The Rumpus Interview with Frederick Reiken

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Frederick Reiken’s third novel, Day for Night, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, alongside Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Day for Night should be just as famous as those other two books. I’m biased in saying that, because I spent a semester as Reiken’s student in the Warren Wilson College MFA program, in 2009. Rick’s letters to me that semester left my brain pleasantly staggering.  He would send back ten single-spaced pages analyzing my fiction with the rigor of a physicist, not a line of filler.  In Day for Night, one of the characters talks about “mean people”: People who say only what they mean, and mean everything they say.  Rick is one of those mean people.  He’s also a master of point of view. His essay on the “author-narrator-character merge” has become a must-read for anyone who writes third-person fiction.

Rick directs the MFA program at Emerson College in Boston, and lives in the hills of Western Massachusetts with his wife and three-year-old daughter.  Day for Night is just out in paperback.

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The Rumpus: The intricate connections between the ten narrators of Day for Night boggle the mind—but I think you said it all began as a story that ran in the New Yorker and then became chapter six, “The Ocean.”  That chapter is told by a boy having his first sexual attractions to a girl in the Bahamas, while facing that his father—a marine biology researcher—is dying from leukemia.  That’s substantial material already, and the chapter reads in a self-contained way.  How did it first start to spin out into more?  When did you realize you had a novel?

Frederick Reiken: I originally wrote “The Ocean” as a story, and I expected that it might develop into something more.  But when I first tried to expand, it just wasn’t taking off.  The initial plan was to continue the story chronologically, once the father dies and once the boy, Jordan, is living with his new adoptive family.  It should have worked but it didn’t, perhaps because I was falling into the coming-of-age novel territory of my first two books, and I didn’t have anything new to add to that.

So, for a while I just let it sit.  I wrote a second story about the same family, and I was hoping the New Yorker would publish it, but the editor who had taken “The Ocean” had left the magazine by then, and then the editor who looked at this second story declined it, with the comment that it seemed more like the first chapter of a novel.  I wound up publishing the story elsewhere, and for a long time the project idled.  For about five years I barely thought about it, but one day I started considering whether that story could, in fact, be the first chapter of a novel, as that editor had suggested.

Then I saw it – how the whole thing could work, though as a more unconventional novel than what I had envisioned previously.  I wrote what became chapters two through five in a matter of weeks, inserted “The Ocean” as chapter six, and realized I was halfway there.  It felt like a miracle.

Rumpus: To circle around to the beginning, that first chapter of Day for Night is narrated by the girlfriend of the boy’s dying father.  Then the second chapter is narrated by the guy who took the dying father’s girlfriend on a manatee-watching trip.  Then the next chapter is told by an FBI agent investigating a secret operative who kidnapped the brother of the manatee tour guide’s girlfriend . . . and the connections keep getting crazier.  It’s exciting and realistically unwieldy because there’s no fixed scheme.  How did you keep it all straight in your head?

Reiken: For one thing, my imagination tends to work this way – very associatively, considering whole networks of possibilities-–whenever I work on anything. The lucky thing with this book was that I discovered a form that seemed to fit naturally with the way I think. Also, I had reams of material at my disposal because I was in the middle of another project that was not cohering in the way I wanted it to and that project was getting messier every time I tried something new. So, in a quantum kind of way, the book I was working on suddenly morphed into this other book, which I instantly saw a clean line through.

The other lucky thing was that I had six months of continuous time when I made the discovery.  I would say that part of the way I kept it all straight was that when it came, it came quickly.  There was no going back and trying to remember what was what because the bulk of the first draft was written in a relatively short burst.

Rumpus: You once told me that you cut two chapters, by two additional narrators, at the suggestion of an agent or editor.  Did you struggle with those cuts?  One thing you impart so well through your teaching is the importance of having an internal gut sense of what your work really needs.  How do you stay true to that instinct?

Reiken: I did have two additional chapters – one that was full-fledged forty-page chapter (narrated by the biologist boyfriend Charles who appears briefly in “The Ocean”) and another that had not yet been integrated into the whole (narrated by Jerry, the drummer of the band that appears in chapter 1).  But when I got to the end of the first draft, I realized that, nice as those chapters were, they were the only two that did not address what I recognized, in retrospect, were the book’s two driving storylines.

One of those storylines is the protagonist Beverly’s probing of the mystery of what happened to her father in World War II, and the other is the mystery of the elusive fugitive Katherine Clay Goldman, an underground former sixties radical who sometimes seems to have (at least in other characters’ stories and impressions of her) borderline fantastic powers.  What’s interesting to me is that I wasn’t actually aware that those two storylines were anchoring the book until I saw it as a whole.  But once I became aware of that, it became easy to cut the chapters that weren’t contributing.  In a book that is nonlinear to begin with, it seemed important not to spin off into any more than was necessary.

What really struck me about this process was the recognition that, no matter how clear an idea I might have of what I’m doing in a book, there are always subconscious forces at work, and a crucial phase of writing a novel, at least for me, is that part where I take a big, wide look and take stock of what I have.  Then it’s important to try and make sense of the patterns of the story, which helps to decide what needs to be there and what doesn’t.  I think this applies to conventional novels too.  There are always things that present themselves as themes or issues that were not entirely conscious in the first draft, and it’s important to make sure that those are integrated in a conscious, balanced way.

Rumpus: There is one fable-like shadow story behind all the narratives in Day for Night, about 500 Polish Jewish intellectuals during the Holocaust who were gathered and killed, and a belief that two survived.  Yet one reader pointed out that your storytelling doesn’t lead to the Holocaust; in a swirling way, it leads away from it.  Did you at any point see yourself as writing about the after-effects of the Holocaust?  How did you think about the role that historical event would play?

Reiken: That historical anecdote is something I encountered in my research, but I couldn’t find any information other than basic facts of the massacre, so I began to almost dream a mythologized version of it as the deep core of the book, at least for Beverly, since her father, in the story, is one of those 500 men.  That naturally led to the kinds of issues that relate to the intergenerational legacies of the Holocaust, which is something I was acutely aware of during the writing process.

In this sense, the story is very much concerned with present time repercussions, which lead both forward and back.  I think it’s also very much concerned with the past, even if the way it deals with that past is from the vantage of a half-century later.

There is no greater mystery than history, as the saying goes, and the problem is that in the actual world we can’t travel back in time.  Usually the best we can do is to acquire documentation and testimony, and failing that, we resort to invention based on whatever scraps of information we possess.

When you engage in this kind of thing, you do have to be careful, especially when dealing with a topic as serious and horrifying as the Holocaust.  For writers who choose to depict to the Holocaust in fiction, I think there are unspoken responsibilities, and I took these very seriously.   Mostly they have to do with not exploiting or exoticizing, which requires knowing the topic in various dimensions – factually, psychologically, philosophically, visually – and being able to find a lens that will render it in precise rather than general or stock terms.  I hope readers will find that the lens I chose, the story of those 500 men, has achieved this.

Rumpus: One of the things I notice most in your writing is how you deal with dramatic events, yet always undercut any hint of melodrama.  Maybe this is so pronounced because you inhabit adolescent narrators so well—your adolescents see right through BS.  Are there qualities about adolescence that you think people should carry on into adulthood?

Reiken: A nice thing about adolescent narrators is that if you can tap into an adolescent voice successfully, you will usually find yourself tapping into a whole vein of material that might not otherwise be interesting.

I also think you’re right in that it’s easier to cut through the BS with an adolescent narrator because we tend to automatically place adolescent narrators in the “unreliable” category, even if they’re not, which enables a narrator like Jennifer, in chapter four, to say virtually anything she wants with complete amnesty.  Since she happens to be very smart, she’s able to surprise at every turn.  One of things about adolescence is that – maybe because all those hormones are surging – teenagers tend to feel entitled to say almost anything and to be absolutely convinced that they are right.  As a result, a voluble adolescent is more likely to put things out there that other people will respond to, so maybe that’s a useful thing to carry into adulthood.  Of course, you do have to develop the capacity to engage in dialogue, as opposed to monologue, but perhaps a strong facility with the latter develops a greater capacity with the former.  I’d like to think so.

Rumpus: I’ve also always liked the way you write about sex.  There’s quite a lot of sex in your books, but it’s never sensationalized—your characters seem to be very aware of sex as a biological phenomenon more than a romantic one.  Is that the former nature writer in you alive and well?

Reiken: The former nature writer in me is alive and well, though I’d say this is most evident in the abundance of wild animals and specific naturalistic settings that filter through the story.

As for sex – well, I had a great teacher in grad school, Oakley Hall, who strongly believed in “cutting at the fireplace” when it came to sex scenes.  While evidence confirms that I didn’t buy in to his philosophy, it was Oakley’s insistence on this that enabled me to see how easy it is to get into a gratuitous or self-indulgent place when depicting sex.

As for my own take on it – what I always try to do is keep a sex scene in character, inflected by point-of-view, etc.  I also try to place it within a context that’s not just purely about having sex.  So, for example, if someone is nervously having sex in the bathroom of an airplane while on a redeye flight in order to visit the comatose brother of the woman he is screwing (this happens in chapter 2), then hopefully the sex takes on a larger context.

Rumpus: The writing of Day for Night took more than 10 years, I think you said.  You have a lot of demands on your time, especially teaching at Emerson, and you’re very generous with your time as a mentor.  Yet you seem to manage everything so that ultimately it sustains your own writing.  What’s your strategy?

Reiken: My strategy, actually, is that I’m a binge writer.  Day For Night wound up taking a decade to complete from start to finish –beginning with those two stories that became chapters 1 and 6 – but most of it was written in several relatively short bursts of time.

Much as I wish it were different, I am not the kind of writer who can get anywhere if I write every day for an hour or two.  I need big chunks of continuous time in which I can fully immerse myself, and when I’m not fully immersing myself I need to be processing things, imagining things, dreaming things, all the time.

Some writers think of their novels as a kind of model of the world, but I’m in the camp that thinks of my novels as dreams or visions, and I often don’t know, at least not at first, where they are coming from.  That’s the other reason I always need periods of total immersion to get things going.  In a way, I need to have the space to have the dream that starts it all in the first place.

Rumpus: In the middle of Day for Night comes this passage:  “The human brain must make a narrative.  This I can say with certainty, and yet each narrative we choose will reach a point at which it no longer suffices.  One narrative must inevitably be abandoned for another.  In this way, any narrative sequence defers meaning, even beyond the point at which it appears to end.”  I’d like to ask you something really smart about this, but I can’t possibly do it justice.  This is a life-affirming belief for you, yes?

Reiken: In my mind, that passage is a key to understanding, at least philosophically, the intention behind the form the book takes.  Of course, I didn’t realize this until after I had written it.  But when I saw how this idea worked as an organizing principle for the whole book, I was really happy.  It applies to all the books I’ve written in some way, and probably to all the books I will ever write.


Rachel Howard is the author of a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, “The Lost Night.” She is currently teaching literary nonfiction in the undergraduate writing program of Warren Wilson College, and finishing a novel. More from this author →