I interviewed the always mind-expanding novelist and teacher Frederick Reiken for The Rumpus:
“Frederick Reiken’s third novel, Day for Night, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, alongside Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Day for Night should be just as famous as those other two books. I’m biased in saying that, because I spent a semester as Reiken’s student in the Warren Wilson College MFA program, in 2009. Rick’s letters to me that semester left my brain pleasantly staggering. He would send back ten single-spaced pages analyzing my fiction with the rigor of a physicist, not a line of filler. In Day for Night, one of the characters talks about “mean people”: People who say only what they mean, and mean everything they say. Rick is one of those mean people. He’s also a master of point of view. His essay on the “author-narrator-character merge” has become a must-read for anyone who writes third-person fiction.
Rick directs the MFA program at Emerson College in Boston, and lives in the mountains of Western Massachusetts with his wife and toddler daughter. Day for Night is just out in paperback.
The Rumpus: The intricate connections between the ten narrators of Day for Night boggle the mind—but I think you said it all began as a story that ran in the New Yorker and then became chapter six, “The Ocean.” That chapter is told by a boy having his first sexual attractions to a girl in the Bahamas, while facing that his father—a marine biology researcher—is dying from leukemia. That’s substantial material already, and the chapter reads in a self-contained way. How did it first start to spin out into more? When did you realize you had a novel?
Frederick Reiken: I originally wrote “The Ocean” as a story, and I expected that it might develop into something more. But when I first tried to expand, it just wasn’t taking off. The initial plan was to continue the story chronologically, once the father dies and once the boy, Jordan, is living with his new adoptive family. It should have worked but it didn’t, perhaps because I was falling into the coming-of-age novel territory of my first two books, and I didn’t have anything new to add to that.
So, for a while I just let it sit. I wrote a second story about the same family, and I was hoping the New Yorker would publish it, but the editor who had taken “The Ocean” had left the magazine by then, and then the editor who looked at this second story declined it, with the comment that it seemed more like the first chapter of a novel. I wound up publishing the story elsewhere, and for a long time the project idled. For about five years I barely thought about it, but one day I started considering whether that story could, in fact, be the first chapter of a novel, as that editor had suggested.
Then I saw it – how the whole thing could work, though as a more unconventional novel than what I had envisioned previously. I wrote what became chapters two through five in a matter of weeks, inserted “The Ocean” as chapter six, and realized I was halfway there. It felt like a miracle.”
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