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Thursday, August 3, 2017

HARDBOILED AND COVERED IN NOIR—PART ONE

HARDBOILED AND COVERED IN NOIR—PART ONE

Rick Ollerman is a force to be reckoned with—master skydiver, world record holder, columnist, essayist, editor, author, and expert on the hardboiled and noir genres. His critically lauded and entertaining introductions for many of Stark House Press’ reprints of classic crime novels have provided new insights into the authors behind the brass knuckles and darkly twisted dames. Now, Stark House has collected these introductions, along with several new essays, in Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the 50s through the 90s—a must read for every true fan of stylish fiction.
 
Rick’s writing brings the subjects of his focus to life in engaging and informative fashion. The drive of his narrative is compelling, setting the reader up in high anticipation of the stories to follow. The gestalt of each overview adds a depth and context to an author and his works, which alone is worth the price of admission.
 
Rick has written four novels (Turnabout, Shallow Secrets, Truth Always Kills, Mad Dog Barked) set in the hash heat and dirty secrets behind the Florida sunshine. 
 
Rick has been coerced into stepping under the bright lights of the interrogation room to spill the secrets behind his works...
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If your life took a turn for the noir and you found yourself on the run from the police and the mobster boyfriend of the dame running with you, what details would be included in an all-points bulletin?
 
If that were really the case I’d try to point the people looking for me to a three foot midget with long hair, platform shoes and an eye patch, but I don’t think that’s what you’re going for. I’m a shade over six feet tall, about 180 pounds, I have no idea what my eye color is and, although I know my real age, it seems up for debate. 
 
I was picking up some copies of DVDs made from VHS tapes provided by Harry Whittington’s estate, and the guy who did the work asked if I was in my late thirties or early forties. Late thirties, he finally decided.
 
On the other hand, I did a Noir @ the Bar in Austin after last year’s Bouchercon and I went into a Schlotzsky’s sandwich shop. The guy behind the register said he didn’t think I quite qualified for the senior discount, but he’d help me out. I was so excited to have finally found a Schlotzsky’s again it took a minute to register what he’d said.
 
After being flustered and drooling on myself for a minute, I asked him just how old he thought I was. He told me he was really good at this and he guessed a number younger than I was but still much higher than the upper thirties from the DVD guy. Well, I thought automatically, I’ll show this guy how good he is, and I told him I was seven years older than his guess.
 
Then I walked away to one of those magic Coke machines, the ones where you can pick all the unusual flavors and mix and match until you get something truly disgusting, and thought, Wow, what the hell did I just do?
 
So clearly, in answer to your original question, the best thing I could possibly do would be to go to my nearest sandwich shop, take out my teeth, gum a grilled cheese sandwich and some cottage cheese, yell at children, then call 911 and surrender.
 
What were your earliest reading influences?
 
The first one had to be the Sunday paper. They would publish this comic strip each week and feature a letter of the alphabet. I’d cut each of those out as soon as they’d come out and then go over them again and again until the next one came. After a while, it seems I’d learned to read.
 
Then I’d haunt the library. There was the patch of woods, then a short cut through the cemetery and the little league fields, down the hill, and finally the library in Simsbury, CT. The Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, the usual suspects. Then for some reason (probably reports for school), I became a fan of biographies. As I grew up, I followed the fairly typical path of science fiction to crime fiction, then to bestsellers and classics, back to crime, then to the discovery of classic crime fiction. But always a bit of everything. 
 
What books or authors were your introduction to the hardboiled and noir genres?
 
That’s a tough question. It probably has to do with reprint paperbacks of The Avenger, The Shadow and Doc Savage. I’d pick those up wherever I could find them. They were exciting and fresh, even though they were old, if that makes sense. And if they were old, there had to be similar things between what was written back then and what was being written now, which might be even better, right?
 
My mother would also pull me along when she went to estate sales in Minneapolis. She didn’t want to go alone and no one else wanted to go with her. She could turn me loose and I’d haunt the places for their books, and if I found something interesting, I’d try to talk her into ponying up, which she often would. I picked up a few things this way, most of which I’ve forgotten, but one book I still have, which is an Edgar Allan Poe collection. There’s nothing like reading The Raven aloud for the first time.
 
For me, old didn’t mean old as in over with, it meant old as in ready to be rediscovered. Somewhere in there came The Maltese Falcon with all its brilliant dialogue, and the quintessential noir, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which to this day is the book I tell people is the answer to their question, What is noir?
 
Anyway, the more I found, the more I kept wanting to find more.
 
What was it about hardboiled crime stories and the darkness of noir that developed your obsessions with the genres?
 
In all fiction, characters and plot are intertwined to make worthwhile books, but in the hardboiled and noir genres, voice becomes really critical to the reading experience. Take Lou Ford’s voice out of The Killer Inside Me, and Jim Thompson’s book becomes a completely different story. Adding all three of these things in a crime setting can be an extremely heady and intoxicating mix.
 
Many of the character in hardboiled and noir books have over-developed or under-developed moral codes, and those are interesting enough, but what can be even more interesting are the characters who exist in the grey in-between. I have a character in Truth Always Kills where I dump impossible choice upon impossible choice on him, and he almost can’t help himself from doing what he knows is right even though these decisions often have very grave consequences for himself and those around him.
 
I write about a private eye in Mad Dog Barked where his moral compass points more toward the ends justify the means star, but he tries not to push the boundaries that much. Even though, he slices the pie thin enough to do the right thing, even at certain costs to himself,  he’s arrogant enough he won’t let those around him see it, or help him through it. And that’s assuming he can even admit it to himself.
 
I’m not sure how these sorts of characters would have been possible for me to write without the background in hardboiled and noir literature. They make me strive harder for the voice, work harder for the non-cookie cutter characters—I certainly don’t want to give you the feeling of having been there, done that, or being able to guess the ending or solve the mystery ahead of the book—and most of all, I try to provide the same breathless level of entertainment readers used to get from the days of the old paperback originals. The books are longer now, but I often get remarks by readers saying they couldn’t put the books down. That’s perfect. It reminds me of someone like Harry Whittington, who when he was on, would have you turning pages as fast as you could so you could finally let out the breath you didn’t know you’d been holding.
 
You’ve cited Randy Wayne White and Ed Gorman as early mentors. How did you meet them and how did their encouragement and guidance shape you as a writer?
 
I met Randy along with Peter Mattiessen at a writers’ retreat in the Everglades a long time ago, after Randy’s third book (under his own name) was published. Peter, a wonderful man who was really a terror behind the wheel of a car, said extremely encouraging things about my writing. Over the course of the long weekend, I’d also received positive feedback from every one of the attendees. This was very important to me as a young writer. We probably all have those moments, those times where you’ve gone to conferences, you’ve studied ad nauseaum, you’ve read books—some you agree with (Lawrence Block, for me), others you don’t (most of the rest)—and it comes time you just feel you must sit down and grind it out. There’s nothing else to do. It’s now or never. The next stage in learning how to write a novel is by writing a novel, otherwise it’s all repeat.
 
Randy pulled me aside one day at lunch and asked me where I wanted to go with my writing. At the time, he had taken the place of Tim Cahill in Outside magazine, and I was a huge fan. He wasn’t yet publicly acknowledging the two series he’d written earlier under two different pseudonyms, and he told me he had switched to the first person perspective for his fourth book in his Doc Ford series. I asked him how he liked it, and he said he was finding it easier.
 
Anyway, I told him basically I wanted to be him. I wanted to write non-fiction pieces with the same touches of humor and humanity he and Cahill were known for, and while I personally found his third Doc Ford book a bit off, his first two, Sanibel Flats and The Heat Islands, are breathtaking examples of what’s come to be recognized as the Florida book or genre. He gave me his two private numbers and told me he’d do anything he could to help, except for one thing—he wouldn’t read a manuscript. He wouldn’t read any Florida writer’s manuscript for concern of becoming tainted.
 
So I went home and started a novel. I called him once, when I was about ten thousand words in, mainly because I didn’t want to lose touch. I told him where I was and he said, “Oh, don’t worry. In my experience, once you hit ten thousand words you’ll finish the book.” And that was it. Afterward, I pretty much let it go. I kept going to conferences in Florida and see Randy surrounded by the same couple of people. I thought to myself, I don’t want to be one of those guys. As a result, I kept my distance. Randy went on to become a bestseller, I was never a groupie, and Randy probably doesn’t remember me even a little.
 
As for Ed Gorman, you don’t have to go far to find people who haven’t praised him for his support and friendship above and beyond over the years. When he passed away a couple of years ago, his loss sent ripples through the community. And although I spoke at his funeral, I never actually met him. When I got to the service, I thought I might be the only one in that situation, but it turns out it wasn’t the case. I knew Ed didn’t like to travel, but I had no idea he didn’t even like to get in an elevator.
 
I first discovered Ed through his blog. It was a wonderful source of information for a newcomer to the paperback original world like me. A few years later, I remembered Ed had mentioned two unpublished manuscripts by the late, great Peter Rabe, and I got hold of him and the manuscripts through Stark House Press (I wrote about this in my new non-fiction collection). I was able to edit these and see them through to publication—a terrific project. For so reason, Ed took an interest in my career. He began writing nice things about me, at one point saying in his opinion my first book, Turnabout, should have been nominated for the Edgar award as Best First Novel. A bit ridiculous, I thought, but a beautiful gesture on behalf of Ed.
 
Later, he requested, through Stark House, I write an essay to introduce a pair of his books they were reprinting. Again, I wrote about this in my new collection so I won’t repeat it all here, but he sent me an e-mail thanking me heartily, telling me this was a piece he could show his grandchildren. It was one of those few occasions where you have visceral proof the words you sometimes wield have actual power on people.
 
You had some tough health experiences forcing you to stop writing for an extended period. Has that affected your writing in the long run—for better or worse—and if so, how?
 
Oh, man. That’s actually a difficult thing when you read it—as opposed to BS about it in person—and it’s hard to write about. Hmm.
 
First, the health issues are not over, and they may never be. To quote the doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock up here in New Hampshire, “Medicine is very good at telling you what you don’t have. You don’t have [insert large list here]. We don’t know what you do have. In the meantime, all we can do is treat your symptoms.” This is not what you want to hear from your doctors. You want a problem. You want a cure. You want a recovery. You want your life back. Sometimes, however, they won’t give it to you.
 
I had finished writing my first book, and I thought it was okay. There had been some publishing interest—one editor told me it was publishable, but she didn’t like how I’d taken an ordinary guy, messed up his life, then let him get things back to normal. This was back in the day when all male protagonists had to be alcoholic Vietnam vets who had become cops and accidentally killed a young child/allowed a young child to be killed while on duty. Another one read the synopsis and sample chapters and had her secretary request the full manuscript via FedEx. I sent it, but didn’t hear back from her. Everyone tells me this means she lost it, which happens, but I never followed up.
 
Why, you ask? Because I had time. I’d started another book, and the only thing you can control in this business is the writing. If you try to sell, sell, sell all the time, when would you write? Meanwhile, in theory, with each book you get better, cream would rise, etc., etc.
 
Just don’t get sick.
 
There was a problem with the heel of my left foot. It got so bad I couldn’t put weight on it while I was walking during my IT day job. I ended up having two surgeries on my heel before I realized it was really my back causing the problem. I was referred to a doctor for some injections into my back. The first two didn’t help, and I almost didn’t go back for the third. We went to him because he had a fluoroscope. I couldn’t understand how it could help when it was more or less behind him, and then when he punctured my dura mater, I lost all feeling from my waist down,  and things got worse.
 
He knew what he’d done, but he didn’t tell me. Some feeling came back after a while, but unbeknownst to me the cerebrospinal fluid continued to leak. This is the stuff, which among other things, keeps your brain floating in your skull. Two days later, I couldn’t be upright, the pain was so bad. They call them spinal headaches, but they are so much worse than anything with the label headache. I did try to drive the fifty miles to my office the next day because I’m an idiot, but I was screaming when I got there. I dove to the floor, told the first person who found me I was going home, then drove all the way back, literally screaming. It burned out my throat but it actually helped the pain.
 
It was eight months before I could walk for longer than a few seconds. I worked with a laptop on my stomach while I lay on a fold out bed, largely unable to sleep. I went through several repair procedures (which didn’t work), several diagnostic procedures (which found nothing), and just outlasted it. When that was done, I had a whole new set of symptoms.
 
I’ll stop there before I move into fifteen years or so of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (now about to be promoted to a disease), chronic Lyme disease, etc. When I was still working in IT there was a time when I had to write down everything I worked on, and what I did, or I either wouldn’t remember it or would jumble it together. We had a vice-president who would come in and tell me how brave I was, and every time I would tell her this wasn’t bravery—bravery involved a choice of doing something with risk to potentially benefit another party. What I was going through was a series of really bad breaks—or maybe I’d stepped on too many ants in a previous life or something.
 
But no, I couldn’t write at all during this period. I couldn’t hold anything in my head long enough to make sense of anything. Interestingly enough, when I finally did get back to writing, I came back better than I had been. The learning curve I needed to go through, and had gone through, was over and didn’t need to be repeated. There are things you have to learn when you begin writing, which have nothing to do with the book. Now all those things weren’t even a question mark, which was a relief more than a benefit.
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In Hardboiled And Covered In Noir—Part Two, Rick will delve into the art of essay writing and why the past should always be with us... 

FOR MORE ABOUT RICK OLLERMAN CLICK HERE

HARDBOILED, NOIR, AND GOLD MEDALS:
ESSAYS ON CRIME FICTION WRITERS
FROM THE 50s THROUGH THE 90s
 
Rick Ollerman has been writing introductions for Stark House Press for the past six years. This book collects all those essays, plus includes a lot of new material written specifically for this book.
 
Rick Ollerman's detailed critical essays, written about both modern and classic crime writers, have an electric-charged verve so brilliant the modern reader is compelled to develop a new understanding, a new appreciation, even a new witnessing of the writers and their most important and influential works. The context is always truthful to the era of creation, but it is fully developed with a modern understanding that brings new revelation to seemingly old topics. Which is a hard way of saying, Mr. Ollerman writes about crime fiction and its crafters brilliantly. -—Benjamin Boulden, critic/essayist
 
An introduction by Rick Ollerman is always a promise of insightful, informative, and entertaining details about the author or topic. His essays are as valuable as the restored fiction that follows. —Alan Cranis, Bookgasm
 
Reading one of Rick Ollerman's essays is like sitting in a master class on the writer. Having all of the essays in one collection is like getting a master's degree. This is an important book and a must-have for anybody who cares about good criticism, about the writers discussed, and about crime fiction in general. —Bill Crider, mystery author
 
 

        

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