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Thursday, August 3, 2017

HARDBOILED AND COVERED IN NOIR—PART TWO

HARDBOILED AND COVERED IN NOIR—PART TWO

Rick Ollerman’s brilliant collection of essays and introductions—Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the 50s through the 90s—is 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.
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What led to the writing of your first introduction and how did it lead to others?
 
The first introduction I wrote was for the Peter Rabe book, which came out of the manuscripts Rabe had given to Ed Gorman before Rabe passed away. Ed had been unable to find a publisher for them. When I finally had my own relationship with Stark House Press, I asked Greg Shepard what happened to those books. I was already a huge fan of Rabe. He had a few sub-par books, but when he was on, he was unique and on his own level.
 
Greg told me they were unpublishable, but said he’d ask Ed if I could take a look. Ed agreed and I read them—quickly seeing why the longer of the two would indeed be difficult to publish. The shorter work didn’t need any editing, but the first one needed a little softening of the main character. It’s hard to find sympathy for a big man, a WWII vet in the fifties, throwing his weight against old men and young boys, no matter the reason. Again, I wrote about this in the new book, but Ed agreed to let me edit the books as though Rabe were still with us.  Greg agreed to publish, and they went on to great success. Before they were published, however, Greg asked me to write an introduction. I think I surprised him by not writing about my part in the process.
 
Instead, I wanted to write about what made Peter Rabe different and unique as a writer. As I wrote in the introduction, Rabe zigs when other people zag, yet it all makes perfect sense. He was a trained psychologist, but claimed this had no effect on his writing. I’d beg to differ and say it’s obvious it does, but that’s another story. I was still not doing very well health-wise and it was very difficult to write that first essay. I can’t tell you how many rewrites it went through, and reading it now, I can see where it begs for another, but it’s where I was at the time.
 
I used to read introductory essays by other people, and I would marvel at how people could write them. Sure, anyone could write recaps of the books, but it spoils the books and makes people mad. And anyone could write a page of platitudes then duck out of the way. But the people who wrote with real knowledge—I was in awe them. I would always ask, how do they know so much? What is their secret?
 
Fortunately, Greg liked my first introduction and asked for another. I started asking myself, okay, how would I do this the right way? For me it meant reading the works of the author—if not all, then as much as I could under deadline—and find a question to answer, or a perspective to write from, which I hadn’t seen before. And then I would try to answer the question and back it up not only with examples from the writer’s work but from others as well.
 
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about being a writer from your own experiences and your research into the lives and habits of other writers?
 
Like many authors, I’ve always found the writing processes of other writers fascinating—certainly more interesting than the how-to sort of advice you find in those sorts of books. As I mentioned above, when I stumbled upon Lawrence Block’s books about writing, I was finally able to say, Aha! Here is someone who writes like I want to, intuitively, not this get-it-all-down-and-fix-it-later stuff. If I write one crappy page, and then another, I soon have a tower of crappy pages I’d have no enthusiasm about. Block was the first writer who I found who says once he’s done with a page, it’s done. Mostly, anyway. You can always go back and fix it if you need to, but there’s a massive difference in knowing you have to fix everything later and being open to fixing a few things later.
 
In a very real way, my writing heroes are the old pulpsters like Edmond Hamilton and H. Bedford-Jones. Writer’s block? Don’t waste their time. If they didn’t write, they didn’t eat. So they wrote and they wrote and they wrote. These guys were prolific and were often very good and almost always very entertaining. In other words, they had a work ethic second to none. If you’re going to make a living in this business, I think it takes three things, possibly none of which you can really learn—talent, perseverance, and luck. You may be able to learn perseverance, but if you don’t have any talent, I would imagine the world would grind you down before you outlasted the lack of the other two.
 
Plenty of people can string words together to form lovely sentences. Plenty more can produce beautiful paragraphs, even pages. But to write a good novel goes beyond those into intangibles like confidence, life experience, knowledge, voice, a willingness to risk something. Sometimes poverty forces all these things to come together and compel a writer to produce. Sometimes writers truly only have one book in them. To be a real writer, in any age, is to be the old myth of the shark, where you have to keep moving or drown. I don’t know how somebody can do it if it’s not their life. Although there are just enough exceptions to cause arguments, isn’t tit otherwise always the case?
 
What is your goal when setting out to write an introduction for a reprint of a classic novel?
 
I want to give the reader something they’ve never thought of before, even if they’ve read every one of the writer’s books. For instance, I did a piece on Charles Williams, who’s often talked about as one of the best crime writers of the PBO era (even though he published a number of hardcovers). If he was so good, I reasoned, why is he not better known today, why is he not better reprinted?
 
Very little is known of Williams so there isn’t a lot out there to exploit. There is a biography, but it’s written in Spanish and I couldn’t read it, nor did I have the time to get it translated. I read all twenty-two of Williams’ novels and I came to some conclusions. While you don’t have to agree with them, I hope they’ll at least make you think.
 
There was another question about how he died. Apparently Williams was depressed after his wife died. Williams’ agent told Ed Gorman the guy died in a way not dissimilar to how he’d offed several of his own characters. Another story said he killed himself in California. Another purported he’d hung himself in France.
 
With such a common name, he was tough to trace. However, I was able to latch on to some family records and identify his brother and discover who his mother and father were. Eventually, I got a copy of his death certificate and could definitively answer the question of how he died. The essay on Williams is also in the new book.
 
Of the essays you’ve written which one held the most surprises for you once you started to research the author?
 
A rep for the Hollywood director Nicolas Winding Refn reached out to me to write a piece for a website Refn was putting together. They wanted it to be on Florida crime fiction in the fifties and sixties, perhaps with an emphasis on Gil Brewer. I suggested the focus be more on Harry Whittington since Brewer moved to Florida to seek out Whittington—who was famous for helping other writers. Whittington, along with Day Keene, formed the center of what’s become known as the St. Pete Boys. Every Sunday, they’d meet up in Harry’s living room. Brewer would have his case of beer, Keene his own bottle of whiskey, and writers like Talmage Powell, Jonathan Craig, Frederick Davis, Jonathan Craig and, occasionally, a pre-Travis McGee John D. MacDonald would hang out.
 
I took a trip down to Florida and met Harry’s two children—Howard and Harriet. They couldn’t have been more helpful and delightful. In going through Harry’s papers and library (the items the University of Wyoming left behind), I was amazed to find all the connections Harry had. In retrospect, I look at the many people I’ve met traveling to six or seven conferences each year along with other events, so it shouldn’t have been so surprising. But, somehow, it still is—and I know as I keep digging there will still be more. I’ve found a few unpleasant things I never suspected (soured relationships with greedy agents, for instance), and right now I’m trying to figure out if I can determine which pieces in old true crime magazines were actually written by Harry.

The holy grail would be to find a print of the film he made, The Face of the Phantom, which bankrupted him. As far as anyone knows, it’s out of print. In any case, when the website is up and running, it will have a piece from me recounting the previously unknown story of Harry’s lost 39 books and the real story of how Harry chose to lose them and why.

Is there a particular author you would like to write about in the future?

I’ll go back to Harry Whittington. I’ve always wanted someone to write a full-length book about the St. Pete Boys, but I didn’t see having the time to do it myself. Now, since I’ve come to know the family so well—I recently bought Harriet’s house—it appears I’m doomed to do it myself. If I can’t do Gil Brewer and Day Keene justice, the book may end up being all about Harry, who used to be hailed in France as one of America’s best novelists—a distinction from one of America’s best crime novelists.

There would be a lot of paperwork to go through as well as a number of trips to the official archives at the University of Wyoming. However, since I would like to go from doing one novel a year to two a year, I reserve the right to keep any notion of a timeframe locked away in my own tiny brain.

What can you tell us about your new collection of essays?

It’s about sixty percent reprints of previously published essays. These are mostly introductions to Stark House Press books, but one or two appeared elsewhere. The other forty percent are brand new—written about writer and book stuff, as Chuck Barris would say.

Years ago, I came across a thick, shrink-wrapped copy of a Harlan Ellison book called An Edge in My Voice. It was a huge collection of essays he had written for a couple of newspapers. It completely blew me away and opened my eyes to how powerful an essay could really be. It was as if the book was a mini-Ellison. Reading it was akin to having Harlan sitting there reading it to me. That kind of voice, making you feel there is someone there telling you the stories instead of you reading them, is what I have tried to achieve with these new pieces.

There’s no way I claim to be as successful as Harlan Ellison, but it was the goal. I hope it’s at least recognizable now I’ve pointed it out…

Is there a new Rick Ollerman novel on the way?

There is. It is untitled right now. I thought I had a good one, but when I checked someone has already used it. While I know it’s not a legal impediment, I’d rather find something original. I’m bad at titles. Right now, it’s Book 6, or something else esoteric.

It’s due next Spring, from Stark House, and will be a sequel—of sorts—to both Truth Always Kills and Mad Dog Barked. Readers have asked for a sequel to Truth, and the publisher asked for a sequel to Mad Dog, but it’s not easy as both were written in the first person. With a bit of patience from the reader, I think I can make it pay off, but it’s tricky dealing with distinct voices and perspective changes. I could kick myself for giving the two protagonists similar names. It didn’t matter before, but now it’s a pain in the rear.

How did the new magazine you're editing, Down & Out: The Magazine, come to be a reality?

I had been thinking about magazines and how I hadn’t been satisfied personally with the ones I’ve seen lately. Another magazine had quit publishing and, as a mental exercise, I began thinking what I would have done differently—what I would do if I were putting out a magazine, to give it a better chance of surviving.

Then I ran into Eric Campbell from Down & Out Books outside a conference room on a Thursday at Bouchercon. This was maybe the only time I haven’t seen Eric mobbed by people trying to mug a publisher—because who’s more popular than a publisher mingling with the people at a writer’s conference?

We sat down at the bar and I told him, “You should start a magazine. You have the recognizable name, the reputation, personality…” and on I went. And Eric said, “Funny you should mention it...”

We kicked around the things I’d been thinking about before he got swept away by the tides of humanity. We agreed to get in touch after the Murder and Mayhem conference in Milwaukee. It was a few months later, but sure enough, Eric called. He remembered much of what I had told him at Bouchercon, and before you knew it, we were doing it.

What goals do you want to achieve with Down & Out: The Magazine?

The first goal is to be able to produce a viable magazine, meaning a periodical people want to read each time a new issue is released, which follows the precepts I’ve laid out for it. In other words, I’ve got this vision of what I’d like to see in a magazine and how it can be commercialized. Hopefully other fans and readers would like to see those same things, and we can deliver it and make everyone involved—the writers, the publisher, the advertisers—happy. It’s like writing a book and getting the feeling when someone you’ve never seen before buys your stuff and presents it to you for a signature. As an author, unless you’re a genuine ass, you truly are grateful people have chosen to spend their hard earned coin on your books.

By what we’re doing, I want people to see we get it. For instance, I want to see fans of Reed Farrel Coleman pick up the first issue because he’s in it. I want completists of his Moe Prager series to pick it up because there’s a brand new Moe Prager story illustrated by Reed’s son. I want people to write in and tell me they were fascinated by the history of short crime fiction in the back where I give some background on what the pulps did when Hammett and Chandler left, and then introduce Frederick Nebel’s first Donahue story, the series that replaced the Continental Op in Black Mask.

In fact, the only non-series related story in the issue is Tommy Pluck’s. The rest are all to one degree or another series stories by their authors. Terrence McCauley wrote a University story for me. He’s got a series there with legs and there’s all sorts of room for novels and short stories in the universe he’s created. But the same is true of everyone in the issue. My primary goal is to get the thing out there, get it reviewed, and get feedback to see how much of it people get. Bottom line, all they gotta do is like it.

You've obtained a dynamic line up of writers for the first issue, including Terrence McCauley, Eric Beetner, Reed Farrel Coleman, and others. How did you manage to snag these terrific writers?

In short, I asked them. It wasn’t any harder than that. Once you decide on doing a magazine, you have to figure out how you’re going to fill the first issue. If you rely only on submissions, you have no idea if you’re going to get gold or charcoal—are you going to get a wonderful writer’s best work, or the unsold piece sitting at the bottom of their steamer trunk for fifteen years.

The best way to avoid the problem, I reckoned, was to invite people I knew would give me great stories. I’ve worked with almost all of them before, many of whom will also be in an anthology called Blood Work, which Down & Out Books will publish next summer (it’s a tribute to the late bookseller Gary Shulze).

Going ahead, we’ve got Bill Crider with a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes story as the feature for Issue #2. I’m going through submissions slowly but surely, still working with people I’ve invited. I think, hopefully, going forward it’s the way I’d like to move ahead.

The featured story author for Issue #3 is probably set, but I can’t reveal their identity yet. Plus,  I’ve been talking to a number of other writers who have told me yes, but without confirming later. With a quarterly magazine there’s not a mad rush, though we would like to go bi-monthly once we can handle the flow.

When are you going to send me a story?

What can readers expect from Down & Out: The Magazine in future issues?

If everything works in Issue #1, more of the same. Once it gets out to the masses in big numbers, reader feedback will tell us a lot, I hope. We’ll still have a big name feature story with the author’s series character (one of them anyway), there’ll still be a column by J. Kingston Pierce (late of Kirkus Reviews) though it may not always be a review column, and there will be another history of short crime fiction piece by one of the old guys and gals, without whom we wouldn’t have what we do today.

We hope to have our subscription program ready for people before Issue #2 is ready for press, Peter Rozofsky will be our regular cover photographer, and while there might be a few other surprises, a move to bi-monthly at some point would be nice. And I’ve been mulling over the idea of a possible themed issue somewhere down the line. Possibly a letters column if I think it might be interesting for people to read. We’ll have to see, won’t we?
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Thanks to Rick Ollerman for taking the time to chat. Be sure to check out the special collection of his introductions, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the 50s through the 90s...Due out August 4, 2017

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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