Monday, April 29, 2013

1/2 Dozen with Rhonda Riley

A conversation with debut novelist, Rhonda Riley, who's novel THE ENCHANTED LIFE OF ADAM HOPE -- a wonderful story -- is newly out in the world. I love her wise advice here. Things like: "The first draft is like dreaming with my eyes open."

Read on.


Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Maybe because I hurt my leg recently dashing across a wet sidewalk, or maybe because in my recent writers group I was criticized for using the verb “walk” too many times. But lately I love watching people walk.  Considering that we all do it the same way—upright on two legs, there is amazing variety. What hips knees, thighs, ankles and feet can do between the waist and the ground is fascinating and highly individual in shape and rhythm. Totter, lumber, stride, stroll, sway.   There was a bag boy at my grocery store for a while who had a muscular condition that bend his legs into awkward and seemingly impossible angles. He was cheerful but always seemed on the verge of toppling over. I saw him run once, sprinting after a runaway grocery cart. He looked like jazz.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love the imaginative aspects of writing.  The first draft is like dreaming with my eyes open.  I let it unfold and try not to ask the story too many questions.  The revisions that follow are less fun, but they satisfy in that they are like sculpting in clay.  You add some then you take some away. You ask questions. The worst parts of writing is copy editing. I am terrible at it. And I hate it.  But I also hate embarrassing myself with stupid typos.  Sitting for long hours is no fun.  Sometimes I stand to write.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick. 

Don’t stop.  If you’re stuck, get help.  Find a writer’s community.  Exchange work, you’ll learn a lot. All stories live in that space between the writer and the reader.  Learn to think like a reader while you revise.  Read good books, they are much more important than how-to-write books.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it? 

I have very limited experience with the post-publication criticism.  But there have been a few readers so far who didn’t like some aspect of Adam Hope, but they all owned their negative comments as preferences, and I am fine with that. You can’t please everyone.  There was one professional review that puzzled me.  I had the feeling the reviewer had just skimmed the book.  I was irritated for about 15 minutes, then I let it go.  Criticism in a writers group while a work is in progress is a little different.  There is always that point in my writing when I seek out peers, when I need new eyes on my words.  I try to be as open as possible to any criticism, but I give myself permission to ignore it if it seems off base or misguided, especially if it comes from just one person.  If a whole group agrees on some negative--or positive--criticism, I listen and take that to heart regardless of my own opinions and then try to make if work for me and my writing.  But my skin can be as thick as it needs to be. I had a fellow writer in one group who called my narrative style “wet noodles on the page.”  I thought he was an ill-mannered ass for saying it that way.  He often had hissy-fits in the margins of my manuscript, but he was also completely incapable of stopping himself from line editing and he was very good at that. He found every misspelling and every missing period or comma.  I took full advantage of his copy editing skills and let the rest of it roll off my back.  I’ve also found that cheerleaders—even when I think they are probably just being nice and don’t want to hurt my feelings—are invaluable during those slumps when my writing looks dead to me.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

The baby of the family by ten years, I always felt a little outside of my own family. My parents were tired and I was frequently unsupervised. By the time I was in third grade, I knew where the cop next door kept his gun and his condoms, which drain pipe the stray cats hung out in, and what the neighbors down the street kept in their freezer. My Uncle Calvin once described me as being off in my own world, but I was really just a quiet, nosey kid.  I hung out with the other kids in the neighborhood and I adored my friend, Shirley, but I was very comfortable with solitude. Being solitary was helpful when being nosey.  Adults will often ignore a quiet, single child.  Sometimes I pretended to sleep on the couch or in the back seat of car so I could hear what they really said when they thought there were no little ears listening.  My family was very blue-collar, and I was read to only at church or when I was sick. There were few books in our home.  Yet I had a library card before I could read.  I was a voracious, promiscuous reader of stories all through school.  When I was about 12 years old my mother quit the night shift at the local food processing plant.  Suddenly she was around all the time and she started telling me stories most nights after supper.  Now that I think about it, all of this seems to the perfect preparation for becoming a writer—read, snoop, listen and be okay spending lots of time alone.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Yes, place is very important to me.  In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, the setting plays a major role in the plot, literally giving and taking life. The landscape is practically a character in its own right. Place has always been important to me personally, especially the natural environment. To me, the air and the dirt and the little weeds that grow along the side of the road can be as exotic in a new place as the language and buildings.  I’m also fascinated by the way we can love and hate a place, the ways in which some people are deeply attached or completely detached from the aspects of a particular place.  Living in Florida, I get to meet a lot of people who’ve left the northern climes. I knew a Dutchman who mourned for frozen sleet each winter.  I had a neighbor once who was completely creeped out by the relative quiet of Gainesville compared to Manhattan.  It seemed to be a neurological rather than cultural longing. He couldn’t sleep without the hum of millions around him. I think a place can sculpt us and our stories.


Rhonda Riley is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of Florida. This is her first novel.  She lives in Gainesville, Florida.