Jonathan Olivier, a graduate of the LSU journalism program, has been busy writing articles for local and national publications like Backpacker and Outside, but has recently tried his hand at fiction in the form of a novel titled “Between the Levees.” DIG sat down with Olivier to discuss his writing process, his Cajun roots, the Atchafalaya Basin and what’s down the road for the 26-year-old author.
DIG: You’re from the Baton Rouge area, but I understand you have strong ties to Cajun country.
Jonathan Olivier: Right. My parents are from Arnaudville. They’re both from big Cajun families, and of course I went there a lot as a kid.
DIG: Is that where your passion for the outdoors came from?
JO: Due to my parents… and that area having deep ties to hunting and fishing and a connection to the land and with me growing up with that heritage led me to being an outdoorsman. Because that’s just what you did. You grew up hunting and fishing and being outdoors.
DIG: How would you describe the Atchafalaya Basin to people who have never experienced it?
JO: It’s ineffable. It’s such a wild place. It’s smack dab between Lafayette, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, bounded by levees. You cross over on the interstate and you see some trees and you’re not too sure what it is, but once you actually get out of the boat and walk out into it, it’s such a wild place. To me, it’s Louisiana’s last wilderness.
DIG: Any other influences?
JO: My godmother, Kathy Roberts. As a kid I often spent weeks at a time at her house in Cecilia. We’d go fishing and set lines and go watch airboat races and go to camps and get in pirogues. As far as writers, what first inspired me to want to become an author was Gary Paulson, which I know a lot of kids read “Hatchet” in school. That was a book that stuck with me beyond just fifth or sixth grade. Also, a more up to date author… Jon Krakauer. I admire him because he was a journalist who wrote feature stories for Outside and then started writing books.
DIG: How was the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction? Was it difficult?
JO: In part, a bit. My first draft was definitely rough. I had a lot of facts and author voice and a lot of narration. Not a lot of showing through dialogue—a lot of telling and not showing. So I definitely had to tweak it a bit.
DIG: You still were able to incorporate a lot of factual information. It helps having a character who’s experiencing it all for the first time…
JO: That’s a very good point. That’s exactly what I tried to capture. While the book isn’t in first person, I still wanted the reader to experience everything as Sam, the main character, is experiencing it for the first time. Having the character not from Louisiana definitely aided in that presentation.
DIG: You’ve talked about being eco-conscious…
JO: For sure. I’ve been involved with Sierra Club this past year. I’ve always been passionate about the environment. That’s a story too that Louisiana desperately needs told. So whenever I can I want to tell that story.
DIG: You went the self-publishing route. Would you recommend it to others?
JO: It worked for me. I had the tools necessary to do it with relative ease. If you’re someone who’s never written anything professionally, if you don’t have any experience with design, then it may be best to research traditional publishing. But even if you don’t have any experience, then self-publishing could still be a viable route. If you need a designer, you can hire one. If you need an editor, you can hire one. Not to mention the immediacy of it. I’d recommend to anyone who’s looking to publish a book to at least look into it.
DIG: So what’s next on the horizon?
JO: I’m actually moving to Ithaca, New York. My girlfriend got into Cornell University, because she’s a flippin’ genius. I already have some connections to do some freelancing there and continue writing. Then when I get the time, start my next book.
DIG: You know, it always seems like everyone who moves away from Louisiana ends up coming back…
JO: (laughs). Yeah. Honestly I wrote this book out of a deep appreciation and love for Louisiana. But if I’ll ever be back I’m not sure. I write that in the book that once this place gets into your blood it sticks. And I think that’s definitely true. Once it gets into your blood it’s always pulling at you to come back.
DIG: How can we get “Between the Levees”?
JO: It’s available in paperback or online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s at a few stores: Cottonwood Books in Baton Rouge, Books Along the Teche in New Iberia, Garden District Books and Tubby & Coo’s in New Orleans.