Conversation No. 15
By Gessy Alvarez
Sometimes writers (virtually) meet each other because they share a publication together. Ron Riekki and I had stories published in Literary Orphans’ Blondie Issue (May 20, 2014, Issue 13). We dug each other’s stories and Ron introduced me to writings from a part of the U.S. I knew little about. I invited Ron for a conversation on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the rich literary culture that thrives there, as well as to talk about his own work and what inspires him.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P.: a novel, The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), and Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His play “Carol” was in The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2012, “The First Real Halloween” was best sci-fi/fantasy screenplay for the 2014 International Family Film Festival, and his story “The Family Jewel” was selected for The Best Small Fictions 2015. Riekki’s non-fiction, fiction, and poetry have been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Juked, decomP, Spillway, New Ohio Review, and many other literary journals. His screenplays have been finalists for the Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest, Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest, Fantasmagorical Film Festival, The International Horror Hotel Film Festival, Marquee Lights Competition, Terror Film Festival, and Wildsound.
What’s your connection to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and how has this region influenced your literary output?
Oh my God, this would require an encyclopedic response to do it justice. Luckily, I’ve been putting together tome after tome for people who really want to find out about the U.P., its culture, and literature. It’s been a decade of work, starting with publication of U.P. in 2008, where I tried to write my own great U.P. novel, which I felt hadn’t been done by anyone born and raised in the area. From there, I wanted to include voices way beyond my own, so I put together brand new never-before-published U.P. writing in The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works for Wayne State University Press. It has the talented current voices of the U.P. in one book with a whole widespread bunch of points-of-view on the area. I’m currently doing a series of anthologies for Michigan State University Press that’s starting with Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and includes the great women’s literature that’s been published from the region. I’m working on volume II for MSU Press now. I think my connection to the U.P., beyond being born and raised there, is sort of exhaustively attempting to have its literature be heard, which is sometimes breathtakingly beautiful for me to be part of and sometimes it’s painfully lowly as Upper Peninsula writing can sometimes feel like I’m a subaltern, even when I’m with U.P. authors.
You tackle PTSD in your story “Heroes,” (Moonshot, Issue 3), with excellent narrative precision. Usually, as a reader you expect to encounter a disconnected or displaced character in stories dealing with trauma. But, what I found compelling was your depiction of hyperarousal, or the fight-or-flight response, people with PTSD often face. Did you know how the plot would progress before the story’s completion or were you surprised by its development?
This is, in many ways, the perfect follow-up question, especially if you have a biographical focus with my writing, but I went straight into the military after my U.P. childhood. Rather than get into anybody I know with PTSD, I think it’s been one of the topics that I’ve been fascinated with my writing. I read once that the highest incarceration, alcoholism, and suicide rates of any minority belonged to war-time veterans. I’m not sure if that’s 100% true, but I do know that there is major concern with those sorts of issues with war vets, especially if you focus on those who were enlisted. I think the story became an amalgamation of several war vets I’ve known. As far as where the plot was going–I’d say I had roughly an outline of where I wanted to go, but very roughly. I honestly can’t remember the specifics, but there was a moment where I was with a vet who was doing security and some of the things he said triggered the idea for the story. It was an easy one to write. And I’m thankful it was Pushcart nominated.
You write prose and poetry, and have edited a couple of anthologies including The Way North. I know from experience how different the roles of writing and editing are especially when you are working with a group of artists who do not share your aesthetics or writing style. Can you discuss how different working for yourself is versus working with other writers and poets? How do you deal with the varying aesthetics and sensibilities?
I’m in the middle of working on my fifth and sixth anthologies simultaneously. I did a play anthology for the Center for U.P. Studies, The Way North, Here, and I’ve turned in volume two of the MSU Press U.P. series, and so now I’m working on volume three, as well as a film studies anthology I’m co-editing with Jeffrey Sartain of the American Book Review. With Here, I had from five to ten other guest editors giving feedback. I had over 1000 pages of writing to sift down to under 250 pages, so I’d give chunks of the writing to other editors and overlap their feedback on the very best pieces. (This way they didn’t have to read everything; although I, of course, did.) This kept me from having my one sole definitive opinion on the great U.P. literature and instead made sure for multivocality. The guest editors’ opinions really helped me in the process. I’d honestly say there hasn’t been a disparity between my aesthetics and the guest editors’. If anything, it was interesting to note the similarities in overlap. It made me consider why several people would hate a piece and why one would get such incredibly high ratings. It was important for my own writing to understand what attracts and repels readers.
I think if I had to push myself to give you some revealing of antagonism, that has happened on the rare occasion with book tours I’ve set up where I try to get the contributors some exposure and the writers just simply don’t get along. (Keep in mind though that it’s fairly rare.) I’ve found that there can be some tension on who qualifies as a “writer.” An author who self-publishes, for example, doesn’t go through the difficult journey of earning publication that a traditionally publishing author had to go through, so pairing those two types of authors together has sometimes not gone well. The same can sometimes be true with genre writers, where a person who maybe is aiming for critical success doesn’t like being paired with an author who is aiming for commercial success. That’s been interesting to see and thankfully infrequent.
Your literary output is diverse. Just this past year, I’ve read poetry, flash fiction, short stories by you in a number of literary websites. From your bio, I see you’re also a screenwriter and critic. When it comes to writing, I believe in versatility. You should experiment and try different forms because the degree of failure is much greater when you stretch your skills. And of course, failure often leads to discovery. Why do you write in these varied forms? What discoveries have you made?
There are multiple answers to this question. God, don’t know why I’m starting with this, but it popped in my head, so let’s go with it: at the end of my Ph.D. where I was focusing on playwriting, I got some Brutal (with a capital B) feedback from the head of the Dramatists Guild. At least I think that’s what his position was. I collapsed. In terms of playwriting, I collapsed. At the same time, my novel U.P. got offered a contract after the publisher read an excerpt from the book in New Ohio Review. I had this revelation that we’re not tattooed to any one genre and it was this wave of relief. I started really doing every genre except playwriting after that. And I mean, every genre–novels, short stories, poetry, journalism, radio plays, TV writing, screenplays, creative non-fiction.
I will say this too, as it’s important to understanding my mindset: I took a class with Stephen Cushman at the University of Virginia when I was getting my MFA there and he was brilliant in pushing us to explore all forms of poetry. He was a big form-and-content guy, and it made me realize that when you have an idea, you really need to find the perfect form to express the content. So I started doing that, really analyzing if what I was writing worked best as a one-act play or a sonnet or a novella or what. I think two ways that I get out of the depression of being a writer are writing and submitting a lot. If I only did A Confederacy of Dunces and nothing else and got rejection after rejection after rejection, well, I can understand what happened to John Kennedy Toole. I think it’s important to not get so attached to the success of one thing. Write a lot and no one can stop you. Submit a lot and no one can stop you. I like that mind set of “you will not stop me from being a writer.” When I taught in prison, guys in the class would trade cigarettes for paper. They didn’t want to smoke. They wanted to write. I like that, the commitment to paper.
You will not stop me from being a writer–a great mantra.
Along with writing and submitting beaucoup is the beauty of working in multiple genres. I try to have at least one piece currently out to a publisher (or theater or whatever) in every genre, which means right now I have work out in all of those genres I just mentioned to you. And in some of those categories, it’s quite a few things in that genre. (In some, it’s a ridiculous amount of things in that genre.) I was talking with the amazing poet Jonathan Johnson, asking him why he writes plays. He found his niche with poems. He does poetry very, very well–and has been in The Best American Poetry to prove it–but he said he writes non-fiction and plays, etc., because it makes him feel healthy. He gets the thrill of exploring those genres and he basically said his poetry would be stale if that’s all he did. Makes sense.
You briefly mentioned a couple of projects in your previous answers, but can you tell us more of what you have in the works?
I’ve gotten over the playwriting-phobia, because, in October, Fancy Pants Theater in Kalamazoo is doing my adaptation for the stage of the film, “Night of the Living Dead.” And in May, Ground Floor Theater/TILT Performance Group in Austin is performing my short play “The Green is Always Greener on the Greener Side.” I have a lot of other stuff in the works, but I’ve found that if I discuss anything that’s not contracted, well, things can fall apart and then when I go back and read the interview it makes me groan at myself, so I’ll stick to what’s contracted and that’s the MSU Press series of great U.P. literature. Like I said, volume II is done, but we’re working on the proper structure for it. All of the pieces are selected though.
And I’m putting together events for the contributors to Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is time-consuming, but exciting. For example, on June 29 at 7 p.m. at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, we have National Book Award finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michigan Notable Book author Alison Swan, National Book Award-winner Gloria Whelan, and Caitlin Horrocks of The Best American Short Stories all appearing together. So when perfect events like that fall in line, it’s really fun for me. I love to promote Michigan literature. If I ever managed to get a job in Michigan, it would be really, really, really helpful for me to get more done. We’ll see. As of now, I’m a bit of a cockroach, surviving in the post-apocalyptic world of post-MFA. We’ll see how long I’ll survive for.
Thank you, Ron!