Author Jonathan Olivier was raised in Port Allen, Louisiana, a small town on the Mississippi River, just a stone’s throw from Baton Rouge. Olivier attended LSU, where he wrote for the school newspaper, The Daily Reveille, honing his journalism skills by reporting on topics including economic development and community issues. Since his 2013 graduation, he has worked as a freelance journalist for publications including Outside, Backpacker, and Louisiana Sportsman magazines, penning in-field gear reviews and backpacking reports, feature articles on hunting, fishing, hiking and outdoor recreation, as well as general news and business reporting.
Olivier’s 2016 debut novel, Between the Levees, was inspired by not only his love for the wilderness of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, but also as his Cajun lineage. The book tells the story of Sam Miller, a man who yearns to find his long-lost family, and travels into the swamps of Louisiana in search of clues. Along the way, he endures blistering heat, swarms of mosquitoes and a few sinister locals, but in the process, learns new lessons about family and the meaning of home.
[Top photo: Sean Gasser]
What was your childhood like, and how did it help to shape who you are today?
I grew up in a small town near a pretty sizable city in south Louisiana. So I like to say I got the best of both worlds growing up: the close-knit community that a smaller town offers and the opportunities of a larger city. My parents are both from a small Cajun town with huge Cajun families. So Cajun culture has always been a part of my life: the music, food and traditions. Cajuns are hardworking, accepting and determined people, which are qualities I learned growing up that have stuck with me. And pivotal to any Cajun is a strong sense of family. Cajuns are nothing without their family.
What are your fondest memories of your time at LSU?
I’d have to say my time working at The Daily Reveille, the school’s newspaper. In just the year I was there, I made lifelong friends and really grew into a better writer. I learned what it meant to be a journalist and to tell someone’s story. While I was there, I knew I was doing what I was born to do. With each story, each interview and every deadline, I felt a deep feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment. It’s rare in life to find something that makes you feel that way. So, thanks to The Reveille, writing grew to become an integral part of who I was.
When it comes to writing, who are your biggest influences?
My inspiration for being an author actually goes back to when I was a kid. I was blown away by Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. It was the first time I had read a book that felt so real. And it was about topics — survival and the outdoors — that I’ve always been interested in. More recently, I’d have to say an influence of mine is Jon Krakauer, who has written bestsellers like Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. Again, his stories focus on the outdoors and environment, which are topics I’ve always been passionate about. John Steinbeck is also a favorite of mine. I’m drawn to the simplicity of his writing that at the same time is so captivating. The stories he has told are incredibly powerful.
What inspired the story of Between the Levees?
I wanted to write a book set in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, which I consider to be the state’s last true wilderness. It’s about one million acres of bottomland hardwoods and cypress swamps, full of alligators and snakes, but one of the most beautiful natural wonders I’ve ever seen. I grew up a few miles from the Atchafalaya and learned so much of what I know about the outdoors there, so it’s been a personal source of inspiration for me. I wanted a character to fall in love with the Atchafalaya like I did as a child, so that’s how the story developed. I knew having a character who wasn’t from Louisiana and had never been in the swamp before would be the best way to describe the place. And something that is integral to Louisiana culture is family, so I wanted my main character to discover some element of family in Louisiana. The story grew from there.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
My main character is intensely troubled. He had a turbulent past and struggles with the fact that he doesn’t have a family. That’s the exact opposite of how I grew up. I always had a close family that cared about me. So I really had to try to step into the shoes of Sam and try to figure out how it felt for him to grow up without parents. It wasn’t always easy to predict what his next move would be or what his motivation would be to do something.
What does your writing environment look like?
I haven’t found a go-to place to write yet. But back home in Louisiana, I got a lot of writing done at this coffee shop near LSU called Highland Coffees. Aside from great coffee, it’s a quiet place where I would put my headphones in and crank out a few thousands words in no time. The ambiance was, for me, just so conducive to getting some quality writing done.
With more and more people getting information from social media, combined with the overwhelming influence of corporate and political interests on news outlets, is traditional journalism — unbiased, thoroughly-researched pieces meant to inform the reader and allow them to draw their own conclusions — a dying art form? Where do you see the industry going in the coming years?
Traditional journalism in the way you described it is a dying art form in some senses. There are absolutely still fantastic journalists who do this kind of reporting every day, but I would say the amount of them is a lot smaller than even a decade ago. Because not only are there less journalists today at newspapers across the country, but there are less newspapers in general. Today, a reporter isn’t just a writer, but a photographer, designer, social media specialist, and often has to be familiar with video and video editing. That’s thanks to smaller budgets at newspapers and an insatiable desire for content 24 hours a day, which is all due to the internet. People aren’t interested in an enterprise piece that took months of reporting at city hall. They’re interested in celebrity news or viral videos. So I think media outlets are adapting to this online first type of attitude.
Also, it seems today that no news is local anymore. An issue that happened in a small town now becomes national news for a few days or a week at a time, and then the public moves on to the next viral issue. A lot of this is fueled by social media and media outlets that re-purpose content that other reporters did the legwork on. Now, this is both a good and bad thing. Good that it helps highlight issues in our communities and gives them national attention. But, to me, bad that media outlets are so in need of something, anything, to post online that they flock to whatever is popular to get clicks on their website.
This desire for clicks, to report on viral topics, and 24 hours news, has created a host of websites that aren’t particularly vetted. These websites often post articles that don’t have accurate reporting, are strictly opinions, have stolen content from other journalists, or are just flat-out false. And the issue is I think some people — particularly on social media — have a hard time deciphering what website is legitimate and what isn’t.
Now, I’m not trying to paint a grim image of the future of reporting and journalism in general. Yes, there are definitely some hurdles facing the industry and I think all media outlets are aware of this. Most are trying to adapt, some are failing, and some are leading the industry in new ways. It’s tough to say where journalism will be in a year, let alone a decade. One thing for sure, I think we can all agree on, is that content will likely be strictly on the internet and not in print form. But I have hopes that the need for unbiased, thoroughly-researched pieces that impact communities and people’s lives will always be there. I have hope there will always be someone there to fact-check politicians, attend board meetings at city hall, and dig deep into issues important in all of our communities.
What’s the best song or album you’ve listened to recently?
When I want to focus, I play indie-folk music. A band called The Head and the Heart recently came out with a new album Signs of Light that I’ve been playing lately. The music is great and it helps me to get in the writing zone.
What are you working on next?
Recently I’ve been focusing on getting articles written for a few magazines and newspapers. I’ve got a few story ideas I had on the back burner about outdoor recreation and environmental issues that I’ll be working on. After those are wrapped up, I’ll start working on my next novel. I only have a rough outline so far, but it’ll be a historical fiction novel based on the Lewis and Clark expedition after the Louisiana Purchase.