Ron Riekki interview with Meg Tuite
Ron Riekki is a phenomenon. His writing is ‘no bullshit’ direct to heart, limb, thumb or all of the above. His work is an exquisite mix of pathos and humor. In these two stories, “Air,” and “The Baby in the Air,” he blasts us into the world of an EMT in his first days on the job. DAMN!
Here are a few quotes:
“That’s how you’re supposed to start a story, I was told, with something dramatic, so I thought back to the most dramatic moment from my life, when I was in the military.”
“And I can’t publish this stuff, because it has a zero percent acceptance rate.”
“There is so much glass you could imagine it crashing into the past, tinkling on the concrete of the Middle Ages, dropping into the manger of Jesus Christ, polluting His frankincense.”
“The thumb, so silent.”
What was your inspiration for these two stories, Ron? Were you an EMT? What is your experience in the medical field?
I don’t really talk too much about it. I write about it, but I don’t really like to talk about it. It’s the same with the military.
I think it makes great reading though and I’m proud of my EMT (and military) stories. I have enough published now where I could have a collection, but I don’t have the money to submit to those contests. So for now I’ll just keep publishing individual stories.
As far as the EMS world, I will say this though—to all the tough guy EMT/paramedics out there, quit posing. It’s not all about you; it’s about patient advocacy. Using the f- word in front of a grandmother with decubitus ulcers doesn’t make you tough, it means you lack respect for patients. Seriously, treat patients with respect. That’s all I’m saying.
But that’s pretty didactic. It’s why I prefer stories. People will listen to a message like that more closely if it’s thematically hidden in prose rather than just flatly stated.
On the flip side, when I see an EMT or medic who actually cares about patients, it’s honorable. We need more EMTs and medics like that.
Thank you for sharing that, Ron. I just started reading your novel U.P. It’s exceptional. Tell me how place works into your stories.
Thanks. I appreciate that. I’m curious what specifically you like about it.
Catie Rosemurgy’s a poet I love and she said she really likes the novel but was upset it didn’t have a bigger audience. But I’m fine with it having an underground audience. It’s like you have to work to find it and then, once you do, you either hate it or love it. I like the big reactions it’s gotten. I find it hilarious when someone posts that it was too depressing to be worth reading and another person says it’s one of the funniest books they’ve read. It’s the same book, but really different reactions. That’s awesome.
And, yeah, place is important. It’s the title. U.P. It’s like I wanted to claim that area. I had a longer title, but John Casey—my old teacher who was amazing; he won the National Book Award so I listened intensely to any advice he gave me—told me to just name it U.P. and I liked that. Like putting a flag down and saying, “This place is literarily mine.” Especially as there’ve been a lot of writers who write about the place from a more tourist-y perspective. I think it’s important to have people from the place write about it. Unfortunately, the tourist perspective really has the strongest voice when it comes to U.P. literature. It’s tough to find born and raised Yoopers who are successfully writing. Yoopers are subalterns. I hate that.
(Oh my God, I have a Philip Roth documentary on in the background and at the moment of “I hate that,” Roth spoke the sentence, “Hemingway wrote his great stories about Upper Michigan and Michigan from Paris.” This is exactly what I’m battling with.)
As far as U.P. as title, I also liked that the book continually plays with the metaphor of “down,” which no one has ever commented to me about, so I figure six years later I can come out of the closet about my metaphors.
But I hate the discussion about plot and character, because they are so interwoven that you can’t separate them. And the same is true with place. Place is plot. Place is character. They’re all tied together. And I feel lucky in a lot of ways that I come from this area that’s been so absent on the page. Lucky and angry about it. I like to explore place. I think that’s why I’ve lived in—I think it’s—six countries now. Although it hasn’t really been my choice. I’ve been chasing jobs or studies. But it’s a great thing to do as a writer. I have horrible moments of seeing racism at Auburn University up close or human rights violations in China up close and then it triggers an unending need to write things like my poem “China (What If I’d Stayed in Alabama at the Plantation University”) in Spillway. I think writers need to be brave and write about things that matter.
And for me, where I come from really matters to me.
Who have been your most potent influences as a writer?
When I was studying at Brandeis, I had the luck to be accepted to cross-register at Harvard. I totally did not fit in there at all. I come from a poor mining town. I remember one student asking me where I was going on my family’s Christmas vacation and I remember asking, “What’s a ‘family Christmas vacation’?” What does that even mean? Apparently her family was going to Jamaica for Christmas. I didn’t even know families did that.
(Talk about place, I could go on a tangent with Harvard. The homeless that form a moat around the school.)
I used to walk to and from class from Somerville. And after a class meeting for Women’s Life Narratives, I went to the Harvard Co-op and I came across a book called Cult Fiction: a reader’s guide and it changed my life. I used to hate English. I was studying Theater Arts at Brandeis at the time. As an undergrad, I was a Religion major and Philosophy minor at Central Michigan on the GI Bill from my time in the Navy. I had successfully avoided Literature classes. The stuff they had you read, I felt, was the worst writing in the history of literature. It was this strange thing where you were supposed to like it, but it was the safest, most boring stuff that didn’t ever seem to reflect any world I’d lived in. The U.P. and, in fact, Michigan as a whole, seemed absent from those old Norton stories and poems. Literature classes were an even bigger disconnect than Harvard.
I was at Brandeis solely because of scholarship. That and the fact that I had rejoined the military, going into the Air Force as a reservist while simultaneously taking courses. But I discovered that book and it introduced me to Kathy Acker and Richard Allen. Henry Miller, Gil Scott Heron, and Stewart Home and this long list of authors that I took to immediately. My reading changed after that. I found books that I liked. That were alive. That weren’t long boring sentences, painful to get through.
So if you want my influences, just read Cult Fiction and it’s that long list of authors in there. Richard Price, Erica Jong, Dalton Trumbo, Tama Janowitz. I just like saying their names. (By the way, to have Erica Jong following me on twitter was one of the best moments ever. Same with Randall Kenan. It’s just like, “What? You just acknowledged my presence. I’m so happy!”)
Do music and film play into this?
Huge, huge music and film fan. I watch films or hear music and have large emotional reactions. Both in terms of the storyline and very often because I watch, say, what an actress is doing onscreen and I have this intense wish to be able to do what they’re doing as an artist. I love music and film. Love, love, love. You’ll see my addictions to both in U.P. Plot is character is place is music. Music is character. They’re all connected.
I like to figure out what type of music a character would listen to and put it on in the background as I write. Same with film. I’ll figure out, “Oh, this character’s favorite film of all-time is Saw.” And then I play youtube clips from the film as I write. Someone who is a major fan of Battle Royale is completely different from someone whose favorite film is The Wedding Date. I think it’s critical to discover character for me. So many people, whether or not they know it, get their worldviews from the arts. I see a kid at a bus stop rapping along to memorized lines of Rakim and really what Rakim is doing is furthering a very specific worldview to that kid. It’s powerful. Character is music is character.
You are a beautiful being, Ron Riekki. I’m loving what you’re saying!
What are you reading right now?
I’m a schizophrenic reader. Fragmented. I’ll have five, ten books going at once. Right now it’s Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes, Labyrinths, Mildred Pierce, The Clean House, Emergency Care in the Streets, and The Onion Book of Known Knowledge: 183rd Imperial Edition. Funny thing is I’ll finish them all too. I always finish a book once I’ve started it. The good books take me a week. The bad ones, about a year.
The Man in the High Castle is in the other room as well.
What projects are you working on?
I have multiple books upcoming with Michigan State University Press and Arbutus Press. Although, I’m still negotiating the Arbutus contract. But the first MSU Press book is due at the end of this month and it’s almost done. It comes out in Spring 2015.
I’m repped for TV writing through DSA in Beverly Hills, but my agent’d kill me if I spoke about any of the stuff going on with that. I’ve also learned not to hold my breath with Hollywood, so talking about an L.A. project is pointless until it’s actually finished and up on the screen. Otherwise it’s all just talk and finger-crossing.
There was film interest with U.P. The producer told me Sean Penn called me “a helluva writer,” which is the biggest honor ever. But then Penn read the screenplay of U.P. that I wrote and said it “wasn’t his cup of tea.” Which was about as depressing as an Anne Sexton poem. But I really learned about screenwriting from that process, so I feel like I’m much better now. I suck less. I have two other screenplays done that I like a lot, so there’s stuff I’m working on with those, but who the heck knows? I really need a screenwriting agent and a lit agent to go along with my TV agent.
With a portion of the Michigan Humanities Council grant, I produced a film, so I’ve been emailing the director to find out when the final draft will be done. Next month I’m touring for the U.P. Book Tour again doing appearances in sixteen cities, four of them as part of my Michigan Notable Book dates. And on the tour I’m excited to show some clips from the film.
So I have a lot going on—couple screenplays I need to shop around and a poetry book and a short story collection and a novel that are all finished. The novel’s really good, so I need to send out queries, but I’m on deadline for MSU Press now for another anthology.
I have other stuff going on too.
I haven’t been blessed enough to find a creative writing teaching gig, so I’m like a boxer in a corner fighting for his life. I write angry. It’s kind of like, “OK, you didn’t hire me. Here’s a Michigan Notable Book award. OK, you didn’t hire me. Here’s a multi-book deal with Michigan State University Press.” I’m a real working-class writer. It’s not attending parties and pretending to write. I do the work. I do whatever job it is I have to do to get by, wipe the blood off, and then write deep into the night. Every night. Every day of the week. Including Christmas and birthdays. It’s kind of an anger that I feel coming from a small dying mining town and I’m not supposed to go anywhere. I’m not supposed to succeed. But I’m going to just keep doing it and try not to John Kennedy Toole it when the times get tough and stay tough and goddamn won’t stop being tough.
And so far the Navy, the Air Force, the ambulance, and living near gunshots still haven’t killed me yet, so I’m happy.
I just had a neighbor that murdered another neighbor. So I’m really looking forward to the day when that won’t be happening anymore. That will be really nice. You know you’ve made it when the houses near you don’t have murders. That’s the American Dream—a murder-less existence.
If my parents hadn’t helped me through the hard times though, I’d be pure Jimmy Santiago Baca.
If you ain’t never been to the ghetto . . .
Do you have a quote that speaks to you?
One of my favorite songs ever is Naughty By Nature’s “Ghetto Bastard.” I absolutely love the repetition of Everything’s gonna be all right. All right. Everything’s gonna be all right. All right. Everything’s gonna be all right now. Everything’s gonna be all right. I think I need the repetition for it to sink in.
I go to that song when I’m really down.
I live in a strange world where I have a Ph.D. and I’m routinely treated like minimum wage scum. It’s rough. Just complete disrespect after all the work I put in for a doctorate.
And I always feel like I’m on the brink and that I’m not going to make it. And people love to treat other people badly. They get off on it. Ten years to get a Ph.D. and then it’s the maximum rage of minimum wage.
So I cling to music, film, books that help me when I realize that education doesn’t get you away from where you started. If I ever have a literary agent or a creative writing program that believes in me, I’m going to work like a dog for them.
Like a dog.
I haven’t had the money to submit to those creative writing awards and you can’t win if you can't submit. So I’ve been basing my career off of those literary journals that are kind enough to have free submissions.
But in the end everything’s gonna be all right.
Smooth it out. This is the story about the drifter. Who waited for the worst, because the best live cross-town. Who never planned on having, so didn’t. Why me, huh?
Treach is a genius.
I wish I would’ve given you some Thich Nhat Hanh, but I’m in a Treach mood.
Can you share some of your thoughts on the publishing world? Facebook?
Well, I’ve had some real haters when I talk about publishing. But here we go again. I won’t hold back—
I think vanity presses are destroying literature.
Writers don’t really know how brilliant editors can be. And to lose that person in the process is a shame. I worked with Annie Martin at Wayne State University Press and she is just beautiful as an editor. Skilled. A great eye for books.
In the U.P., a lot of writers are self-publishing and it’s really like taking what you want to say and throwing it into a hole.
When I talk to vanity press authors it’s always money talk. Never the art. Rejection can be a great thing. I work to get a poem, a book, a story accepted, because I learn. It pushes me to get better. So I always try to tell writers to aim higher. To submit to the tough places, get rejected, and then work harder to improve your writing.
Vanity presses say, “Sure, you have a collection of sonnets about your dog Ebby, we’ll take it.” “A novel about vampires that turn into werewolves and then become zombies, perfect!” It’s like trying to learn how to high jump with the bar lying on the ground.
That’s the negative.
The positive side of publishing is that the list of respectable literary journals out there is phenomenal. If you want to learn, you need to read and submit to places like Connotation Press, Cease, Cows, New Ohio Review, PANK. Wake and Pleiades and North American Review and Superstition Review. They are publishing some wonderful stuff, so read the journals where you’re going to submit to and then write to that journal. I really, really like to do that. I read several stories or poems by a specific journal and then write specifically to them. And I think the journals like that too. And that way I can expand my voice. When I’m getting published in One Ghana, One Voice and Mizna: Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, it’s very healthy. It’s good that I’m concentrating on Arab culture and Ghanaian culture. Rather than saying, “Oh, that’s a feminist lit magazine, I can’t submit to them.” Instead, try to write some feminist stories or poems. Expand yourself as a writer.
Anyway, to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
As far as comments on Facebook, I don’t really know what to say. I can see it dying eventually like myspace. I worry about the 1984 lack of privacy. But writers are ecdysiasts. They don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, because they don’t have sleeves. Writing is pure nudity. If you do it well.
Please give us links to all of your work. How can folk get news of anything you’re publishing?
You can go to here or @RonRiekki.
Thanks for interviewing me. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much, Ron Riekki, for sending Connotation Press some of your pure brilliance! What a find you are! Everyone should be reading your novel!
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