Conversation with Jon Olfert
Jon excavates the paleofiction sub-genre, winning rejection contests, and speculative fiction that has healed and expanded his soul.
Jon Olfert is a Canadian science fiction and fantasy writer. His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and other publications. He and his partner live in Halifax.
Jon is also the author of the short story “Whiskey Mud” from Radon Issue 2.
How did your immense interest in prehistoric fiction (paleofiction) come about?
Through genealogy, believe it or not—matching my DNA test against ancient samples from the places where my earliest known ancestors lived, in Russia and Ireland. Some of the publicly available samples are deep into the Paleolithic. Then I learned more and more about human physical and cognitive evolution—art, fire, and toolmaking across timescales of hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. Books like Inside the Neolithic Mind, The Smart Neanderthal, and The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere broadened my horizons and gave me a much better sense of humanity’s real history.
Of your listed published work, 24% is noted as prehistoric fiction. Is this a percentage you’re happy with or do you hope the number goes up in the future?
Oh, up, definitely. At least 1/3 of what I write is paleofiction, and the rest is Stone Age-inspired in one way or another. Even my Radon piece came about because I was learning more about nonhuman cognition while thinking about mammoths.
You had a few stories published in the 2010s, then eleven in 2022 and eight already in 2023. Do you feel you're entering into your own as a writer?
A couple of years ago, the stars aligned in any number of ways. Refocusing on short stories and trying a broader variety of genres and themes gave writing a healthier place in my life. I’d like the quality of my writing to be more consistent, but that frustration is just a side effect of experimentation, giving myself the freedom to figure out what I like writing most and what I’m best at.
You won a local writing group’s rejection contest by having your work rejected 144 times in a calendar year. Do you aim in 2023 to beat last year’s record-setting win?
That rejection contest rewired my brain and I’ve started running something similar this year. At time of writing, I’m at 26 rejections for 2023 and I’m tied for third. Onward to glory.
Do rejections motivate you to write and submit even more work?
I take my motivation where I can. I’ve got strategies for making rejections suck less, and strategies to keep myself moving forward. The two work hand in hand. These days, when a story gets a thanks-but-nope, I use spreadsheets and Submission Grinder to track my progress and, as often as not, send it somewhere else immediately.
Have you found a welcoming speculative community for yourself in Canada?
I’m starting to. Atlantic Canada is home to some incredible and friendly writers—and an awful lot to write about. It’s no coincidence that my short story projects took off when I moved here.
Tell us about your top speculative fiction that has healed or expanded your soul.
As a parent who spent years in the Prairies and the California high desert, I got deeply invested in Stephen Graham Jones (My Heart is a Chainsaw; The Only Good Indians; Father, Son, Holy Rabbit’) and Catriona Ward’s Sundial. I’ll also note that Tiffany Morris’ Elegies of Rotting Stars absolutely shattered my faith in civilization. Highly recommend.
Do you still want to write a modern-day Earthsea?
I think the boy who picked that for a goal wouldn’t recognize me, but yes. I still want to write things that help people be more than they are.
Did you hear about Radon from our first issue or a different avenue?
If memory serves, I found Radon on the Submission Grinder, a wonderful place.
At what point do you feel you’ll be able to sit back, breathe, and tell yourself you "made it"?
I’ve asked myself this many times. I grew up with the idea that there was only one kind of success as a writer: having a book series on the bookstore shelves. I’ve got no illusions about making a living via fiction, certainly not enough to support my family, and no desire to be the main event or take up a lot of space. But I’ve made some pro sales and pizza money, and maybe in a few years you’ll see a Stone Age collection floating around. Good enough for me.