If there’s something readers love more than a fresh read in their favorite genre, it’s two fresh reads. Stark House Press has delivered just that for mystery fans with its double-shot combination now available by new author Rick Ollerman featuring a pair of crime novels, TURNABOUT and SHALLOW SECRETS. Recently, THE BIG THRILL caught up with Rick and asked him to share some of his thoughts about writing along with some tidbits about his two-for-one mystery debut.
Congratulations on the publication of your two novels, TURNABOUT & SHALLOW SECRETS (published in one combined volume by Stark House Press). It’s impossible not to notice that both of these stories are set in Florida. How important is setting to your writing?
I once read an introduction to a Ross Macdonald that described Southern California as if it were another character in his books. I think that’s really true. What I did with TURNABOUT was make it my “Florida book,” meaning it could only take place in Florida. You have the Ten Thousand Islands, the Everglades, alligators, crocodiles, seemingly every insect known to North America, and a rich “tradition” of smuggling, poaching, and other illegal moneymaking opportunities. Ninety percent of the birds in the Everglades were wiped out long ago, when there was a demand for feathers for women’s hats. After a hurricane and a flood, the governor of the state tried to actually drain the Everglades. Now you’ve got Big Sugar sucking the nutrients out of the soil upstream, you have Miami encroaching constantly into the edges of what is otherwise the last and greatest wilderness area in the country.
An FBI agent once told me that if you took all the drug money out of Florida, the city of Miami would collapse. That’s how important the drug trade was to that part of the state—the invention of air conditioning made the area livable and the importation of dope made it rich.
Setting is always important, no matter where it is, but in TURNABOUT I use the features of the state to follow a plot that could only happen there. SHALLOW SECRETS is a bit different; I’d already written my “Florida book.” The last kind of writer I’d like to be is one who writes the same book over and over again. You can’t hide from your style but you can keep from templating your plots and characters. SHALLOW SECRETS takes place across a span of years with a series of killings that bring down a cop when it turns out that not only did the killer know him personally, he’d been his roommate for a while. During the time of the killings. When he was caught, he tries to implicate the cop and the resulting mess just became something the cop needed to walk away from. It didn’t matter what he said or did, people would always wonder….
The second part of the book takes place some years later in a sparsely populated area of northern Florida. This is far from the flashy art deco party scene of Miami, the business world of Tampa, or the amusement park mecca of Orlando. This is cracker country and when another series of killings seems to be tied to the earlier ones, the now ex-cop is lured to the scene to try to figure it out. What he finds is the truth, not only to what’s going on in Baker County, but to what really went on back in the days where he was tracking the first killer.
Each of your protagonists is a former police officer. What makes the idea of an “ex-cop” appeal to you as a writer or reader?
I was a huge fan of Robert Ludlum’s early to middle period books. As a reader I always wondered why his main characters seemed always to be ex-CIA or an ex– something or other. As a writer it occurred to me that this was his way of creating a protagonist who had particular skill sets—we know where they came from—but without having to know how exactly those agencies worked. In other words, if his character needs to be able to create a new identity for himself in a foreign city, he’d know how to do it. And because of his background, we’d understand how he knew.
The fact that both characters are ex-cops are kind of for that same reason, though they are both very different types of people. In TURNABOUT, Frankie O’Neil walks away for a less stressful, more entrepreneurial career. He more or less outgrew being a cop, especially when he had an opportunity to get away from seeing some of the horrific things that a patrol car has to deal with. James Robinson in SHALLOW SECRETS is different—he was very successful at what he did and wanted to keep doing it. But when his integrity was destroyed by his almost offhand relationship with a man who turned out to be responsible for killing a number of people, he felt he had to get out, that his career and his life would never be the same. And it wasn’t, at least not until he got a shot at redemption in the second part of the book.
Some have described your writing as “hard-boiled.” Do you agree with that description? And what is it you think makes a novel hard-boiled, as opposed to a more conventional mystery?
After reading TURNAROUND, an editor once told me she didn’t care for its hard-boiled style, which took me about. I never consciously tried to write in what I would consider that to be, but as I went back and started to read the book again, I could see what she meant. So while I don’t think I would call either book particularly hard-boiled—mostly because of the brand of humanity of the protagonists—I can see where much of the dialog can be taken as that way.
As for what makes a good hard-boiled novel as opposed to a more conventional mystery, I think that all types of crime fiction are probably best served if there is a mystery at the heart of the story, no matter the style. A story could be hard-boiled if a man’s girlfriend is killed by a local crime kingpin and he sets out on a relentless trail of vengeance, but since we already know whodunnit, I think that’s much less interesting (and wearing) to the reader than when there’s an actual question of, “What’s really going on here?” So combining a strong mystery with whatever style you write in—hard-boiled, noir, thriller, whatever—I think is key to keeping the readers turning the pages.
Many readers are interested in the process writers go through in creating their stories and characters. Do you have a particular writing regimen and/or creative process you follow?
This is almost like the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?” question, which I actually like. To me, you start off with a “what if” question. In the time frame of TURNABOUT, computers and computer networks were much less sophisticated than they are now. The first question I asked was, “What if the crimes are carried out over a computer network with an encrypted data flow so that with a flick of the off switch all the evidence disappears?” Now this was in the days before law enforcement could easily track such things, so you need to have a character that can actually do this.
Another “what if” question for TURNABOUT was that if the Feds confiscate all the assets (e.g. money) of a convicted drug gangster, what happens to the money they don’t know about? Can somebody else get at it? And you create characters that would know this and could work at getting it for themselves.
In the meantime, you have to have a way of pitting protagonist and antagonist against one another. And when you do all this without simply declaring what is going on, or at least the true version, you’ve created the mystery element.
The “what if” questions in SHALLOW SECRETS are different and in a way more complex, because now there’s a plot that ties two (or more) series of crimes across a span of a significant number of years. How everything ultimately fits together again provides the mystery, and the characters are created to serve their roles so that one set is in conflict with another. Tension and suspense turn the pages.
What do you think makes for an interesting antagonist in a mystery? Do you strive to make your “villains” sympathetic? Or do you believe they should be despicable enough that the protagonist is justified in his or her vigilantism?
Sometimes it’s difficult for a new writer to accept the fact that quite often the villain is more interesting than the hero. After all, if there were no villain, there’d be no need for a hero. And if the villain were boring and mundane, you wouldn’t need a hero with any sort of special skills to deal with him or her. The important thing is giving every character reasons for doing the things that they do, and making sure that what the villain wants and what the hero does meet at conflict points in the story.
In some cases, especially if you’re going to kill a villain off, making them despicable or unsympathetic is important because it is something the average reader—meaning non-psychopath—can understand. If your protagonist or hero or otherwise good guy has to do something as drastic as killing somebody, the villain, be it the main one or not, often is someone the reader is already wishing was dead.
Playing with the mix of hero/villain and sympathetic/unsympathetic traits can be a quite powerful tool in writing fiction. A villain doesn’t have to be all bad just like a hero doesn’t have to be all good. The story dictates much of it, but so does the writer’s style. I like to try to get readers to feel something when they read, to get an emotional response, without telling the reader straight out what that response should be. In Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon there’s a scene where the villain fakes his way into a museum to see a painting that has more or less inspired his madness. What he does with the painting is never overtly described and when you realize what he actually did with the painting, you have one of those, “He did WHAT?” moments, followed by, “No…” and another reading or two of that one paragraph. It’s masterful.
If you could tell prospective readers out there one thing you’d like them to know about your books to assist them in gauging their interest, what would you say?
I like to think the books have a voice that is engaging, and each tells stories that are engaging enough to make the reader not want to put the books down. The reason I wanted to include two books under one set of covers is simply that the most important question I ask of a reader—probably the only important one—is, “Would you read another book by the same author?” And in this case, if the answer is “yes,” you simply have to turn the page and you can do just that. That should be a good thing. My third book, Truth Always Kills, will be out next fall and by then—hopefully—there will be an audience out there waiting for it, one that would be bigger with having two books already out there than just one. Booklist gave the books an enthusiastic review, and that certainly helps a lot, but the most gratifying thing for a writer ultimately is just that they know that someone, somewhere, is out there reading their work. That’s really what it’s all about.
THE BIG THRILL would like to thank Rick for taking the time to sit down to answer some questions. Crime and mystery fans should be sure to check out TURNABOUT and SHALLOW SECRETS, a pair of thrillers the editor of Hardboiled magazine described as “taut, hard crime … that harkens back to the best of the pulp days” and that Bill Crider, author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, called “[g]ood stories, well told, lean and mean.” After you’ve finished reading his double-feature debut, be sure to keep an eye out for Rick’s next offering, Truth Always Kills in 2015.
Rick Ollerman was born in Minneapolis but later moved to more humid pastures in Florida. He made his first dollar from writing when a crossword magazine printed a question he’d sent. Later he went on to hold world records for various large skydives, appear in a photo spreads in LIFE magazine and The National Enquirer, can be seen on an inspirational poster during the opening credits of a popular TV show, and has been interviewed on CNN. He was also an extra in the film Purple Rain where he had a full screen shot a little more than nine minutes in. His writing has appeared in technical and sporting magazines and he has edited, proofread, and written introductions for numerous books. He’s never found a crossword magazine that pays more than that first dollar and he now lives in northern New Hampshire with his wife, two children and two Golden Retrievers.
To learn more about Hank, please visit his website.