Thursday, February 4, 2016

Twenty Questions With Rick Ollerman

One of the best things to come out of getting a publishing contract for Grind Joint was getting to work and become friends with Rick Ollerman. He’s among the few people who excel both as a writer and as an editor, two activities that are not as similar as a lot of people think. In addition, Rick is a master at the reprint introduction, with an uncanny ability to place a re-discovered work into context.

Rick’s newest book is Truth Always Kills, which is about—nah. It’s better if you hear it from him.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Truth Always Kills.
Rick Ollerman: Truth is my third novel, and I wrote it in the first person, and made it intentionally darker than my first two books. It’s definitely noir-ish, but not quite what I’d call full on Postman. I never want to write the same book twice and if my first book was my “Florida” book (even though they all take place in Florida—so far)  and the second was my non-serial killer “serial killer” book (it’s about what happens to people caught up in the edges of that type of crime), Truth is a deeper exploration into a more complex and tormented character. I’d probably call it my “protagonist trapped in his own hell” book, surely a category ripe for its own sub-genre label.

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 got this book by asking a series of “what if” questions. For instance, the FBI tells us that stalking is the only reasonable predictor we have of murder. What if you saw your significant other being targeted with these behaviors? What do you do? Go to the cops? Not only does it often fail to work, you bring yourself to their attention and in case “something happens” down the road, that may not be good. And even if you get something like a restraining order, that oftentimes makes the situation worse.

Another question had to do with search warrants. If a violation occurs, one where clear evidence is discovered but that was found some place other than where the warrant gave permission to search, why must the evidence be thrown out (the character asks)? Use the evidence, he says, but prosecute me, too. Of course, it doesn’t work that way, probably for good reason, but he’s having a bad day and his disappointment overpowers his self-restraint.

And how come in a court of law, the only people not sworn to tell the truth are the lawyers?

Why is prostitution illegal but pornography not?

Coming up with answers to all these questions led to the formation of the characters and the plot of the novel. What made it interesting to me to write was that I wanted to address all these things (and a few more) from the perspective of a man who is essentially so rigid in his desire to do the right thing but that, in order to protect the person he loves, he’s forced to do something other people say is wrong. His life gets complicated in the worst ways and I wanted to convey a sense of his pain to the reader.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Truth Always Kills, start to finish?
RO: First draft took about ten months, and then there was another two months of revising and deepening a relationship triangle that made for a better story, and a reworking of the first part of the book to make the pace what it needed to be.

OBAAT: Where did Jeff Prentiss come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
RO: The creation of Prentiss himself came out of the sort of questions I asked when developing the idea for the book. What kind of person would recognize the stalking behavior for how dangerous it can be? What kind of person could theoretically have the skills to disappear someone and possibly not get caught? A cop was the natural answer. So in addition to his problems on the job where he’s awaiting a disciplinary hearing when he’s taken the blame for one of his guys looking in the wrong place as specified by the search warrant, he has to be very careful the issue of the missing stalker doesn’t come up. In the meantime, he’s trying to investigate a new case with a new partner.

It’s the complexity of the nature of those initial questions that forged Prentiss’s creation. Add to that the fact that it was his wife that was the stalker’s target, and having the stalker be her ex-con first husband, he was forced, or so he believes, to do something in order to protect his wife and adopted daughter. He really felt he had no choice but in the aftermath, it costs him everything.

How is he like me? I have a tendency to say what I think is the right thing, and sometimes it’s not always politic to do so. Prentiss does it almost to an extreme degree, though, and it’s the conflicts and consequences to both his professional and personal lives that hopefully make him a compelling character.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Truth Always Kills set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
RO: My first book was a throwback to an earlier day of technology, essentially an early version of white collar crime performed with computers before we had the sophistication to make that sort of thing very difficult to accomplish today. New technology makes it difficult for writers to find new ways to commit certain crimes. But Truth is completely contemporary, with cell phones and everything. As for setting, I think it’s extremely important. If done well it can give a sense of the story that a reader can’t get only from the characters. Ross Macdonald is said to have used southern California as a character in his books, and I think that helps his novels immensely.

OBAAT: Do you have a specific writing style?
RO: That’s an interesting question. I know that I want to be easy to read, but not be simple. Years ago I picked up my first Dick Francis book from a grocery store checkout display (no, really, they used to have those). It was Proof and it made me feel like an idiot for staying away from his books because of the horse racing label that he was both fairly and unfairly (dare I say it?) saddled with. I loved the book and passed it to my father to read. When he was through, I asked him how he liked it and he said it was “easy to read.” I felt vaguely let down, taking that as a negative. It’s not, he said. It’s a good thing, and it turns out he liked the book very much as well (which turns out to be more about a wine merchant than a horse).

That made an impression on me. I want to be surprising, à la Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (What? He ate the painting? Ate it? I gotta read that part again…), and clear and concise. I love James Lee Burke and don’t understand when people say he’s too dense and flowery. He’s a freaking genius and he writes poetry in crime novels. But I fear if I tried to write like that I might come off as a second-rate Burke imitator. Probably won’t stop me with a book in the future, though, but for right now, I want to be easy to read, engaging, and as hard to put down as Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. But I don’t consciously copy anyone so hopefully whatever I bring to the writing table is unique to me.

It does bring up an interesting question, though, one you probably have an opinion on yourself. Once you have several books under your belt, don’t you ever wonder if you really can change your voice or your style in any substantive way and still remain original? I wonder about that. (Editor’s Note: Good question. Look for a blog post on this in the near future.)

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RO: Good god, I read everything. Well, almost. I’ve almost utterly missed the Scandinavian crime fiction movement, but like yourself am a great fan of Ireland’s finest. I think Declan Hughes has taken the American PI novel and put himself in front of that sub-genre’s line. I’m a big fan of exploration books (search for the source of the Nile, or the Northwest Passage, General Sir John Franklin’s disappearance, mountain climbing, the Mahdi uprising and Chinese Gordon), a fan of Custer books (not famous for being massacred but famous for being a famous figure who got massacred), and other sorts of non-fiction. I love pulp fiction and greatly admire writers who could and would crank out a forty thousand word novel every week, like Edmond Hamilton writing virtually every monthly Captain Future story.

What Jack Vance does with language in his mysteries, science fiction and fantasy stories will never be duplicated. Adrian McKinty. Philip Kerr. John D. MacDonald. Harry Whittington. Gil Brewer. Dan Cushman. E. Phillips Oppenheim. Rafael Sabatini. Richard Matheson. Harlan Ellison. Donald E. Westlake. Lawrence Block. And on and on. I have a TBR library, not a pile. I am a bit lacking in many of today’s genre bestsellers. This is probably a weakness on my part but I’m too often disappointed with a hollow, by the numbers feeling when the books are over.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
RO: My wife once told me that when she was talking to people about bucket lists she realized I’d already done most of the things she was hearing. I was a prolific and record-holding skydiver, I’ve been an extra in a movie, had books published, been a tournament (though not professional) tennis player, coached high school sports, been in national magazines, appeared in documentaries and on CNN. I never did anything with the idea of building up any sort of “life resume” but just sort of did things. I’d always wanted to write, though, but was nagged for years by the thought that I just didn’t have anything to say. That all changed at a writers’ retreat in the Everglades with two-time National Book Award winning Peter Matthiessen and Randy Wayne White. Randy came up to me at some point and asked where I wanted to go as a writer. I wanted to be like him, I said, with his monthly column in Outside magazine, a publication I used to greatly admire before it started publishing so many shirtless men on the covers and lionizing Lance Armstrong. Anyway, he gave me his phone numbers, told me he’d help me any way he could, and that did it, that unlocked the key that allowed me to believe in what I was doing enough to start finishing things.

(Incidentally, I only called him once, and then no more. I’d see him at conferences always followed around by the same few people. I’d look at them and say, I don’t want to be that guy. So I wasn’t, but I probably should have been.)

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
RO: To me that’s a more difficult question than most people think. When you publish your first book, people jump up and down for you and say how exciting that must be. Well, kind of. But as soon as that thing is out there, you can’t take it back, you can’t make it better. Would I write Turnabout the same way today as I did back then? Of course not. I may not even write it at all. But it’s there. And when it’s new, you wonder: will it be reviewed? How will it be reviewed? Who will buy the book? Will they like it? It’s nerve wracking. Fortunately the reviews were good and the publisher wanted more. Ultimately that’s the success, at least the first level of it, that we can hope for. At conferences you always hear how nice a community crime writers are, and that’s true, but I think that anything built on such a fickle thing as public opinion and book sales can’t help but keep the majority of writers humble.

So all that being said, what I like best about being a writer is the completion of a work. It’s done, it’s out there, and then you wait to see where the chips fall. Truth is getting some very good notices but will that translate into the popularity I hope it deserves? Beats me. There are definitely two sides to this question. What I like best about being a writer comes with the fear of the flip side of the coin.

On the other hand, it’s a damn special feeling when someone you’ve never met presents you with a copy of your book and asks you to sign it for them. As single moments go, those are hard to beat.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
RO: I don’t think in terms of influences as far as writing style goes. In other words, I don’t try to write like anyone else. I’ve done that for a page here and there during the restoration of some older manuscripts with missing pages (page 32 of Peter Rabe’s The Silent Wall is all me) I can’t imagine writing a whole book that way. None of the spark of the original writer could survive an entire book. (This is one of the reasons the only Sherlock Holmes stories I read are by Conan Doyle.) (Editor’s Note: Ditto.) Good writing inspires me, I don’t care who it’s by. Entertaining writing inspires me, like the stories of the Black Bat or Secret Agent ‘X’ with his endless though wholly unbelievable ability to disguise himself. I appreciate the effort, the craft, of other writers.

As for films and television shows and whatnot, I can love shows like The Wire but I actually think that too much TV or movie watching detracts more than adds to my accretion of skills as a writer. Other media is too much of a time eater, and while I love the storytelling in a good show, I don’t find that it carries over into my writing work. The written word provides the images in the readers’ minds. When the images are already given to me, that makes the process so different from writing that I’m not sure that as enjoyable as those shows may be, they take away more than add to my writing. That being said, the incredible ending to the remake of Leonard’s 3:10 to Yuma gives me no end of rumination. Watch closely, the other guy shoots first. But if you don’t see that, the entire movie takes on a different meaning.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
RO: Don’t outline. If I flesh out the story in advance, the energy dissipates and I want to find a new project to work on. This presents challenges and if you’re a pantser, you have to develop a toolbox and a methodology that works for you, one that won’t leave you tossing out 44,000 word manuscripts like, um, I did a few years ago. One trick is to write a scene but know what the next three to four are going to be. They can change but you always know where you’re going next, though not necessarily where you’re going to end up. You have to throw out enough strings, and crucially, enough suspects, so that when you start to gather them up in the latter stages of the book that you have logical options on where you’re going to take your story. You have to stay true to your characters and their motivations, you don’t want to create something early and not have it matter later, etc. It can be easy to get stuck and I find the best thing for me to do is to write about the scene I’m going to work on next; what’s going to happen, what needs to be revealed, etc. That frequently turns into the scene itself, especially once you start putting the dialogue down. Then you can go back to the beginning of it, revise, and add it to your book.

I do wear pants, especially in the wintertime. It’s cold in New Hampshire. Shorts in the summer, though.

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: Revising sucks. That’s the hardest part of the process for me. I can’t imagine what people are dong to themselves when they say they’re working on their seventh draft or some such thing. I learned a long time ago that for me, as a beginning writer mind games will kill you. You ask yourself questions like, is this too slow here? Do I need more action in this part? Is this boring? Am I too clumsy in introducing this back story here? Too much exposition?

I think as a writer the first thing you have to do is be able to let go enough and just write the book that’s in your head. In other words, if you write ten thousand words, then go back and read it and become horribly disappointed with what you’ve done, you will effect what you write going forward. So don’t do it. It was fine in your head before you read it, so just keep writing. Because that way you can maintain your enthusiasm and your excitement without derailing your momentum. Go back later and fix it because, you know what? It needs it. You have to. You just can’t let the knowledge of that act as a drag on you as you progress or you’ll drink Scotch whiskey and never finish.

I like to edit a little as I go, but only a little. I’ll typically write for a day, go over that stuff, and move on. Like I said earlier, writing about the book without writing the book itself can be very helpful. And actually right now I’m laying off at 70,000 words and doing an editing pass from the beginning in order to better line me up for the best possible ending I can get out of the book. Because of course, at this point, I’m not sure what that’s going to be yet. I know the things that have to happen to each of the major characters, how I want them to be scarred and affected by the end of the book, but I want to be sure I get the best plot out of all that has come before so the ending—which is always the hardest part to do well—can be the best it can be. I want the book to leave you with something other than a sense of relief when you’re done.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
RO: Butt in seat. Find a time that you can write best—morning, afternoon, middle of the night—and make it your lifestyle. You can’t enjoy having written unless you’ve actually, you know, written.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RO: Read everything. Read everyone. Care about nothing but your book. Once you finish writing it, you control absolutely nothing. Will someone buy it? Not up to you. If they do, will it succeed? Don’t be ridiculous. It takes a dozen years to be an overnight success in this racket. Bottom line: when you finish one book, take two weeks then write another. Because that is the only control you truly have.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
RO: I look at this as a trap question. You call those things components because that’s what they are, they make up your novel. Take one away, or de-emphasize one, and you end up with an unbalanced something. Barry Eisler once pointed out that characters are more important than plot. He said he could prove it, and he did. He pointed out that the day before there’d been an earthquake in China that killed hundreds of people. Did we care? No, we had no connection to them. But damn, that sonofabitch that cut us off in traffic this morning will be reviled all day long. That guy was real to us.

But if you have strong characters and a weak plot you have literary fiction, the kind where critics complain nothing happens. You need it all, and there’s no reason not to have it. The trick is in how to get them all. Give me interesting characters with a fascinating plot in a setting that I can smell through the page, and do it so the voice keeps me reading sentence after sentence, and you’ve given me a book I want to read. A fascinating character that does nothing doesn’t mean anything to me. Likewise a brilliant plot with characters I don’t like. I want it all, baby.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
RO: I’m going to give it to Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I’ve read it seven times and it’s absolutely wonderful but it has something of an experimental yet accessible structure that leaves me with a sense that I know exactly what happened in the book and am always blown away. And then ten minutes later I begin to doubt and ten minutes after that I begin to wonder what exactly it was that just happened. Again.

OBAAT: You’re also an established editor, as I know well from working with you when Grind Joint came out. What I remember and liked best about you as an editor is your collaborative attitude and light touch. What do you think are the key elements of the author-editor relationship, and how do you approach them?
RO: Tough question. As an editor you have to be very careful to understand the goals of the writer you’re working with. On a more surface level, you want to be sure a book works, and that if there are any holes or repetition that you can point those out to the author and have them work on those. Deeper than that, a good editor wants that writer to succeed and be the best writer they can be, so you want to encourage the writers to know their characters as well as they can: what motivates them? What do they want? What keeps them from getting it? Perhaps most importantly, why do they do what they do, or why are they who they are? These questions are particularly important if you’re writing a series; you need to keep it fresh and alive, and without that level of knowledge of your characters, that’s a difficult thing to do.

You always have to remember this is someone else’s work you’re helping with. If I see a problem, I need to be able to make the writer see my concern, because ultimately it’s their book, not mine, and I may think the answer would be to do this, unless the writer asks for that sort of specificity, they need to fix it themselves, the way that makes sense to them.

It’s a bit of a tightrope. Sometimes an author just wants to be told their book is good when it’s not. Sometimes they miss simple things, like a gentleman’s book I looked at where really, chapter four should be chapter one. The really good projects are the ones where the books are already really good and careful reading and two-way discussion leave the writer feeling that they have improved their books because of the work they’ve done with you.

OBAAT: Do you have anything specific to say to your readers?
RO: Other than an honest and heartfelt “thank you,” I’d probably say, “Come on, a bunch of us are going to lunch. You should come, too.”

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RO: You’ve just cut off my legs with that one. If I can’t do one or the other, it’s hang out with my kids or go to writing events. I love reading at Noir at the Bar events. I’ve been fighting a bad knee for a year and a half now and I may be looking at a second surgery. That’s cut down on the physical activity I used to enjoy, like hiking and skiing and biking. Hopefully that will turn around at some point.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
RO: I have an April deadline for the next book. It’s my “P.I.” novel called Mad Dog Barked, and like Truth Always Kills, is written in the first person. I’m missing the sort of structure I can use in the third person to build suspense and work with multiple narratives, but I hope this one turns out as well as I think Truth did. I just finished an introductory essay for the first ever paperback edition of Malcolm Braly’s autobiography, False Starts, and if I have time I have a short story or two I’d like to get done.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to spout off, Dana. It’s been an honor.

*  *  *
The honor has been mine, Rick. I sometimes feel a little guilty, sending out twenty questions to authors I know are already overwhelmed. I get over it, sure, but there’s always that moment. Many thanks to Rick for taking the time to get into some detail. It’s much appreciated, and I will follow up on his question / challenge as soon as I can.

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