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Monday, October 5, 2009

Author Interview: Ron Riekki of U.P.

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.

For more info on Ron, visit his site:

Thank you Ron for doing this interview! I can't wait to read your book :)

1) How old were you when you started writing?
The same as everyone, I guess. Before I can remember. I do remember doing writing exercises in kindergarten--stands out in my mind because I was terrible at cursive writing. I'd always forget how to make certain letters and my handwriting was terrible, large and shaky anti-calligraphy. But I used to like to make little books as a kid, my own small stories, and poems and pretend newspapers. I'm always amazed at how often in life people go on to do what they always did as children.

2) What inspired you to write a metal, hip-hop, punk novel?
I really love music. I write to it all the time. For me to write in silence feels weird. I like for there to be some sort of activity around me. Maybe that comes from being in an active family when I was younger. Right now I could live alone in an apartment, but instead I'm in a house with four roommates. People will say things like, "That must suck," but I actually like to live in an environment where there's activity, not chaos, but activity. I don't like to live alone. It's so boring. The novel is about the opposite of boredom, about these kids who are always looking for something to do, mischief. I was talking with Steven Wiig recently. He's an actor/producer in California who's interested in turning my novel U.P. into a film (, -- in the background I have Into the Wild on The Movie Channel right now and Wiig was awesome in the scene he did with Emile Hirsch--and Wiig also grew up in Negaunee, Michigan, which is a really small town. He was saying how he would come up with little activities to keep himself interested, playing music and drawing and stuff, to keep out of trouble. I was like that too. And one of the things that I'd do is listen to tons of music. It became a large part of my identity. And so I wanted to write a novel where metal and punk and hip-hop were central to the characters' lives, the same way it was so important to my own identity formation. So writing the book, I had a lot of The Subhumans, Dokken, Sex Pistols, D-Nice, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and Pantera on in the background.

3) Are the characters in the books based on someone you know?
This is a funny story, but I've had two people tell me that they're the character Craig in the book. To be honest, I didn't base Craig on either of those two people, but it's interesting how people want to read themselves into the book. My cousin Jimmy called me and said that he was the character J. The problem with that is J has cerebral palsy and Jimmy doesn't. I found it interesting that he thought he was this character with cerebral palsy. I would say that the characters in the book are based on someone I know--namely, me. When I was writing J, I tried to feel as much as I could the feelings I thought the character would experience trying to fit into a high school environment where things like football are given this false importance that he can't participate in. So I'd say my own experiences of alienation and outsidership and pain went into those scenes. I do have a cousin with cerebral palsy and a mother with M.S., so talking with them was helpful in creating the character, but so much of the novel is going off of what I have to make up, constantly putting myself through the emotions of what these characters would feel. Writing is such an exhaustive process if you really put yourself into the scenes. But I love the escapism of it. The same feeling of escape that people get through reading, I get through writing, but it's an odd escape, an escape into myself, an examination of feeling. So I love it when people love the book. My publisher and both the producers interested in turning it into a film have said that it's one of their favorite books they've ever read. That's what I was hoping for, to have that really deep connection with readers. I'm not on a huge press, so I don't have massive sales figures, but I do have something that I've always wanted, a dedicated following of the book. I love that.

4) What was the hardest part about writing U.P.?
Writing it, like I said was cathartic and intense, but it was also in a lot of ways easy. I wrote the first draft in a week. And I gave it to this girl named Bobbie (also a character name in the novel), because she said she wanted to read it. She did and hated it, saying that she was amazed that I had a college degree, that it was filled with poor grammar. I tried to tell her that the narrative voices were of high school students from a lower class area, that I was writing the way they spoke, the way they thought, but she only saw poor grammar and dismissed it completely. Then years later, when I was in the Ph.D. program in Literature & Creative Writing at Western Michigan University, I gave the book to a professor who told me to "throw it away" and start over. I didn't. Instead I sent the novel to Matt Davis at Ghost Road Press and he gave me a book contract and now I have movie interest with it and it's been Ghost Road's bestseller in fiction for 29 weeks. The hardest part wasn't writing it; it was the negative feedback you get from people. I almost quit so many times, but now because I didn't I'm getting to have some of the best times of my life. I was just walking on this amazingly scenic beach in Malibu with Wiig, him talking about ideas he has for potential scenes in the rewrite of the screenplay I wrote, the water washing along my feet and a great fist of a moon up above us, and we'd just had drinks with one of my favorite actors of all time, and that great peaceful content moment happened because I didn't quit.

5) Why name the book U.P.?
It's set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I wanted to write the best book ever about the U.P. I didn't like Anatomy of a Murder, the only other U.P. book/film I can name. It was too archaic, so that I just didn't identify with it. I know a lot of people who love black and white movies, like that was the golden age of cinema, but a lot of the old black and white movies I see bore me. I prefer more recent films. Like Buffalo '66, that quirky post-modern innovative contemporary cinema experience, I love. So I wanted a book like that, I wanted to do with the U.P. what Trainspotting did with Scotland. I wanted to write like Irvine Welsh, not Charles Dickens. Wiig was telling me how he was glad that my novel wasn't the fart jokes and sauna stories that so much U.P. writing is about, sort of corny Finnish anecdotes. Or the novels written by people who aren't from the area, Northern Michigan University professors who didn't grow up in the U.P., but now are living there so they start writing things set there but the reader has this subtle sense that the author doesn't really, fully understand the place, that it's not tied inseparably to their childhood. I really did want U.P. to be the best novel ever from that area, so I wanted to claim it right in the very title of the book. I also liked that a metaphor throughout the novel is "down," collapsing, mines, caves, graves, loss, basements, descending, hell, stairways, etc. and so for the title to be misread as "up" jarred nicely with where the characters are actually heading.

6) I see your novel is turning into a movie, what can we expect from that and when will it be released?
We're not that far along yet. I'm just at the stage where I have a screenplay draft done and two producers are attached and I'm getting to have the fun of emailing and meeting with some great actors out in L.A. Nothing could come of it . . . or everything. In the meantime, I'm getting to accumulate some incredible stories that I'll tell ya all about if this actually gets made into a film. I'm just trying to enjoy what I have now and that is the possibility of a lot of other doors opening. Today, in fact, Ghost Road's Matt Davis is supposed to be sending me a contract for two more novels of mine to be published with him--A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man (to be published either this year or next) and Hunger and the Ass (to be published in 2010 or 2011). I write a lot, so I have multiple novels, screenplays, and plays done and still don't have representation, which is interesting, doing this all from outside of agency/management representation. I will say this though, if the film gets made the way that Steven Wiig envisions it, it's going to be awesome--a mix of Fight Club, Trainspotting, and SLC Punk.

7) Are there any new authors that have sparked your interest?
I love this question, because of that word "new." I've been asked my favorite authors a ton of times, but not my favorite new authors. I like this. You know, I think of people I studied with, like John Bullock whose novel Making Faces shows that he's someone who has some real potential to break out hugely in the future. And Laura Dave (London is the Best City in America and The Divorce Party) has had both of her books optioned (by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Anniston), because Laura is incredible with crafting cinematographic scenes. Taylor Antrim (The Headmaster Ritual) is brilliant on a line-by-line basis. There was this writer Mary Summers who also studied at the University of Virginia when I was there (Bullock, Dave, and Antrim are all from UVa) and she was very talented, but she dropped out of the program I believe. I don't know what happened to her. I hope she's still writing. She was great. In fact, the best writers in the Creative Writing programs I've been in always seemed to drop out, which I find interesting. When I think of Western Michigan and Brandeis, where I also studied at, the two best writers in those programs both quit. I guess my best advice if you want to be a great writer is get into a topnotch MFA program and then drop out of it. But who else do I like? To be honest, I tend to read established cult fiction type authors like Kathy Acker, Sarah Kane, Knut Hamsun, Charles Bukowski, Dalton Trumbo, Richard Brautigan, Chuck Palahniuk (I'm in the recent Chuck Palahniuk anthology Sacred and Immoral,, by the way). But new writers? God, I keep going back to Virginia. Karen Salyer McElmurray's The Motel of the Stars and Tara Yellen's After Hours at the Almost Home. Just goes to show how powerhouse of a program that UVa is. I guess it's you get to study with some of the best writers in the U.S.--John Casey, Rita Dove, Charles Wright, Sydney Blair, Ann Beattie, Deborah Eisenberg, Gregory Orr, Christopher Tilghman. Oh, here's someone who's not from UVa--I also recommend Rafael Alvarez. He wrote for HBO's The Wire and he's got a book coming out on Ghost Road Press. He's an undiscovered guy who people need to check out.

8) What book are you currently reading?
I tend to read multiple books at the same time. Right now I'm slowly getting through Stephen King's Salem's Lot and John Irving's The World According to Garp, which is a bit of a running joke, because I was asked this a couple months ago and I was reading Irving back then as well. Those are my car books, which tend to be books I read with minimal attention, my light reads. I'm also reading Robert McKee's Story, rereading the awesome The Little Zen Companion, and finishing up the screenplay to Apocalypse Now Redux (although the original is better). And I'm about to start Samuel Beckett's Watt.

9) Do you have anything to say to all your readers?
To anyone who has read U.P., thank you so much for allowing me to accomplish my dreams of being a writer. In a lot of ways, I don't have anything else. Writing is everything I have. And if you haven't read me, I hope you will--I promise I have some books that are like nothing you've ever read before. Laura Dave's blurb for U.P. is: "People throw around the word 'original' to mean a lot of things, but U.P.--R.A. Riekki's fighting new novel--is original in the best sense. It constantly surprised me, and made me want to keep reading, and made me more sure of it. This novel is a winner. You won't read anything else like it this year." I can promise you the same with A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man and Hunger and the Ass. I'm trying to write novels that are unlike anything I've ever seen, the way that Kathy Acker and Mark Leyner were truly original. And that's exciting for me and hopefully for the reader as well. I've had people say to me after reading U.P. that they've never read a book set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, that they've never read a book with a main character with cerebral palsy, that they've never read a book with a main character who is a metalhead--I'm hoping to have original settings and characters and events that leave the reader in the end with what National Book Award winner John Casey called "a brilliant fierce rush."
I'm also open to reader feedback, so just go to my web page at and you'll find my contact information to send me a message, but be careful someone told me my web page is haunted.

10) Tell us something about yourself that no one knows about.
When I found out that my ex-girlfriend had recently got married, I cried so badly that you could actually see the impression of my face on the tears on my pillow. I'll say this though, that hurt was just astounding, the realization I'll never be married to her, but within a week I got to go have drinks with Sean Penn and let me just say that Sean is one of the best storytellers I've ever met in my life. He had me laughing so hard that my abs started to hurt and I was having trouble breathing. He's talent beyond talent and a really nice guy. So there are two things I haven't ever said in an interview, two extremes of emotion.

U.P. by Ron Riekki
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Ghost Road Press
Pages: 236
Available Now

Book Summary: 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.


Alyssa Kirk said...

I haven't read his stuff but he sounds like a great guy. Nice interview!

YA Book Queen said...

He does sound like a great guy! I'll have to check out U.P., it sounds interesting.

brizmus said...

That's crazy, having so many people tell you that a book is horrible and then to go on and get it published.
I've never heard of this book, but I think I have to read it now. Seems like it's going to remind me of my high school years. :-)

dentistry in Sydney said...

I read interviews, these are great source of knowledge. We can learn many things from them. thanks for this great interview.

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