26 October 2009

Interview with - R.A. Riekki, Author of U.P.


Title: U.P. By: R.A. Riekki
Publisher/Website: Ghost Road Press (236 Pages)

Synopsis from Amazon: 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.

About the Author: Ron Riekki is the author of the bestselling Ghost Road Press novel U.P. The novel was nominated by National Book Award winner John Casey for the Sewanee Writers' Series. He also writes plays which have been performed in Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and Illinois, and he was selected as a Tennessee Williams Scholar where he studied with Arlene Hutton and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lee Blessing. 

1. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, the book U.P. and the characters in the story?

Whoa, how to do that in under 200 pages? Hmm. I'll take the easy out and go with some of the blurbs on the novel:

1989 National Book Award winner for fiction John Casey said, "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."

And Taylor Antrim, author of The Headmaster Ritual, said, "R.A. Riekki's ramrod debut gives us four bewildered, lonely, sexed-up and pissed-off species of the American Teenage Male, guys who know what it feels like to bench-press to Slayer, long for a girl, nurse a grudge, get your first tattoo (and then regret it). U.P. is funny, sad, sexy, and, finally, like a Lord of the Flies moved to extreme Upper Michigan, scary as hell."

And when Thomas Mallon was a visiting writer at the University of Virginia, he read a large section of U.P. and when we were gabbing he called it the American Trainspotting, which I always thought was a pretty accurate description.

There are four main characters in the novel. Cräig is a metalhead with a sex addiction. J is a punk with cerebral palsy. antony is a hip-hop fan obsessed with seeking revenge. And Hollow is the narrator. The four of them have to survive a brutal winter and things that are even more brutal than winter.

To tell you about me, I'm a writer. That's sort of all I am in a lot of ways. I wish I was a husband or a boyfriend but I just write. Thank God I'm pretty good at it.

2. How did you came up with the idea for the book? Was it based on any real life experiences you'd had growing up?

I was talking with Sean Kinney recently, the drummer for Alice in Chains. We were at the Chateau Marmont (the infamous hotel where John Belushi died) after a recent Chains concert and I asked him who his favorite drummer of all-time was and Sean got kind of quiet, which is strange for him, as he's an exceptionally energetic guy. I've heard him described as--if I remember correctly--the Robin Williams of heavy metal. He's got a great sense of humor and is really animated, onstage and off. So for him to get a bit quiet was odd. But I realized after I saw his reaction how often he must get that question and how after awhile it stops being a question and you can go into a kind of robotic response that you've said a million times. Except Sean's not like that. Another guy tagged along into our conversation, a "suit" type and Sean seemed uncomfortable with that suit, because that's 100% not his style (at least based on my few hour interaction with him), so going into robot phase isn't something he likes to do. So instead he got quiet and gave me an honest uncomfortable response and then moved on with the conversation, more excited to talk about other things that were more personal to him, less rote.

I tend to be like that with this question. It makes me want to be quiet. Partially because I'm asked it so frequently. And I'm blessed to have done about a hundred interviews for U.P. I love doing interviews. So I have no complaints. But this isn't something I'm ever interested in with writers. Are there any autobiographical connections? I think I'm not interested in it, because I don't think like that. And that if I gave an honest answer, it would be so complex and lengthy and sprawling that it'd be Finnegans Wake, so internal to almost be nonsensical. I was asked that question earlier today for a really brief radio interview on WDBM in Michigan and I just answered, "No," because I realized there wasn't time for an honest response. And I have another written interview I'm doing after this one where I saw that the interviewer asked me the question again and I'm thinking what I'm going to write for it. I guess now I'm in a meta- phase where I talk about the question itself rather than answering it. Because the answer is no and I guess yes but not really but sort of but it's fiction and it really is fiction but I don't know. Probably my whole upbringing is in there, somewhere. In Negaunee, I was brutally attacked for no reason by a stranger when I was young and that happens to a main character in my novel in the first couple chapters, but he's beaten with a baseball bat and I wasn't and he gets revenge and I didn't. But I know that the pain from that incident I feel everyday in my life, both physically and emotionally and the book is probably how I cope with it, writing it out. Maybe that's why I don't like the question. It pokes at an open wound. What's autobiographical is painful. I sometimes feel nauseous when I'm asked this question, but maybe that's why the book has been Ghost Road's bestselling novel for 34 straight weeks, because it's written in a heart-on-your-sleeve manner. It's a very personal novel.

3. I read there's a possible movie project in the works for the book? Can you tell us more?

Well, one producer is definitely attached, Steven Wiig, who acted in Milk and Into the Wild. He loves the book. And two other producers are interested as well, but we're in the contract negotiation phase, so unfortunately I have to be a bit vague here. In a week or so, I'll be able to gab a lot more about this, and I can't wait to, because it's really been dream-like, getting to meet with some incredibly talented actors and actresses in L.A. who I never thought would know who I was, let alone be familiar with my novel. So I'm bursting to talk about it and I will once the contracts are done. As a matter of fact, a fun interview for you might be interviewing Steven once things come to fruition and he can talk about turning a novel into a film if you're interested. We'll see . . . But for now, it's really fun to meet with the level of talent I've been meeting with.

4. Since music was a huge part of not only the writing but the story and characters themselves, if you could pick out the songs, What would the perfect soundtrack for the movie be?

I love this question. I'm a HUGE music fan and as a matter of fact, when the book first came out, all of my interviews seemed to be with music radio shows because music is so central to the novel. I've talked about the soundtrack in quite a bit of detail with one of the producers and again I'm excited because, for example, I've got to meet with Alice in Chains and talk to Jerry Cantrell and get his autograph for my cousin Todd, who's a massive Alice in Chains fan. And I'd love Alice in Chains on the soundtrack, but the book is set in 1989/1990. And I won't talk about the bands and songs we're actually hoping for if all of this falls in line like we're hoping. Instead I'll list a side A and side B based on songs that are central to the characters:

SIDE A

"Angel of Death"--Slayer (Cräig)

"Eyes of a Stranger"--Queensryche (Cräig)

"Tear Down the Walls"--Fastway (Cräig)

"She Watch Channel Zero?!"--Public Enemy (antony)

"Treat Her Like a Prostitute"--Slick Rick (antony)

"Black to the Future"--Def Jef (antony)

SIDE B

"Cocksucker Blues"--The Rolling Stones (J)

"All Time High (from Octopussy)"--Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (J)

"Bodies"--Sex Pistols (J)

"Boys of Summer"--Don Henley (Hollow)

"Opposites Attract"--Paula Abdul (Hollow)

"Don't Worry, Be Happy"--Bobby McFerrin (Hollow)

Wow, I just spent a lot of time thinking about that list of songs. In parentheses are the character in the novel who would listen to the song. But I realize that that soundtrack would probably be too expensive for an indy film. But who knows. I have some friends too who are musicians and would love to include them as well--Jus Rhyme, Papa Wheelie, DJ SirReal, DJ Zack Daniels and Sinister Kane, Alastair Moock, Jeff Pilson of Dokken/Dio, The Fast Computers, Slow News Day, Matre. Man, I love music. Just thinking about it makes me feel energized. Come to think of it, it's amazing how strong of reactions I have to interview questions.

5. What are your essentials needed for writing? (from food/snacks/etc, to music to a favorite time and place for writing.)

I really learned to write in the military. During Desert Storm they shut off the phone lines, and this was pre-email, so the only way I had to communicate was through letters and writing took on for the first time this grand significance. That was the first time where I cared what I wrote. (In high school, I half-assed essays and got As and Bs.) But that military experience taught me to write in anything. I wrote U.P. on a piece of crap computer that was ten years older than what the other students were writing on. And I wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man and Hunger and the Ass--two novels that come out on Ghost Road Press in 2010--on computers in the twenty-four hour computer rooms at the University of Virginia, so I'd have drunk kids coming in at 2 a.m., cops coming in at 3 a.m., people cramming for chemistry finals in the corner, the printer breaking down and someone loudly fixing it, and I was prepped for all of that from writing while in the military. I've written just about everything I've ever written on either clunky bulky comically old computers I owned that were falling apart or else on university computers in busy obnoxious student labs typically very late at night to lessen the distractions. That also meant I had nothing to drink or eat except for water from a fountain, but I had to--and I mean had to--have one thing, a walkman, boom box, or later a headset to listen to youtube and drown out all the noise. When I wrote U.P., I listened to a lot of what the characters listen to--Pantera, Ice Cube, The Subhumans. It helped me to really get a sense of who they were, to have my ears filled with what I thought their ears would be filled with. And you don't hear anything else when Pantera is on.

6. What was the first memorable, life changing book you read and why?

Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Easily. I fell into that world. That was the first time that I started reading a book and the rest of the world, this world, melted away and that is so powerful for a child to experience. Imagination. It was beautiful.

7. Being that it's almost Halloween, could you tell us what would be the most frightening book you've ever read and what about it scared you most?

I like this question. Hmmm . . . I tend to rarely get scared. Which is probably why I'm a huge fan of Scare Tactics--I like to watch other people get scared.

I don't believe in ghosts. In fact, if there are any ghost TV shows out there, you know, those shows with night vision in haunted houses that are really just people wanting to get on TV and a few more guests at their bed and breakfast, I'd totally go on them, because I find them so scammy. Pure Scooby-Doo. My mom lives by a neighbor whose son heads one of those shows and I kind of have this feeling like I should dare him to have me on it, because they're so incredibly not scary. Any time I watch those shows I kind of groan inside. At least Scare Tactics realizes it's all smoke and mirrors. And movies tend to be the same--not scary. Gore isn't scary. It's just gross. I wish screenwriters understood that. And cranking the volume and having something pop unto the screen isn't really scary. It's rare when something frightens me from sheer amazing writing. I'd have to go with Macbeth. There was something so authentic to that story that it can actually scare me, at times. Because the fear comes from something deeper than sell-out scares.

My next novel is a horror novel--A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man--but it's an experimental deconstruction of the horror novel, a mocking of it. I'm curious what readers will do with it, what the reaction will be. Then my fourth book (not currently under any contract) is also horror and it's also reactionary against the cliches of the genre. So this is something I've been thinking about--fear, that element of writing. Shakespeare got it. The ghost scenes in Hamlet are so well done.

And what I love about Macbeth is how original it is, how it predates so much horror. I'd say Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is high on my list as well. The opening and ending if done well gives me those tingles of fear.

I'll add this. I'm exceptionally tall and like to act, so people tend to have me in their Halloween haunted houses. I'd done them in Michigan and Illinois and now in L.A. The one I'm doing now I'm playing an evil doctor and I do a scene with three amazing actors--Patricia Grant, Martha Mintz, and Nico East. They've all done TV shows. And the scene next to us has an actress who was on Oprah. So I love being with talented actors. But doing so many haunted houses has been great for me as a writer. I've picked up some fantastic tips on what scares people and what doesn't. I almost want to list them here, but I'd rather keep them for myself, my own little secrets that I hope to get on the page.

8. Lastly, words of advise for aspiring writers?

The first person I showed U.P. to, a student at the University of Virginia, hated it, and told me to basically throw it away. The last person I showed it to, a professor at Western Michigan University, told me to "throw it away" in those exact words. I ignored him and submitted it to Ghost Road Press and within a month Matt Davis from Ghost Road sent me a contract. The book's been their bestseller in fiction since February 2009. And there's strong interest from three producers to turn it into a movie. All because I ignored the haters. That's my advice. If you want to do this, get ready for a lot of rejection. A lot! And if you get through it, well, Ann Beattie, who is included in the Best American Short Stories of the Century, called me at my home to tell me how much she loves the novel. If I would have thrown it away, I wouldn't have any of this. You have to believe in yourself even when others don't.

Thank you so much for doing the interview Ron, I'm really looking forward to reading your book!
 
Ordering Information: Amazon.com, Barns and Noble or check your local book sellers.

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2 comments:

  1. Wow, very lengthy interview, but it was thorough which was good! It is nice when authors write a lot, because it shows that they really enjoy doing what they do! Great interview Lisa! This book sounds interesting, and I may have to check it out. I liked that he put songs that related to the characters, that is very cool! :)

    -Arielle

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yeah, it was lenghty lol. I had a feeling it would be from the other interviews I'd read of his. lol

    I was happy to see he was excited over a couple of the questions, so that made my day.

    Thanks Arielle!

    ReplyDelete

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