Q & A
1. As someone who has lived many lives – Master Swimmer, painter, businessman – what attracted you to writing fiction?
A: In college I majored in English because I was trying to figure out who I was and wanted to become. Role models populated the wide world of literature, infused with every conceivable character. Cornell as a huge university was primarily oriented to vocations – engineering, architecture, industrial arts, pre-med. No way at eighteen could I embark on such a focus. Beyond reading fiction I discovered writing it allowed me to delve ever-more deeply into the basic mystery of life: what makes us tick? As a novelist I can ask questions and not necessarily seek answers. Fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, has meant for me to wander and eavesdrop, not to espouse a point-of-view…to peel endless layers of the onion in pursuit of discovery, wisdom, tolerance of diversity, compassion.
2. Tell us about your background in business.
A: I did not get an MBA but I knew instinctively as an entrepreneur to listen to my employees, customers, vendors and to treat them as I would family. This resulted in my starting a company in Vermont from scratch and winding up with 300 employees. Yes, I did write mail order advertising copy as a skilled wordsmith that included no malarkey, selling outdoor power equipment up to $3,000 nationwide sight unseen through the integrity of words. But it all happened with the mindset of a novelist placing myself as a medium rather than as the focal point.
3. And you’ve been a professional artist as well?
A: I lived in Vermont, not Manhattan, where there is elbow room to become a generalist. A gallery dealer once said my paintings “slid down easily.” Whether watercolors or oils, at galleries from London to Vermont to California, my landscapes and waterscapes are barely defined, very impressionistic, which I came to realize was a way to express my world view before writing fiction. It’s a view that places healing, calming, restorative contemplation above the flak of modern life. This spirit is very much at the soul of BEDSIDE MATTERS.
4. You are the author of five novels, including BEDSIDE MATTERS, forthcoming from Rare Bird Books in March 2021. Is there a theme that runs through all your novels or a message you wish to communicate?
A: To keep an open mind, for me, is a path to sort through my true likes and dislikes, when to assert myself and when to let go, to rest more and more securely at my core. At the same time, this process has made me more accepting and forgiving of others whose ideas are contrary to mine. Anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, ageism—as a writer I have wanted to explore the roots of such adversarial, persistent forces that divide us instead of unite us. Specifically in BEDSIDE MATTERS, I wanted to address the complex and controversial issues of dying and death, initially to explore my mortality. My protagonist Walter dealing with his final year evolved like a possible “dress rehearsal” for my own ending. He accomplishes this with a grace and peace-of-mind I could hope to emulate.
5. Does this new story relate to the current worldwide pandemic?
A: Thousands of families and communities are suddenly encountering unanticipated, abrupt deaths of loved ones. Because end-of-life confrontations are universal, I realize that BEDSIDE MATTERS offers a path to reconciliation and healing focused as it is on one particular individual and his family that anyone can identify with. For both the dying person and survivors, the novel raises the choice so many eventually face: to medically prolong life, or not; to find forgiveness for oneself and others, or not; to process regrets, or not; to embrace the opportunity to be grateful, or not. See Richard’s essay on Medium “On Death: You’d Likely Rather Not Read This.”
6. Tell us about some of the people who have shaped your writing journey.
A: My “day job” while writing novels was an extraordinary mail-order copywriter, Lyman Wood, who discarded the ordinary habits of advertising for his approach to copy that addressed potential customers as intelligent, curious, and very savvy in terms of parting with their cash. The products involved with organic gardening and homesteading were useful and totally devoid of gimmickry. I learned to write compellingly but frankly.
This carried over to my fiction, laboring over words for their clarity and weight. Truly every novel I’ve ever read—good, bad or otherwise—had lessons for me, whether in tone, pacing, authenticity of dialogue, sticking to the story, avoiding tendency to indulge in pet subjects. I was privileged to have been close friends with the British Nobel laureate in literature, Doris Lessing, before, during, and after my living in London. Yes, I read and re-read much all of her fiction. But she primarily empowered me with her example of a normal person with flaws like we all bear to nevertheless plunge into the craft with every fiber of brains and stamina at our disposal.
When I took up Masters Swimming, my first-ever athletic endeavor, at age 44, my mentor was my same age, Henry Southall, who by the time we turned 50 and at the national championships that year swam faster than he had as a college swimmer. That’s dedication to forever holding up the next and worthy goal. This too relates to my pursuit of storytelling.
7. Can you provide us with some insight into your writing routine?
A: Writing a novel for me has been a total commitment for two to three years. It includes lots of reading, research, the filling of several notebooks with thoughts that may or may not eventually be germane to the story I think I’m developing. Of course I have “a life” otherwise and juggle. But I assign blocks of time for writing—ten in the morning to five or later, non-stop—as it is for any other job. When I did have a day job, writing happened on the weekends, but it’s never just for an hour or so; it’s a nice big chunk of time, isolated in a distant room. No phones or internet, no interruptions. Between drafts I spend many weeks on a new oil painting, entirely less cerebral! The painting can consume months, deferring to writing. But it’s the same idea: absolute immersion with a canvas, however long it takes. I do not dash them off. My Masters competitive swim career demanded an hour-plus training daily, my site set on the Nationals eight months hence.
No apologies, but I guess I don’t take things lightly!
8. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
A: Read voraciously and identify with favorite authors. A spark will fly: I want to write this way, too…I can do it! They will inspire you to write. And re-write. Doris Lessing once said after reading a draft: “Richard get out the bloody red pen!” The best advice. I do not fall in love with certain passages even though cutting them can seem like drowning your child. At this point in my career I actually enjoy slashing-and-burning my own prose—I get to write some more, the work I most love!
9. What’s next on the horizon for you?
A: Catching up on pleasure reading, for me, current literary fiction. The stack of bedside books is always hefty, and I never really catch up. Presently I am loving WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH by Sigrid Nunez. It’s hard for me to read when I’m writing.
When I’m traveling I’ve recently taken small watercolor blocks and play with vibrant abstract ideas. Very large, five by six foot abstract oils have been my thing for two decades but the petite watercolors are quite intriguing on their own.
My next novel? The gestation process for me is not spontaneous. I’ll have to see what emerges from the fertile, subconscious swamp. It’s got to come as much or more from the guts as the head.
10. What writers have influenced you particularly for BEDSIDE MATTERS?
A: Since earliest days of reading certain serious novelists (Updike, Malamud, Bellow, Roth) I too have been compelled by our mortality, which we do our best to ignore in this culture. It was a challenge to confront this head-on. My fictional version is but one of many: mind over matter.