Thursday, December 2, 2010

Story Behind the Story: "Men Are Such Boys"

This one is a story about an older woman dating a younger man. "Men Are Such Boys" was written before the term cougar became popular, and I don't think of the woman, Deirdre, as a cougar, which has taken on a derogatory connotation.

This is simply a story about a woman who thinks of all men as boys. Boys in bigger bodies.

In the first few drafts, I cut back and forth between Deirdre's point of view and that of the young man, Randy.

I was quite fond of the story then, but it wasn't getting the response I wanted from readers. Nobody really liked it, and I didn't know why.

I needed to do something, but what?

Then, I don't know why, I decided to present almost the entire story from Deirdre's point of view, then again from Randy's, finally bringing the two viewpoints together for the ending.

That did the trick.

Readers started saying it was my best story yet.

As I told the astute interviewer from Book Club Queen (who got me thinking about this story), I believe it's because you get more uninterrupted time with each character, enough time to bond. And you naturally buy into the first point of view before finding out there's more to the story. That change in perception makes it more interesting, I think.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The End Is Here

I grew up in a Baptist church and was born again at an early age.

When I was in high school there was a lot of talk of "the end time," and there would be again in coming years. (Then, it was spurred by a book called The Late Great Planet Earth; I don't know what spurred it later on.)

I grew up hearing about Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Their scandals were an embarrassment. So were the pronouncements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

These people did not speak for me.

That was the end time for me.

It was a time when ministers asked their congregations to write letters to Congress — letters decrying legislation that, as it turns out, had never been written or proposed.

My minister. My congregation.

Some said the peace sign was actually satanic, as if peace were a bad thing. (I kid you not; I heard that in church.) There was even a period when kids like me were encouraged to use a different sign — to point an index finger to heaven indicating "One way."

It never really caught on.

I remember arguing with classmates that organized religion could be still be salvaged. There were still good people doing good things, after all. And there still are.

I studied religion in college and had professors who were good and wise examples. They helped me hold on to my faith awhile longer.

But I no longer believe there is one way (and haven't for a long time). One way is a mistake with disasterous consequences.

One way is wedded to intolerance and gives birth to tyranny.

I'm so done with that.

Monday, October 4, 2010


ComposedRosanne Cash is a brilliant singer/songwriter. I say that even though I'm not really a fan of country music.

Her album The Wheel is one of my all-time favorites, in any genre, so I picked up her memoir, Composed, to learn more.

It's a good book and well-written, but it seems to skim along the surface much of the time. Unlike her songs. Her songs take you so deep you think you might drown.

The Precarious Writing Process

For the most part, the writing process remains a mystery to me, even though I've been doing this for a long time now. My first story was published when I was 10 years old. On a mimeograph machine. By my fourth-grade teacher. (Everyone in the class got a copy, and I signed each one.) I've written a lot of stories since then, including the fifteen in Precarious, but the process is never the same.

That first story was in response to an assignment: Write a story about anything you like. I wrote about a baseball game with an unlikely ending. (I had cast my two best friends as the captains of opposing teams and couldn't decide which should win, so I had an escaped elephant interrupt the proceedings.)

Much later, when I started to get serious about writing, stories came to me in different ways. I didn't have to write them, and yet I did. Looking back, it seems almost as if I had no choice. The ideas never came easily to me. Well, never and always. I couldn't turn out a story at will. I couldn't just decide to write one. But then a story, or the beginnings of a story, would suddenly take shape in my mind. It was easy if I wasn't trying. The story might be inspired by a photograph in a magazine, a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation overhead at lunch. Or it could come, seemingly out of nowhere, in the form of a first sentence.

I almost never know where I’m going with a story. In fact, most of the time, I’m not even conscious of why I’m writing it, unless it's simply to find out what will happen. Invariably I get stuck and don't know. Have no clue. Can't figure it out. The remedy is usually a long walk, a hot bath, or a good night's sleep. In extreme cases I've been forced to leave a story half finished for years, as was the case with both "Taken," which was inspired by a photograph, and "Dance Naked," which was inspired by a true story.

The phrase “inspired by a true story” should always be regarded with suspicion because you never know how much is true. Very little, in this case. But years ago, as a newspaper reporter, I had the chance to cover a murder trial and that’s where I got the idea for “Dance Naked” — two guys fighting over one woman and how ugly that can get. But it’s a much different story than the one I covered. I made up 99.9% of it. And it doesn’t end the way I thought it would.

In some ways, I think, my process is probably similar to what an actor goes through to get into character, drawing upon his own memories and emotions in order to empathize with the person he's portraying—only I get to play all the parts: The hero, the villain, the man, the woman, the faithful friend. On the page, I get to act out lives unlike my own. Not that I consciously think of it as acting. My process is largely unconscious, and a lot of my best stuff comes to me as I'm waking up in the morning, as if from a dream. It's just there and I don't know where it came from.

Originally posted on TSP.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Our Time in the Mediteranean

Here's what I liked best ...
  • Spaghetti with clams at Ristorante da Donato, around the corner from our hotel in Rome.
  • Seeing Trevi Fountain again, the Spanish Steps, and a bit of the Borghese Gardens.
  • The rooftop bar of the Albergo del Senato, where we stayed, on the same square as the Pantheon.
  • Being able to walk everywhere from there—the Coliseum, the Forum, St. Peter's.
  • Ordering iced tea and being asked if I want peach tea, because, yes, in fact, I do.
  • Dark chocolate gelato from Giolitti.
  • Death by Chocolate at Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona.
  • Coming into Genoa by ship and seeing the city from the water.
  • Lying flat on our backs on the ship's helipad late at night, seeing the true brightness of the stars, and understanding how the Milky Way got its name.
  • Gnocchi with pesto at Ristorante il Pozzo in Monterosso on the Cinque Terre (part of the coastal region known as Liguria, where pesto was invented).
  • Anchoring offshore in Villafranche and taking the little ferry into town.
  • The turquoise water in nearby Nice.
  • Listening to two Spaniards, probably brothers, play Pachelbel's Canon, with feeling, on violin and bass, in Barcelona.
  • Wandering around Palma de Mallorca and buying stamps for post cards we wrote and failed to mail.
  • Sa Tuerredda beach on Sardinia after the rain stopped and the sun came out.
  • The fact that we could be in Rome one day and Sunnyvale the next.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Far Away

For a number of years now, I've been following the progress of Eye Talk as it has evolved from rock band to something harder to define.

In its current form the group has pared down to its two core members, brothers Alan and Bob Clark. Older brother Alan has always been the driving force behind Eye Talk, writing nearly all of the songs, singing and playing lead guitar, but lately he's been encouraging his bass-playing brother to write more.

As a result, their latest release, Far Away, features five songs from each brother — and represents their most accomplished and compelling work to date.

Here are a few short samples, with each singing lead on his own songs:
That last one always get to me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What Does the Word "Story" Mean to You?

I did an interview recently in The Short Review (which also featured A.J. Kirby's insightful review of my story collection, Precarious).

I tried to keep my answers short because that's my strategy to avoid boring people. It's been my strategy since I was in the first grade, but that's another story.

No, that's not fair. I'll tell you.

A classmate asked me what I got for Christmas and I started with the mundane stuff like new pajamas and socks. The kid turned away before I got to the really cool thing, a slot-car set, probably the best present a boy could get back then.

So, lesson learned.

Back here in the future I was asked, “What does the word 'story' mean to you?”

Good question. I had never been asked that before. Never really thought about, either.

I said, “I guess a story is what we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. The stories may not be factual but they are as true as we can make them … or as true as we can stand to make them.”

I left it at that because shorter is always better and because I couldn't remember all the stuff I'd heard about memory not being reliable so we fill in the blanks with whatever makes the most sense and over time that becomes part of our so-called memory.

I also meant to imply that we sometimes make up stories to fool ourselves, but you got that, right?

At a party once, someone asked me, "How many of your stories are based on your own life?"

"Three," I said.

I wouldn't say which three.

The truth is I would have a hard time separating fact from fiction in those stories. Did that happen to me or did I make it up? I'm not sure.

“But,” as Ken Kesey wrote, “it's the truth even if it didn't happen."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Behind the Story: "Just Admit It"

"Just Admit It" is another one of my earliest stories. The first draft was written for a creative writing class when I was in college.

To this day, more than 30 years later, I remember the instructor telling me where the story picked up interest for him, which was about a third of the way into what was then called "The Sinner and the Would-Be Savior."

It was a painful but important lesson that helped to shape everything I've written since then.

In the years that followed, I rewrote the story several times, in the first person, third person, first person, third person. I could never seem to make up my mind which would be better.

As I began to gather my stories into a collection, "Just Admit It" was in, then out, then in again after one final round of changes.

In Precarious, the final version of "Just Admit It" is in the first person, but I suppose I could change it in a future edition. I could even go back to the original title, which I still like, even if it is a bit long.

Then again ...

It's a wonder I finished any of these stories.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Behind the Story: "What She Said"

This was my breakthrough. That's what I thought when I wrote it. But it didn't become my breakthrough for another decade.

When I wrote "What She Said," I was working for a city magazine in San Francisco and the executive editor wanted to publish it. Her boss, as it turned out, did not.


So I sent the story around to eight or nine other places. They all said no.

I gave up.

A decade later (give or take a couple years) I took another look at the story. It was lean and sharp and fast. I liked it. With a few small changes I sent it to the Beloit Fiction Journal. The editor at the time, Shawn Gillen, said yes.

Soon I had a work of fiction in print for the first time.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Behind the Story: "Don't Stop Now"

I started this one when I was still in high school. In the years that followed, it grew into a short novel and kept getting longer.

I'd be embarrassed to have anyone read the full manuscript now, so it remains hidden away. But I'm glad I didn't simply burn it.

At some point I remembered that a friend said he really liked the chapter at the lake. So I took another look. It had potential.

The result is "Don't Stop Now" (first published in Hobart and now part of my story collection, Precarious).

I think of it as the Reader's Digest version of that first failed novel — a 342-page manuscript condensed to just 6 pages.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Behind the Story: "Sleeping with Smiley"

If you'll indulge me, I thought I might share the story behind some of the stories in my collection.

The first story, "Sleeping with Smiley," began its life as a screenplay, and I chose the setting and the sport for their cinematic possibilities.

Later "Smiley" turned into a novel, back into a screenplay, then a novel again, and finally a short story, which is how I like it best.

Here's a little glimpse of the screenplay:



All we see is the surface of the water, blue and calm, as the credits flash on and off the screen. Occasionally we hear the CRY of a seagull and see its shadow pass over the water. A fishing trawler CHUGGING out to sea can also be faintly heard.

As the last credit disappears there’s a brief silence, and then we see it: the narrow, pointed bow of a rowing shell glides into view, followed by the oars — two of them, close up, on the same side of the boat. They catch the water, not in unison but one slightly behind the other, and the boat lurches a bit.

The camera PULLS BACK and we stay with the boat as it moves along the river. The two scullers, the morning sun behind them now, are seen only in silhouette at first. The one nearer the bow is tall and lean; the other is several inches shorter but more muscular.

I remember the river and the way it looked at dawn,
the feel of my oars catching the water in time with
Curt’s. The muscles don’t forget. Though twelve years
have passed, I can feel the strain even now in my legs
and lower back, in my shoulders and in my arms. It
was that summer between the end of high school and
the start of something else. Curt and I were best friends.


Standing on the edge is a massive man, bald except for a short white fringe. His name is WARREN ALT and he is dressed more like a gym teacher than the wealthy easterner he is.

(hands cupped around mouth)
Now, give me a power twenty!


are seen from over their shoulders. They really start pulling now, putting their backs into it, but their strokes don’t quite match.

The tall sculler notices the difference and shortens his stroke. Now the angle of his oars matches that of his shorter partner, and they start to glide, swiftly and smoothly, for the first time.


We see the scullers faces as they continue to row in almost perfect synchronization. Setting the pace is 18-year-old CURT HUTTON, the shorter, more muscular one. When his face is not contorted with the strain of all-out rowing, he is exceptionally handsome.

Behind him is DEAN STOCKTON, who is also 18 and whose mature voice provides our narration. Although the muscles on his less-than-handsome face are slack, the pain still shows through.


Mr. Alt paces slowly, following the boys’ progress. He stops, folds his arms, and nod appreciatively, but says nothing.


continues to gain speed, and as it does, the expressions on the boys’ faces begin to change. We see a series of quick cuts — the bow cutting through the river ... the splash of the oars as they catch the glassy water and pull ... the boys’ seats sliding in the shell as they bend and straighten their knees — interspersed with close-ups of the boys as their eyes brighten, and smiles appear and grow on their faces.

When they finish the 20 power strokes, it’s as if they have crossed a finish line. Their oars come up and the shell continues to glide.


as he looks over his shoulder at Dean and lets out a whoop.

Rowing in harmony was an experience we would never
be able to describe. But then we wouldn’t really need to.
Not to each other.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Glow in the Jar

Sky Sanchez, writing for the Sacramento Book Review:
"A dwelling teetering on the lip between dark and light, resignation and defiance, brokenness and unity; the short story, a world of possibilities within the confines of so few pages, and to capture them is to watch lightning bugs bump into the walls of a jar. What will the characters make of it? How will they get out? Al Riske has taken this form and made light in his collection, Precarious, not that he has made light of his characters, though. He has given them voices of volume, of life. Each story carries weight of its own, leading to the common denominator that we are all flawed. You will meet a man who loses what he needs in search of what he thinks he wants; a pastor who is shunned by those he preaches forgiveness to; and a man with a new set of eyes. Riske's stories reveal impulses and happiness, the search of and, sometimes, the consequences following. You will experience all of it through a keyhole, unnoticed, but aching all the same for these that live it. Riske uses words to bring us closer to the glow in the jar."

Monday, February 8, 2010

'Enthusiastically Recommended'

Midwest Book Review says:
"The literary art and tradition of the short story is alive and well in Precarious: Stories Of Love, Sex, And Misunderstanding, by Al Riske. This collection of fifteen short stories ranges from tales set in Seattle during the rainy season to California during an extended drought. From a Cape Cod vacation cabin to a get-a-way island. These are deftly written stories that not only entertain, but engender reflection long after they are finished and Precarious is placed back upon the shelf. It should be noted that one of these unique tales, "Pray for Rain," won the 2008 Blue Mesa Review prize for fiction. Precarious is enthusiastically recommended reading for anyone who appreciates the literary artistry of the short story format and an ideal addition for community library fiction collections."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Joy and Gratitude

I flew to Indianapolis over the weekend — my first visit to a beautiful, vibrant city made more beautiful but no less vibrant by a blanket of snow.

I was there for a party thrown by my publisher, Luminis Books, celebrating the release of its first three titles and previewing a fourth.

The party took place within the charming confines of Big Hat Books, where I got to see Precarious displayed in a store window instead of a web browser for the first time.

Excited? Me? You better believe it.

A steady stream of people came to wish us all well, and near the end of our time there, the upstairs was packed with people sipping wine, munching crackers and cheese and olives and tiny desserts.

Everyone was talking about books. Our books.

That's when I got the question: "How many of your stories are based on your own life?"

"Three," I said.

Which three, I wasn't saying.

I had never talked so much with so many people about myself and my writing. It was fun, because the good people of Indianapolis seemed genuinely interested.

Twelve people bought my book and asked me to sign it — and I did, with joy and gratitude.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Copy Editors Know

Highlights from an article I put together years ago, when I was part of the crack copy-editing team at San Francisco Focus ...
  • "Whenever writers say, 'Not to quibble,' they're about to quibble."
  • "There's no comma in 'Louie Louie,' no period in Dr Pepper, and no apostrophe in Grants Pass. There should be but there isn't."
  • "'Not to mention' is a mention."
  • "It's okay to end a sentence with a preposition. Always has been. I don't care what English teacher told you. That's the sort of bogus rule up with which I will not put."
  • "The word very is supposed to be an intensifier, but it's used so much that most statements are stronger without it."
  • "Isn't it weird how many exceptions there are to the rule: i before e except after c?"
  • "Never begin a story with 'Yes, Virginia,' 'According to Webster's,' or 'What do ____, _____, and _____ have in common?'"
  • "Most stories can be improved if you shorten them by about a third."
  • "I believe it was Rene J. Cappon, the veteran Associated Press editor, who said: 'Call a spade a spade and you evoke a picture. Call it an agricultural implement and you might be talking about a plow, a rake, or an air-conditioned tractor."
  • "Quotes are doctored all the time in the name of clarity and grammar. Q&A interviews look like transcripts, but they're not. You wouldn't want to read them if they were."
  • "Never use an exclamation point!"

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sex and the Short Story

The latest issue of 34th Parallel — Issue 9 — is now available, and it contains a real first for me.

Over the years I've interviewed a lot of people for newspapers, magazines, and websites, but this marks the first time someone has interviewed me.

Just check out the cover headline:

Gretchen Clark Interviews Al Riske

Gretchen is a widely published essayist — I'm particularly fond of "This Is a Woman" — who teaches creative nonfiction at She also happens to be my sister-in-law and the first person I turn to for feedback on my own writing.

It was a fun interview and really made me think. I hope you'll check it out.