Richard Wiley (Korea) to judge Six-Word Memoir of Peace Corps

Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)

Deadline for submitting ‘memoir’ is Tuesday, August 8th.

Judging your Peace Corps focus stories will be……

Richard Wiley, novelist and short story, first novel, Soldiers in Hiding won the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He has published five other novels and a number of short stories. He is the 2023 Winner of Peace Corps Writers’ Award as “Writer of the Year”.

Wiley holds a B.A. from the University of Puget Sound and an M.A. from Sophia University in Tokyo; he earned his MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Richard was a PCV in Korea (1967-690 first novel, Soldiers in Hiding, won the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Since then, he has published other novels and a wide variety of short stories. His subsequent novels: Fool’s Gold, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, Indio, etc. have received positive reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere.

In 1989 he has been a professor of English at the University od Nevada, Las Vegas. Wiley was a member of the UNLV English Department faculty from 1989 to 2015 and cofounded UNLV’s graduate Creative Writing Program. He was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2005.

A recent interview with Richard Wiley
The Questions Every Writer Asks

Last month, I asked Richard the following questions that dedicated writers might find of interest.

DUSTY SANG: How did you first get started in writing and what inspired you to pursue a career as an author?

RICHARD WILEY: I first began to think of myself as a fairly decent writer during high school and college. When I would inevitably daydream in class (nor do very much homework), I was nevertheless able to save myself from getting a bad grade by writing well on term papers or tests. I began thinking that I had some sort of natural affinity for using language succinctly and convincingly, even though the “I” that was doing that writing hadn’t studied properly. Also, during those years – it was the 1960s, after all – I gained a good bit of what we now call “street cred,” by using my facility with language to write (no doubt bad) poems. I remember getting a “B” from my favorite college English professor, Ralph Corkrum, by answering his test questions on Boccaccio’s Decameron, using the “voice” of Boccaccio himself, in iambic pentameter. Mr. Corkrum didn’t give me an “A”, he told me later, because I hadn’t followed his directions.

I kept on writing poems (mostly pithy little haiku-esque things), throughout my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea, and into the first half of the 1970s, when I lived in Japan. During that time I also talked a lot with friends about writing, about how I “wanted to be” a writer. When I met and married my wife (of 50 years) however, she quite wisely said something like, “If you want to do it, do it, don’t just talk about it.” I took that advice to heart, wrote three short stories in about a month, and submitted them to MFA programs in the United States. Luckily, though I wasn’t accepted to all of them, I got into the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. From that moment forward, I aimed at turning myself into a fiction writer, maintaining, even today, a good “every morning but Sundays” work ethic.

DUSTY SANG: How do you approach the writing process? Do you have any tips for staying motivated and avoiding writer’s block?

RICHARD WILEY: As stated a bit above, my approach is rather business-like. I get up in the morning, make a pot of coffee, and go to work, almost like punching a time clock. I use prescriptions for myself. If I am working on something entirely new – that is, putting down words that did not exist the day before – I usually set a “1,000 words a day” rule, which I do not break. Nor do I often go over that limit. Sometimes I stop at exactly 1,000 words, even if I’m in the middle of a sentence. If my 1,000 words take me an hour, fine. But if it takes me three or four hours, that’s fine, too. Good or bad, rain or shine, I get those words down. Then, the next morning, I reread the previous day’s work, cutting the worst of it but otherwise not re-writing. And that acts as a springboard into the next 1,000 words.

I am a great believer in the oft-quoted truism “Writing is Rewriting”. So once I have a draft of a novel, I will reread, refashion, rethink, and rewrite it, perhaps as many as a dozen times…often over several years. My prescription for this part of my writing process is less strict. I work according to the clock, at least three hours every morning if my concentration does not wane.

Since each project takes me anywhere from two to a dozen years to complete, I rarely experience writer’s block, for I am continually trying to untangle the messes that I have created for myself, and am hellbent on fixing. My advice for avoiding writer’s block, therefore, can hardly be anything but “Get involved and stay involved with a good long project.”

DUSTY SANG: What is the most challenging aspect of writing for you and how do you overcome it?

RICHARD WILEY: For me the most daunting challenges have to do with creating satisfying cadences and rhythms for sentences and paragraphs. This has to do not only with the precise meanings of words, but with the sounds of those words as they play off of, and dance around, the sounds of their brothers and sisters. I spend hours on the “music” of the narrative parts of my books, whether the narrator is an “I” character I have invented or some third-person, semi-omniscient, stand-in for me. It may seem counter intuitive, but I don’t give nearly as much thought to “what happens next” in my stories, as I do to the sound of my paragraphs. Nor do I worry very much about dialogue for, in a way, it doesn’t come from me but from the characters I have made up. I let them speak for themselves.

I don’t think I ever truly “overcome” the challenges of making my paragraphs better. I simply and finally say – after putting in the effort – “Well, okay, that’s good enough.”

DUSTY SANG: What do you consider to be the key elements of a successful book, and how do you ensure that you’re delivering those elements to your readers?

RICHARD WILEY: As I suspect it is with many literary writers, this question about the key elements of a successful book is foreign to me. I guess that is because the demands and difficulties of taking on a years-long project are such that notions of “a successful book” can only be contained in a statement like “A successful book is just making the damned thing work.”

If a book “works”, however, that has to mean that it works for me first, and then for those I trust to give me an honest assessment of whatever it is that I’ve created. If I try to think of unknown readers it drives me to distraction, for they are distinctly myriad cohort, with as many opinions as there are dots in a pointillist painting. Ricky Nelson was right when he sang, not long before he perished in a plane crash, “You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

Having said that, however, I do try to create an architecture for each book that leaves room for enhanced dramatic action. So, in my rewriting phase, I will often try to push the limits of whatever it is that makes the drama of it compelling, without falling into the kinds of “unearned” manipulation that I so often find in the popular novels. That does not mean that I don’t want my novels to be popular, of course, only that I want to create fictional worlds that are every bit as true to themselves, as our poor, beleaguered, real world is to itself.

DUSTY SANG: How do you handle criticism or negative reviews of your work?

RICHARD WILEY: I would very much like to claim, as many of my colleagues do, that I do not read reviews, but from the very beginning, from the first review I ever got back in 1986, I have searched out and read every comment I could find made about any book of mine, and have reacted…well, to be completely honest, sometimes homicidally. I still remember a review in the LA Times, of my first novel, Soldiers in Hiding, in which the reviewer (who will remain unnamed) called my book “embarrassing.” Embarrassing!! And another time, my fifth novel, Ahmed’s Revenge was nearly as cruelly panned in the Wall Street Journal…that reviewer’s name, too, is tattooed down deep in the depths of my cerebral cortex.

There have been positive reviews over the years, too, of course…some actual raves…but those sit quietly in a box in my mind’s attic, while the negative ones, when I think of them, can still make my blood boil. (It is boiling a bit now, as I write this).

DUSTY SANG: How does the world of the creative writing classroom differ from the world of publishers and audiences?

RICHARD WILEY: I taught creative writing for twenty-six years, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, during which time my students and I worked on craft, nearly exclusively. As with my answer to question 3 above, I tried to instill in them a sensitivity to “sound” in their work, an awareness of the music of it. A dearly departed friend of mine, the late-great novelist, Robert Stone, used to say that having to listen to the cacophony of writing one often finds in student work was like hitting himself in the head with a hammer. So I tried to avoid “Stone’s hammer” by lecturing on sound incessantly…maybe to the point where my students felt that their own hammers were raining down.

I also spoke a lot about economy of usage, about the idea that almost always, “less is more.” I often found myself saying that a paragraph ought to be the smallest unit to be examined during rewriting, that they should (figuratively, of course) take their two hands, reach into the interior of the paragraph, grab it and shake it, in order to assure themselves that no excessive modifiers – or similes, or even metaphors – were likely to fall out and litter the floor. Overwriting is a common bugaboo for those who want to write well, and my paragraph shaking routine often served as good medicine for warding it off.

I think that an audience, too, as opposed to a reader, is an important sounding board, not so much for how that audience reacts to a writer’s work, but by how that work sounds to the writer herself, when she is standing up in front of an audience and reading aloud. Many of the little horrors in the work that do not show themselves when one is alone and reading one’s work in the quiet of one’s room or one’s head, will make themselves plain in a theater or auditorium…even in a classroom packed with well-wishers.

All during my years of teaching creative writing, I rarely allowed myself (or my students) to talk much about publishing or publishers. The reason was simple: the work was at issue, not the rewards, and students sometimes sorely wanted to leap past the work in order to land squarely on those rewards. I believe, and have often said, that if a book is “its own best self,” it will find its way in the world, and once it does – as with kids – there’ll be no more chance to fix whatever might have gone wrong.

DUSTY SANG: What advice do you have for new writers trying to break into the industry?

RICHARD WILEY: First, of course, write well. Second, and equally important, rewrite well. Stop believing in your talent alone and start believing in a well-established and lifelong work ethic. Find a good support group…family, friends…anyone who will tell you what they truly think about your work – false praise is common and a great disservice. Write great beginnings to your novels and stories. Many agents and publishers stand ready and willing to support a good book, but they are also wildly overworked and looking for ways to stop reading whatever it is you may send them. By writing something that is compelling from the start, you may be able to avoid that rather ubiquitous pitfall. But then, of course, you also have to write well in the middle and at the end. There really are no short cuts.

DUSTY SANG: How do you balance the creative aspects of writing with the business side of being an author, such as marketing, promotion and building your brand?

RICHARD WILEY: I don’t find much of a need to balance these things. During my hours of work each morning, there is nothing in my mind save the joys and problems of whatever I happen to be engaged in. Novels are so demanding that to think about such things as marketing or brand building will serve no purpose but to weaken what might otherwise be a productive work day.

After a book is finished, however, those things do come into play. Though they are most commonly considered to be in the purview of the publisher, the publisher’s marketing team, etc., they often do not have the budget nor the time to do their work well. So I have always done my best to help, by agreeing to any interview or reading I might be asked to do, and by actively keeping news of my books…reviews (if they’re good), reading comments (also, if they’re good)…up and current on my website.

The truth – as I have observed it, anyway, over the last forty years – is that no one has much of an idea of how to sell books if those books do not come from writers who are previously well-known. It’s a rough world out there. When a book comes out, no matter the good intentions of writer and publisher alike, it’s a bit like setting off to row across the Pacific in a dingy. The waters can get rough.

And that brings me to a short little anecdote about LUCK, which I believe is the most enigmatic thing in the entire known universe.

Back in the spring of 1991, when Dutton brought out my novel Festival For Three Thousand Maidens, I got a call from a producer at “Good Morning America” asking if I would like to be on their show. They would send a crew to my home in Las Vegas, set things up, maybe help my novel find purchase in the book buying world. I said, “Absolutely!” and when I called my editor, Kevin Mulroy, in New York, he was more excited than I was, giving me instructions regarding what to wear, how to set up copies of my book…even what to say. We were ready! Maybe this would be our big break!!!

And then, in California, four L.A. police officers beat, nearly to death, a man named Rodney King and…well…“Good Morning America” called back to say they had more important issues to cover and would catch me next time.

I am not, of course, saying that they should not have done that. The horror of Rodney King’s beating WAS more important than me getting a chance to go on national TV to try to pitch a book.

But the stars were aligned and then misaligned. Good luck and then bad luck…. I think about Rodney King often now that I live in L.A.

And I keep waiting for “Good Morning America” to call back.



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