Archive for February 7th, 2019

RievesImageDwaine Rieves was born and raised in Monroe County, Mississippi.  During a career as a research pharmaceutical scientist and critical care physician, he began writing poetry and creative prose.  His poetry has won the Tupelo Press Prize for Poetry and the River Styx International Poetry Prize.  His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review and other publications.  He can be reached at www.dwainerieves.com.


Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Shirtless Men Drink Free. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?

A: The book is a work of literary fiction, which I began as a form of a really long poem, one that played out on the stage belonging to a success-driven Atlanta family in 2004.  I like to say the book is about “souls and the bodies that won’t let them go,” which is a perhaps an all too nonspecific way of saying the book is about three Atlanta professionals who change their lives in response to the death of their parents.  The book deals with a deep need for personal and family redemption, a need that I think pervades the lives of so many Southerners, myself included.

Q: What do you think makes a good literary fiction? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: Literary fiction lies at the opposite reading pole from twitter messages.  That is, literary fiction is created to provide more than a single, focused message (“dumb as a rock” as Trump said not so long ago in a twitter dart directed to a former cabinet member).  There are so many great examples of literary fiction—As I Lay Dying loomed in the back of my mind while working on my Shirtless novel.   I (along with most of the world) find much of Faulkner challenging, but I don’t think literary fiction has to be challenging.  For example, Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is delightful, readable literary fiction and a post-hoc inspiration for my Shirtless novel.  I’ve often wondered whether all poetry should be called “literary.”  I doubt it, but I also suspect some bumper stickers and twitter messages actually could be called “literary.”  A major purpose of art, I think, is to help create empathy.  Perhaps empathy-making distinguishes  “literary” from “non-literary.”  Hmmm…sounds ominously all too political.

JPGFrontFinalCover300Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I started Shirtless Men Drink Free much as I start a poem—with images and mystery.  I was naïve though, in that I didn’t really appreciate how such an unstructured approach to a novel was a sump of time, angst, pain, frustration and rare joy.  It took over twelve years to finish the novel—that is, to get to the point where I felt the story had told itself.  In the process, I completed three novels, trashing each after multiple re-writes.  Ultimately, a very gifted editor by the name of Billy Fox helped steer the narrative along a plot line that got the story to where it was supposed to go.  The lesson is—when you’re lost or down-and-out, get help!  There’s great value in recognizing when you need help, especially if the help must be a rescue-effort.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A:  I did many character sketches for my characters.  I even collected their pictures (fusing clipped headshots from magazines and newspapers with character profiles).  I learned the kind of underwear they prefer, who wears pajamas, who does yoga in the nude.  Intimacy was essential and, thankfully, the characters had little modesty—probably because they knew these details might never make it to the page.  I still admire their bravery.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A:  The Shirtless novel has a trio of key characters, one of which is pivot point for the entire story.  Jackson Beekman is a derivative of a man I encountered one evening in a gym steam room—a towel falling provocatively, heat unbearable—even to a politician.  Combining this situation with Talk Radio chatter and a star-speckled Alabama night produced the cauldron for Shirtless Men Drink Free

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A:  Eudora Welty said plot was emotion acted out.  I believe that’s true, but I also believe emotion evolves from a disturbance of some sort—a catalyst that actually causes the emotion.  In short, something has to happen to create an emotion and to portray it, even if that “happening” is simply a change in a character.  In my Shirtless novel, the catalysts are the deaths of parents, one due to cancer, the other suicide.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A:  Shirtless Men Drink Free is set in an Atlanta of 2004.  This setting was a natural because the initial image for the story was gifted to me during the Talk Radio I listened to while driving across Alabama in 2004.  If you remember, 2004 was a presidential election year and, largely thanks to the threat of the homosexual agenda, George W. Bush was re-elected.  Of course, things turned out very differently for the gubernatorial candidates in Georgia—that’s the lesson within Shirtless Men Drink Free.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A:  I have to say the final theme of the novel didn’t solidify until twelve years after I started the novel—and after trashing so many novels before the definitive story appeared.  This theme—the need to know, to understand, to matter—pervades most of my writing, especially my poetry.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A:  In poetry, I definitely think craft can devitalize an original work.  The devitalizing risk is there also for prose, although I think prose is probably less vulnerable to “over-crafting.”  That said, I remember how Gordon Lish turned some of Raymond Carver’s work into far more adventuresome creations with what I sometimes view as “over-editing.”  Still, I think having an engaged, concerned editor is a gift from heaven!  The writer can always take or leave the editing suggestions. 

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A:  Creation of a novel that speaks to the authorial “self”—that’s three things, isn’t it?  Yes. A 1) novel that 2) speaks to 3) the “self.”  Remember the critic Cyril Connolly said something along the lines of,  “Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self.”  On this point, I definitely agree with Mister Connolly.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. Thoughts?

A:  I think most writers of creative projects adore doing “homework”—otherwise, they wouldn’t persist with writing.  Isn’t that fascinating—someone who enjoys “homework.”  The key here is that the “homework” is defined by the writer—not demanded by a teacher or other outsider.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A:  I’ve taken innumerable poetry workshops and several workshops in fiction—all geared to the working woman/man.  By which I mean that I didn’t start writing until I was nearly 40—late.  Thank goodness there are card-carrying writers in this world who get early starts.  I’m not one of them—I came from a world where survival depended more on physical work than meta-physical creation.  My calluses have colors.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: Write whatever gives you the greatest pleasure.  Share the work.  Treasure your critics and learn to make the best of their offerings—never underestimating the value of the “self” within your work.

About the book:

In Shirtless Men Drink Free, Doctor Jane Beekman has seen her dying mother’s soul, a vision above the bed—a soul struggling with a decision, some undone task, something in this world too noble to leave.  The question that lingers—why?—prompts a shift in the doctor’s priorities.  In this election year, Jane must do what her mother, an aspiring social activist, would have done. Soon, Jane is embroiled in the world of Georgia politics, working to make sure her dynamic younger brother-in-law Jackson Beekman is selected the next governor, regardless of what the soul of the candidate’s dead father or that of his living brother—Jane’s husband—might want done. 

Indeed, it is a mother’s persistence and a father’s legacy that will ultimately turn one Beekman brother against the other, launching a struggle with moral consequences that may extend far beyond Georgia. Set amidst 2004’s polarizing election fears—immigrants and job take-overs, terrorists in waiting, homosexuals and outsider agendas—Shirtless Men Drink Free makes vivid the human soul’s struggle in a world bedeviled by desire and the fears that leave us all asking—Why?

Engaging, beautifully written and resplendent with realism, Shirtless Men Drink Free is a standout debut destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.  A meticulously crafted tale that showcases an outstanding new voice in Southern fiction, Shirtless Men Drink Free has garnered high advance praise:

“This is brilliant and rare work, as attentive to an absorbing plot as it is to a poetic, chiseled cadence.”—Paul Lisicky, award-winning author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

“These characters are all too real. Rieves, as Faulkner, McMurtry and Larry Brown, writes people and story that will worm, burrow into you.  Change you even.” Adam Van Winkle, Founder and Editor, Cowboy Jamboree

“Vividly sensuous, this novel is full of textures, sounds and smells.  Rieves tells a terrific story with the sensitivity of a poet.” —Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo

Published by Tupelo Press joint venture partner Leapfolio, Shirtless Men Drink Free will be published in trade paper (ISBN: 978-1-946507-04-4, 326 pages, $16.95) and eBook editions.  The novel will be available where fine books are sold, with an arrival on January 22, 2019.


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