Today, Literary Escapism is welcoming author R.A. Riekki to the room, where’s he’s discussing his new novel, U.P..
From a bold new novelist comes a complex tale of friendship and brutality. Set in Michigan s Upper Peninsula, U.P. is the story of four teens immersed in an ugly world, one whose threat of violence is always simmering beneath the surface. R.A. Riekki s distinctive characters and their poignant quest for freedom is a swan song to lost youth, redefining the traditional coming-of- age-story. Four boys, four distinct narratives that converge into a harrowing and heartbreaking whole.
The Evil Doctor. Yup, the Evil Doctor.
Recently I had one of my biggest interviews of my writing life on a show that a friend of mine (actress Martha Boles) highly recommended I do as she is a big fan of The Midnight Bookworm. That was my big interview, with them. But . . . the only thing is I couldn’t get off of work to do the interview, so I had to do it between hay rides dressed in bloody scrubs and zombie makeup. The funny thing about having a three book contract with a small press and film interest in your first novel is that the future looks amazing, but the present is working in a fake cage surrounded by skeletons and a nurse who uses her hypodermic needle to stab corpses. I hoped that the interview didn’t come off as unprofessional and that instead it was unique and luckily the interviewer Vin Smith told me that the interview went great. It also showed the realities of the writing world. I have nothing in my bank account right now. Nothing. But I’m meeting with some incredible producers in Hollywood waiting to see if my current life will change, a life of working two jobs, a day job for minimum wage and my night gig paired up with two L.A. actresses (Martha Mintz and Patricia Grant) and actor Nico East who play my cohorts the Evil Nurse and the Inmate Woman. (And nearby is another actress who was one of the lure’s on MSNBC’s To Catch a Predator.) I’m blessed that haunted hayride acting actually pays well, so I’m happy. And humbled. Because as I sit down in a fancy-schmancy beachside Malibu restaurant to look up and find one of my favorite actresses of all time sitting across from me (I won’t name-drop here as it feels too Hollywood for me to do so) and a producer telling me to tell her what my first novel is about, I also find myself ordering water and seeing if there are any free breadsticks or crackers on the table.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m surviving and writing and that’s not easy to pair those two together. And I’m happy as hell to do what I’ve always wanted to.
But the real insanity isn’t in the zombie funeral and the house of horrors and haunted circus where I work, because that’s all smoke and mirrors. The real insanity is wanting to become a writer. (There’s a reason my third novel has the word “hunger” in the title.)
I love to read writer biographies. And over and over again in those texts I find that a lot of my favorite authors find a true audience and the ability to live a comfortable life right around the time that they die. Philip K. Dick comes to mind. And Frederick Exley. John Kennedy Toole didn’t even make it that far. I remember one interview I did with a student at an elite university in the U.S. and I was telling him about the poverty I was going through and he said, “Ahh, the cliche of the writer’s struggle.” And then he went on with the interview. But that “cliche” has been such a reality for me, one that he could dismiss because he didn’t feel any of its sting. I sometimes imagine myself at writers’ conferences at a table with my free bottled water and a room not at all full of students and one of those students raising their hand to ask me what advice I have for a young writer. And my response, in my fake world in my head, is me saying, “Do anything else. Anything. Anything else will pay better than this. Become a janitor. Because I can’t even get janitorial jobs now. I’m too overqualified. I have to beg for minimum wage jobs. Do anything other than become a writer. Unless you come from a wealthy family. Or you don’t mind the pain. And it’s what you have to do. Because if you don’t have wealth to fall back on, you’re going to be eating one, two meals a day. You’ll have the same clothes for nine years. And while you’re doing that, you’ll be getting rejection slip after rejection slip with the worry that you’ll never have a family. You’re going to wish you’d done any other life.” And then I come out of my head, back to the real world and I find that my first novel U.P. has been Ghost Road Press’s bestseller in fiction for 33 weeks (I get my first royalty check right around the time that this guest blog appears). That Ghost Road is publishing my novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man and Hunger in the Ass in spring and fall of 2010, respectively. And that one of the producers recently brought me backstage to Alice in Chains in L.A. and I got to speak with Jerry Cantrell and talk with him about my novel and about their great new CD Black Gives Way to Blue and his feelings about the sad passing on of the great Layne Staley. It’s a bizarre life. This writer life. Not normal. Para-normal. Bizarre. A Halloween existence. Especially because of how I write. My writing is odd, weird. Laura Dave, author of The Divorce Party, said of my debut novel: “People throw around the word ‘original’ to mean a lot of things, but U.P.–R.A. Riekki’s fighting new novel–is original in the best sense. It constantly surprised me.” I remember Nick Hornby saying something along the lines of wondering which came first the sadness or the sad songs, a chicken or the egg thing. And I wonder if my life was weird first or the writing. But they’re snowballing. Both getting stranger. I know some odd, odd people. And have this life where I go to work and see people with blood dripping from their lips and then walk to my friend’s apartment (model/actor Chris Smith) and pass someone in a Spiderman costume who takes off his mask and he looks grizzled homeless and then a few more steps down three people dressed as Jack Sparrow and then two Hasidic Jews and then four Swedish girls going camera crazy with the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk stars of Rodney Bingenheimer and Michael Jackson with dead roses on Jackson’s star and spit and a Milky Way wrapper on Bingenheimer’s and then I pass Matthew Modine, the actual Matthew Modine from Full Metal Jacket with his limo waiting, and then I go to my friend’s apartment and he talks about how his manager thinks he’d play a great serial killer.
I’ve never really been into the paranormal because I think my life is filled with such strangeness that I don’t need that extra fix of vampires.
But my next book that’s coming out (A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man, which I workshopped in Deborah Eisenberg’s class at the University of Virginia on Halloween) is kind of Fight Club if you watched it backwards and it was written by James Joyce during his Finnegans Wake era but with a lot more Slayer references. And the fourth book I’m shopping around is about as full-out in the horror genre as I’ve ever done. And I’m not even a horror fan. I think the more Goth people that I meet in life and the more I’m inside hospitals (I have horrible asthma problems so I frequent hospitals for that) and the more that I notice the small deaths in life–like I’m someone who when I ride down a freeway I constantly notice that there are all of these tire marks that lead right off of the road or into walls and it’s like I have constant reminders of accidents that I wonder if everyone else is noticing, every ten feet some barely noticeable yet obvious reflection of suffering in some past moment in tire-screeching time–next time you’re driving down the road, watch, you’ll see–and I think those things, those observations lead me to have fairly dark subject matter that comes up in my writing. In U.P., one of the kids is a cutter and he sticks pins in his feet until he hits bone. And in A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man these soldiers are near the Iraq border during a red alarm for chemical-biological warfare so they’re in gas masks and one of the soldiers vomits into his mask, the problem being that now the puke has to stay in there for the remainder of the alarm, which could be hours in the desert sun. Those sorts of horrors aren’t beyond the ordinary. In this world, they’re quotidian. Maybe that’s why I like early Chuck Palahniuk and Mary Gaitskill and Charles Bukowski and Anthony Burgess and Richard Hell much more so than Anne Rice or whoever wrote Twilight or J.K. Rowling. I find the monstrosity of plastic surgery so much more frightening than werewolves (see Invisible Monsters)–surgeons who talk women who are already gorgeous exactly how they are into thinking they need to slice off a part of their face to be loved, those types are the true Evil doctors.