Thursday, September 25, 2014

Twenty Questions With Rick Ollerman

Rick Ollerman was born in Minneapolis but moved to more humid pastures in Florida when he got out of school. He made his first dollar from writing when he sent a question into a crossword magazine as a very young boy. Later he went on to hold world records for various large skydives, has appeared in a photo spread in Life magazine, another in The National Enquirer, can be seen on an inspirational poster shown during the opening credits of a popular TV show, and has been interviewed on CNN. He was also an extra in the film Purple Rain where he had a full screen shot a little more than nine minutes in. His writing has appeared in technical and sporting magazines and he has edited, proofread, and written numerous introductions for many books. He's never found a crossword magazine that pays more than that first dollar and in the meantime lives in northern New Hampshire with his wife, two children and two Golden Retrievers.
Rick was also the editor at Stark House when Grind Joint was published, providing good advice and patience with a newbie above and beyond what anyone could expect. Not too many editors would pack their families in the van and drive from New Hampshire to Pittsburgh to be there when an author broke his launch cherry, as Rick did for me, and for that I will always be grateful.

He has a twofer coming out from Stark House: Turnabout and Shallow Secrets, and agreed to sit for Twenty Questions. (I thought about making him answer Forty Questions, but he’s a friend.)

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Turnabout and Shallow Secrets.
Rick Ollerman:  Turnabout is a revised incarnation of the first novel I ever wrote, some years ago. I wanted to create a book that could only take place in Florida, where the Everglades played a central role, and where structurally the book leads to moving not just from scene to scene, but location to location. I think the conclusion is one of those serendipitous things where not only is it perfectly logical but also completely unexpected–without cheating. Shallow Secrets was the second book I wrote and it was done in large part much differently than Turnabout. I wanted to write in a different style that addressed any of the issues I myself had with the first book.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
RO: I actually sort of like the “Where do you get your ideas?” question because I think I’ve been coming up with an answer. A writer observes everything, and then, being creative, they ask themselves, “What if?” For instance, in my third book (which comes out next year), I had read FBI documentation that stalking is the only real predictor we have of murder. That’s the observation. The “what if” is, what if you’re a person qualified to recognize the signs, and the target is someone you care about? What do you do? (More “what if.”) If you go to the cops, you make yourself known to them and it likely escalates the problem. If something happens to the stalker, the victim’s co-workers already know something strange is up. In other words, once you raise that flag trying to protect your loved one, there’s no hiding. But you can’t take it down again, either. The rest grows deeper from there.

Turnabout’s “what if” had to do with the early days of the Internet, and the question is, how do you track crooked money when the transactions occur over the Internet? Turn the computer off and the evidence is gone. Today, of course, we have tools that let us do this much better, but back then….

Shallow Secrets was a cop, implicated by a killer who he had let crash in his house. He hadn’t known he was a killer at the time, and when evidence is found in his home later, he’s stigmatized by the wrong color brush. What can he do to redeem himself in light of the fact that not all the murders had been solved? Nothing. He walks away. So years later, when a killing takes place up north, he gets pulled into it by the accused by way of a female reporter. The question is if these later crimes can exonerate him from the earlier ones.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Turnabout and Shallow Secrets, start to finish?
RO: Turnabout took about ten months, and then later the first third was rewritten. Shallow Secrets was about the same, excluding the computer problem that ate the ending and required the last half to be rewritten. Gee, that was fun.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
RO: When I first wrote Turnabout, there was interest from several publishers. One said it was publishable but she didn’t care for the main character. This was back in the day when every protagonist had to be an alcoholic Vietnam vet who had inadvertently run over a baby carriage in the line of duty. What I wanted to do, which I think works better now, is to take an ordinary guy, throw extraordinary circumstances at him, and at the end let him go back to his normal life. Yes, this violates the rule that the main character must be changed by his experiences, but this seemed more natural to me at the time. From a publishing perspective, it was probably a mistake, though a publisher did ask for the manuscript to be FedExed to their office. And then they lost it. And I moved on.

Shallow Secrets was written in large part as an answer to things I thought I could have done better in Turnabout. The style and pacing are faster, the main character gets to suffer some torment, but the real thing is that it’s not a rehash of the first book. No matter what, I didn’t want to write the same book twice.

To me, the only question I ask of a reader is simply this: Would you read another book by this same author? It’s my job to make that answer a “yes,” preferably with an exclamation point. This is why we’re putting these two separate books together in one volume. If you answer “yes” to my question, there’s another book right there. A reader won’t have to wait until next year for another book, you know, by that writer they’ve forgotten by now.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Turnabout and Shallow Secrets set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
RO: Both books are set in Florida. Turnabout is my “Florida book:” it can only take place in Florida. It’s been said that Southern California was like another character for Ross Macdonald and that was my goal. Shallow Secrets is also set in Florida, but in the northern part, where there are bubbas and crackers and, of course, the undercurrent of potential violence often present in some backwoods communities. Both books take place in the past, since they were written some years back, and in the case of Turnabout, the Internet was a baby technology. In Shallow Secrets, a key suspenseful scene would have had to be rewritten to be something else if cell phones had been available.

OBAAT: How did Turnabout and Shallow Secrets come to be published?
RO: Like I said earlier, Turnabout had some positive movement but I let it go. I thought rather than push a book that had already been written, the key would be to just write another book. Then another. Then another. Eventually, persistence, experience and luck should come together with whatever amount of talent I can throw in and good things would happen. But then I got sick, starting with a botched procedure on my back that not only had me bedridden for eight months, but has left me with some chronic conditions that I may be fighting the rest of my life. In any case, after reading a number of manuscripts for Stark House Press and not finding a lot there that was ready to be seriously considered, I sent the publisher Turnabout and he said he wanted to publish it. So there. I asked a bookseller who recently read Turnabout if he’d “read another book by that author.” He said yes (and he’d already started the second book). But I told him that’s good, because that first book will be the worst one I ever write. The books should, in theory, continue to improve with each one. How’s that for a plan?

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RO: It sounds like a cliché, but I read absolutely everything. I am a happy subscriber to the Library of America but I still buy graphic novel comic collections from the Silver Age, from when I was a kid. I read a lot of Irish crime fiction and I think Declan Hughes is the clearest heir to Raymond Chandler that I can think of. James Lee Burke is the undisputed master of style and when his books come out each July I’m first in line. I like spy fiction, paperback original authors like Peter Rabe (The Box is brilliant), but I write a lot of introductions for books and that requires a lot of reading by and about those authors. That’s very time consuming. Other than the Steig Larssson trilogy, the whole Scandinavian wave has managed to thus far pass me by.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
RO: Randy Wayne White’s first two books were brilliant, evocative portraits of life in southern Florida. This was before he started writing bestsellers. I find many authors write a couple of tremendous books and then fall into the “book a year” trap and seem to maybe not try to keep the magic going. I love Charles Dickens and Harlan Ellison (especially his essays), because they have voices that seem to be cabled directly into my brain. Films are an inspiration, too, though mostly classic ones. How much fun is it to have Hitchcock rip out your heart and shred it in Vertigo and watch it over and over again, seeing how he does it. I want the reader to feel something on an emotional level, and that’s what these guys do. Most of my violence takes place off screen, so to speak. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon was big for me, too. (He ate the painting? He ate the painting?) And Lawrence Block’s earlier, pre-T.J. Matthew Scudder novels. And Westlake’s Parker books, and and and….

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
RO: I wrote the bulk of these books when I lived in Florida so I’m not really sure I knew where my pants were. As far as outlining goes, I think it would be a terrific help in the writing process, save a lot of time in working out the puzzles of the plot, and helping to set up the best possible ending. That being said, I can’t do it at all. If I outline it’s as if I’d already written the book and the energy of the story disappears.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
RO: So yes, I edit as I go. I can’t do the “just get it on paper, you can fix it later” thing. You end up writing sub-standard stuff, and then you end up building on that sub-standard stuff; eventually you realize your whole manuscript is sub-standard stuff. And I don’t want to write a lousy book, but, um, I just did. Much easier to edit as you go, then go back and reread and edit again for voice, tightening up, fixing the things you thought you could fool the reader with and finally admitting to yourself that leaving those would be a bad thing to do.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RO: Observe everything. Ask “what if” questions. This can get you a plot. For your characters, when you have the premise, you can ask yourself, “Now who is the most interesting kind of person I can put in this situation? And what will make it hard/difficult/seemingly impossible for him to get through it?”

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RO: I’d have to ask my wife.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
RO: In this business, money is a happy accident. You write for yourself, you write for others to appreciate, you don’t write for the measly hourly wage your advance works out to be. A good review tells you you made a connection, and that’s the best you can hope for. You can control the quality of your work, you can’t control who will give you a big check for it.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
RO: I think it would depend on how much writing I’d already turned out. I’m not ready to be done yet, but when my teeth and hair fall out, I may have a different answer.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
RO: As a general rule, I think indie publishing works best for a writer like Barry Eisler, who turned down a big pile of money to do his books himself. He already has his audience and now he can keep all of his profits. An unknown may break out here and there, but there are so many indie books coming out, just being lost in the sheer volume would be a tough row to hoe. I like the small press option. I really think that there are huge opportunities for small presses that turn out the books their target readers like. In other words, no one buys a book from Random House because it’s from Random House, but people can and do buy books from their favorite small presses based on that fact alone. Being published by the Big Five could be nice, but as one now prominent author once told me, he was signed with six other guys, none of them got any publicity, and the publisher was just seeing if anyone would stick. They don’t develop new voices like they used to, and if your sales fall, you can become a hot potato in a hurry. So Option Two is the best place to start, I think, but everyone dreams of bestsellerdom at some point. I think the key is not to chase it.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
RO: Sparkling water or ginger ale so it looks like I drink when I really don’t.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
RO: Give me a 6-4-3 double play any day. Football can be fun, but it seems tailor-made for body painting fanatics.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
RO: Oh my God, did that really happen?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
RO: No, you fool, but I made you think so when I wrote it.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

RO: An introduction for some books by Ed Gorman, followed by one for W. R. Burnett, then one for Frank Kane. After that, it’s back to the first draft of the next book, where I’m going to add another character and turn a tragic relationship into a no-win love triangle. That should make things a bit more nasty and allow me to do a new and better ending.


Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

I just bought a Stark House Peter Rabe twofer this week. I've had good luck with their current authors, too, so I might give this to look. Thanks, Rick, for putting some good stuff out there, new and old.

Rick Ollerman said...

Dana, thank you for posting this. It's been reposted or referred to by Ed Gorman and our friend Mr. Stella this morning.

And Peter, I hope you enjoy the books if you get them. As coincidence would have it, I sent you an unrelated e-mail via your blog this morning.

I think the world is shrinking.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Rick: The world is shrinking; I just can't fit into it the way I used to.

I have replied to your e-mail.