>(Perpetual Folly note: Yesterday, I featured the novel U.P. by Ron Riekki (go here to read all about it) and suggested to Ron that if he wanted to do a guest post he might write about something we have in common, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Which he has done. Thanks, Ron!)
Cliff asked me to write about Sewanee for a guest blog. At first, I had no idea what to write about. Then, at second, I still had no idea what to write about. So I figured I’d just start writing and see what came out. And so here it is. What I’m writing right now. Maybe I should start with saying what the heck Sewanee is. It’s a, well, I guess it’s a lot of things, but what I know it as is a summer conference. It’s more than that, but for my life that’s all it is, a summer conference, but it’s one hell of a summer conference. I got to study there with Lee Blessing. For those of you who don’t know Lee Blessing, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Which means he has no more worries for the rest of his life. Or so I like to falsely believe. You see, once I thought that if I got a book published, I’d be set for life. Not in the ways of book touring and million dollar royalty checks, but more along the lines of, “I’ll be able to get a creative writing job and do better than the poverty that the writing life can be in the early stages of the writerly life (see Frederick Exley, Charles Bukowski, Jim Carroll, Jack Kerouac, Iceberg Slim, Clarence Cooper Jr., Philip K. Dick, etc., etc.) . . . come to think of it, even in the middle stages of the writerly life . . . and beyond. So to have a book out, and for it to be my press’s bestseller in fiction for 24 weeks straight, I thought at this point in time I would be set for life. And maybe I am. Maybe I need to keep that biblical quote about birds and lilies being watched over by God so we should feel like we are too, or however that quote goes. But the reality is a lot like being on the end of a bluff and wondering if you’re going to love the view or perhaps fall off. Because there’s a big difference–between enjoying a sunset and plummeting to your death. What am I talking about? I forget. I’m exhausted. I worked from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. today doing a job that leaves one feeling at the end of the day like Charles Bukowski. Tan and exhausted, your whole body hurting, especially your legs, a postman job, but minimum wage allows one to survive paycheck to paycheck. And I’m surviving. Waiting to see if all of the things that are falling in line and could hold promise will explode or implode, come to fruition or just get your hopes up. What’s in line? Ghost Road’s talking about a four book deal. Another publisher in New York is looking at a possible two-book deal. A literary manager has shown interest in representing me. A producer in L.A. has shown interest in U.P. as a film. But where am I now? I had a job teaching, got laid off, and so now I’m in this wonderful post-Bush economy, and am finding myself relying on writing. That’s not something you want to depend on for your livelihood. So I’m wondering if I should have become a fireman or a nurse or a welder, except those jobs I’ve seen on worst job lists. And “mathematician,” which I saw as the best job may be problematic, because I know a mathematician who was just laid off. So here I am, fingers crossed, hoping it’ll all work out. And the reality is that I just had a book signing in Bakersfield, California, and only one person showed up. And that person was a young teenager who had a copy of the Disney-Pixar movie Up, which has nothing to do with my novel U.P. And, yes, I had that title before they did. The bookstore’s owner was amazing, did a lot of publicity for the event–put me on a stage, with two rows of empty seats in front of me. Instead of doing the reading as planned, I just gabbed with the store owner. Well, a lady came over with her grandchild and asked me to move, interrupting our conversation. Apparently I was blocking a Harry Potter book that she wanted to look at. J.K. Rowling. That’s the fantasy. The fantasy isn’t being told to get out of the way when you’re onstage for a reading. That’s definitely not the fantasy of the writing life. J.K.’s the fantasy. And what’s not the fantasy is my job right now. My job right now, in conjunction with the writing, is going door to door for a political activist organization. It’s important, exhaustive, low-paying, did I mention important?, work. But it’s minimum wage. Which you can survive on when you’re a college student doing summer work, but not when it’s your whole income. And what makes it have more of a sting to it is that the houses I go to are mansions with Malibu views of beaches and palm trees and children and activity and fountains and swimming pools and this whole world of family and wealth that I don’t have. Because I wanted to be a writer. Which is a stupid, brilliant, frustrating, odd, commendable, underappreciated–did I mention stupid?–thing to want to be. And that reading that I just gave, even with a producer interested in turning my book into a film, even with 24 weeks of supported purchases mostly by music fans who are interested in the metal and punk and hip-hop that I layered throughout my novel, even with National Book Award winner John Casey nominating U.P. for the Sewanee Writers’ Series and blurbing my book saying, “I wish Kurt Vonnegut were alive to read U.P. He’d love it. He’d love it as much as he loved Breece Pancake and Deborah Eisenberg. I’m not just guessing. On my own hook I can say that R.A. Riekki’s novel is a brilliant fierce rush–sometimes harsh, sometimes funny, always so immediate you can hear it. This book is alive.” Even with all that and having done 70 interviews to support the book, no one showed up. At least no one except a girl who looked sad when she found out who I was. That’s humility. And I wouldn’t have been ready for it if I hadn’t already gone through a contract for U.P. being given to me by being selected for publication with the Sewanee Writers’ Series, only to have them a few months later pull out of the deal. You see, after John Casey nominated my novel, it won publication with Overlook Press. I got the call from a Sewanee representative, got promised a very nice contract with a substantial figure, especially as I was only making about $6000 that year as poorly paid adjunct faculty in a community college. So I thought I had everything and then that rug got pulled out, and nearly killed me. The collapse that I went through after having a book contract and then not having one was, well, as the French say terrible. Come to think of it, that’s how the English say it as well. I hope any up-coming potential writers keep that in mind, that a contract isn’t a contract until you’ve been paid, so don’t count your chickens even after they’ve hatched. I’ve found it amusing–the people who’ve been warning me about the film industry, as if I’m not already prepped for the possibilities of disappointment. But you know what–that’s part of the job. Disappointment to a writer is quotidian. I dedicated my entire life to this, so there’s no backing out now–an MFA in Theater Arts/Playwriting at Brandeis University, an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing at Western Michigan University, that’s just too many years put to one thing to go in any other direction. Anyway, there’s nothing else I want to do. There’s nothing else I’m trained to do. So when the Sewanee Writers’ Series and Overlook Press pulled out from publishing U.P., I tried to keep going. Lost a girlfriend I wanted to marry in the process. (If anyone ever invents a time machine, I want in.) Had so many dark nights of the soul that it was really dark years of the soul. And then I reemerged. And did an interesting thing. I applied to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I thought going to that conference would be healing for me. Allow me to put behind the painful loss of their pulling out of publishing U.P. And I also found out Romulus Linney was going to be teaching there. I was excited to meet him, because I had talked with him on the phone when I was accepted into Columbia University for Playwriting, except I found out I couldn’t afford to go to that program so went to Brandeis instead because they offered me a much more substantial scholarship of tuition reduction. Well, Sewanee accepted me for the conference. As a Tennessee Williams Fellow, which meant I could afford it. Romulus Linney ended up pulling out of going last minute. But I got to study with Lee Blessing and Arlene Hutton and had an amazing time. One of the highlights was being invited to go with two people from Sewanee and John Casey for a ride out into nowhere in Tennessee. Snaking roads and a bright, bright moon. The trees hovering over the road like going through a haunted tunnel. We pulled up to a meadow, got out, hurdled a fence, and there in this wooded area was a boat. No water around, but this great boat being made by someone. I’ve never read Casey’s award-winning Spartina, but I knew of his love of the nautical. And to have him there in awe of this ship, circling it, touching it, seeing his passion for what this stood for, craftsmanship and effort–that was a beautiful, teary moment for me. And one that was a strong step on healing the loss I’d felt. A loss that had been magnified by my inability to handle it, to spiral out and create more loss that still reverberates in me to this day. But to a lesser degree. Thank God that pain lessens with time. Well, Sewanee gave me that striking, cinematographic moment. And it also gave me an audience. What I mean by that is . . . I stumbled upon Perpetual Folly after doing a google search on my own name. I was looking at some of the interviews I’d done, noting them on my web site, and then I saw Cliff talking about my Sewanee reading, saying how memorable it was. At the conference, in a room full of fellow writers, probably seventy people, maybe a hundred, I cried while reading a segment from my short story “War.” It’s available at http://www.cameron.edu/okreview/vol5_2/fiction/riekki.html if you want to read it. But I was so overwhelmed. I’d lost just everything before Sewanee. I had only two dreams at that time–to marry that girlfriend and to have my novel published and suddenly both were gone, so I felt off-balance, liminal, nothing steady. And here I was reading this story that was fictionalized moments from my own miltary service combined with anecdotes and stories from the soldiers and sailors I’d known while stationed in Diego Garcia during DesertStorm and I selected a passage that I knew would be hard for me to read, a real private, painful passage because I wanted to push myself as an author, this attempt to purged myself of past, and the tears came like a shaking. And I guess Cliff appreciated that and mentioned it on his blog and that’s how I discovered his site. But what stands out to me was the audience. How present they were. You see, bookstores, when I’ve given readings, can have some poor turnouts. And radio interviews that I’ve done, a lot of times the DJ hasn’t read your novel. They don’t really know who you are. There’s this odd feeling of being honored and at the same time ignored, humbled. But I remember Sewanee gave me a packed room. Where you can feel the audience laughing. Where you sense when they’re interested, that they’re truly listening. And that feeling for an author is a buzz. It makes you want to perform well, to read well, to open up, to give your best words, your innermost thoughts, your own writing that you love and wouldn’t read for an inattentive audience, an absent audience. But Sewanee had this ineffable connection and concentration. Audience is a blessing. It’s the ability to be heard. Sewanee’s audience was one of the best ones I’ve ever had in my life. That’s what I remember about Sewanee. Cliff wanted me to write about Sewanee. And I didn’t know what I was going to write about. But here it is.