Revisiting: A Q+A with Frederick Reiken

Posted by Greg on Feb 5, 2020 in Books |

Since we’re referencing Frederick Reiken, here’s a Q+A we did with him a few weeks after we wrote the book review.

Getting to Know: Day for Night Author Frederick Reiken

Earlier this spring, I praised the latest book Day for Night by Massachusetts author Frederick Reiken. Recently, he sat down to answer a few questions about the book and how the story came together. Head to the jump to read the replies.

RMP: The most fascinating part about Day for Night is the complexity of the story. Did it start out being this intricate and multi-layered, or did it unfold that way organically?

Reiken: I had an idea about the way the structure would work and how the different chapters would be linked, but in many ways this book was a leap of faith, in that I didn’t have a model for how to write a novel like this. So, I guess I can say that while I was aiming for a certain endpoint some resolution to the mystery of the fate of Beverly Rabinowitz’s father, though not necessarily one that would be wrapped up in a neat bow I had no idea how I would get there. In that sense, the story most definitely unfolded organically. Many of the characters did not exist in my mind when I began, and certain pre-planned ideas fell by the wayside once I recognized how the story was unfolding.

RMP: Of all the chapters that stand out, few are as moving as The Ocean. In many ways it feels like a departure from the rest of the novel, and veers more towards the tone of your earlier books. Was it one of the first chapters written, or does it just appear that way?

Reiken: Well, the origin of this novel was my discovery, in a history book, of a vaguely described incident in which 534 Jewish intellectuals were murdered in Kovno, Lithuania, during the Holocaust. I set about trying to write something about it in the voice of Max Rubin, a character from The Lost Legends of New Jersey, but that failed, so for a while I let it go. Then I wrote The Ocean, which was in fact the first successful chapter I completed of the ten in Day for Night. It was written first as a story that was published in The New Yorker in fall of 2002, and at the time, I sensed that it would be part of something larger, but I didn’t know what that would be. The next piece I wrote was what ultimately became the chapter entitled Yesterdays Day, and then after a hiatus of about four years, a light bulb went off and I suddenly realized how those two pieces could connect with the Max Rubin material in the service of a novel. Then I was on my way.

RMP: In the acknowledgements you give credit to a fallen literary friend from Cummington, MA. Can you describe her influence on your writing and how she helped shape the formation of Day for Night?

Reiken: Anne Krosby was a poet and visual artist who I had the privilege of knowing for one month, in the fall of 1992, when we were both artists-in-residence at a place called the Cummington Community of the Arts. She was extremely gifted, and from the first day I met her, I also felt as though I was in the presence of someone who had that rare ability to see beyond the world. She eventually revealed to me that she was grappling with a rare form of breast cancer, and although she considered herself to have survived it, she was in various ways still reckoning with the possibility of her own death. We took a lot of walks that month under the glow of a particularly resplendent moon, and in fact the moon was so brilliant throughout one week that a number of artists-in-residence were either drawing, painting, or writing about these moonwalks that we all kept taking, down narrow dirt roads with branches hanging over them, and with the moon casting its glow in such a way that surprising shapes and images seemed to be continually manifesting. It was one of those times when a group of people collectively attune to a certain way of seeing things. I think of it as a month of moonwatching, and the result was a very rich and evocative period, in which a sense of wonder pervaded everything. After one of those walks, in which it felt as if we had been walking through the sky (all of those roads traversed a hilltop, often ascending or descending, so the position of the moon would seem to change continually, and it was hard not to feel as if you were floating), Anne went back to her cabin and wrote a poem entitled Day For Night, which became the impetus for my novel of the same title all these years later. The opening line of the poem is, This is a net dropped from the moon, and in certain ways I think that single image has been guiding my writing ever since. Anne passed away the following spring, in late April of 1993, at the age of 36.

RMP: What was the advantage to writing much of the story in the 1980’s as opposed to present day?

Reiken: For one thing, I didn’t have to write about cell phones or the Internet. Mostly, though, I needed to choose that time period if I wanted to have a protagonist who was a 50-year-old who had escaped from eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Beverly was five when she escaped, which dates her birth to the mid-thirties. If I had wanted to set it in present time, she would have needed to be 75 years old, which obviously would not have been conducive to having teenage daughters. As you know, however, all of my books have been set in the seventies and eighties, and so in addition to the above, I can also say that its a time period I know well and tend to gravitate toward, since it was the time of my own childhood.

RMP: There’s an enormous amount of science jargon and mysticism throughout much of the text. Are these arenas you are familiar with or something you had to research? Moreover, explain their significance to the text and many of the events that take place?

Reiken: Some of it was research and some of it came out of personal experience and certain subject matter that I have been intimate with for a long time. For instance, I worked as a wildlife biology field technician for a period in my early twenties. I spent a year in the Negev Desert, Israel, gathering data on the population dynamics of those Asiatic wild asses, known as Persian onagers, that appear in the final chapters of the book. Back in college, I also spent a summer taking a class and then doing fieldwork in marine biology in the Caribbean, and I became particularly knowledgeable with regard to the ecology of coral reefs in that region. Generally speaking, I have a tendency to want to acquire encyclopedic knowledge about things, particularly when it comes to science and nature. As for mysticism well, to me the natural world is the most mystical thing there is. I think this is the first book I’ve written in which I didn’t shy away at all from my own sense of wonder in this regard, and if there’s anything I hoped a reader would take away, its simply that a sense of wonder toward the many aspects of the world about which, much as wed like to believe otherwise, we really don’t know anything.

RMP: Day for Night marks the first book you’ve written using female perspectives. How hard was it to do this? Was this something that took a long time to develop?

Reiken: Actually, there are a number of female perspectives in my last book, The Lost Legends of New Jersey, and I’ve also written a number of short stories using female perspectives, so it wasn’t completely new. This book, however, marks the first time I wrote female characters in the first person point-of-view, and in the end I think they turned out to be some of the best characters in the novel. Jennifer, who narrates chapter four, is a particular favorite, and I would say that she was probably the easiest to write of all. To be honest, none of the characters were hard to write once I discovered them and determined what their stories would be. I suspect this is because they are all, to varying degrees, aspects of myself.

RMP: The short story The Naked Hours, which references Rocky’s relationship with Jordan, never made it into Day for Night? Was this a last-minute decision or something that was planned from the get-go?

Reiken: That story was never intended to be part of the book. It was something I tried as an experiment of sorts. In Day for Night, Rocky and Jordan are thirteen and on the verge of becoming adoptive siblings, so I wondered what they might be like ten years later, as adoptive siblings in their early twenties. I wrote it and put it away for a while. Eventually I published the story in Gulf Coast, where the suggestions of an editor, Ian Stansel, helped tremendously.

RMP: Amnon Grossman is an admirable and complex person whose importance is paramount to the entire thrust of the book. That being said, his place in the framework of the text isn’t revealed into the latter stages of the book. Was there ever any discussion into introducing him in the earlier stages?

Reiken: No. I always knew that he was going to figure into the ending, but I did not know exactly how until I started writing the penultimate chapter. I wasn’t even sure he was going to be one of the narrators until I got to that last chapter. Until then, I had intended to have Beverly come back and narrate again, so that the novel would be bookended by her two chapters. Actually, I tried that. I have a draft of the final chapter written from her perspective, and it didn’t work at all.

RMP: While its been well documented that one can never expect writers to hastily churn out book after book, Day for Night did take nearly eight years to finish. Will we have to wait this long for the next book?

Reiken: God, I hope not. But, you never know.

Post-script: Day for Night was reviewed by today’s Washington Post. For other reviews of the book, visit Reiken’s Web site.

Modern day post-script: It has now been 10 years since Day for Night and Reiken has not released a new book. Sigh.

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