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Murray Journal

Ella Reese Olsen: A Murray native's rise from local reader to celebrated author

Dec 01, 2023 11:30AM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Murray native Ella Olsen presents her book, “Where the Sweet Bird Sings,” at the King’s English Bookshop. (Photo courtesy of Ella Olsen)

In the literary world, few stories resonate as deeply as those rooted in personal history and the transformative power of place. Ella Reese Olsen, a celebrated author from Murray, is a shining example of how local landscapes and familial legacies can shape compelling narratives.

Her journey from a practical professional in the business world to a celebrated author is a narrative of embracing one's true passion and the profound impact of one's roots on their creative expression. This story unfolds as Olsen, in her own words, takes us through the chapters of her life and work.

“I grew up on an urban farm. In fact, my parents still raise pygmy goats and chickens. I’d imagine many Murray residents know of their place on 5600 South and likely visit it to see the ‘kids’ in the springtime. My dad (Max Reese) is kind-of a local legend, still working around the property with a shovel in hand and a hat on his head. When he’s irrigating, let’s say he’s certainly ‘outstanding in his field,’” Olsen said. “People would see me working and call out from their cars, ‘hey, farm girl.’ It was mortifying at age 14.”

Olsen's relationship with literature began in her formative years, deeply influenced by a diverse range of authors. "I’ve always been a reader," Olsen said, noting how she toyed with writing, inspired by the novels she devoured. She was well familiar with Twin Peak Elementary School’s and Murray City’s library from an early age.

“Authors were my rock stars. I didn’t really listen to much music, but I always had a book to read. I’d read while walking to Twin Peaks and neighbors would ask if I ever tripped. I didn’t, by the way,” Olsen said.

Despite this early inclination toward literature, Olsen chose a pragmatic path, earning a business degree and embarking on a career as a commercial loan underwriter. This decision, however, didn't extinguish her passion for books; it remained a quiet but constant companion as she built her life in Seattle and Savannah, before returning to Utah.

The turning point in Olsen's life came with the birth of her family. "I started a book club, which has been going strong for 26 years," Olsen said, underlining her need for a reading community. The real transformation occurred when her youngest child began school. "I had this longing to try to write a novel," Olsen shares, revealing the moment she finally decided to embrace her passion for writing fully.

Her debut novel, "ROOT, PETAL, THORN," set in her beloved Sugar House bungalow, marked her foray into the literary world. This novel intricately weaves the stories of women who might have inhabited her hundred-year-old home, blending fiction with historical elements. "It’s entirely fictional... but it’s based on the history I could find about my house, neighborhood, and Utah," Olsen said. Published in 2016, the book not only graced airport bookstores and Barnes & Noble but also earned accolades for its significant historical content.

Olsen's literary journey didn't stop there. Her second book, "WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS," released in 2017, delved into genealogical research and family secrets. "The opening scene is in the Salt Lake Cemetery and explores elements of genealogical research as my character digs up hidden truths about her ancestors at the Family History Library and also through DNA mapping," she describes. Her third book, "BIRDIE & JAY," set in the Gilded Age in New York City, showcased her versatility as a writer. However, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted its print release, reflecting the unpredictable nature of a writer's journey.

Olsen's contributions extend beyond her novels. She served on the Salt Lake Public Library Board of Directors, taught writing courses, and ran a writing business, emphasizing her commitment to fostering a love for literature in her community. "I taught a variety of writing courses through U of U Lifelong learning, until COVID and Zoom classes, which took the fun out," Olsen said, highlighting how she adapted to changing circumstances.

Olsen's roots in Murray and Millcreek run deep, with family stories dating back to pioneer days. "My great-grandma Ella was a writer," she shares, noting the influence of her family's stories on her work. “She wrote short missives about her ancestors and their early experiences as pioneers in SLC, and about everyday things that seem remarkable now,” Olsen said.

Murray's influence on Olsen is palpable. From cherished memories at the Murray Park swimming pool to her work at Wheeler Farm, these experiences offered a wellspring of inspiration for her novels. "I walked to the Murray Park swimming pool, I was a regular at the old Murray Library, I loved the Murray Theater," she reminisces. Her education at Cottonwood High and involvement in local journalism further solidified her bond with her hometown.

Despite the success of her novels, Olsen is ready for a new chapter. Following the departure of her literary agent in 2022, Olsen found a new calling. "I was ready for a change and still wanted to write," she states. Her passion for local stories led her to City Journals, where she covers the Salt Lake County beat, immersing herself in community journalism.

“I love the history of a place. It’s the reason I chose to be married at the Murray Mansion. It’s the reason I love to read and write historical fiction. I’m a person who reads all of the historical placards on buildings and hiking trails. Currently, I’m on the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) board and we review and approve historical sites, buildings, and districts for historical designation,” Olsen said. λ