R. A. Riekki grew up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the setting of his current novel, U.P., which has earned praise from such highly acclaimed authors as John Casey, Ann Beattie, Christopher Tilghman, and Don De Grazia.
After heading east to Brandeis, then south to attend the University of Virginia’s MFA program, he returned to Michigan to get his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University before moving again... this time to the west coast. He now lives in California far from the cold winters of his younger days.
An amazingly versatile writer–his work includes poetry, screenplays, short stories, essays, novels, non-fiction, journalism, and more–Riekki’s work is included in the anthology Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), and he’s awaiting the release of two more novels in 2010.
Riekki was kind enough to spend some time with us on the beach chatting about his writing process. So pour yourself a cool drink, pull up a beach chair, dig your feet into the warm sand, and join us.
Wordswimmer: Let's start at the beginning, if that's ok, and talk about where you find ideas for your stories. Can you talk a little about the ways that ideas come to you? Is it an active search or more like listening closely to an inner voice ... or something else entirely?
RAR: As far as where my ideas come from--that's something I never have trouble with. I don't have writer's block for a multitude of reasons. One is I've had a boxer's life. What I mean by that is that it's been brutal. I think the majority of humans go through something rough and it seems to me that so many writers had that existence--Knut Hamsun, Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker, Sarah Kane, Clarence Cooper Jr. Those weren't easy lives. Those were complex struggles through existence and writing was this necessary therapy. I'm like that.
You put together Desert Storm, prison teaching, student ghetto and ghetto living spaces, college basketball coach yelling, drill instructor/company commander yelling, asthma/lung problems to the point where sometimes I wonder if I'm going to live, losing the greatest love of my life, etc., etc.--all that and more starts swirling around and I think God's punches create a writer. So I have too much to write on.
Just walk into a prison and then walk out of it, not even speaking to anybody, just going into its bowels and then coming out; if you're observant, sensitive, affected by humanity, you'll have a book from that experience alone. Ghosts come out of the barbed wire and speak to you. If you have nothing to write about, you're either living a life of the Buddha before he realized that suffering exists or else you're being too cowardly to get what you've experienced on the page. Suffering and bravery, that makes a writer.
I'll add this though. Don't go looking for suffering. It'll come to you. Walk towards happiness, you know, the heroic life is that walk. So live, get active, volunteer, put yourself in a situation that differs from the world you know. And then stories start coming to you.
You want to get what you've seen down on the page. So there's that. And then I also have an active imagination. I always have. I allow myself to go in any direction my mind wanders. I don't judge it. I think improv classes have been helpful for that. It's also helpful that I write poetry, fiction, plays, screenplays, journalism, creative non-fiction, basically every genre, so if an idea comes to me I can decide whatever genre is best for it. I think I'd have writer's block if I lived in one town my whole life and was an introvert and was only writing in one genre, say, romantic sci-fi, and I had dreams of being a multi-million selling author. I just write.
Wordswimmer: What sort of process do you find most helpful to get the idea(s) on paper? And, as part of that question, how do you overcome obstacles, deal with problems, in the writing?
RAR: How do I get ideas on paper? By writing. It's that simple. When I had students in Composition who were intimidated with writing, it was because they hadn't done it often enough. Jay Leno said that the best thing you can do as a comic is be up on stage so often that being on-stage and being off-stage have no difference. Just write all the time so that getting thoughts on a piece of paper aren't difficult anymore. I basically think and then type it. And I type really fast so when I have the thought I can get it down instantly. But how do I get thoughts on paper? By writing them down.
How do I overcome obstacles? I find this question interesting because your job as a fiction writer is to create obstacles for your characters. So the question is sort of: how do you overcome obstacles in creating obstacles? My response is that, for the writer, there aren't really any obstacles. It's writing. It's your story. You control it.
When I was in class, especially in the workshops at the University of Virginia, and John Casey would say something like, "Chapter 4 needs to be thrown out and Chapter 16 should be at the beginning of the novel," I tended to throw out Chapter 4 and put Chapter 16 at the beginning of the novel. I think with writing there are only obstacles if you are very stubborn. If something isn't working, I throw it out. I've thrown out a lot of stories and novels and poems. A lot of them. Then I move on to what flows.
I wrote the first draft of U.P. in a week. I think I heard Arthur Miller wrote the first act of Death of a Salesman in a day. I'm an explosive writer. I like for writing to come out of me in a burst. I just had two pieces of short fiction and two poems accepted for Loch Raven Review. I wrote each of those pieces, the first drafts, in anywhere from three to ten minutes. Then I just toyed around with the rewrites. I rewrote U.P. for two years. It's much harder to deal with problems in real life. Dealing with problems on the page, honestly, there aren't any--unless you make them yourself . But I guess life is probably like that too.
As far as what helps me to get the ideas on paper--music! Music is critical. I love listening to music when I write--The Mummers, The Veils, Blood Red Shoes, Dokken, New Radicals, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Loco Locass, Andree Watters, Coeur de Pirate, Sinead O'Connor, Fastway, A Tribe Called Quest, and on and on, Cat Power, Nellie McKay, Kinderzimmer Productions. Music is what gets me in the mood to write. And inspires me to write. When I listen to Tindersticks or Battles' "Atlas," I get hyped up to communicate with the world. I want to be that artistic and talented. And I do have this intense wish to be read and heard and to speak with people on the page and in life.
I was just at a party and I kept asking this girl questions and another guy there was like, "What are you, Larry King?" But people fascinate me. I had a student once who was writing very boring stories and I finally got her to talk with me after a class, sitting on the desks, loud noises in the hallway as people were walking by, and I asked her what she'd done in her life and she said she had a boring life and so her writing was boring. Well, there's two routes we can go--more imagination or . . . more honesty in what her life actually is like. And I pushed her to tell me about her high school days. That tends to be a good place to start; high school years tend to be dramatic, which is why there are so many novels and shows set there (including U.P.) and she told me nothing happened to her in high school. Nothing? Nothing, except she got kicked out of one high school and had to go to another one. OK, stop everything right there. That is amazing to me--that she was withholding information that was, to her, mundane, but, to me, incredibly intriguing. She lowered her voice when she said it. I think it's those moments where we lower our voice, where we lean in, that's where the writing is. It's in revealing something about ourselves. And when she did that, her writing took off. It became real, authentic, honest, revelatory. Music does that for me. Fiona Apple is so intimate that when I listen to her I feel connected to her as a human being. And she's said in interviews that that's what she originally wanted in her music. She's successful at accomplishing that. And I have this yearning for that in my life as well. I want to be a Fiona Apple with my novels and poems and stories.
Wordswimmer: When do you know you're done?
RAR: I have no idea how to answer that. I guess I parallel writing with life. I see a five-year-old girl looking up at her uncle saying, "We're alive now, right?" The uncle says, "Yes." The girl says, "How do you know when you're done?"
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