Sunday, November 22, 2009
Interview with R.A. Riekki, Author of U.P.
I’m pleased to have writer, R.A. Riekki, author of the literary novel, U.P. here for an in-depth interview. U.P. is the story of four teenagers desperate to escape the mining towns of Ishpeming and Negaunee but doomed to immersion in the violence simmering just beneath the surface of their Northern Michigan communities.
R.A. Riekki, welcome to the Organic Writer.
I must tell you that I read your novel in one weekend. I couldn’t put it down. It showed me a side to the UP that I didn’t know existed; one beyond the beauty of the peninsula and the prosperous niches of Marquette and Lake Superior, shining a light on the dirty underbelly of mining—what it offers and what it leaves behind.
First, could you tell us a little bit about how your novel came to be published by Ghost Road Press? Did you have an agent at the time, or were you submitting directly to publishers? Were sections published elsewhere as short stories? Did they find you or did you find them?
R.A. Riekki: John Bullock, a friend of mine from UVA, had his book Making Faces accepted by them, so he recommended I send U.P. A chapter from it was accepted in New Ohio Review where he's an editor. So I sent it. No agent. I really need an agent. Realize that more and more each day. Have had a manager and an agent offer, but wasn't a good fit. Want one that's a good fit for what I do, what I like to write, all that. Never in a million years would I have thought I would have passed on an offer from an agent or manager, but after doing this for so long I'm really wanting to make sure that the people I'm working with are a perfect fit for me. Or at least a really good fit. And yes, had sections of U.P. published in Potion Magazine, Arts & Sciences, and nor. I had an acknowledgement page for U.P., but for some reason the publisher didn't include it, but I'm thankful for those publications who published sections of U.P.
Yvonne Osborne: So from your experience would you say it is, indeed, best to get an agent first?
R.A. Riekki: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And yes. And did I mention yes? And this has nothing to do with what you just asked, but I wanna add that Maria Brink of In This Moment's performance of Pantera's "I'm Broken" on Fuse's Talking Metal goes down with one of the best metal performances I've ever seen. My vote for hardest rocking female on the planet.
Yvonne Osborne: OK. I can see I’m gonna have trouble keeping you on track. How many weeks has U.P. been at the top of Ghost Road Press’s best seller list?
R.A. Riekki: 35 weeks as their bestselling novel. And 39 weeks on their top ten bestseller list, and counting. So it's done well for them. I'm hoping that it's success may open some doors in the future. Of course, I'm a large part of its success; I emailed or phoned 1,617 contacts in the U.S., 78 contacts in Canada, and then contacts in 14 other countries to do promotions for the book. So I think once an agent actually notices the amount of work I do in book promotions things will fall in line to go to a larger publisher in the future. But we'll see.
Yvonne Osborne: Wow. I would think your inbox would be full of agent offers. Is it because your novel isn’t about vampires or werewolves, or a paranormal romance or Y.A. fantasy?
R.A. Riekki: Hilarious. I have two horror novels, so I do write in that genre, but they're not vampire, werewolf, paranormal romance, or YA fantasy. But who knows, I could do that. I like to write in every genre. Just like to be prolific. I've had plays produced in seven states, Stephen Geller called me to tell me he loved one of my screenplays, my novels, poems in a bunch of small journals, and short stories in various pubs. And two Illinois Press Awards for journalism. So I kind of do everything, which may be a reason I don't have an agent yet. But I have to admit, I've passed on an agent and a manager offer in the past as I just didn't see us as a good fit. So it's not like I haven't had an offer, it's just that I want to be sure they're a fit for what I'd like to do with my career. But a lot's going on now, so we'll see what comes out of everything that's currently happening for me.
Yvonne Osborne: Part of the attraction for me was the setting. There are very few novels set in the UP. Is this also something that Ghost Road Press liked?
R.A. Riekki: I think so. I mean, growing up, I never got to read one book that was set in the U.P. So when I was getting my MFA, I had this need to represent the place. And not to do so in the way that I'd seen the place written about, which was in sort of corny, or if not corny, goofy Yooper humor that has its place, but I had O.D.ed on it. I wanted to be literary. Or not "literary." I just wanted the place on the page. I'd seen the film Anatomy of a Murder, which people make this big deal about it being set there, but I wanted something more contemporary. What I'd experienced. And I wanted it even deeper in the place, you know, I wanted Third Street on the page and Teal Lake and the caving grounds, all these things that were so central to the place when I was growing up and I wanted people who know that area to appreciate being submerged in it, having these people from that place have their drama unfold instead of reading another story set in New York City.
Yvonne Osborne : Do you think it fair to say that part of the attraction of the U.P. is the solitude, which the people who live there wouldn’t have if not for the winters they rail against? I think the weather is why Lake Superior is still pristine, and if not for mining, there would be little to no pollution on the peninsula. A place like that gets into your bones. Do you live in the U.P. now? Do you like winter?
R.A. Riekki: I hate winter. That's why I live in L.A. Or a big reason. I used to live by the equator at one point in my life and people would complain about the heat, but not me. Never. I'd rather live on the equator than on the North Pole. And yeah, the U.P. is a great place if you want solitude, if you wanna get a cabin in Engadine or Germfask and hole up for the winter. But I like city life. I've lived in Chicago, Boston, Montreal. I like activity and warmth. I'm not built for the U.P. And Teal Lake's not as pristine as it once was, that's for sure. But there's great things about the U.P. and not so great things. In the book when the teenagers complain about where they live, that's what all teenagers do everywhere.
Yvonne Osborne: Enough on the setting. I’d like to congratulate you on writing a cliché-free novel. (Or pretty damn close.) As a writer, I know how hard that is. Did you have to make a conscious effort to steer clear of them?
R.A. Riekki: Yeah, I set out to write a novel I'd never seen before. I'd never read a novel set in the U.P., so I wrote it. I never read a novel with a main character with cerebral palsy, so I wrote U.P. I never read a novel with a main character who was a metalhead, so I wrote U.P. I can't think of another novel with Negaunee, C.P., and Dokken in it, that's for sure. I didn't want to write a novel about a nanny in New York who's spunky and having boy troubles. There's a few thousand people writing that novel right now. I'll let them cover that territory, you know, weddings and Manhattan. (By the way, LCD Soundsystem's "New York, I Love You" is playing in the background.)
Yvonne Osborne: Sigh OK. How long did it take you to write this novel?
R.A. Riekki : I wrote the first draft in a week, then rewrote for two years while in the MFA Program at the University of Virginia. So I got great feedback from Sydney Blair, John Casey, Tara Yellen, Christopher Tilghman, Paula Younger, John Bullock, Thomas Mallon, and a bunch of other talented writers. Really helped me with the rewrites. Got no feedback from the publisher though, published it as is.
Yvonne Osborne: Then you submitted a perfect manuscript. You have a lot of firsts going for you. I wanted to ask you about the cover art. Who designed it?
R.A. Riekki: Oh, that's a great question actually. My sister. She's a really talented artist. We really don't talk much, so as soon as I thought there would be something that we could collaborate on I was excited to see if she'd wanna work on it, so I was glad when she did. Steven Wiig, who did the CD covers for the band that ex-Metallica member Jason Newsted fronts called Papa Wheelie, has shown interest in doing a book cover for me in the future.
Yvonne Osborne: I thought you did a good job of instilling a sense of impending doom in your reader from the opening few pages. Was it hard to maintain that momentum through to the end?
R.A. Riekki: I dunno. I think I struggled with that. John Casey had me rearrange chapters. And editing was key. Keeping the book a quick read. Short chapters, quick lines, the feel that it's always moving. Some agents who looked at it felt I didn't succeed with that momentum. But the reviews I've gotten (Third Coast, Meridian, Foreword Magazine, etc.) have really complimented me on the build of the novel. I dunno . . .
Yvonne Osborne : Let's talk about the characters. I found myself most attracted to the angst-filled Craig. As he reaches sexual maturity and unleashes his insatiable appetite on an unsuspecting female population (which in some way seems to be his undoing), he grows increasingly vulnerable. His list of sexual conquests (and notes on each one) is both funny and heartbreaking. And his method for performing cunnilingus and description of the same was the most provocative I’ve ever read. Did you find one character more personally appealing than the others? One voice easier to write in than another?
R.A. Riekki: I connect to all of them. As I wrote, I tried to tap into parts of me that I felt connected with that character. J, for example, has never been touched by a woman, so I'd search into my own loneliness at the time of writing the book so that I could make his pain believable, his yearning to be touched. Craig, on the other hand, is all lust and so I'd tap into that aspect of myself. So I tried to write truthfully to who I thought they were, their emotions churning inside them. I love voice. I tend not to be a fan of voice-less fiction, which I've found a lot of the top bestsellers in the country are. I like Antony Burgess and Richard Allen and Kathy Acker and Mark Leyner where the voice is thick and complex and original. Love that stuff. And yes, if you want to give good cunnilingus, read Craig's advice, which he steals from Sam Kinison. I haven't heard that comment before!
Yvonne Osborne: You used a unique writing approach with each chapter written in a different character’s voice. As the novel begins and ends with the character, Hollow, I saw him as the main protagonist, and he does turn out to be the most centered, at least compared to the other three. But each of the four main characters has been affected in some way by tragedy. Without giving too much away or getting too personal, do you have any firsthand knowledge of Cerebral Palsy or the devastating loss of a father figure?
R.A. Riekki: Wow, that is a little personal but probably why it's such a good question. I have a cousin with cerebral palsy and my mother has M.S. and they both have said they appreciate me having characters with both C.P. and M.S. in the novel, that they need to be included in literature. I try not to talk about my father. He seems to be a bit private. I try not to write about my family. My sister for example is absent from anything I ever write, because I have a feeling that that's what she wants. I have friends who ask me to include them in my books, you know, "Include my name in your next novel," so I'll sneak their first name in there, but if people don't like for me to talk about them then I try not to. But U.P. is fiction (thank God).
Yvonne Osborne: The F bomb is dropped hundreds of times. Did your editor try to censure you on that or did they recognize the importance of telling the story in an authentic voice? I mean, this is how these kids talk, right?
R.A. Riekki: I didn't get any comments in that regard. I know some people have refused to read the book because of the cursing, but I couldn't imagine never watching any rated R movies. There's so much great art that isn't PG/G. I've had some people read it and love it who I never expected would like it, 60-year-old Christian women in my hometown, you know, but when you think of The Wire and The Sopranos and shows like that, there are definitely fans of the show that are 60-year-old women who believe in Jesus.
Odd transition, but I had a line about condoms in an interview I did with a book blog and the blogger said she was going to cut the line. I was like, "Isn't your audience mainly mystery fans?" She was like yeah. So I said, "You do realize those books are all about murder. I think they can handle me saying the word 'condoms,'" so she kept it in. People are funny about cursing. I'll say this though, it's funny to hear you say that the f-word is in the book "hundreds of times." I have two more novels I'm working on that have no cursing in them. It has to come from the characters. If the characters curse, it's gonna be in the novel. If I write about my old Navy days, there's going to be cursing.
One final note on the cursing, for the screenplay of U.P., a producer told me to put in more f-words. I found that funny.
Yvonne Osborne: Do you think heavy metal and rap can influence behavior, or is that a cheap copout by government and law enforcement entities who try to place the blame for societal violence on the music industry, much like book banning in the literary world?
R.A. Riekki: I think the opposite--behavior influences heavy metal and rap. Heavy metal and rap are mirrors. Don't blame the mirror. Don't break the mirror, you know, that Apocalypse Now moment where you smash the mirror but then the problems are still there, even worse, now your fist bleeding. I'd place a lot of weight on government and law enforcement entities, reverse the conversation. I think sometimes the conversation happens in the opposite order it needs to happen. Confront poverty, not the Ying Yang Twins.
Yvonne Osborne: As I read U.P., I found myself making comparisons to the spirited Holden Caulfield in Catcher and the Rye and the doomed John Grady in Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain. What authors have most influenced your writing?
R.A. Riekki: I've gotten some comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. I'd never read him, but I kept hearing his name compared with my writing, so I read The Road, which was OK. I read the screenplay version a few months ago before the film came out and I like it better than the novel, so I'll have to see how the film is. What excites me though is that producers have seen my novel writing as suited for cinema the way that McCarthy's writing translates so well, so that's definitely good news. I love film. I also love Catcher in the Rye, but I don't see it as an influence, except maybe subconsciously. I think Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk and cult writers in general were big in what I was trying to do with U.P. I just wanted to write a really original novel, that I felt might not ever get published but I wanted to write it badly. So I was surprised when Chris Tilghman said he could see it getting published when he read my final draft at UVa. Other influences are probably Iceberg Slim, Charles Bukowski, Nick Hornby, Neil LaBute, Kathy Acker, and Hunter S. Thompson. I love authors. I just reread those names. I even like reading their names.
Yvonne Osborne : Have you ever been intentionally hit with a bat? I ask because your description is first-person gut wrenching.
R.A. Riekki: Yes, I was attacked randomly like antony is at the start of the novel and I did have my collarbone shattered. I still have problems with it to this day. But it wasn't by a baseball bat. I think I wrote U.P. to explore that incident, my introduction to just how violent the world can get. I wanted to pretend what it would have been like if I had been obsessed with revenge instead of dealing with it another way (writing a novel about it years later), so antony is me if I had given in to the obsession for revenge.
Yvonne Osborne: Why did you focus on a downtrodden, culturally isolated group of characters for your novel?
R.A. Riekki: I grew up in the U.P. and a lot of the kids I know had families affected by the economic crises of the mines starting to run out of work, the auto industry making its steps towards collapse, so the alcoholism and drug addiction and absent fathers were extensions of the unemployment that was creeping into the cities nearby. I wrote about them because so many other books I read have middle and upper class characters. Any time someone in a novel was dressed up to go to a ball, I couldn't continue reading because it just was a world that I wasn't interested in. I wanted these teenagers to exist in literature just like they exist in life. And what I've been excited about is to hear people who've interviewed me who live in Long Island and Washington and Auburn tell me that they know these characters, even though they haven't been to the U.P. Those downtrodden, culturally isolated characters are throughout the U.S., not just the U.P. But a lot of writers and agents grew up in middle/upper class environments where they don't understand the world I'm writing about. Luckily I'm finding a solid audience who does relate.
Yvonne Osborne : There were plenty of poignant moments throughout the book. What J throws out the window of the car at the end seems to symbolize his own thrown away youth. Do you see this book as giving the typical coming-of-age novel a new spin?
R.A. Riekki: Hmmm. Well, as far as J, yes, when he tosses the most prized possession he owns out the window, he's given up. He's collapsed inside. He's just had his heart shattered. I wanted the novel to open with someone being physically brutalized and then end it with someone being emotionally brutalized. And that's what happens to J. What he loves more than anything, his father, he loses forever. I actually get a bit teary just thinking about how much that hurts him.
As far as a new spin to coming-of-age novels, I just wanted to write an authentic novel about growing up in the U.P., its humor, its losses.
Yvonne Osborne: You seem to have a strong musical background, and your love of music is apparent in the rhythm of the narration; I see music as playing a very central role in this novel. What role, if any, does music play in your writing on a whole? Do you listen to music while you write? OK...that was a a dumb question, but do you find that any particular artist gets the creative juices flowing, puts you in the mood, so to speak?
R.A. Riekki: I almost have to listen to music when I write. Unless I've lost myself into the scene and forget that the youtube video has ended or the CD has finished. Otherwise music is critical. It's so emotion controlling. So if I'm writing a humorous scene, I'll listen to the Dead Milkmen or the Beastie Boys or Tenacious D and if I'm writing a sad scene it'll be Fiona Apple, Au Revoir Simone's "Sad Song," or The Veils' "Lavinia." I like how music affects my whole body to get me in an emotional state that mimics the one I'm writing. I love living in 2009 as far as music is concerned. There's so much great music collectively. Any time people complain about music, I'm like, "You have so much control of what you listen to. Turn off the radio unless it's some cool college radio station and start listening to all the great stuff out there. You know, call up Jennifer Charles singing "We're in Love" on youtube. Lovely. Stars' "The Big Fight" just ended and New Radicals' "I Don't Wanna Die Anymore" just started, two beautiful songs. I love music.
Yvonne Osborne: I know you had a somewhat miserable experience with Boot Camp. Do you think that experience colors your characters and the choices they make or turn from?
R.A. Riekki : You've done your research! . . . Hmmm . . . Not really. Not in U.P. In the short fiction I've done, yes. Matt Schutt, a director who won an Emmy for editing, shot the short film Ease that you can check out on youtube (search under his name and then Ease) and that film definitely shows the influence of the military on my writing. My short story "War" http://www.cameron.edu/okreview/vol5_2fiction/riekki.html in the Oklahoma Review also shows that connection. But in terms of U.P., hmm, I did write it so that each of the characters are going into a doomed future, although my mom had a very positive read for the ending for each of the characters, but I saw Hollow leaving the war that happens in the final pages to go to a much bigger war of Desert Storm that awaits him in his escape by joining the service.
Yvonne Osborne: That’s the neat thing about the ending. Everyone can take something different from it. Brilliant. About War, I found it both funny and sad, which I guess is similar to the “war is a joke” comment that so infuriated the protagonist. Again, you have your own unique voice but the story made me think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In my opinion, the only good things to come out of both these wars are these amazing narratives.
I found the caving grounds particularly interesting—the underground passages left by the mining company when the ore was depleted—and your description of the bottomless pit in the woods was Poe creepy. Is there really such a dangerous place in the midst of all that stark beauty called the Upper Peninsula?
R.A. Riekki : Oh, I loved to leap those TRESPASSING -- CAVING GROUNDS -- DANGER fences and creep around back there. There was this one spot where it was like the earth collapsed in about six feet and it looked so cool. I remember standing there and just looking at how awesome it looked, to be walking in a meadow and then all of a sudden this area about as big as a swimming pool where the ground had collapsed in. It felt like a spaceship had landed there. It gave me this wonderful eerie feeling, you know, the numinous that Rudolph Otto talks about in his The Idea of the Holy, an awe that comes with the odd. I liked the tingle I felt walking back in those caving grounds.
Yvonne Osborne: Writing without punctuation has been used successfully by very few authors. Did you do it with Antony’s voice to show a lack of education or just to nail his infatuation with Rap? I mean it works, but he was my least favorite character and his point of view the hardest to read, partly because of that. How do you feel about that?
R.A. Riekki: I could almost hear antony say, "If I'm your least favorite character, good! I don't wanna be your ^&*(ing favorite character!" You know what I mean? His defenses and the walls he puts up keep readers from fully feeling for him, but he has his moments of vulnerability as well. He just tends to follow them up with something that will push the reader away. I had a cousin who was drunk and he told me that he loved me and then he punched me in the face, hard. I didn't really care too much for that incident, but I thought it said a lot. I see antony as someone who would do that. But I also see him as someone who hates that about himself, his inability to fully connect. That's why he turns to hip-hop. He sees Slick Rick as a friend of his, an imaginary friend, but a friend. I saw his lack of punctuation as his f- you to English grammar, him hating his English teachers and so doing it precisely because it's what he's been told not to do. And also him wanting to put up a future defensive wall with people. He wants to quote Compton's Most Wanted saying, "ash traces of dub hit a couple corners pulls up at the bud," because he hopes you don't understand. As a matter of fact, when I'd get feedback that I had to rewrite antony's chapters in standard English, I'd ask the person in the workshop, "Why?" And they'd be like, "Because I don't understand him." And I'd say, "Good. I don't want you to. He's speaking to the hip-hop fans out there who know who Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. are and what it means when CMW says, 'throws up a set then he bones out quick.'"
Yvonne Osborne: So it sounds like there is a movie deal in the works. Can you talk about that? Are you secretly working on the soundtrack? Who would you like to see play Craig, Hollow, J and Antony? Any thoughts on that?
R.A. Riekki: To get a movie made, a lot has to fall into place. And that's not easy to do. All it takes is one person to demand too much and things can fall apart quicker than you can imagine. And that person might change their mind, but it can be too late, the moment may have passed. So we'll see. It's a fragile thing. Far as who I'd like to see play those roles, it's so hard to say because I really know older actors and those roles are for actors around 16-24. I mean, I love the acting of Steven Wiig, Larry Joe Campbell, Vincent Gallo, Ewen Bremner, and I could go on and on. We'll see. It's nice that there's interest, but the only way a film can happen is if people are really willing to work together and God is smiling down upon it.
Yvonne Osborne : I understand that the kid who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son in The Road is amazing, an unheard of Australian actor by the name of Kodi Smit-McPhee. It is said that he’s going to blow people’s minds. He’d be about 14 now, so in a couple more years . . . hmm.
R.A. Riekki: That'd be great. May take four years to bring things to fruition anyway, so might work out perfectly in an ideal universe with God smiling down.
By the way, David H. Lawrence who plays the villain Eric Doyle on Heroes also is in the short film Ease that was shot from an adaptation of my short fiction. He's a great actor.
Yvonne Osborne: Is there any advice you would offer the unpublished writer who aspires to join the ranks of the published?
R.A. Riekki : Get an agent, don't listen to people who unnecessarily put you or your writing down, have a thick skin, have a second skill that will help you pay bills, only go to an MFA program if they give you a scholarship (unless you're rich), realize that your fellow students in the program are going to get published in the future too and you're not competing against each other at all--that in fact in the future you can greatly help each other out, don't become a drunk, learn to get a sense of humor into your writing and your life, write and read as much as you can but always always always choose love over writing, and take care of yourself, you don't have to suffer for your writing, suffering will come to you without you trying to have it, instead treat yourself as good as you possibly can, oh, and read my novel U.P.
Yvonne Osborne: When can we expect your next novel to be on the shelves?
R.A. Riekki": Under contract negotiations, so I have to be cryptic, and also I have no clue. A lot is on hold and examining things, so there's some opportunities. Things could collapse or fall together, who knows. I write a lot so there are three novels and a memoir that are sort of up in the air. We'll see. It's a very active time. I tend to go in the direction of who treats me well and tend to go away from who treats me bad, in life and in the world of publishing.
As a final note to you, this is the most thorough written interview I've ever had. Wonderful questions and thank you for reading the novel. I appreciate it very much.
Yvonne Osborne: And thank you for sharing your experience in getting that first book published and for all the tremendous advice. This has been a pleasure and I look forward to reading your next novel and wish you all the best.
You can check out www.ghostroadpress.com or http://www.amazon.com/u-p-R-Riekki/dp/0979625564 for more information, or author Riekki's website rariekki.webs.com/