know that living in New York is. We all know too many New Yorkers already; better to be from some exotic locale.

How has the industry changed since your 2005 authorial debut?

Amazon was a big player [then] and has only gotten bigger. Social media is more ubiquitous. The basic things have not really changed, but the target for success has become smaller and smaller.

Was it a big adjustment for you to sit on the writer’s side of an agency table?

As an agent, I’m deeply involved in my client’s work and sometimes their lives, and it’s easy to imagine that I know how they feel when things go badly or well. Wrong! Being on the other side is a great exercise in empathy.

Which came first, the idea for your first novel or the desire to write one?

The desire. Like most authors, I wrote a lot of bad stuff early on. Combining the love of art with the writing was magic for me.

Is that why you pursued books instead of art?

Art history was a passion, not a profession, for me. My mother is an artist and turned me onto Rembrandt, Goya, de Kooning. We spent whole days at museums in Boston and New York. I never meant to major in art, I just took so many classes that I could. But writing came before, during and after, and helping to advance other writers’ careers followed naturally from that.

Any advice for aspiring NYC novelists?

Write because you must, write every day, and for God’s sake avoid the 6 train.

Neil Olson’s faves

  • Favorite book as a child: “Harold and The Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson
  • Guilty-pleasure genre: “Old mysteries — Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle. But I don’t feel guilty!”
  • Author talents he envies: “David Mitchell’s weirdness, Kate Atkinson’s confidence, Peter Matthiessen’s breadth and humanity.”
  • Places in NYC he goes for inspiration: “We pretty much live in Central Park. The Conservatory Garden and the horse trail around the reservoir are favorite spots. I set an extended chase scene in my first novel inside and on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and I hope one day to use The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park in a novel.”
  • Favorite books set in NYC: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton, “Stuart Little” by E.B. White, “The Fortunate Pilgrim” by Mario Puzo, “The Year of Silence” by Madison Smartt Bell


Neil Olson celebrates the release of “The Black Painting” on Jan. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Strand Bookstore | 828 Broadway, 212-473-1452, strandbooks.com | FREE