Monday, December 21, 2009

In My Hands

I'm holding it right now.

An advance copy of my book, Precarious.

It looks great and feels, well, substantial.

I like feeling the weight of it, the glossy cover. I like flipping through the pages, all 242 of them. I even like the slightly musty smell.

And I love the design. Thank you, Joanne.

Electronic books are cool, but give me ink on paper. Nothing could make a writer's first book more ... real.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Out Loud

The first time I read one of my stories in public, I was in the basement of a bar in San Francisco and there was a live band playing upstairs.

I didn't have a microphone and had to shout to be heard.

That was back in March when Switchback was celebrating the launch of Issue 9, which included a story of mine called "Skittish," about a woman who is attracted to a man with muscles because it makes her feel safe … until it doesn’t.

Not the kind of story I wanted to shout. Especially since I was writing from the woman's point of view and saying things like:

I catch Paul watching me, but just as quickly I pretend not to notice. I don't know what it is about my neck. Guys are always kissing it or wanting to kiss it.

Shouting that felt surreal. Try it, if you don't believe me.

I got another chance to read Friday night, and I again found myself shouting. But this time it was because the story, "Disengaged," called for shouting.

They were quickly out of town on the two-lane to the coast. Noise from the engine and the rush of hot August air made it necessary to shout.
"The wedding if off!"
"I just got the invitation today."
"It's off."

This was at the Gallery House in Palo Alto, and I was one of several writers taking part in the Peninsula Literary Series.

Naturally I flubbed a few lines — saying "big sure" when I meant "Big Sur," for example — but the reading went better than I had imagined. Better than I had rehearsed it.

I even remembered to look up at the audience from time to time.

Of course it really helped to have friendly go-to faces out there, so many thanks to the friends who came out to hear me. You made it fun.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Rediscovering Carver

I've been rediscovering Raymond Carver. Turns out he wasn't a minimalist after all. Even though that's what he's famous for.

His editor, Gordon Lish, was the minimalist, slashing many of Carver's stories by half. Others by even more. This was especially true in the case of the groundbreaking collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Now, in a new volume called Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, we get to see the writer's original drafts along with the cut-down versions of those stories.

The originals are better.

I say that even though I've always been a big fan of minimalism.

(For a good visual of Lish's edits, check out "Beginners," Edited in The New Yorker.)

It's hard to say how successful Carver would have been without Lish. It was Lish who gave him his first national exposure in Esquire and championed him with agents and editors.

And Carver was forever grateful to him for changing his life.

Because of Lish, who moved from Esquire to Knopf, Carver became known as "the foremost practitioner of minimalist fiction," as the new dust jacket indicates. But the original stories were not only much longer, they were far richer and, for me, more deeply felt.

Lish was clearly a talented editor, and I admire many of his changes (as did Carver). Still, I seriously doubt that we would know the name Gordon Lish if it weren't for Carver.

So both men benefited, I suppose, but it's heart-breaking to read the long letter Carver wrote to Lish — included in the notes to the new volume — begging him not to move ahead with his radically altered version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

It's hard not to think of Lish as an ass.

The contract for that book gave Lish the final say, but that changed for the next collection, Cathedral, and Carver accepted only minor changes.

So, clearly Carver had a boatload of talent all on his own, but he still might have labored in obscurity without the big break Lish gave him.

And now we get to see the original versions and Carver is back in the news and selling more books and it all turns out for the best.

I love a happy ending.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Charming" - Publishers Weekly

I won't lie to you. The first review of Precarious was ... not great.

The first line was OK: "The lovelorn characters in Riske's debut collection are riven by confusion, to sometimes charming, sometimes infuriating effect."

But then the reviewer chose to focus on the (apparently) infuriating parts. The charming parts? Not so much.

Still, I suppose, it was somewhat of a coup to be reviewed in Publishers Weekly at all. (I'm including a link, but I'd really rather you didn't go there. See this instead.)

But there was good news, too.

Based on PW's not-so-great review, someone named Erica contacted my publisher to see if movie and TV rights are still available.

Which is interesting because, coincidentally, the first story in the collection. "Sleeping with Smiley," started out as a screenplay.

If anything comes of the inquiry, I'll let you know.

Friday, November 6, 2009

From the Shadows to the Marketplace

Though he's only been writing fiction for a short time, my good friend Mark Richardson writes with the assurance of a seasoned professional, and in just the past year he's had his first three short stories published:

> Tattoo Woman
"She had no tattoos when she left him. Just white twenty-two-year-old skin..."
Boardwalk Gypsy
"From the balcony of my highrise Santa Monica condo, I looked down at the cars and bike riders and T-shirt clad pedestrians moving freely..."
"Orgasmic moans float through my open window and I get horny. It’s just before dusk in late September..."

Mark's non-fiction has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, Literary Traveler, and Dusty Shelf.

Keep up the great work, my friend. Can't wait to see what you come up with next.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Writers on Writing

Wit and wisdom from some of the best ...
  • “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • "The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough." —William Saroyan
  • “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning bolt and the lightning bug.” —Mark Twain
  • “I hate writing. I love having written.” —Dorothy Parker
  • "Kill your darlings." —William Faulkner
  • "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."—Douglas Adams
  • "Take out the sentence you love best. You're trying too hard." —David Sedaris
  • “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” —W. Somerset Maugham
  • “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.” —Dr. Seuss

  • “The goal of writing is not to be understood but to write so as not to be misunderstood.” —Cicero
  • “I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it.” —William Faulkner
  • “It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • "Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards." —Robert Heinlein
  • “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” —Stephen King
  • “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” —Red Smith

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Informers

I love the way Brett Easton Ellis writes; I just don't like what he writes about.

He takes things too far.

I was fascinated by the world he created in The Informers — not so much a novel as a collection of overlapping stories, each vignette told in the first person by a different character — but a few of the later chapters conveyed more than I wanted to know about human nature.

The violence was too real, too depraved.

Worse, there was no hope. Not a shred of optimism anywhere.

That said, I did come away with one positive observation. It seemed to me that, without saying so, Ellis may have been trying to show us — in graphic and convincing detail — that riches, fame, and the ability to do whatever we want are not enough to satisfy.

Not unless we have better imaginations than his characters.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

David Eagleman's Sum is the most surprising, delightful, and thought-provoking book I've read in a long, long time.

In its far-flung flights of imagination, it reminds me of Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman (who is quoted on the back cover). Instead of concepts about time, though, the subject of Sum is the afterlife.

What I like most, I think, is that many of the forty possible afterlives Eagleman dreams up turn out to be lessons in unintended consequences. For us and for God.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beach Cabin

This post is coming to you from my private ocean-side cabin.

The one in my head.

In reality, I'm in a shed in my backyard.

I call it a shed because it was built by an outfit called The Shed Shop, but it's much more than a shed. It has a real door and windows and electricity and wi-fi access.

I like to think of it as a rustic beach cabin, though. That's why I have a window-size picture of Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach, Oregon, hanging on the wall.

But I also have a bulletin board covered with postcards from New Mexico. I'm working on a novel set in Taos and the postcards are supposed to put me in a New Mexico frame of mind. Not sure how well that has worked but it hasn't hurt. The novel is coming along nicely.

The cabin ... I mean, shed ... was my wife's idea and has provided a very real retreat ever since it went up last year.

Thanks, Joanne. I never would have done it without you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why Did I Write These?

I got an interesting question from my publisher yesterday: Why did I write the stories in Precarious?

Believe it or not, I never really thought about why I wrote them.

The stories in the collection (due out in February) were written over a period of 30 years and are all very different, but as it turns out, they're all about the same thing. Women and men. An endlessly fascinating topic. I suppose I wrote them to figure out how I felt about certain things.

The great thing about stories is they can make you feel what someone else felt. The better the story, the more subtle and nuanced the feelings. Anyway, that's what I look for as a reader. The surprise as a writer is how you can make yourself feel things you never felt before or never knew you felt.

Writers are like actors. We get to play a lot of different roles, try out a range of personalities, and live lives very different from our own.

I wrote these stories to find out what would happen to the characters and how things would turn out for them.

I wrote them because I felt like I had some things to say that I couldn't say any other way.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Delayed, in a Good Way

The publication date for my story collection, Precarious, is being pushed out until January or February. While I can't help but feel let down — eager as I am to hold the final product in my hands — the delay is actually good news.

It means that extra care is going into the release of my book.

It means that Midpoint — a major distributor that my publishers recently signed up — is putting together a more detailed marketing plan for us.

So I can wait. In fact, I'm happy to wait.

I'm actually more excited now, and more hopeful about the book's prospects, than I've ever been.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Memory Aids

I can't believe how bad my memory is. With the help of my wife (and the ticket stubs she saves), I now realize I forgot to include more than a dozen artists on my list of concerts seen. When you see the names, you'll understand just how forgetful I've become:

The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Chris Isaak, B.B. King, Little Feat, John Lee Hooker, Lucinda Williams, Eddie Money, Santana, the Grateful Dead, the Chieftains, Big Country, Stevie Nicks, the Association, the Grass Roots, Sara McLachlan, Joan Osbourne, Paula Cole, Jewel, Mike Scott, the Uninvited, the San Francisco Symphony, and, not long ago, Vieux Farka Toure.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Random List of Lists

I have lived in Washington, Oregon, and California.

I have visited Mexico, Canada, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Tahiti, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary.

I have traveled by train, bus, car, plane, helicopter, jet, Goodyear blimp, sailboat, canoe, kayak, cruise ship, cable car, bike, motorcycle, horse, mule, and elephant (briefly).

I have swam in the Pacific Ocean, the Aegean Sea, and the Dead Sea.

I have skied on snow and skated on ice.

I have been to the top of the Space Needle and the Sears Tower and part way up the Statue of Liberty,

I have hiked down into the Grand Canyon.

I have worked as a farm laborer, grocery clerk, cook, bookseller, woodworker, reporter, editor, copywriter, and ghostwriter.

I finished a marathon in Oregon and a half-marathon on Maui.

I have seen live performances by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ricki Lee Jones, Boz Skaggs, Tina Turner, John Mellencamp, Dire Straits, Bob Seger, Heart, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Carole King, Gordon Lightfoot, Kim Carnes, Gary U.S. Bonds, Seals & Crofts, Helen Reddy, Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Jukes, Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, America, the Doobie Brothers, the Pogues, the Waterboys, and the Monkees.

I have been in restaurants with Joe DiMaggio and Jerry Rice and didn't bother them.

I very nearly ran into Kenny Loggins, who was trying to get in to see Martin Mull as I was coming out.

I was within shouting distance of Hillary Clinton at Disney World when she was First Lady.

I've had conversations with Frank Shorter, Rosie Greer, and Nate Thurmond.

I once won $100 for telling a joke.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Friends took us to see Lily Tomlin at the Fox Theater in Redwood City last night. Tomlin reprised (and updated) routines that featured her most famous characters, Ernestine and Edith Anne. She also did some familiar bits from "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe."

There was plenty of new material as well. Great stuff. All of it.

I don't know if it was new or not, but my favorite part of the show was Tomlin's take on the origins of language. She imagines a caveman stubbing his toe and hollering, "Ouch!" Then she has him pondering, "I wonder what I meant by that."

(It's funnier when she tells it.)

What do you think? Could "ouch" have been the first word?

Monday, March 16, 2009


In an earlier post I mentioned that I'm working on a short novel with a long title. For a small taste (just 500 words), check out the latest edition of Word Riot, which includes an excerpt called, "Bellissimo!"

Love it or hate it, feel free to leave a comment at the end of the story.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Suit and Countersuit

The feud between the Associated Press and the artist who created the famous Obama posters continues.

The artist, Shepard Fairey, sued first (a sort of preemptive strike) and now the AP has countered with a suit of its own.

Apparently, Fairey used an AP photo taken by Mannie Garcia as the basis for his highly stylized and stunningly different red, white, and blue image.

Just as Fairey's creation is not entirely his own, neither is Garcia's -- after all, he did not create Obama's face.

The AP should keep in mind that the courts awarded photographers the right to create and publish images of public people and public places in order to further the nascent art of photography.

I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect the courts will rule in favor of Fairey and his transformative work for much the same reason.

Friday, February 27, 2009

What to Say

What are you supposed to say when your dream becomes real?

What are you supposed to feel after years of trying and failing and succeeding a little, and then pow! somebody wants to publish your book?

You say thank you and feel grateful, that's what.

The contract for my first book has been signed and executed, my advance is on its way, and for that I say thank you to Chris and Tracy, the publishers of Luminis Books.

I'm grateful to them and a lot of other people.

First, last, and always, Joanne, my wife, who never stopped believing in me over the past 30-odd years and predicted this would be the year for me.

Then, a long list of friends and family who were there to give me the encouragement, criticism, and inspiration I needed: Gretchen Clark, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Greg Bardsley, Mark Richardson, Dee Edler, Karen Croft, Heidi Benson, Rachel Canon, Linda Drake, Terry McKenzie, Carrie Motamedi, Lisa Buchanan, Adair Lara, Amy Rennert, Steve Kettmann, Bronwen Hruska, Dan and Sandra Aunspaugh, Doug and Kristen Edwards, Jane Todd, Dan Rasmussen, Bill Rennie, Darel Capps, Judy DeMocker, Jill Berman, Starline Judkins, Denise Pinto, Doreen Wu, JungAe Kim, and many others along the way.

I'm especially grateful to Shawn Gillen, the former editor of the Beloit Fiction Journal, who published my first short story. And to Savannah Guz of Hobart, Nora Fussner of Pindeldyboz, Laura Matter of the Blue Mesa Review, and Kelly Krumrie of Switchback, who published more of them.

I hear the orchestra starting to play, so I guess that means my time is up ... Wait, where's my statue?

Oh, the book is called Precarious: Stories of Love, Sex, and Misunderstanding. It will be available in bookstores and online later this year.

I know I'm forgetting someone ... A special tip of the hat to my friend Jim Mize, who coined the indispensable phrase "Tell me the truth but try not to hurt my feelings."

What? No, I'm not leaving without my statue! Where the ...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

1. I'm a Scorpio. That surprises people. I don't know why.
2. I'm very open and very secretive at the same time.
3. I am trying to be what God wants me to be: free.
4. I'm fond of singers with distinctive voices: Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen ...
5. I believe in being undecided about most things.
6. I'm writing a short novel with a long title: The Boy Who Broke Sabrina's Window.
7. I like to travel almost as much as I like to stay at home.
8. All through school I was horrible at spelling, but I'm pretty good at it now.
9. I once ran the Seaside Marathon in Oregon, but it took me five hours to finish.
10. I've never wished I was somebody else.
11. I think I may be the slowest reader on the planet.
12. I have a red belt in Dahn Mu Do.
13. I never liked my hair until my friends started going bald.
14. I'm told my mother tried to abort me (she'd had five kids already), but I know she loved me deeply.
15. I like offbeat movies like Rushmore and Juno.
16. I've always wished I could sing.
17. I'm always buying blank books even though I only write on a computer.
18. I tend to keep things for years, thinking I might need them.
19. I used to be a neat-freak, but I'm mostly over it.
20. I've been married to the world's kindest person for 32 years.
21. I am the only member of my immediate family who was conceived in America.
22. Always small for my age, I was only 5-foot-6 when I entered high school (and 6'1" when I graduated).
23. Favorite quote: "Tell me the truth, but try not to hurt my feelings."
24. I don't like goals or deadlines.
25. I've never really planned anything about my life, other than becoming a writer.