After Ella Joy Olsen decided to set her second novel in Salt Lake City, the writer set about doing research in her hometown.
In “Where the Sweet Bird Sings,” Emma Hazelton is dealing with her grief over her young son’s death, which leads her to explore her family’s history at the LDS Church’s Family History Library. The young woman uncovers genetic secrets that alter the way she views her marriage and change her relationship with her birth family. Olsen will launch the book with a reading at The King’s English Bookshop on Sept. 7. (See box at the end of this story for details.)
It’s a warm story about family mysteries, betrayal and the journey through grief. “I think ‘Where the Sweet Bird Sings’ taps into the strong interest many of us have in ancestry and genealogy, but it’s also very much about the true meaning of family,” says Rachel Ekstrom, Olsen’s agent.
The writer drew upon her interest in genealogy to craft the story, considering how a disease passed down through generations via a family secret might affect a marriage. After her son dies, Emma feels betrayed by her body, and then she comes to feel betrayed by her ancestors after she learns her grandfather and her mother have concealed important truths. It’s only as she explores her history that she’s able to stitch together her marriage.
To get a feel for depicting genealogical research, Olsen traced her history at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ library and had her saliva analyzed as part of a 23andMe genetic test, as Emma Hazelton does in her novel. “I wasn’t expecting to find anything shocking, and I didn’t,” the writer says.
Another bit of research was funny, if not exactly shocking. Olsen spent a Sunday afternoon watching a drum circle in Liberty Park. As an observer, the writer thought she was blending in until a stranger approached her, demanding that she raise her sunglasses and swear she wasn’t a cop. “I was totally taken off-guard,” she says, laughing.
The drum circle, the downtown Farmers Market and references to Vosen’s German Bakery are a few of the local settings that Utah readers will recognize in Olsen’s novel. The book tells a stand-alone story, but it’s also loosely linked through polygamous ancestors to characters in her first contemporary historical novel, 2016’s “Root, Petal, Thorn.”
Olsen’s new book concludes with the first chapter of her first novel, which introduces the character of Ivy, a young woman who becomes intrigued in puzzling out the stories of four generations of women who had previously lived in her Sugar House bungalow. Olsen compared having new readers meet Ivy out of context to that jolting moment when you see someone you know, possibly a teacher, at the grocery store or in some other foreign environment.
Olsen says she is grateful to readers who have invited her to visit, via Skype or in person, their book clubs, which is her favorite form of book promotion because readers are engaged. She’s teaching a class about writing historical fiction at the University of Utah’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
She’s written another novel, which she refers to as a light contemporary romance, but plans to return to historically based stories. “I’ve always loved the idea of what happened in a certain place, of the way time passes through a particular location,” she says. “I also like knowing how things will end. That we’ve made it through some very horrific and trying times, it gives me hope in the future.”
‘Where the Sweet Bird Sings’
Hear Salt Lake City author Ella Joy Olsen read from her second novel.
When • Thursday, Sept. 7, 7 p.m.
Where • The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free; call 801-484-9100 for information.
More • ellajoyolsen.com; facebook.com/ella.joy.olsen.author; twitter.com/ellajoyolsen