an interview with Frederick Reiken      
photo of Frederick Reiken

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  Bold Type: Is The Odd Sea autobiographical?

Frederick Reiken: This is a question I get asked constantly. I always take it as a compliment because I am very interested in things like authenticity of voice and narrative "truth," but the short answer is--no, this is a story I made up. I never had a brother who disappeared and in fact don't have any brothers. I grew up in New Jersey, not the Hilltowns of western Massacusetts, and as a kid I spent most of my time playing ice hockey. Of course, the logical next questions become--how and why did I make this story up? I tend to say that most fiction writers are alchemists, in the sense that we take the "base metals" of our usually unspectacular lives and try to turn them into fictional gold. Another way to look at this is that many novelists have very deeply felt experiences that do not necessarily add up to a great story. But we have to do something with these feelings, so we conjure up engaging characters and plots that become vessels for the emotional dimensions we are forever trying to come to terms with. Look at Lily Briscoe at the end of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, for instance. She's the painter desperately trying to hold the fabric of life and time together with her artistic vision as she watches James and Cam Ramsay--now ten years older than when the book started, their mother and two siblings now dead--at last achieve their childhood wish of sailing to the lighthouse. Lily's struggle is unbearably poignant because it is also Woolf's life struggle, wrapped around the most perfect literary metaphor ever conjured.

BT: What "base metals" of your life can be traced in The Odd Sea?

FR: Mainly that I faced a lot of absence and disappearance early on. I also happened to be wired in such a way that I have felt these things to the core of my soul. Seven years ago I moved to western Massachusetts. I became the assistant director of the now-defunct Cummington School of the Arts. After that I worked a for five years as a newspaper reporter covering the Hilltowns, a rural and still uncommercialized region that lies between Northampton and Pittsfield. I got to know many small towns with great intimacy. I felt inspired by the people and the entire landscape of this place. Somehow all these pieces of my life washed through my imagination and were, let's say, transmuted into The Odd Sea.

BT: How important is the sense of place to your writing?

FR: That's an easy one. A sense of place is where everything starts for me. Before I can even create characters I have to attach imaginatively to a place. I'd even go so far as to say that in some way I have to feel something like love for a place. And that the characters and story I come up with are usually direct extensions of that place. I remember driving through the Berkshires the day I arrived here in 1992. I was swooning. Somewhere in Pittsfield I realized that I was going to write a novel that was set within this landscape. A number of people have expressed surprise upon hearing that my second novel, which will come out next spring, is set in New Jersey. I think this is because many people can't imagine the same vividness of place coming out of a book set in the seemingly characterless suburban wasteland of Essex County. And I say-wait till you see this book.

BT: Can you say anything else about the new book?

FR: The title is The Lost Legends of New Jersey, and while radically different in both form and storyline, it does deal with the same overriding themes as The Odd Sea--those being loss and absence and the varied yet universally shared responses that arise when we face any kind of disappearance.

BT: Can you expand on this last idea?

FR: Yes, endlessly. But here are a few thoughts. First, I should point out that absence is the most natural of phenomena. Every presence begets an absence. Due to the laws of space and time, that's just the way things work. Yet absence is the root of all the most painful things we will ever have to go through--death, broken marriages, any kind of parting.

I am of the opinion that whether it's something as tragic as the death of a loved one or as un-tragic as, say, a kid leaving home to go to college, there are similar psychological, emotional, and physiological processes that we all experience in the wake of that absence. This is tied to the fact that when we "see" someone, we are also aware of "being seen." So when someone disappears, we become aware not only of that person's absence, but also of the fact that we are no longer seen by whoever it was who saw us. In this sense, we too disappear. The feeling is not entirely figurative, since from the point of view of the person who is gone, we are now as invisible as he or she is to us. Then what naturally ensues is a struggle to overcome this feeling of negation due to the ambush of space, which is absence. There is a choice here, of course--you can also choose to curl up in a corner and stay invisible.

BT: How can all this be applied to your first novel?

FR: The Odd Sea charts the varied responses of family, friends, and loved ones to the devastating and inexplicable disappearance of a sixteen-year-old boy. These characters are all forced to come to terms with absence of very tragic proportions, and they must do this despite the ambiguity that surrounds the disappearance. Some characters fare better than others. For those who do fare well, the response is active and in most cases artistic. Lawrence Shumway builds timber frame houses; Melissa Moody paints; Philip Shumway writes the whole story down. I would say art is the interior space in which we can take the energy of the unseen and through the inner eye rearrange it, so that the absence becomes a presence--something visible, once again. It doesn't fix the problem, but it helps.

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    Photo credit © Nancy Crampton