R.A. Riekki’s novel U.P. was released by Ghost Road Press and has been their bestseller in fiction for the last six months. 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. The 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.
Why did you write U.P.?
RA: Columbine happened. It hit me hard. I couldn’t understand it and wanted to. What’s stunning to live in the 2000s is how often it keeps happening. I taught a university course that focused on hypermasculinity and I started telling the students every time a school shooting happened, listing on the board the names of those killed in the shootings, and a lot of the students were overwhelmed at the realization of how often school shootings happen in America.
U.P. was an attempt to get into the heads of male teens who act with violence. It felt healthy for me to write it, cathartic. Even though it’s a bit of Reservoir Dogs meets Fight Club in a high school, so it’s a pretty tough book, but I tried to have a real purpose for it – to get the 17 and 18 year old male voice on the page, especially the white lower class male voice that seems absent from a lot of books I’ve read. I wanted to write a book that if I read it at 18 would blow my mind, that what I was experiencing to some degree would be on the page, instead of all these books I was forced to read in school with people I felt nothing for. The response – six months as Ghost Road’s bestselling novel – has given me positive feedback that there is an audience out there for my book. Several people told me that the people I’m writing for don’t read. And that’s not true. What I love about interviews is that I can tell people who I think would dig the book to check it out.
Tell us about the book being considered at Soft Skull Press
RA: I’d love to, but it’s still being considered, so I should wait until it’s more in the publication phase, rather than the consideration phase. Ghost Road Press has spoken about a four book contract with me, but that’s still in the negotiation stages, but Soft Skull’s looking at my fifth (and possibly sixth) books. I will say this though, fans of your site would really like the book Soft Skull’s considering. And I hope they take it. It’s a great press. And I think it’d be a perfect fit with them. I’ll add this too – I’m excited because I feel confident that that book’s going to get published more than any other book I’ve ever written. I’m just not sure the size of the press that’s going to take it, but I just believe in it too much that I’m sure publication’ll happen sooner or later.
Why do you write in the horror genre?
RA: Great question. I’m actually surprised I do it (although much of my writing to be honest isn’t in that genre, but some of it definitely is). I don’t like 98% of the horror films and books out there. Or let me change that, I don’t like 99% of the horror films and 96% of the horror novels. They tend to be so poorly written, cliche, easy, go-for-the-gore. I’m talking about current horror film and horror writing. If you back up thirty years or more, pre-1980s, horror is so much better. I think in the ’80s Reagan was enough of a monster that it would be tough for films to be scarier than reality.
There’s a scene in U.P. where the kids watch Ned the Dead on Chiller Theater. As a kid I loved those old black and white horror movies. Hitchcock is a genius. I remember one where this turtle-like monster would fall on people when they were walking through the woods and it scared the crap out of me in this really fun way. And another where these monster-people on this island who live underwater end up attacking people from bathtubs and swimming pools – awesome. And another where this vampire woman ghost would suck the life out of people but she did it in a way that was much more scary than biting them on the neck, just sort of oozing the life-force out of them – I still remember this really creepy moment where that lady was descending a staircase and I was at my grandma’s watching it and she had a similar staircase and I kept waiting for that female ghoul to come down my grandma’s stairs. (I wish I knew the names of those three movies.) Horror movies were so scary without showing the gore that bores me nowadays. Gore is so easy and not at all scary.
That’s a reason I love Shakespeare, most of his gore has this deep purpose to the scene – like the beheading in Macbeth has this powerful symbolism that relates to the entire rest of the play. It’s not done for shock, but for metaphorical purpose. And that beheading is done offstage. Like hearing the voice of Hamlet’s father underneath the stage – that’s scary. That disembodied voice. What’s scary is what’s not there. I’m really, really tall so people have asked me to work in haunted houses in the past and I’d jump out at people dressed up in some elaborate frightening costume and rarely would it scare people. But I did this thing where I hid up in the rafters and I’d wait for people to walk by and I’d take a stick and reach down with my long arm and very gently I’d brush the person’s hair and they’d turn around and see no one there – by then my hand would be back up in the dark of the rafters – and, my God, would people scream from that. What’s not there is so much scarier than what’s there.
My horror though is really different from most horror. I’m doing alternative horror. Taylor Antrim, author of The Headmaster Ritual, called my novel U.P. “scary as hell,” but it’s not scary in the traditional sense; it’s unconventionally scary. Ghost Road’s looking at doing my next novel called A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man tentatively in 2010. It’s about a schizophrenic Slayer addict who wants to know what it’d feel like to kill someone. I think it’ll have a good audience despite being experimental alterna-horror. But that’s what I’m excited about. Really doing something that I think is different from the commercial horror I’ve read. One of my least favorite books of all time is King’s Gerald’s Game. Not to be a hater with King, he’s written some great stuff that I love (although I haven’t read much of him), but that book just felt so flat, uninteresting. I really don’t want to write like that. I’m trying to take some big risks as a writer. We’ll see if it pays off. Or if I fall on my face. But I’m trying to go in directions I haven’t seen before.
I want to add this – because I’ve really been thinking about your question. I don’t see myself as a horror writer, but the horrible, the horrific appears often in my work I think because I’ve experienced so much horror – I served in Diego Garcia during Desert Storm, I’ve volunteered to work with gang members and the homeless and in the prison system, I grew up with quotidian brutal high school fights, and love has been exceptionally evasive in my life. I think if I experienced someone who authentically loved me, I could write a romance. But I’ve experienced a lot of abandonment, so that’s what my characters experience.
What do you have coming up next?
RA: Well, a producer has interest in U.P. as a film, so I’m working on the screenplay. That’s top of the list for me. It’s been exciting and I have meetings upcoming in the next couple weeks to see where that’s going to go, but that’s all in early stages. We’ll see. I’m waiting to see if Ghost Road will come through with the contracts for the next three books and crossing my fingers about Soft Skull. I’m also waiting to hear from a few literary managers and agents and have found that that’s a much longer process than I expected. A lot of this could lead to nothing … or everything. I’m just going to keep writing as much as I can. This is what I want to do with my life and I’m finally starting to find an audience and that excites me. I write to be read, so to have people out there reading U.P., that’s wonderful. It’s a crazy book, so I’ve actually been surprised at how many people have liked it.
Also, my essay “Brandy, Shannon, Tender, and the Middle Finger: Althusser and Foucault in Palahniuk’s Early Novels” is included in the recent Cambridge Scholars Publishing anthology Sacred & Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk. It’s Chapter 6 of the book. I’ve gotten some great feedback on the article. Info on the anthology is on Palahniuk’s official web page. I’m reading the other essays and love the book. I’m a big Palahniuk fan (although I’ve only read I think five of his books), and I’m finding all of the analyses of his work to be intriguing. The book’s a bit expensive though, so if you can’t afford it you can always have your local library order it. It’s good stuff, especially the new Palahniuk interview at the back of the book done by Matt Kavanagh.
Anything else on the status of turning U.P. into a film?
RA: Like I said, it’s really early stages and I’m still writing the screenplay adaptation. But the more I write the screenplay, the more I’m getting ideas for other screenplays. There are two more unwritten screenplays that I have deeply imbedded in my mind now (and they’re both horror by the way). So once I get done with the screenplay adaptation, I have plans on getting started on those. It’s just finding the time. I work too. Currently with an organization that works with Amnesty International, Sierra Club, and to overturn prop 8. And that takes up a lot of time. So if I could get a good screenplay option or hopefully my royalties on U.P.’ll be good, then I’ll get to spend more time just writing. I could write ten hours a day if I had the money to support it. But if I can’t write full-time, at least I’m getting to work for a great human rights organization in the meantime.