Rick Ollerman is the author of four crime fiction and suspense novels. He has worked as both a freelance editor and as an editor for a small press, and edited and contributed to the reference book Paperback Confidential, a collection of short essays on paperback original era authors. He has also written more than a dozen essays that have been used as introductions for other books, as well as several short stories, including one in the upcoming anthology Waiting to be Forgotten. Today Rick sits down for an interview with us. Learn more about Rick and his books at his website.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
I always wanted to write something, back from when I was a kid and writing and illustrating books that were derived from the great “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” books. When my grandfather, who had been a journalist, gave me his old typewriter, I had a way to make the stories at least look better. But it’s been a lifelong thing.
I grew up in a family where you couldn’t be a writer because it was “too hard,” you couldn’t be an astronaut or a race car driver because those were “too hard.” I was supposed to be a physicist or a doctor—apparently those would be easy.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
The problem I had with writing is, I think, a common one when you start too young. You start a piece, but you can get overwhelmed by feeling you haven’t anything to say. I think this might come from reading soooo much. Then I think when you start writing, you have to overcome the voices that constantly question everything you do: is this section too fast? Too slow? Boring? Developing confidence in what you’re doing—or putting it another way, getting past those childhood voices where you were always told that writing was “too hard”—is key for new writers. Until you can just sit down and write, completely unselfconsciously, you’re letting yourself in for a difficult time.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author?
I am a traditionally published author. A hybrid might be something to try if your readership is so large they’ll look for your books without publicity or a store presence, but I’m not a fan of self-publishing in general because I’m afraid it ups the background noise. And like Cory Doctorow says, the biggest problem an author faces is probably obscurity.
You need to somehow rise above the noise, to get to that place where readers will pick your new books and not just the same old bestselling writers year after year. Although there are clearly exceptions, I’m afraid that so many self-published titles raise the noise level so high that only the huge guys can rise above it easily. If you believe the axiom that you’re not a writer until someone else says you’re a writer, the wave of self-published titles just makes that a bit harder, I think.
Where do you write?
On a reclining chair with my laptop in my lap. Or anywhere, really. I’ve been known to pull over my car or motorcycle on the highway shoulder to get down some thoughts to a problem my subconscious has been working on.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
Silence could be golden, but I don’t have that sort of hermetically sealed workspace. I listen to music, mostly jazz, usually Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Art Blakey and the like. I seem to be able to tune it out as it covers the background noise of the house and lends a certain energy. Can’t have anything with words, though. Breaks the spell completely.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular?
I take that as almost three separate questions. For plots, I never want to write the same book twice. A pet peeve, if that’s a good term, is that there are so many writers who write two or three really great books, then settle into a formula and do a book a year that way for twenty years. I don’t want to do that. I like to ask “what if” and “why” questions to come up with the plots. In Truth Always Kills, I try to ask a lot: if the FBI says stalking is the only accurate predictor we have of murder, what do you do if you know this and you see your significant other being targeted?
Why are lawyers the only ones in a courtroom that aren’t sworn to tell the truth?
Why throw out good evidence found on a search warrant just because it wasn’t where you were supposed to be allowed to look? Why not keep the evidence but prosecute the police officer for the “bad” search?
Those questions helped define the main character. For the rest of the plot/crime, I asked a few more: why is prostitution legal and pornography isn’t?
I also derived a character from real life, though I had him appear as a corpse. There was a case where a man was caught with stolen jewelry in his possession. The cops knew they didn’t have enough to likely get anything meaningful, but he did agree to a complete confession in return for immunity. When he gave his testimony, not only did he confess to the one crime but to a whole litany of others the police had no idea about. It turned out he was a longstanding and very efficient cat burglar that they hadn’t a clue had been operating for years.
The deal gave him immunity but afterwards the police made his life a living hell. If someone put on a mask and held up a convenience store, they’d pull him in and search his house, ignoring the fact that the description of the robbers showed them to be of a different race, etc.
Generally speaking, though, I think there’s something of yourself in virtually all of your characters. For me, I think it mostly shows up in the dialog, and with my sense of humor.
Describe your process for naming your character?
That is such a hard thing for me to do. I have a prejudice against unusual names, or ones that seem pretentious to me. For instance, I’d never name a character ‘Atticus’ or ‘Beauregard’ or ‘Geronimo Falcon,’ anything like that. I think it’s a weak point for me, but I tend to stick to ordinary or more common names, even though they may not stick out as much in the reader’s mind as the probably ought.
The best name I probably came up with was for my second book, Shallow Secrets. I needed a name for a fictional reporter and somehow came up with the name ‘Sabrina.’ A few years later, when we were pregnant with our first child and my wife and I couldn’t decide on a name, I finally told my wife ‘Seabiscut’ (this was before the book and movie came out) would be on her birth certificate. Then my wife remembered Sabrina from Shallow Secrets, which had not yet been published, and that became her name.
Real settings or fictional towns?
Real settings, but not too detailed. Everything changes so fast. If I ever did do a fictional town, I think I would either simply leave it unnamed, or do an Ed McBain and use a made up name for an obvious real town.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has?
I’m not sure about quirks, but in Truth Always Kills, I wanted the lead character to have enough of a short temper that he couldn’t keep himself from fighting all the injustices that he saw not only in his own life but in his job as a police officer. The point of this was to show that he was his own worst enemy when in fact he is by far the only person in the book who is trying to do the best thing for everybody. It ruins his life and doesn’t necessarily make the lives of those around him any better.
What’s your quirkiest quirk?
It is probably that I will say inappropriate things in front of my two children, aged 14 and 12, just because I think they are so dang funny. Not too inappropriate mind you, but enough to provoke a mild shock along with the laughter. You have to remember we home school the kids so that so much of me rubs off on them, you either have to admire their maturity levels or feel very, very sorry for them.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
It probably wouldn’t even be a crime fiction book. I think I’d have to say Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I’ve read it six or seven times and it’s based on a future shipload of humans that have crashed on a planet some time in the far future where Earth is barely remembered. Some of survivors were able to take on what they call Aspects and then wield Attributes, which were powers modeled after the Hindu pantheon of gods. The story is one of the privileged fighting against what’s become the ruling class for the good of all the people, even when it would have been so much easier for him just to join them and live a long, easy life. Structurally, it is an extremely unconventional book and while it makes perfect sense as soon as I finish it, within a few hours I always start scratching my head, asking, “What really just happened?” and more importantly, “How did Zelazny write that book?” Amazing stuff.
Everyone at some point wishes for a do-over. What’s yours?
Oh, it’s got to be the first novel, followed by the second, etc. Lisa Unger says to read the most recent of her books and then go back to the beginning if you’d like. I think there’s a lot to be said for that—your latest book should be your best. And I haven’t written a series or a sequel at this point, so that’s especially easy for my books. I should say though that I think reading your own books can be a lot like hearing your voice on tape: you know it’s you but it just doesn’t sound like you think you should, and not in a good way.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Piles of mess. I want to string fishing line above all the flat surfaces in the house so my wife stops making new piles, sort of like what they do to keep the seabirds away from the tables at outdoor restaurant in Florida. Start a task, complete the task, be done with the task. Not start a task, do most of it, then put it in a pile somewhere to be completed at some point in the future. Your life will always be behind. Argh.
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves?
I’d say my family but I wouldn’t want to subject them to the hardship. So aside from food, water and sunscreen, I’d have to go with pens and paper to write with, jazz music, and a clear view of the stars.
What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
Have you ever de-tasseled corn? Don’t ever de-tassel corn. I ended up getting fired because the boss thought I was someone else. I didn’t even think to correct him. May be the only time I’ve ever wanted to kiss a man.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
I can’t do that one. Each book you read gives you something unique. Quite often the result is an ordinary or non-spectacular one, but then you read a Parker novel by Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake and some of your breath is stolen away and you again wonder, how the hell did he come up with all that?
Ocean or mountains?
I’ve lived in Florida for most of my life. We had a house on the water on Tampa Bay that I never thought I’d sell. And then we had kids, and that was no place to raise children. Florida has a lot of issues when you don’t live the lifestyle of the Rich and Famous. So we moved to New Hampshire to be in the White Mountain area. I knew that if I were going to give up the water I wanted the mountains. So I have to give you a qualified ‘both.’
City girl/guy or country girl/guy?
Grew up in the city but the traffic and crime drives me to the country. Where the regional parochialism and prejudices aren’t the happiest things, but I’ll take the country and suffer the rest.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Just turned in my fourth novel, Mad Dog Barked, which should be out in time for Bouchercon. Next is a true crime book about a case where a mother fled the country and spent ten years in hiding in order to protect her daughter from her (allegedly) predatory ex-husband, as well as putting together an anthology in honor of the late Gary Shulze. Gary and his wife Pat ran the Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis for many years, affecting the lives and careers of many young writers and earning MWA’s Raven Award along the way. He lost his second battle with leukemia in April and the book will hopefully raise money for a worthwhile charity. So far we have writers like Scott Phillips, William Kent Kreuger, Reed Farrel Coleman, and a whole lot more lined up. And conventions, a few short stories, and the start of a new novel.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books?
I hope that people out there are willing to give some of the newer writers a look. It’s easy to buy every new Michael Connelly or Lee Child book that comes out, but they had to come from somewhere, and there are those of us who are going to follow them. The best feeling you can give an author in this soul-crushing business is to buy their book and review it, good or bad. Notice them. The only thing an author controls is writing the books. After that, they’re dandelion seeds in the wind, hoping to find a home.
Truth Always Kills
A cop in departmental trouble knows his wife is being stalked, but feels helpless to do anything about it. Does he report it and bring undue attention to himself, or should he take matters into his own hands, and damn the consequences?