Saturday, August 1, 2009

Interview with R.A. Riekki

Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Wow, where to begin? Maybe I'll let some others do that for me--

MC Serch, Def Jam recording artist from Third Bass who was the executive producer for Nas's Illmatic ('s best CD of all time) and host of VH1's The (White) Rapper Show, said, "R.A. Riekki is a talented and heartfelt writer who puts you not only in his world but in his neighborhood through his words and writing. His story is one of finding your self and figuring your place in the world. It is brilliant, funny, and sharp. A great read." And Ann Beattie, author of more than a dozen books and selected by John Updike for Best American Short Stories of the Century, said of U.P., "I love it. It is the most unworkshop-like novel I can imagine, and every word--every comma--rings true. It's got a little bit of rap and a whole lot of soul. Please: can we now stop reading A Separate Peace and read U.P.?"

MC Serch and Ann Beattie--I love the diversity of those who've enjoyed reading U.P. Steven Wiig from (ex-Metallica member) Jason Newsted's new band Papa Wheelie told me he loved the novel and a sixty-year-old woman from my hometown told my mother that she liked the writing as well. That was something I didn't suspect, the broad range of appeal the book's gotten. In fact, the novel has been Ghost Road Press's bestseller in fiction for 23 weeks. I think I braced myself for negativity, but so far it's been an exceptionally positive reception. I figured metalheads, punks, and hip-hop fans would like it because there are so many references to those forms of music--like if Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was less R&B and rock and instead cranked to 11 like it was written by Spinal Tap and Chuck Palahniuk. The response by music fans has really helped it to sell, but I was excited to find that the audience was bigger than a music fan cult following. Although it's still a pretty underground book--it's on Ghost Road Press and they specialize in that sort of underground, cult, transgressive fiction, alternative voice, which is why they've signed some really cool writers like Douglass Brinkley (Vanity Fair contributor), John Bullock (author of Making Faces), and Rafael Alvarez (writer for HBO's The Wire).

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I think the other option--being illiterate--would not be appealing. Maybe I'm being too literal with your question, but I think everyone wants to be a writer to a certain extent. I think where "writer" took on greater importance for me though was when I was in the military, especially during DesertStorm, as I had no other way to communicate with friends and family. They shut off the phone lines so all we had was writing, so its level of importance skyrocketed for me.
I taught at a prison for a bit and I think my military experiences helped me to understand how important writing was to the prisoners, that it would greatly increase their ability to communicate with their own friends and family in the outside world because their options were so limited.

What were some of the difficulties in writing U.P.?

No difficulties. It was fun. I wrote it in a week, the first draft. I'd just broken up with a girlfriend and moved to Charlottesville to start the MFA Program at UVa and I didn't know a soul there, so I had nothing else to do. I spent 12 hour days hacking away in the upstairs of some frat kid's apartment that he subleased to me for $200 a month. I loved that week, just writing like crazy, allowing the characters' voices to come out. I spent two years rewriting it in the Virginia program, getting feedback from people like John Casey, Christopher Tilghman, and Sydney Blair. If you don't like the book, blame them. They helped me with the directions I took the rewrites.

Did the story change much from the first draft to the final one?


The voices did though. I went through and tried to further differentiate between the four voices. And some of the experimentalism to the form got pulled back. I had some crazy fonts I was using and stuff like that and took those out. But the story is basically the same from the first draft. A bully does a cruel act to one of the main characters at the beginning of the novel and a revenge plot unfolds. Imagine if Shakespeare knew nothing about Senecan tragedy or Marlowe and instead listened to a lot of The Subhumans and Public Enemy and liked Irvine Welsh and maybe you'll get a feel for U.P.

How did the idea of U.P. come about?

Columbine happened and a relative of mine brought a gun to school. Those two events had me thinking about teen violence and the lies of masculinity that a lot of males buy into. I wanted to understand the violence I saw in high school, how normalized it is, how much of it happens with very little punishment, and--even worse--how much of it happens with encouragement. People who've enjoyed the book have told me how much they relate to the characters, how they've seen these kids over and over in real life, but not represented on the page. I think that was one of the reasons I had trouble placing U.P. with a New York publisher--so many of those agents it seems to me are more interested in upper class, nanny-having, New Yorker shopping enthusiast characters who go on vacation to India and own beach homes. A writer friend of mine once told me that if you want to get a book published, write one about rich people taking a trip to India and have them worry a lot about stuff that doesn't really matter . . . When you set a book inside America with lower class struggles, those agents don't relate. When I found out Matt Davis at Ghost Road has a bunch of tattoos, I was like, "OK, I see why he likes U.P." He didn't go to an Ivy League school and spend Christmases in the Bahamas. Ghost Road is a Denver press. They publish authors with some bite, like American Book Award winner Aaron A. Abeyta. That's why I love alternative presses like Ghost Road Press, Soft Skull Press, Graywolf Press--those publishers are helping to encourage voices operating outside of the mainstream Stephenie Meyer Dan Brown James Patterson fluff for books with real pulses, real messages, real characters.

Can you tell us what you're working on next?

Two producers have talked to me about turning U.P. into a real quality indy film, so I'm working on the screenplay. I'm excited by the names of people (actors/directors) who have been mentioned/expressed interest as they are associated with some of my favorite indy movies of all time. So we'll see what happens.

Ghost Road has also talked about a further three book deal with me, so we're discussing that possibility. Ghost Road has already read and approved the books, so they're already written, but now there are some contractual issues I won't bore you with. Another publisher has shown some interest in a fifth novel and a theater in Chicago called Ruckus has said they're interested in a future production of my play All Saints' Day. I'm also working on another screenplay and have some other things in the works as well. It will be interesting to see what comes to fruition. The writing life is definitely peaks and valleys. Right now is a bit of a peak.

You can check out more about Ron's book, U.P. at the Ghost Road Press website.



Cecelia said...

Sounds cool (maybe more than I know, given the music theme...)! Thanks for the interview/feature!

Jen said...

Wow, great interview!