Saturday, November 29, 2014

Eric Rickstad, literary genre masher

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HALLIE EPHRON: It’s pretty exciting when your first novel is published by Viking Penguin and declared a New York Times Noteworthy Book. That’s what happened to Eric Rickstad with Reap. Critics call it  “an American classic that draws readers into the dangerous and claustrophobic backwoods of Northern Vermont to witness a drugged out Gothic thriller of maimed and desperate characters.” “A masterwork.”

Now Eric is out with another chiller, The Silent Girls. It’s dark and literary, and the main character is a PI.

Got to ask: crime fiction, horror, Gothic, literary novel? Does it matter how we categorize your newest book, and what inspired it?

ERIC RICKSTAD: It defies categorization, doesn’t it!? I think most of those descriptions are accurate, with the possible exception of horror. The Silent Girls has been called a dark psychological thriller, and that may wrap it up the best. But most of all it's a novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat, compelled to find out what happens next, even if part of you doesn’t want to know. It is full of nasty twists and turns.

My agent told me that he’d never been so shocked by an ending; even upon reading it a second and third time he said he was left shaken. Best of all, most readers have felt that way, and expressed that the novel earns the ending, and does not cheat to arrive at it. Mystery and crime readers are not easily misdirected or surprised, so I am pleased this seems to be the case.

The Silent Girls is also literary in the sense that it has a clear voice, an awareness of language, hopefully fully-fleshed characters, and a singular setting that makes the novel stand out. 

HALLIE: Setting seems so essential to your story: Vermont backwoods. Do you live there, and how do you and your wife get up the courage to walk your dog? (See Eric's noble watch dog himself below.) 

ERIC: Ha! Yes, I do live in Vermont. I grew up in Vermont. I love Vermont. I have lived elsewhere. But I love it here. And so does my wife. This is where we chose to raise our family. 

I'm inspired byVermont’s beauty and the way it contrasts with the rare violent crimes that take place that shatter not just the communities in which they happen, but the entire state. Such acts feel like a betrayal. It can create paranoia and suspicion, and trigger deep emotions. I like exploring that.
 
From my novels, you’d think I’d have to go out armed with my Winchester .30-.30 deer rifle (not that anyone would notice or care). I want the setting always to influence the characters, so that description of setting is not just a backdrop, but impact the characters one way or another, and thus the reader. I think it makes the reader more engaged.

I also love the backwoods of Vermont, the Gothic landscape and the severe changes in weather that can suddenly turn a fishing trip or a hike into something perilous. But, really, the everyday Vermont is quite safe and its pastoral beauty reflects pretty
accurately an idyll. I tend to write about the dramatic storms.

HALLIE: Your detective, Frank Rath. Police detective turned PI. What defines him for you, and where did you find him?

ERIC: What defines him most for me is that he is a single father who would do anything for his only daughter. He is devoted, and he is also afraid at every turn, as all parents are, for her safety. But his fear is even greater than most parents, because he came to being a single father through very dramatic and traumatic events that he wishes had never happened. 

He knows that being a single father has made him a much better man than he’d otherwise be. He became a single father as a result of horrific violence, and the experience made him grow up overnight and dispense with his frivolous and empty playboy ways. The irony for Rath is that the most awful event of his life in a way saved him.

HALLIE: We have many writers who follow our blog, and I’m wondering if you can speak from your own experience about the plusses and minuses of an MFA to launch a writing career?

ERIC: It does have advantages and disadvantages. I never intended to earn an MFA. Frankly, I did not even know they existed. A David Huddle, a wonderful mentor suggested I apply. I did not know what to make of the idea. Writers I liked never needed an MFA, and the prospect of earning one seemed too formal for me. Too academic. 

But David put it in perspective by saying, “Look, it will give you two years to write, where all that is expected of you is to write, and the people around you will respect that and understand it and encourage it.”

In the “real” world, when you say you’re a writer, you get one of two responses from people: either they romanticize it as a dreamy life where there is no hard work involved and it’s all just fun and glamor, or they denigrate it: “A writer? Cute. But what do you really do?” 

So what is great about an MFA is you are surrounded by writers and readers who respect what you are doing appreciate the work and perseverance it takes, and can support you in it. And you are exposed to other great writers and mentors. If you are able to find a program that suits your style and temperament, it can be a great experience—one where you can be taken seriously as a writer, where you have an excuse to do nothing but write, and where you can make lifelong friends in the process.

HALLIE: What were your favorite books/authors growing up, and how did that shape you into the writer that you are?

ERIC: Roald Dahl was a huge influence when I was in 3-6th grade. DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD especially, and Dahl’s macabre short stories. Poe’s stories. THE GREAT BRAIN and ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN series. There was a book called ALGONQUIN about a boy and his dog I loved and found again through the miracle of the internet. Then later, Stephen King, especially his short story collections NIGHT SHIFT and SKELETON CREW. And Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Joyce Carol Oates. So many!  


HALLIE: We writers are all shaped by the books we loved, and your affection for King, Oates, and Dahl -- that says it all. Both the high standard and the sensibility.

So asking our readers, how often are you truly surprised by an ending, and do you love a setting that freaks you out?

35 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

While I don't usually find myself surprised at an ending, I'm always pleased when that happens [and that book generally makes its way into my I-want-to-read-this-one-again stack.
Yes and no to the settings that freak me out; there are levels of scary that I simply don't want to visit . . . .

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Welcome Eric! Love your descriptions of Vermont. It's so cold and snowy up there in the winter--I think the permanent residents have to be a hardier breed...

I think I'd have to try your book during the daylight hours though it sounds wonderfully intriguing. Do you frighten yourself as you're reading?

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

I meant to say writing:)

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

I meant to say writing:)

eric rickstad said...

Thanks for the welcome everyone! I hope you are all cozy and comfortable on the post Thanksgiving Saturday! Permanent residents of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom definitely have a hardy streak, and an independent and resourceful streak. I surprise myself when writing, definitely, which is half the fun of writing for me. I am rarely surprised by an ending myself, so love a good surprise ending that is earned, but don't like a surprise ending that feels like it is slapped or there simply to shock but doesn't fit the rest of the narrative.

Hallie Ephron said...

I agree, Eric - hate it when the ending seems to come out of left field. LOVE it when I didn't see it coming and it feels so exactly right.

You must have a lot in common with our Mainer Red, Julia Spencer-Fleming. Wood stove? With all the power outages this week from the storm they needed it. And I wouldn't have wanted to get up and out and walk the dog...

Hallie Ephron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ericrickstad said...

Hallie, We're lucky Vermont was spared the outages that Maine and NH have suffered, and are able to get out and enjoy the snow, even if it is cold. From Julia's dark but stellar books like IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER and TO DARKNESS AND TO DEATH, I gather we share quite a bit in common!

Eric rickstad said...

What is the most recent surprise ending of a novel (or a movie for that matter) that left you shocked and shaken at the same time satisfied?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Being happily surprised by an ending is the BEST.

And often, a good surprise ending will make the second reading or viewing even better. Because then you can see all the clues and indicators the author has included. It's so instructive!

I'm also intrigued by the question--should you say a book has a surprise ending? Or twist? Because then the reader is waiting for it and anticipating.

Reading your book right now, Eric! And loving it.. YOu have a very wonderfully bleak voice.

ericrickstad said...

Hank, That is true about saying a novel has a twist or a surprise. It might put too much attention on just the ending or set a reader up to expect too much or be awaiting it. When I wrote the ending for THE SILENT GIRLS it did not feel like a twist or surprise to me, at least not in the way that it felt manipulative or a device. It did surprise me in that I did not see it coming myself! But, as you mentioned at Crime Bake, on your panel, we writers are constantly surprised by what happens in our novels and they change and develop and evolve so much as we write. TO me that is so much fun, when we are blindsided by a discovery along the way of writing. I am thrilled you are liking the book so far!

ericrickstad said...

And being a mystery novel, it better be somewhat of a surprise at then end by nature of the genre.

ericrickstad said...

So, what is everyone reading this post Thanksgiving weekend? I am reading The Shadow of the Wind, and Patriots Football Weekly.

Paul Doiron said...

I have already endorsed THE SILENT GIRLS, but I want to second what Eric's agent said about the ending. Wow! And Hank, you nailed the voice as "wonderfully bleak." I think of the Vermont that Eric writes about as being part of the same culture as the backwoods Maine where I set my own books — but he goes even darker. Be warned....

ericrickstad said...

Thanks Paul and Hank (and Hallie and all!) I love the Bowditch series, so glad you enjoyed THE SIELNT GIRLS so much. I do believe our books delve in the same backwoods cultures. You've written some of the very best of the best in that regard. You have your finger on that pulse. As Hank does Boston. In Hank's THE WRONG GIRL she mentions (and I paraphrase, so forgive me Hank) an insight about Boston highway traffic, and how when the back ups of cars suddenly frees it is a riddle/mystery whose solution is known only to engineers and the DOT. I love details and specificity, that in a single sentence capture a place and the thoughts of characters about that place. That said, an important question Paul: Did you get your buck yet?

FChurch said...

This whole question of genre is interesting, I think. Can a 'mystery' be literate? Can a literary work contain a mystery? It seems to me that most works tell a story that includes a puzzle of some sort--a tangle of relationships--a tangle of history--something has happened and we are looking for the clues as to the whys. Like a mystery. Like life.

I appreciate a finely crafted story--regardless of genre. And I think your explanation, Eric, of why a MFA is the best I've ever heard--good luck with this new book and the writing life!

Paul Doiron said...

No buck for me this year, Eric. I have chained myself to my writing desk to finish the sixth Bowditch book while my own Winchester 336 sits unused in the gun safe. Thanks for the kind words, and I agree with you about the pleasures of reading writers who thoroughly know their settings. Hank is write that Boston's abiding mystery is its traffic.

Paul Doiron said...

Make that "right."

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Eric! I lived in Vermont for a year out of college, in Manchester, working in Dorset. Beautiful part of the country, but the economic disparity was painful to see.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Also — you had me at "surprise ending." Off to the local bookstore today...... : )

ericrickstad said...

I believe many mystery novels are very literate, and nearly all "literary" novels are dependent on mystery, suspense and tension as any genre novels, think THE GREAT GATSBY. Genre writers perhaps focus more on story and literary works perhaps more on language. We all love a tale told well and I'll take story first. The literatu novel that errs on the side of language at the expense of story does not hold me as much. It's all quite a mess! Ha. To me story trumps all else.

ericrickstad said...

Well I'm thankful you are at the keyboard!!

ericrickstad said...

I live just south of Manchester and try yo get across the economic and other social disparities sand clashes that exist, as do Paul, Hank, Hallie and do many others writers.

ericrickstad said...

Book stores do not yet stock it but they can order it! Cheers

ericrickstad said...

To add to the MFA thread in my Q & A, I would suggest writers that end up in an MFA work on learning plot, pacing, conflict, suspense and tension, no matter their "genre" or their "literary" aspirations.

MFAs do tend to concentrate on language and "voice" and beautiful poetic prose, rather than plot or story — at least from what I know anecdotally from many fellow writers who have received MFAs, and from my own experience.

This is a generalization of course, but read deep and read WIDE. A mentor at UVA gave me invaluable advice when he suggested those in his class read the most commercial and plot-driven novels we could find so we could learn and study plot and how it works form those who have mastered it, no matter our writing style or ambitions. Without plot, you are dead. And not in the good murder mystery sort of way.

I work with many writers who are just starting out, and taught in Emerson's MFA program, UVA< and BU, and my general takeaway is that writers who are just learning the craft, no matter how beautiful or original their prose or voice might be, lack sufficient narrative propulsion because of a slack plot and pacing.

As Dennis Lehane and many many others have said, write as well and as beautifully as you can, but DON'T forget STORY! Cheers!

Reine said...

Yes, setting means everything to me. Vermont is one of my favorites. I had the most freedom of my life in Vermont when I stayed with family friends as a child. I never knew I was in any danger. Riding horseback down the highway. Hitchhiking a ride on the ferry across to New York. Piling hay bales to learn how to jump bareback. What teacher? You mean the other kids? Grizzly bear in the backyard. Babysitting. Shown where the shotgun was kept—just in case anything happened while they were gone. Setting is everything. You can't go anywhere with your story without it. If you you're in it it'll show you the way. There's always a surprise waiting.

ericrickstad said...

Yes Reine, setting is critical to me. Vermont is a safe place. What I like writing about with my crime and mystery fiction set in Vermont is that because violent murder is so rare it creates a greater contrast and upheaval when it occurs. It is a deep betrayal to not just the community but the entire state. It triggers deep strong emotions, which makes for a good base for dramatic fiction.

JJ said...

I read this column, previewed the book, and now it's downloading to my Kindle. I'm looking forward to a dark, late-night read. Thanks you guys for intro-ing me to another good writer. And thanks to Eric for writing the kind of story that I love and that is so hard to find done well.

Reine said...

Oh, Eric. Did it sound like I was arguing. No, never. I felt the danger later. Safety yes. It was there. Later though, I looked back and saw all the possibilities. Then I felt danger looking back.

ericrickstad said...

Reine, oh my not at all! :) vermont is one I the safest places, but danger does lurk and when I rears up it is ao much more pronounced. Which in part inspires me to write about it. Cheers !

ericrickstad said...

Yes thanks so much for having me as a guest!!! It's been a pleasure, and there's still time to interact. Thanks so much!

Reine said...

Oh good, Eric, because I think your writing is terrific! Mine is afraid to leave Massachusetts.

Jack Getze said...

I hear a lot of strange stories about Vermont.

Kathy Reel said...

I've always thought that Vermont would be a lovely place to live. I guess I'll have to settle for reading about it, but it would appear reading your books set there would be a great way to settle.

Thanks for visiting the Jungle Reds blog today, Eric. Great group of authors that you mentioned, and I was most interested in what you had to say about an MFA. I'm thinking that my son might want to go in that direction. Your novels sound chillingly entertaining, Eric, and I'll be adding Reap and The Silent Girls to my TBR list.

ericrickstad said...

Jack , there are many more strange stories to tell about Vermont!

Kathy, glad uou enjoyed and my comments about MFA proved useful! Enjoy the novels!

All, Thanks so much again for hosting me as a guest. The perfect way to spend a leisurely Saturday! Peace and cheers! Eric