Sunday, May 6, 2012

Author Interview: Ron Hummer

Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Ron Hummer, author of 96 Rocks and A Hell of a Woman.

What is your writing process like?

I would say that since I like to write mysteries, I have to know ahead of time who committed the murder.  Once I know that, it’s pretty easy to sit down and write the first draft and get a good idea of where the story is going.   
What are your favorite and least favorite things about writing?

Favorite part is creating the story and the characters.  In 96 Rocks, I thought it was fun to try something different when I wrote the book from points of view from different characters.  Bruno Fischer and John Dickson Carr did this when they wrote about their detectives, Ben Helm and Dr. Gideon Fell.  

My least favorite thing is the proofreading.  I must have read my books 96 Rocks and A Hell Of  A Woman at least 8 times.  

Who are your favorite authors, books, or fictional characters?  

So many different authors.  For mysteries and thrillers: Barry Eisler,  Brad Thor,  David Morrell,  Harlen Coben,  Laura Lippman, Gayle Lynds, and Dennis Lehane.  Literary stories.  I like Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Tyler. 

What book are you currently reading and what is the last book you finished?

Just finished reading my first indie author, Miranda Valenz’s Coyote Hills.  Really enjoyed it.  I just purchased David Manuel’s Killer Protocols.  He’s another indie author.  I’ll be reading that next.  Currently finishing up Sean Chernover’s Big City Bad Blood.  Great book as well. 

I'm reading Coyote Hills, as well!

Can you tell me a little bit about your protagonists, Detective Ozzie Rivera (96 Rocks) and Don Gunn (A Hell of a Woman)?

Ozzie Rivera was a homicide detective in Colorado.  He’s married to an actress named Anita Cruz.  He started his own practice in Texas.  When he worked in Colorado as a homicide detective, he was known for closing most if not all his murder cases.   He was very upset and left the force abruptly because the DA in Colorado defied him and put an innocent man in jail.  
He’s a brilliant detective who has given lectures at universities across the country.  You could say that he has a very good sense of humor and puts on an act as a bumbling detective at times in order to throw people off when he is asking questions just like Columbo did. 

Regarding Don Gunn, he’s an advertising executive who works for Blake & Yurman.  He lost his wife in a car accident about six months ago and is on the verge of losing his job and career due to his non-compete agreement.   He’s very depressed and vulnerable when he meets a woman nearly half his age named Kim Hunter.   For many men his age, this is a dream come true but it turns out to be a nightmare since Kim is a person of interest in 5 murders.  

Both of these books focus on non-compete agreements?  Why have two books on the subject?  

In 96 Rocks, I really wanted to focus on a group of employees being on a non-compete agreement and working in a poor work environment.  All the employees are on a non-compete agreement that does not allow them to work at any radio station where the company has properties.  Since they have properties in nearly every part of the country, the only place where the employees can work in their profession is in California.   

About a month after this book came out, there was a story regarding Warren Stephens of Halifax Holdings buying 16 editions of the New York Times and then telling all the employees that they would have to sign a non-compete agreement that stated that they can’t work at a newspaper, magazine, radio station, or television station where Halifax Holdings had properties.  I think that story made my non-compete in the story seem soft compared to that one.   

In any case,  Herman Pearson, the general manager of the station, has created a poor work environment through his abusive behavior to all the employees and they are stuck on a non-compete agreement and can’t get another job outside their industry since they are unqualified for those jobs.  The book also raises questions about sexual harassment in the workplace since a woman could lose her job and career due to their non-compete agreement if she reports it.  After all, they are at will employees and can fired at any time for any reason.  

Regarding A Hell Of A Woman, we see Don Gunn on the verge of losing his job and his career due to his non-compete agreement as well.  Here we see the process of him going out on interviews for jobs that he is unqualified for, racing the clock, hoping to get a job before he is laid off due to budget cuts at the agency.  

Ron, you write mysteries infused with real-world situations, including non-compete agreements, an issue you are passionate about.  Many readers are not familiar with the issue, so could you briefly explain it?

Sure.  In my case, I signed a non-compete agreement 12 years ago.  The choice was to sign it or be terminated from my job.  That’s what the memo said to all the employees.  Since my industry has similiar non-competes, I didn’t have a choice but to sign it.  I should point out there there were other employees that were hesitant in signing the agreement and they were pulled into offices and were told to sign the agreement or be terminated.  They signed the agreement.  It shouldn’t shock you to know that other people were given a pass and did not sign the agreement due to favoritism.  

My non-compete states that I’m an at will employee and can be fired at any time for any reason and I would not be able to work in the industry for 2 years.  The agreement states that I can’t work for a company that has a competing product.  Since my company has 10 different products, I can’t work for another company in my industry even if it has one product.  As you can see, this isn’t like Coke and Pepsi, it’s more like Coke and bottled water.  

What can the company do to stop you from working for a competitor? 

Their lawyer can take out an injunction that would stop me from working for the competitor.  In addition,  there is language in the contract that would allow my company to sue the competitor for any lost business.   The lawyer would advise the person interested in hiring me not to consider me for the position unless I’m clear of the non-compete. 

What does your lawyer think? 

I’ve seen three employment lawyers.  All of them have said the same thing.  The contract is standard.  It’s like a form letter that lawyers fill out.  Wording is the same and that’s why it’s airtight.  They also said that companies like mine have an attitude that they’re doing me a favor by giving me a job since they can fire me at any time for any reason and not even give me a severance package. The only reward is my job.   Of course, I have the option of litigating this if I am fired but it would cost me $10,000 and there is a very good chance that I would lose since I signed the agreement.    Doesn’t matter what the conditions or the circumstances were.  

My lawyers have also said that the strategy behind this is to destroy my career since I’ll be out of the industry and will lose time and knowledge and have to be retrained if a company in my industry is interested in hiring me again. 

As a result, all this has led me to is a career of indentured servitude.  I haven’t had a raise in 9 years and I have made significant contributions to my company.  I’ve probably lost out on management positions that could have been available at other companies in my industry.   Yes, I have had a job for 12 years with my company but it doesn’t matter how late I stay.  My performance has to be at the highest level and if it’s not, then I’m history.  Those are the conditions that I’m working under and I’m sure that other people who are on non-competes like mine face the same situation. 

In the end, all of my lawyers said the same thing.  It’s up to the state government to regulate this.  As long as they don’t, then this will continue.  

What inspired you to translate the issue of non-compete agreements to mystery fiction?

I think it’s very easy to write about this subject and have it become a rant.  As Cyrus Webb said in a review of 96 Rocks, it doesn’t sound preachy either.  My feeling was if I created two stories and there was suspense, the reader would be able to get through the book and learn something about non-competes as well.  

Were there any other factors that caused you to write these books? 

Seeing over 200 people lose their jobs at my company and disappear from Linked In.  Seeing all the stories on Google News when I look up non-competes.  People from Groupon being dragged into court and paying legal fees just because they wanted to work for Google.  Rene Garcia and Arnold Arredondo not being able to open their own business where they live because they signed their non-compete with Reliable Fire 14 years ago.  

I would say that the biggest factor is watching TV and listening to the government officials not acknowledging that this is a problem since this could lead to long periods of unemployment.  After all, we are the ones sacrificing our education, our fiances, and out futures just to make these non-compete agreements work. 

Do you think the state and local governments will pass legislation regarding this like they’re trying to do in Massachusetts? 

No,  I don’t.  I called the governors office in the state where my non-compete is impacted and was told that they have non-competes that are just like mine.  I said I guess I’m wasting my time talking to you.  He said let me see if I can hook you up with a someone that could help you.  I called him five times and never got an answer.  

I called the representative for the opposing party and said that I wanted to make a campaign contribution.  He said sure, just let me give you my address.  I said before you do that, I want to talk to you about non-compete agreements.  He said are you part of a group?  I said no.  To make a long story short, he said well, it’s not up for discussion then.  

Of course this is up for discussion when the special interest groups want the government to help them with their non-compete agreements.  In Georgia in 2010 for example, the judges thought it was unreasonable to fire someone and say that they can’t work in their industry for 2 years.  The state governments response.  We’re losing jobs to Florida and Tennessee because the judges over there will rule for the employer and companies will move their offices there because they are employer friendly states.    So the government in Georgia passed Amendment 1 which ties the hands of the judges because that law states that even if the non-compete is unreasonable, it has to be reasonable for both parties.  

Another example is Governor Chris Christie passing the Trading Secrets act, making New Jersey the 47 state to do this.  This was passed 79-0.  That states that  employees can be liable for civil lawsuits if they are on non-compete agreements.  

So more non-compete agreements mean more jobs? 

That’s what the state government will claim but what happened in Massachusetts when the time came in 2004 for Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg to choose where his headquarters would be, California or Massachusetts?  He chose California along with hundreds of other companies and they are the only state that outlaws non-compete agreements.  Today, Massachusetts remains behind the Silicon Valley in jobs that they are fighting for.  This was when Mitt Romney was in office from 2002-2006.  

Now, for the last 3 years, the government is trying to outlaw non-compete agreements but nothing has happened yet.  The reason that they want to outlaw them is because entreprenuers are being prevented from starting up companies in the tech industry due to their non-compete and moving to the Silicon Valley because the best talent is there.  After all, where are you going to go if you’re a graduate of MIT, to Massachusetts where they have non-competes or California where they are outlawed?

It has been said that if these non-competes are outlawed in Massachusetts, then they may not lose out on the next Facebook.  People may stop packing their bags and move to California as well. 

I think the question at this point is what is taking so long and why didn’t Mitt Romney think about this when he was Governor since he let non-competes into Massachusetts like all the other Governors did at that time in their states. 

Any Final Thoughts? 

People have to draw their own conclusions about non-competes and ask who the state government is working for - employees or the special interest groups?  It can be both but the fact is that non-compete laws favor employers and it will continue until the government steps in and regulates them.   

Non-compete agreements are growing.  Local hairdressers, pharmacy technicians, and even dog and cat groomers in some states are on non-competes that state that they can be fired at any time for any reason and can’t work within a 50 mile radius of their employer.  Look up Canine Oasis and Petland for example.  

Does this need to be regulated?  Go to Google news and type in non-compete and you’ll see all the stories.  A recent one is regarding an FM radio station in Ohio who is suing their DJ’s because they left the station and started their program on the internet 3 times a week.  Is this really a landmark case or just another example of a company and their attorney gaming the system to see how far they can push the restrictions of the non-compete since the DJ’s cannot compete with the FM signal because core listeners can listen to their radio in their cars for example. 

You can look at the non-compete contract that Warren Stephens of Halifax Holdings put on his employees once he purchased 16 editions of the New York Times and said that new employees can be fired at any time for any reason and cannot work for a newspaper, a magazine, a radio station, or a television station for 2 years and ask the same question.  If you look up information on Warren Stephens, you’ll see that he’s a critic of Barack Obama and a supporter of Mitt Romney.  

Not that I mean to make this political but I think questions need to be asked about where these jobs are going to come from and the fact that many people are told that Mitt Romney will change things because he has the business background.   All this makes me wonder where that business touch is leading us to, especially when I read that Amazon wants to open a plant in Florida that will create jobs and the state government which is made up of Republicans say that we won’t give you the same tax breaks that you were given in South Carolina.  
Yes, there is a case to be made for people who are privy to company information but companies have been able to determine that by offering a year if not to years salary to people in that position if they are fired for any reason.  

There are people like me who are not privy to confidential information yet were are forced to sign these contracts because our job is our reward and will probably not see a severance package if we’re fired.  To make matters worse, there are people in my company and other companies who are not signing that agreement due to favoritism.  That’s nothing more than discrimination.  

One more point.  I did speak with one person who was running for office and explained my situation.  His response.  I don’t think that’s good because we’re paying unemployment benefits out on people who lose their jobs and this non-compete agreement is preventing them from getting another job.  

I don’t see the concern for the employees and the harm that non-compete agreements cause in any of these discussions regarding non-competes.  The only thing I do see is one reporter, Scott Kirsner, who does write stories about non-competes and the harm it is doing to employees.  

If you read 96 Rocks or A Hell Of A Woman or both, you’ll have a chance to see how people like me and others cope with being on this agreement.  In the end, you’ll have the power to express your feelings on a review whether it be for Amazon or Barnes and Noble or many of the other sites where my books are available.  

Where can we learn more about your books?

Kindle.  Nook.  Ebookit. ITunes.  Sony ereader.  Google eBookstore.  Ingram Digital which is

Any Current Projects

None at the moment.  

Thanks for having me here for this opportunity.  I really appreciate it.  

Thank you for your time, Ron, and I wish you luck on both your novels and your cause!

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