Rick Ollerman is the author of four crime novels. His first two novels, Turnabout and Shallow Secrets, were published as a “double” by Stark House Press in 2014 and he has produced one published title each year since. His most recent novel, Mad Dog Barked—a Sarasota, Florida Private Eye novel—was released earlier this week. His work is consistently good, and each novel is better than the last; increased complexity in both plot and characterization and a creeping moral ambiguity that suits the genre he writes.
You have written several excellent introductions for the Stark House editions of classic crime novels from writers as varied as Peter Rabe, W. R. Burnett, Charles Williams, Andrew Coburn, and Ed Gorman. Do you have a favorite author or novel from the essays you’ve written for Stark House?
I’ve written something like fifteen of them, I think. They’re actually going to be collected into their own book (at Ed Gorman’s suggestion) sometime soon. I don’t think I can really pick a favorite. For each one, I try to find something unique to say about the writers themselves, or express a perspective that I haven’t seen explored.
For instance, one I wrote on Peter Rabe tries to get to the heart of why his writing is so much different than other writers’. The one I wrote for James Hadley Chase that talks about his being duped by the actor George Sanders and the Hollywood mafia. He ended up in exile as did his friend, Graham Greene, and it was fun to do because it was only discovered the two men had been friends after both had passed.
For the Charles Williams piece, I tried to do something somewhat comprehensive because he was a very private man and not much is known about him (there’s a Spanish biography out there, which I have but cannot read or easily have translated). The essay is probably too long but I tried to offer a credible opinion of why he isn’t as well-known as many readers think he should be. Also, there were three versions out there of how he died, the most poetic of which followed the endings of several of his books. I sent for a copy of his death certificate and at least settled that question.
Along the same line, do you have any specific writers, stories or novels that have inspired your writing?
“Inspired” is the tricky word here. I’ve always been inspired by any author and any book that is fun to read and offers something I haven’t seen before. Writers like Harlan Ellison and Charles Dickens seem to have a direct wire into my brain when I read them, and others like Jack Vance and James Lee Burke write so beautifully that I would never attempt to do what they’ve done but their work often strikes me with awe. Specific books are another matter. The first two books by Randy Wayne White in his Doc Ford series felt like the Florida I wanted to live in for so long. The same for the first couple of Thorn books by James W. Hall. But really, there are so, so many….
Your first two novels, Turnabout and Shallow Secrets, were published as a “double” from Stark House in 2014. Would you tell us a little about each and how you came to write them?
Other than writing Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigator-type stories when I was in elementary school, it was difficult for me to get very far into writing a novel. I did not have a supportive family as far as doing the things I wanted to do. I’d be told things like, “You can’t do that, it’s too hard,” or “Very few people can make that happen,” or even “Other people do those things.” But I never stopped trying, as well as writing a short story here and there.
Then I saw an ad in the newspaper for a writers’ retreat to be held in the Everglades with two-time National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen and Randy Wayne White. We all stayed at this small resort on the edge of the glades with dozens of alligators lining both sides of the man-made channel out to the Gulf of Mexico. And we wrote a lot during the long weekend. Both Peter and Randy (as well as everyone else) said very nice things about my writing and when I got home, just like that I could keep going, and I sat down and wrote Turnabout.
One of the most important things every writer has to overcome is whatever lack of confidence may be lurking in their subconscious. I tell people who are struggling not to reread what they’ve already written but to go ahead and write the book they think they’ve written, continue with the version that’s in your mind. Early on, when you read your own stuff all you do is find the faults. In some ways it’s like hearing your own voice on tape: what’s coming back doesn’t sound like you, at least to your own ear. A writer has to get past this, and for me it was some little switch that got turned on at that conference.
There was some publisher interest in it when I was finished but this was back in the day where every protagonist had to be an alcoholic vet ex-cop who accidentally killed a kid on the job (enough already; Lawrence Block already gave us Matthew Scudder). One editor told me the book was publishable but she didn’t like the main character. What I had done was take an ordinary guy, mess him up for a while, then give him his life back. You can do that now, but you couldn’t do that so much then. Another editor had me overnight the manuscript to her but then she lost it and I let it go.
There’s only one thing you can control in this business and that’s the writing itself. Everything else is someone else’s doing. I thought rather than flog the first book to death, I’d just start writing the second, which became Shallow Secrets. I wanted to do some things differently from the first book, and hopefully better. You always want to get better without repeating yourself. Back then, there was no e-mail so making copies and sending queries and synopses and sample chapters and entire manuscripts was really time consuming so I just took the attitude that if I just kept writing, and if I had talent, and if a bit of luck came my way, the rest would take care of itself. And more or less it has.
My understanding is you wrote these novels several years before their publication, and both take place in the past. When were they written? Was there any temptation to update the novels’ settings to match the publication date?
They were certainly contemporary when I wrote them, and they’re not even horribly outdated now. There were no cell phones, which would have made a difference, and there was the internet but no world wide web at that point. The problem was that after I wrote those first two, I experienced the beginning of what has become a chronic health problem. I went to a doctor for a series of epidural injections in my back and on the third one he punctured the dura mater in my spine and caused my spinal fluid to leak away. I lost feeling in my legs and he knew what he did but he sent me home anyway. I ended up bedridden for eight months, unable to be upright for more than seconds at a time. The brain sags in the skull and they call these things “spinal headaches” but the pain is so far beyond anything you would think of as a headache.
Anyway, when I finally recovered from that, I ended up with more symptoms. Long story short I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and then more than a decade later, Lyme disease, which I’d probably had all along. I had to quit my job and severely curtail what I did physically. When they finally identified what was going on with me and I got treatment, some of my symptoms improved and finally, finally, finally, I could write again.
I did give updating the books a brief thought but I realized they would just end up being different books. Technology had advanced so the plots would have to change, I wouldn’t have written them the same way, in the same style, etc. A book is always a point in time thing, affected by whatever’s happening in your life, in the world, everything. Ultimately I thought they needed to stand as they were. More writing was going to be new writing.
How did it feel to see the novels in print for the first time?
Like I could do better. I know that’s not what you mean but that’s really how I felt. Anyway, I think that with each book I have.
The protagonist in Turnabout is a regular guy who gets caught up in extraordinary events. As a writer, what is appealing about writing this type of character?
To me, not every story has to come out of Joseph Campbell or written to a three-act structure or feature the same sorts of characters that happen to be hot at the moment. Is it possible to write about an upper middle class sort of guy who isn’t a government employee or weapons or Krav Maga specialist? Of course it is, or at least it should be. It certainly seems to be more acceptable now than it was when I wrote the book. There are no terrorists here, or superheroes and villains. But there are ordinary vices taken to extraordinary levels and when there’s a man to stand up against them, he can be more easily to relate to when he’s more or less the guy living down the street.
That’s just that book, though. I haven’t written a series and each of my main characters is different, and probably more complex with each book. Whenever you write about someone, you go through the same sort of universe building you do for the book itself. Each character has their own set of morals and ethics, there are things he or she would and wouldn’t do, and there are things done to them to which they’ll react according to who they are. The thing you must not do is violate those “rules” you’ve given yourself; you can’t have a reader think, “He would never do whatever he just did, that changes my whole image of the character.” That’s probably one of the easiest ways to get your book thrown against the wall.
Your third novel, Truth Always Kills, features multi-layered protagonist, Jeff Prentiss. A self-destructing St. Petersburg, Florida homicide detective under investigation for corruption. He is in danger of losing his marriage and his adopted daughter. His decisions, driven by the desire to protect his family, seem to make his situation graver page by page. Would you tell us a little about where the idea for Truth Always Kills came from, and maybe a little about how you kept Jeff Prentiss likable and believable?
Truth Always Kills was my “what if” book, where I asked a series of questions that gave me the plot and the crime and the characters. For instance, if the FBI tells us the only accurate predictor we have of murder is stalking, what do you do if you know that and that your significant other is being targeted? You can get a restraining order but that usually makes things worse, and you’d also be revealing yourself to the cops. So how can you stop this and protect your wife? Can you do it mentally? Do you have the practical know-how to make someone “disappear”?
Why in a courtroom are the lawyers the only ones not sworn to tell the truth? I was involved in a court case once where the public defender said my client is innocent repeatedly and then when the judge found in my favor, the first thing the defendant did was turn around and apologize to me, hoping to mitigate his sentence. But how should the lawyer feel about that? Clearly she was lying in court….
Why is prostitution illegal and pornography not? (This gave me the crime.)
If a cop finds evidence during a search that was outside the scope of the search warrant, it is excluded. In what I wrote in the book, it hands down proved a man was a killer. But the evidence was tossed and it went free. Why, Jeff Prentiss asked? If I did an illegal search prosecute me for that, but you can’t let this guy go….
I always want to make the reader feel something and in this case, it was Prentiss’s pain as he did what he knew to be right even though other people could get hurt. It weighs on him, tears him up, but in the end, he can’t really see any other choice. But this creates secrets and keep him from trusting the people that really want to help him. Prentiss is trapped in a pool of quicksand that’s mostly of his own making but still, he can’t get out.
Ed Gorman gave a cover blurb that says, “This one has the power to hurt you.” I didn’t know that was coming until I saw the printed book and when I did I thought, that’s absolutely perfect. That is precisely what I was trying to do. Prentiss is a tragic figure through circumstance; in a way, what happened to him could almost happen to anyone. What helps keep the book interesting as well is when innocent people suffer for what Prentiss has done. He starts out screwed and ends up screweder.
The catalyst for Truth Always Kills is a character that never makes a live appearance on page, Roy Lee Evans. He is the source of most of Prentiss’ problems. Why did you choose to leave him as a background character—a decision I liked very much—rather than give him an active role?
It was more powerful to do it that way. When people ask me what happened to him I just tell them, “You know.” But I never explicitly say, or rather I never have Prentiss explicitly say. In a way he can’t because he’s trying to protect his wife. Which, ironically, leads to more problems for him, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I meant when I said he does what he thinks he has to but people close to him get hurt anyway. And leaving such a key element to be resolved by the reader’s mind is, I think, a really powerful way for them to figure out that particular part of the book.
Your forthcoming novel is titled Mad Dog Barked. It is a Sarasota, Florida based private-eye novel. Would you tell us a little about it?
Too many people seem to think the PI novel is dead, or that there’s nothing new to say there. But if you think about it, if someone is arrested for something, the DA’s office has their own investigators, the police force, police labs, the FBI, and all the resources of government at his disposal. But what does the defendant have?
I wanted the PI in Mad Dog specialize in those criminal cases where the defendant simply has very few options in the face of all that government firepower. The agency also does the run of the mill background checks and cheating spouses cases, but the protagonist has other people that work those things.
A theme materialized somewhere in the book when I realized that several characters had betrayed other people in the book. When I recognized that as a theme, I was able to use that and make a good guy turn out to actually be a bad guy and it helped define the main character’s background throughout the book.
Scott Porter, the protagonist for Mad Dog Barked, is your most complicated character yet. He is, if not quite morally ambiguous, a character with a moral code all his own. Would you tell us a little about how you created him?
I wanted Porter to be his own man. He’s free and open around the office, but his employees don’t even know where he lives or even his home phone number. He’s a charismatic guy, very capable, but he’s got a private side. Part of it is convenience for his work—he can do things that the law would certainly frown upon but he’s arrogant enough to think that it’s something appropriate for him to do. His own employees often don’t know what he’s working on or where he goes when he leaves the office. I wanted him to be mysterious in that way, but also charming and likeable but with an edge: when push comes to shove, Porter is really capable of anything. That’s what I wanted to come across anyway, and it’s a subtle thing.
Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Can you trust him or not? If he is a good guy and is trustworthy, why does he so assiduously protect his “outside the office” activities? Again, it’s subtle but when Porter is on the page, I want the reader to never quite be certain who this man is they’re supposedly rooting for.
Florida has been the setting for many terrific crime stories over the past sixty or seventy years. It has been used by both native and non-native writers such as John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and others. It is also the setting for all of your novels to date. As a writer, what do you find appealing about Florida?
Anything goes in Florida, and that’s too bad. After flooding in the 1930s the governor of the state had levees built around Lake Okeechobee, helping to choke off the slow moving fresh water supply for the Everglades. Big Sugar comes in and does the same. Unchecked development is a wonderment to watch. When a new subdivision goes in, the developers bulldoze the land flat then burn the trees and bushes that were there. It’s like they’re taking Florida a bite at a time and remaking it into communities of cardboard houses that stand six feet apart.
When I lived in St. Petersburg, we’d go to the beach at Pas-a-grille, where Day Keene had a house and Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer would hang out. Now you can swim in the water until mid-July and then the red tide blooms and you can choke on the air and swim with dead fish carcasses bumping against you or just stay away.
Disney World and the other theme parks used to be destinations for people like us but now they raise ticket prices two dollars every week—I don’t know who can afford to go. No one obeys traffic laws. There was a time using your horn in Miami was taking your life into your own hands. Everyone owns a gun. Burglary is everywhere.
One time when I was playing basketball at a park, two guys kept jawing at each other over a foul call. They finished the game and then each one went to the trunks of their cars and pulled out hand guns. Fortunately there was a cop down the street and someone ran down to get them, otherwise we’re all just sitting on picnic tables wondering what’s going to happen next.
Ted Bundy. Danny Rolling. Serial killers like the sunshine.
Giant cockroaches, or palmetto bugs, that give you vertigo when you flick on the light switch and waves of waxy brown bodies flow to the drains. Corroding aluminum gutters. Termites.
Hurricanes and flooding.
So really, what’s not to like?
What about as a reader?
If you can convey some of those things I listed in your writing, the reader can get a sense of a very vivid, almost larger than life atmosphere. When the sun goes down but the temperature is still warmer than the highs from the plains states, when the mosquitoes make so much noise it sounds like someone blowing in the end of a Coke bottle, if you can get the reader to feel the dampness in the air, that humidity that causes loose papers and book covers to curl, and the unrelenting sunshine—it’s a target rich environment for setting an atmosphere.
Do you have any favorite novels or writers that use Florida as a setting?
Randy Wayne White’s Sanibel Flats and The Heat Islands. I want to live in that Florida. James W. Hall’s first two or three Thorn books. Peter Matthiessen’s Watson trilogy is just brilliant. And then there are so many other authors who capture one or two elements of Florida that are just spot on, even if their books as a whole don’t stand out. And of course John D. MacDonald, Harry Whittington, Day Keene, Gil Brewer, all from the PBO (paperback original era) give a feel for a Florida that to a large degree will never be again.
I heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?
You know that’s an impossible question, right? I’d have to say John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which to me, if there’s such a thing as the Great American Novel, has to be right up there. Another choice might be a collection of essays from Harlan Ellison called An Edge in My Voice.
The opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?
That’s actually an easy one. First, I never want to write the same book twice. I don’t want to phone one in and I always want to push the characters, the plots and the endings as much as I can, trying to make each book more un-putdownable than the last. So the answer is the most recent book, in this case Mad Dog Barked. Then I’d suggest work your way backward to the beginning books. I don’t write a series so this works fine and as an author, it’s really a way of putting your best foot forward to new readers.