Interview with Dave Riese

You’re a 68-year-old man who grew up around Boston. Whatever possessed you to write a novel from the point of view of an 18-year-old Jewish girl living in Montreal in 1951?
Possessed is the right word. Every morning, I had coffee in a café where I read a book to unwind after commuting to my job in Boston. Riva Weiss, an elderly woman who also stopped at the café before work, introduced herself and asked me what I was reading. Over several years, we discussed authors we liked and swapped favorite books. When I told her I was retiring, she asked about my future plans. I said I wanted to write short stories “and maybe a novel.” Riva began telling me several stories about her childhood in Montreal. When I said they would make great short stories, she encouraged me to ‘write them up.’ I jumped at the chance.
One morning, soon after I finished writing two stories, she beckoned to me as if wanting to tell me a secret. “I know you like dark stories,” she said. “Here’s one I haven’t thought about for sixty years.” For the next half hour, she described the events surrounding her engagement at the age of 18 to a young, wealthy man in Montreal in 1951. I was astounded by her story and couldn’t get it out of my mind. I also couldn’t wait to start writing.
She expected it would be another short story; I envisioned it as a novella. Every week I brought in the latest pages for her to read. After two and a half years, the novel reached over 300 pages.
You’re publishing your first novel in your sixties. That’s unusual. When did you decide to be a writer?
One doesn’t choose to be a writer. There’s something inside you that compels you to write. I began writing at Bates College in Maine. While studying abroad at Oxford University in England during my junior year, I travelled throughout Europe during term breaks. For my B.A. thesis, I wrote stories, essays and poems based on my travel journals. Like many young writers, I was ‘bitten’ by the poetry bug in my twenties. I was cured, mercifully, within two years. Three poems were good enough to escape the shredder.
In my mid-twenties, I began writing short stories. An early story, submitted to the literary magazine at the University of Massachusetts, was not accepted, but the editor wrote a personal note praising the story and encouraging me to continue writing. I have always treasured that ‘rejection.’
What's the story behind your latest book?
Before going to work, I’d often meet an elderly Jewish woman in the coffee shop downstairs from my office. We talked ‘books,’ sharing a similar taste in fiction. When she learned that I was a writer, she told me many stories about her experiences growing up in Montreal before and after WWII. But it was her story about her engagement as an 18-year-old girl that astounded me. She invited me to ‘write it up,’ thinking it would make an interesting short story. Over the next ten months, I gave her chapters to read. When the 300-page manuscript was finished, she hefted the pages laughing, “This weighs more than a short story!”
What motivated you to become an indie author?
One word: reality. Looking for an agent can take a year or more without any guarantee of success. Agents receive thousands of queries a year. Most don’t have the time to take on more than a half dozen new authors a year. And they must absolutely love the book and believe in its potential. Most novels have 90 days to make their numbers or disappear from bookstore shelves. Despite having a large publishing company behind them, most authors, especially those with a debut novel, must spend their own time and money planning and implementing a publicity campaign.
Making a living as a novelist is rarely possible. The harsh reality is that most independently published books sell less than 500 e-book and paperback copies. At best an author hopes to make enough money to earn back his out-of-pocket expenses (which can then be used to finance his next book). On the upside, independently publishing a book gives the author control over all aspects of it. And best of all: the book is never out of print.
Despite the financial insecurity, most authors write because they must to feel fulfilled as human beings. The novel is the author’s baby and he/she will do whatever can be done to give it the best life possible.
What difficulties did you encounter writing a novel taking place in an unfamiliar city 65 years ago?
The most difficult challenge was capturing the attitudes, prejudices and social conventions of that era. Knowing someone who lived during those years is a precious advantage. Also, the Internet is an amazing resource. Here are some issues I encountered while writing the novel:
When Sol and Rebecca go to the cabin in the Laurentians, I originally had them driving on a highway that did not exist in 1952.
In early drafts, I wrote scenes in which people watch television. Canadian television did not exist until the first TV stations were built in Toronto and Montreal toward the end of 1952.
Using a specific consumer product usually required an Internet search. For example, I remembered the commercial for Ipana toothpaste from my childhood – a cartoon beaver singing “Brusha, brusha, brusha, get the new Ipana.” I confirmed on the web that Ipana toothpaste was sold in Canada in the early fifties.
Researching radio shows that Rebecca might have heard while looking at her bouquet of roses, I discovered that Princess Elizabeth came to Canada in October, 1951.
Contemporary newspaper descriptions supplied details about Ben’s Deluxe Deli – the décor, waiters’ uniforms, and the Wall of Fame.
The hardest work was striking the right tone regarding the attitudes of people in 1951 in areas of pre-marital sex, public displays of affection, parental control of daughters, and the revelations of child abuse. I hope I’ve resolved these complaints satisfactorily.
How helpful were the members of your writing critique group?
Once I completed the first draft and several revisions, I joined a writers’ critique group that met once a month. Despite years of experience accepting criticism, I always have heart palpitations and sweaty palms before a meeting. Once or twice I almost skipped a meeting when I anticipated (and deserved) negative feedback. Finally, I understood that, if I didn’t trust the group to provide fair and honest criticism, I was wasting my time. Fortunately, the feedback was on target 95% of the time.
Someone once said, “A novel is a piece of fiction of a certain length with something wrong with it.” An author rarely thinks his novel is finished. Instead, he reaches a point when he finally admits he can’t make it substantially better or he is so sick of the plot and characters, he borders on a nervous breakdown.
I’ll conclude with an incident which, while depressing at the time, is funny in memory. A new member of the critique group made a comment after reading two chapters in the middle of the novel. “From what I’ve read so far,” the reader wrote, “I don’t much like Rebecca. I also don’t like Sol. And really, I wonder if you do.” It took me several days to find the courage to get back to writing. But the comment made me question the tone and emphasis of many scenes and, in doing so, improved them.
What are you working on next?
Authors are superstitious about discussing their next project. They may discover after six months of writing that the novel or memoir isn’t working and abandon it. Inevitably, when people learn you’re a writer, they’ll ask, “Who’s your agent?” and “When will it be published?” and “Is it about anyone I know?” Inevitably there’s a reference to Stephen King. The writer often underestimates the time required to finish the work (I needed an extra year), then feels compelled to justify why the book is taking so long to complete. These discussions can be depressing.
Nevertheless, I often ignore my own advice. I’ve started a fictional memoir based on the last years in the lives of my parents when I faced the fact that they will not be with him much longer. Watching them fail both physically and mentally caused me to confront my own mortality. The novel will explore how memories change over time to reveal one’s parents in a different light. Of course, there will be family secrets. I hope to show how memories both deceive us and encourage us to reexamine our lives.
And, no, I do not know when it will be finished.
Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite Irish and English authors are Sebastian Barry, William Trevor, Colm Toibin, Frank O'Connor, Jaime O'Neill, Edna O'Brien, Jane Gardam, Brian Moore, Peter Ackroyd, John LeCarre, Patrick McGrath, Ian McEwan, Magnus Mills, John Mortimer, Roddy Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Michael Frayn, Graham Swift, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Taylor, Hilary Mantel, Charles Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh.

My favorite American and Canadian writers are Edith Wharton, Pat Barker, William Maxwell, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Willa Cather, Stewart O'Nan, Bernice Rubens, Mordecai Richler, Alan Furst, Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith, Ernest Hemingway (short stories), Scott Turow, Henry James, Eudora Welty, and Tobias Wolff
What is your writing process?
When I start writing the first draft, I may have some ideas, observations, bits of dialogue written down, but I never have an outline. When I am well into the writing and have a clearer idea where the novel is going, I will create a list of the scenes that I must complete to finish. Nothing is ever cast in stone. During the editing process I will find scenes that can be omitted or combined with another part of the book. In some cases, I will write the subject of each scene on a Post-it note and use them to rearrange scenes to clarify plot or to have the characters behave consistently. I always keep a list of minor changes or additions I don’t want to forget.

When I sit down to write, I often imagine that I am going to visit friends and spend the day with them. At first I will take charge of the visit to get things started, but eventually they exert their influence and I am content to become an observer. As I write, I watch them acting out the scene and listen to what they say. I often feel the ideas go from my subconscious directly onto the page. Things happen that I never imagined. The characters may begin to act out one of my own experiences. They say things I wish I had said at the time. While in this semi-unconscious zone, I let them do what they want and only rein them in when they risk going off the plot’s cliff.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I'm generally a physical book reader, but when I use an ebook it is a Kindle Fire.
Published 2015-12-10.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Blue Dress
Price: Free! Words: 35,100. Language: English. Published: June 5, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Women's fiction » General, Fiction » Historical » Canada
A series of three short stories introducing Rebecca, a Canadian teenager, living in Montreal in the 1940s. In the title short story, Rebecca receives a second-hand blue dress as a gift. When she is forced to give up her hand-made needlepoint pillow in return, she finds a way to exact a fitting revenge for the adults’ betrayal. The stories are a prequel to the novel Echo from Mount Royal.
Echo from Mount Royal
Price: $2.99 USD. (Free!) Words: 92,560. Language: English. Published: December 7, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Romance » Contemporary, Fiction » Women's fiction » General
2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards • Winner in the General Fiction/Novel category • Second Place Grand Prize for fiction books Montreal, 1951. 18-year-old, working class Rebecca falls in love with a handsome, older man. His wealth introduces her to a world of privilege. But class, religion, sexual secrets and family conflict test their love, leading to a life-changing revelation.