Veteran novelist's new book delves into Civil War

Olmstead is most successful teacher of undergrad writing students

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

DELAWARE, Ohio - Robert Olmstead always considered his war the Revolutionary War, when he was growing up on a farm in New England.

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It was not until he was teaching at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania did the novelist first visit Gettysburg, where he was transfixed by another great American conflict.

He returned countless times to the national military park, in the middle of the day and at midnight, on his own and paid $25 to ride with battlefield guides while they drove his car and narrated history.

"I just found myself driving down there again and again and again," Olmstead said.

Out of that experience and after a decade of research and writing, Olmstead has produced "Coal Black Horse," a Civil War novel now in stores that generated enormous publicity ahead of its publication.

The book, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C., is the No. 1 April selection by BookSense, an organization representing 1,200 independent bookstores around the country whose picks often help drive sales.

The novel is a Borders "Original Voices" selection for May and received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, which likened it to an austere and poetic fairy tale. "Olmstead juxtaposes scenes of man-made desolation with quietly lyrical depictions of the landscape and the animals that inhabit it," the review said. Kirkus is one of the industry's main and most important prepublication reviews.

The story, with echoes of "The Red Badge of Courage," tells of a 14-year-old boy ordered by his mother to leave their Virginia farm, find his father in the middle of battle and bring him home.

"You must find him before July," she warns in the ominous opening pages. In the battle of Gettysburg, which raged July 1 through July 3, 1863, more than 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded.

Early in the book, a stranger gives the boy a black horse for his journey. Olmstead, who rode a headstrong black pony as a child, knew he wanted what he calls "that iconic horse" to make the trip with the boy.

"There's just something hard-wired between human beings and horses," he said. "Dogs love us, cats disdain us. With horses, it's by agreement."

Olmstead, 53, grew up on a dairy farm in Westmoreland, in southern New Hampshire, where his family has farmed for generations. He's the author of four other warmly received novels, though none were best sellers.

He studied under short story master Raymond Carver at Syracuse University. During those years, he also taught eighth-grade English, ran a construction business, raised dairy cows and oxen on a small farm and finished his first book, "River Dogs," a short story collection.

He often dictated stories into a tape recorder driving from job to job.

"He was intensely talented, and the fact he could write under these circumstances really knocked me out," said writer Tobias Wolff, a friend who taught Olmstead and whose books include "This Boy's Life." Wolff calls Olmstead the most successful teacher of undergraduate writing students in the country because so many of his students went on to publish books they started under him.

Today Olmstead teaches writing at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, a small central Ohio city. He lives in a 101-year-old two-story house a few minutes from campus. He rarely drives, preferring to walk or ride his bike.

He wakes up between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. each day, walks downstairs past numerous framed photographs of family and turns on his laptop. He writes almost every day for five or six hours - at his dining room table and then from a large stuffed chair. Three other manuscripts are in the works.

"I finally feel like I know what I'm doing," Olmstead said. "I sit around going, 'God, how many more books can I get out now that I know what I'm doing?"'

Novelist Jennifer Haigh, who studied with Olmstead at Dickinson, says she owes him her writing career. As she debated pursuing a fine art's degree after college, he told her to go out and live a bit first.

"In a very delicate way, he told me I needed to write a lot more and to live a lot more," said Haigh, author of "Mrs. Trimble" and "Baker Towers."

"He approaches writing in a reverent way as really one of the most important things a person can do," she said.

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