Donald Olson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and studied English Literature and German (because Swedish was not offered) at the University of Minnesota. He began writing as a teenager and completed his first novel when he was 18—but it was not published for another 20 years.

Early Work

Donald completed several novels in the 1970s and worked at various jobs in order to travel as often as possible to Europe. In 1980 Christopher Street, a gay literary magazine, published one of Donald’s short stories and introduced him to Pat Loud of “An American Family”, the first reality TV show. Pat became Donald’s first agent and urged him to write something “scary and fun”. The result was The Secrets of Mabel Eastlake, his first published novel. A camp gay thriller based on an old Hollywood legend, Mabel Eastlake garnered attention in the U.S. and U.K. and led to the publication of Paradise Gardens, a novel that he had completed in London several years earlier. That, in turn, led to the publication of A Movie, the experimental novel he had completed at age 18. The writer and bon vivant Quentin Crisp reviewed and lent his witty imprimatur to Donald’s first published novels.

Donald’s first play, Blood, was produced off-off Broadway in in 1986 and dealt with the then-unheard-of subject of gay parenting.

Life with Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde

Increasingly interested in gay history, and the social ramifications of the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895, Donald spent five years researching and writing about the short, tumultuous life of the 19th-century English artist Aubrey Beardsley. The play Beardsley, about the devastating relationship between Beardsley and Wilde, was produced in 1987 by the English-speaking Artists Repertory Theatre at the Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam’s principle theater. It was subsequently produced in Rotterdam and London.

The play was followed by the novel The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley. Lavishly illustrated with a selection of Beardsley drawings and historical photographs, the novel was published in the U.K. in 1993. Francis King, writing in The Spectator, called it “enthralling”.

Writing About What No One Would Write About

After spending five years in the 19th-century, Donald felt it was important to return to the present and write about contemporary life and issues. Gays in Oregon had been battling repressive anti-gay rights measures for years, and yet no one had ever written about these battles from a gay perspective. Donald felt these ongoing battles were an essential and defining part of gay cultural history and identity that were being entirely ignored by the mainstream media. Queer Corners, set in a fictional gay neighborhood in Portland, Oregon during a viciously homophobic anti-gay rights battle, was turned down by several publishers for being “too political”. It was finally taken on by BridgeCity Books in Portland and published in 1999.

The Play's The Thing !

Between his travel-writing jobs, Donald continued to write plays and novels. His comic play Tourists was produced twice in Portland. The Garden Plays, also produced in Portland, takes place in two different gardens, the first in Rome in 408 A.D. when the barbarians are about to invade, and the second in contemporary New York, when a different kind of barbarian has invaded. Oregon Ghosts, for which Donald also wrote the music, was a sell-out show at Lakewood Theater; it was based on three legendary Oregon ghosts he had heard about (or actually heard, in one case) during his research trips through Oregon.

Swan Adamson Steps In

For his next three novels, Donald used the name of his Swedish great-grandfather, Swan Adamson, as a nom de plume. My Three Husbands, a comic novel about two rather conventional gay dads and their very unconventional daughter, Venus Gilroy, was the first Swan Adamson novel. Though Donald saw it as a novel about gay parenting, the publisher wanted to sell it as “chick lit” because it would appeal to a larger market. My Three Husbands was later published in the U.K., and subsequently translated into French and Russian. In the U.S., it was followed by a sequel, Confessions of a Pregnant Princess. But the U.K. publishers wanted a follow-up novel of their own, so Donald wrote an alternative sequel called Memoirs Are Made of This. His essay Confessions of a Faux Pa was published in the nonfiction anthology What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding on, and Letting Go of Their Daughters.

Garden GUIDEs, GARDEN TALKS and garden plays

A passionate gardener and garden lover, Donald spent two years researching, writing and photographing his book, The Pacific Northwest Garden Tour, a guide to 60 of the best public gardens in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.  Now in its third printing, the PNGT garnered great reviews and has led to many speaking engagements throughout the Northwest.  In his two most popular talks--"Five Remarkable Women, Four Remarkable Gardens" and "Who Needs Downton Abbey: Great Estate Gardens of the Northwest"--Donald reveals the human, and humorous, stories behind the creation of several important Northwest gardens. In 2017 Timber Press will release The California Garden Tour. Donald's guide to California's 50 most spectacular public gardens is filled with his evocative color photographs. And after that? He will begin work on The Mid-Atlantic Garden Tour. Gardens--one ancient, one modern--form the backdrop of Donald's time-bending play, The Garden Plays.


Donald's other recent travel guides include Frommer’s Portland Day by Day and Frommer's Seattle Day by Day (the #1 Seattle travel guide on Amazon in 2016). In 2016 he was invited to read his non-fiction piece, "Where Nature Begins", at the WritersRead performance event in New York. Donald's newest play, Domestic Manners of the Americans, is about the adventures of Fanny Trollope, the first woman to write a travel guide about America in 1832. He lives, works and gardens in Portland and Manhattan, and is currently working on a new novel, The Secret Library, and a fictional biography of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea.