Paperback Nirvana: An Interview with Hardboiled, Noir, and Gold Medals's Rick Ollerman
Stark House Books has done us a great service by bringing back a lot of genre work, particularly in crime fiction. Author Rick Ollerman has been their go to guy for many of the introductions to these books. Entertaining and informative, they serve as essays on the writers and their work to themselves.
Recently Stark House put them together in a collection with new work as well, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals. We talked to Rick about the art of the intro, favorite writers, influences, and how to use them.
1. What is the major thing to keep in mind about writing a book introduction besides avoiding spoilers?
Whenever I write an introduction, I try to think of it as an essay about the author if can, and about the author's works if I can't. I try not to write about the book itself much at all because I don't want to give away any part of it, not just plot spoilers. So that means I have to find a viewpoint or a perspective, some sort of analysis or informed opinion that I offer about the author or his oeuvre that hopefully hasn't been said before. That can take a lot of work and research, especially when there's not a lot known about the personal lives of some of the older writers.
2. Which one of these essays was the most challenging to do?
That had to be Charles Williams. It's the longest piece in the book and I really wanted to find something to say about the man himself, but there's just not much out there. There's been one biography written about him but it's in Spanish, which I don't read, nor did I have the time or means to have it translated. I did buy it and look at it a lot, though. Searching for facts about him was hampered by how common his name is, but I did manage to track down bits of his family tree and identify ancestors and siblings. Ultimately this enabled me to obtain a copy of his death certificate and lay to rest the mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death. So this was a case where I didn't have a lot to go on as far as the author was concerned, so I tried to tackle the extremely difficult and subjective question of, "This guy is so good, why isn't he better known?" To do that, I had to read all of his twenty-two (if I remember right) books and do the analysis and compare thing, and then offer some sort of opinion. What I came up with is meant to be argued, to be discussed and talked about, and I hope it's succeeded at that level.
3. Is there one particular author you were happy to champion?
I'll go with Jada Davis. He published two books in his lifetime, another posthumously (with another forthcoming) and while the classic Fawcett Red Seal and Stark House reprint One for Hell would give Jim Thompson nightmares, his is a classic case of a writer with enormous potential who chose the safer path, the corporate career, rather than the roller coaster gamble of a literary one. Later in life he said he'd made the wrong choice, but at that point, you can't go back, can you? And this was a man who missed the war due to illness and to make up for it afterwards volunteered for radiation experiments. He wasn't a shrinking violet.
4. Of these authors you love, who had the most influence on your own crime fiction?
Tough question. I think everyone you read influences you, but not consciously. If you let them influence you on purpose then there's mimicry involved, and I won't go there. With that being said, though, I'll go with Peter Rabe. He's the guy I say zigs where other authors zag. In the first piece I wrote on him, I quoted a short passage from Blood on the Desert, where it's filled with all those wonderful zigs that make a real reader know instantly they're in the presence of someone who hears the music on a different level than most. Then I strip out all of that and just leave the dialogue, and what remains is an entirely competent conversation between two men, expertly written. The latter passage? Any good writer could have done that. But the original, un-edited one? Only Rabe. He wrote so many fantastic books you can't even pick one or two to study, you'd have to pick like eight, they're so brilliant and so different. (Read The Box. Then Murder Me for Nickels. Then Benny Muscles In. Then....)
5. While your own books have a feel of those paperback thrillers from the fifties and sixties, I never notice you riffing off another author. How do you apply your influences if at all?
You are a perceptive man. But again, that's the thing, I don't consciously mimic anyone, from any age of writing. But it's all in there. I just read a quote from Jack Byrne, a former editor of the old pulp publisher, Fiction House: "We must have a good, fast opening. Smack us within the first paragraph. Get our interest aroused. Don't tell us about the general geographic situation or the atmospheric conditions. Don't describe the hero's physique or the kind of pants he wears. Start something!" When I saw that, I realized I do that already: I get in on something with a character. Plots should come from characters and since those are what make up your books, start something, and start on page one. But the real point is that there is no conscious influence there. I read, I learn, I write. The more I do all three the better, I hope, that I get.
5. What do think is the biggest public misconception about most of the books you cover in these essays?
That the writing will be sub-par because it's old, or that the books will only appeal to men, or that they'll be full of over the top violence. Take your pick. The reality, I think, is that if you stuck your hand in a bucket of random Fawcett Gold Medal titles you'd be much more likely to pull up a truly good and entertaining book to read than you would if you did the same with a bucket full of titles from today's Big Five publishers. Their "Hollywood blockbuster" mentality limits them in so many ways: season after season, Joe Bestseller is tasked not with a job of imagination and creativity, but with replication and duplication of what he or she has done in previous years. Readers read the new issue and far too often say, "Meh. The first one was better. I might stop reading." Inertia keeps them reading, not excitement. There was too much competition in the PBO days for that to set in. Thus the writing was more exciting, more creative, and generally better. On the other hand, the demand for material was so great lesser talents provided took up a lot of rack space and unfortunately, it's become those books that have given us that "biggest public misconception."
6. One of the things that gives this collection a personal feel is some of the new pieces that give the perspective of you as a collector. What are the one or two books that you are your holy grail to find for the moment?
Hands down one of them has to be Harry Whittington's first novel and first hardcover, Vengeance Valley. It's just not out there. I got my copy sans dust jacket from New Zealand in excellent shape for a steal price of only twenty dollars, but it's also an ex-library copy. Bill Crider has one, but he got his directly from Harry before he passed away in 1989. Another one is probably a signed copy of the Gold Medal edition of Bruno Fischer's The Fast Buck in nearly perfect condition. The book itself isn't uncommon but try to find a Bruno Fischer autograph anywhere. They must be out there, much like Vengeance Valley, but they don't talk much.
7. What book would you most like to see back in print?
French noir writer Marc Behm wrote seven novels before his death, including Eye of the Beholder (which was made into a movie with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd). Five of his books can more or less be found in English translations, but not the other two. Based on those other five, I would dearly like to see those final two show up in a language that both does them justice as well as makes them something readable to me.
8. Name three lesser-known authors every hard boiled and noir fan should know?
There are so many, but that's what my next non-fiction book is for. Let's go with Lionel White, whose first book served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick's first major movie; Eric Ambler, whose A Coffin for Dimitrios is not only superlative but was the basis of another excellent film starring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and written by Frank Gruber (who could also be on this list); and Frank Castle, just because he has nothing to do with the "Richard Castle" from TV.
You can purchase Hard Boled Noir, And Gold Medals here.