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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2012

Global media executive publishes his fourth novel

BY DAVID CARR
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- As writers' offices go, Olaf Olafsson's is a bit of a surprise. It is a giant lair in a futuristic skyscraper, with enough room for both a desk and a big table, along with an expansive view of Central Park. With its abundant light and helpful assistant out front, it's not exactly the kind of dark warren where the author of sprawling historical novels would find himself.

Then again, this office is in the Time Warner Center, where Olafsson does his day job as an executive vice president for international and corporate strategy at Time Warner. At 6 a.m. on a recent day, before going to work, he had gotten up in his Upper East Side apartment and plunged into research on his next novel. His discipline and dual life is all the more admirable given that Restoration, his waning-days-of-war novel set in the rolling hills of Tuscany, was just published last month.

Olafsson, 49, is no hobbyist, having written four books in the past 12 years. His work is characterized by meticulous attention to place and historical events. Given his deep and steady involvement in setting the strategic course of a global media company, his ability to pull off serious novels at the same time is enough to make the rest of us feel like slackers.

"That's funny, I always scold myself for not being productive enough," he said, his voice conveying his roots in Iceland, where two of his other books were partially set. "If anything, I think I am good at organizing my time. I don't go to a lot of social events, so I think that gives me time that I can structure in other ways."

Some corporate executives have trouble fitting in a round of golf now and then, let alone hundreds of hours of research and writing. Count Jeffrey L. Bewkes, the chief executive of Time Warner, among the impressed.

"I've read all of Olaf's books, and I'm frankly amazed that a guy whom I rely on during the day to structure complex digital deals and identify international business opportunities can create novels with such rich characters and intricate plotlines," he said.

Restoration is an ambitious historical novel -- it brings to mind Atonement and The English Patient -- that motors along on a dark mystery taking place in the sunlit vistas of Tuscany, which Olafsson visited as a young student and has returned to many times.

There the two central female characters struggle to find a place to stand amid encroaching armies; both the Allies and Axis powers have designs on the crumbling villa where they are staying. Their destinies are entwined with a single work of purloined art that may be a masterpiece. The plot is based in part on the life of Iris Origo, a British expat of means who married an Italian nobleman and spent years restoring a crumbling estate -- where she sheltered refugee children -- that also became a refuge for Allied soldiers. (Her memoir of that experience was called War in Val d'Orcia.)

"I was messing around the topics of art and Tuscany when I came across her diaries, which are amazing, and she became the basis for one of the characters," he said. "I'm drawn to characters who aren't black and white, because I'm not a black-and-white person."

Library Journal called the book "beautifully realized," while a review in The New York Times said it was a "mixed bag" that leaned too heavily on historical sources.

Born in Reykjavik and the son of a novelist, Olafsson came to the United States to study at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, graduating with a degree in physics. He eventually ended up working at Sony, where he founded Sony Interactive Entertainment in 1991 and led the rollout of the Sony PlayStation in the United States and Europe. At Time Warner he is a strategic adviser on digital and international matters and oversees a $500 million investment fund for new ventures.

That disparate portfolio can be hard to reconcile with the quiet, affable Olafsson, who is married, has three children, and plays soccer -- quite well, judging by the trophies stashed in a drawer -- when he isn't writing novels or helping to run one of the world's largest media companies.

In corporate life, and in fiction, best-laid plans have a way of going astray, but those who work with Olafsson say he avoids drama. "Olaf is a very original thinker in terms of business and has no ambitions to rise up and gather more titles in the sometimes contrived world of big media," said Joseph Ravitch, an investment banker who became a friend after they did a number of deals together. "That gives him a great deal of independence. He says what he thinks but stays above the fray."

Asked about the roiling media landscape, Olafsson maintains that the old-new media dichotomy is a false one. And he all but shrugs when asked why he would pile a career as a novelist on top of an already overstuffed portfolio.

He has written three other novels -- Absolution, The Journey Home, and Walking into Night -- along with a collection of short stories, Valentines. Fred Berner, a film and television producer, is working with Olafsson to turn the stories in that volume into a television series.

"He has an insanely good work ethic, turns things around quickly, and for someone who is supposedly this solid, Nordic persona, he writes women extremely well," Berner said.

Olafsson has a reputation at Time Warner for collaboration, and as a non-American he's been particularly helpful in the international realm. But beneath the exterior of his almost eerie Nordic calm there is an operational ego, at least when it comes to writing. He admits that it is nice to be alone in a room where he doesn't have to reach consensus with anyone else. He likes playing God, at least when he is typing.

"You don't get much done around here by being autocratic or pontificating," he said. "But when I am working on a novel, I pretty much call all the shots."



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