Brett Riley’s next novel, Lord of Order from Imbrifex Books, will publish in April. Both Riley and his publisher are currently based in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Riley also teaches. Lord of Order is Riley’s third book. His first book, a collection of linked short stories, appeared in 2013, after numerous publications in literary magazines over the years. His second book, Comanche, launched virtually in September of 2020. A fourth book, a young adult novel, is forthcoming in 2022. Courtney Harler interviews Brett Riley in the midst of this publishing momentum, in the midst of this global pandemic, about the writer’s life and published work.
Let me begin by congratulating you on your recent successes. I want to ask you about all of your books, but first, a more general question: As a busy writer, you also teach full-time on the college level. Many writers teach for various reasons: to pay the bills, to advance the work of other writers, to expand their understanding of the craft. I know you’re on sabbatical right now. For you, what does the writer’s life look like during a normal teaching semester, and what does it look like now on sabbatical?
First, thanks for your kind words. I truly appreciate them. As for my workload, I teach five courses per semester, so time management always challenges me. In any normal semester, I try to write at least two hours a day, up to four when possible. I tend to work in two-hour bursts, so how much time I can devote to writing depends not only on teaching but also committee meetings, grading, planning, reading for class and for pleasure, travel (my two-year college has three campuses located around the Las Vegas Valley), occasionally saying hi to my family as I pass them in the hall, and annoying human requirements like sleep. On the busiest days, and for a two- to three-week period near the end of a semester, I don’t get to write at all, which makes me feel out of sorts. This semester, as you noted, I’m on sabbatical. My original plans included a weeks-long research trip related to an upcoming book project, but the pandemic has likely made it impossible. So a good day right now consists of five hours of writing: two two-hour sessions at the computer and one one-hour session with a notepad as I sketch out plots or ideas for future works. I also try to read at least an hour, more if possible. I don’t always reach those goals, and on those days, I’m probably about as easy to live with as a bear with its foot caught in a trap.
I can tell from your social media posts that you share a fine sense of snark with the main character in The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light, your debut collection of linked stories. I do enjoy wry humor most, but more to the point, let’s talk about character development. From my experience, that character trait, what I might call a “dark snark,” is the kind of commonality or similarity that could spark a character, and thereby their story, to life. Characters, by necessity, evolve somewhere from within their creators, or at the very least, from within a deep empathetic connection between character and creator. In Subtle Dance, the narrator, Michael Seymour, is a successful writer, and the collection itself reads part writer’s journal and part therapy diary. Seymour seems to need to purge certain “episodes” from his timeline, so that he can get on with the business of writing his best-selling novels. A lot of wry humor resides in these meta moves, and so does much of Seymour’s character development. For your first published book, how did Seymour “evolve” from you, your experiences in the world? Not in the autobiographical sense, of course, but rather in the sense of creative process, as in, the transmutation of the fact of the self into the form of the fiction.
While Mike Seymour was never supposed to be a stand-in for me, we certainly share some traits—snark, as you noted, and a passion for writing. Beyond that, one subject I was interested in exploring in that book was how intelligent people so often repeat their mistakes. In so many of Subtle Dance’s stories, Mike repeats certain patterns he’s been through before—not listening to his far wiser girlfriend Carol, indulging in his passion for technology that always seems to make his life harder, and so forth. When I was writing the book, I was in a deeply introspective period. I had realized that I was often making the same mistakes over and over: pursuing passionate relationships that were obviously bad for everyone involved, letting my anger and despair overrule my better nature, not applying discipline to the areas in my life that needed it most. I couldn’t figure out why I repeated those same patterns for so long. I got a relatively late start with writing because I spent my late teens, twenties, and early thirties raising a family and going to grad school. I wouldn’t trade my family or my education for anything, but the truth is that I could have also gotten more creative writing done if I had focused. My nature is to trend toward chaos and rebellion and excess, and even in my early thirties, I was still learning to moderate. That sense of immaturity bled through into who Mike is and how he handles his life. That’s not to say that I was necessarily making these connections consciously, but in retrospect, I can see them. He often knows what he’s doing is self- or other-destructive, but he finds ways to justify his behavior and attitudes, and the results are usually bad, even if they’re also comedic. I can relate to that, even if it didn’t manifest in my life precisely like it does in his.
In all three books, you’re not afraid to take risks with form, particularly regarding dialogue and narrative voice. In Subtle Dance, the dialogue is delineated by line breaks, but eschewing traditional punctuation as well, which makes for a unique reading experience. The dialogue tends to jump off the page, and I could really hear those voices speaking to one another. Seymour also breaks the fourth wall, letting the reader know that they’re reading “stories” whose veracity can and should be questioned. In Comanche, you eschew quotation marks again, but stick with more traditional line breaks, folding in the dialogue per usual. Italics indicate any interior thoughts. You also drop, as in Lord of Order, the endings of some words, along with the apostrophes one might expect to indicate such omissions. I find these breaks from standard form refreshing, but what drove these innovations for you? Will they now remain a part of your set style, or will they evolve once again, as they did from the story collection to the novels?
I’ve always omitted quotation marks, and, of course, I’m not the first or only writer to do it. I can’t speak for the others, but I’ve always liked taking out at least some traditional and familiar signposts in the text, breaking down the usual barriers between dialogue and narrative, requiring the reader to determine which is which. In Subtle Dance, I wanted to give the reader the feeling of sitting next to the narrator on a barstool and hearing him tell the story out loud, so I broke down a lot of the usual ending punctuation and used line breaks both to delineate changes in speakers and to separate dialogue from attribution. And yes, since Mike’s our narrator and isn’t necessarily objective or reliable, I wanted the reader to remember that we were hearing his take on the stories, complete with his personality quirks and blind spots. The book would be quite different if Carol had narrated it, or Dray. On the other hand, both Comanche and Lord of Order use third-person omniscient narrators—or, if you prefer, a series of third-person limited voices. I used more traditional breaks as a nod to those points of view, but I still wanted to blur those barriers between narrative elements. The characters in those books speak in a kind of dialect—not as heavily accented as you’d see in, say, the local-color writers of the American nineteenth century, but enough to preserve, I hope, the musicality of southern language in general. I omitted apostrophes signifying omissions because I found they cluttered the dialogue, especially when such an omission comes next to a contraction. I ain’t got em looks cleaner to me than “I ain’t got ’em”—two sets of apostrophes, two sets of quotation marks. In my current projects, I’m still making similar choices for similar reasons. I’m pretty sure at this point that they’re markers of my style. I’d hope, though, that my writing will continue to evolve. Whether I continue to refine these techniques or grow in a related but different direction remains to be seen.
Your work can be classified as Literary Horror or American Gothic. A fan of Southern Gothic Greats like O’Connor, Morrison, and Faulkner myself, I admire work that doesn’t shy away from graphic description, when deemed necessary. In both Comanche and Lord of Order, your battle scenes are particularly vivid. However, during moments of great intimacy, you often take a more delicate approach, as if sanctifying these scenes. I know from your book inscriptions that you’re a person of faith. Please take this question in another direction if it’s too personal, but I’m wondering about the influence of your faith on your work, if it guides you, say, from the “gutters” of a murder scene to the ethereal “light” of human love, which, in its purest essence, can reflect the divine. We might sum it up as the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, as we are often taught in creative writing classes, but I think that’s too dismissive an approach. To get to the point—what is the actual function of faith in your work, if any? Am I touching on something relevant here, or would you express the correlation, if there is one, quite differently?
I am a person of deep faith, but I don’t belong to any church or adhere to any specific dogma. I consider myself a nondenominational Christian. Generally speaking, if that manifests in my work at all, I’d say it probably happens in a flawed character’s search for redemption, in the idea that we can make mistakes and do terrible things, but we can also recognize our failures and seek forgiveness and try to change. To earn some measure of forgiveness and achieve some measure of grace. I think that’s part of what Raymond Turner’s after in Comanche. He wants to solve the case and protect people, but he also needs to show his sister, his nephew, and his brother-in-law that he’s sorry for his past and that he can do better. It’s not an accident that he offers up a kind of prayer just before his final confrontation with the Piney Woods Kid, but it’s also not accidental that he speaks to his dead wife. He isn’t ready to reconcile with God. Maybe he doesn’t believe he’s earned the right to pray yet. But he’s trying. In Lord of Order, part of what I wanted to explore was a broader question of faith versus dogma, the personal versus the macrostructure. In this future world, the state is global, and it’s controlled by a world church. Obedience to church leaders and the organization’s edicts equals salvation, and disobedience is damnation. Or so the characters have always been told. So what happens when your conscience says that your church is wrong? What happens when you realize your specific religion might not be synonymous with God? What do you do as an individual, and what could or should you do as a church member or a citizen? This aspect of the book stems partly from hearing people say that America is a “Christian nation.” It’s not. It’s a nation with a lot of Christians in it, but we don’t have a state religion, and for very good reasons. And, while none of Lord of Order’s characters are based on real people, the last four years have hinted at what could happen if our society embraced an authoritarian who often pays lip service to ethics and morality while utterly failing to engage in any sort of ethical or moral practice. Trying to follow both the Trump administration and Christ should create some kind of cognitive dissonance, but for a lot of people, it doesn’t. Likewise, many of my characters in the book recognize that even their cherry-picked Christian theology no longer dovetails with the actions and values of their leaders, while others simply don’t recognize that, or if they do, they don’t care. As a person of faith, I didn’t want to write a didactic story with some kind of simplistic moral, but I did want to raise some questions I think we all need to grapple with.
Now, for the last question, I’d like to return to your first book, the linked story collection. You end that collection on what I think is the saddest, sincerest story of them all. It’s called, “Lights, Action,” and I won’t give away plot points here, but I found it quite heartbreaking. So true, yet so bleak, and much of it inexplicably so. It’s a rather short short story, but it left me questioning all the other stories, all the other raucous narratives Seymour had gladly handed me. The aforementioned “dark snark” has all but fallen away, to be replaced by some kind of irrevocable reckoning. Past, present, and future converge in this story—which is a weird enough sensation in itself—but then we’re left with Seymour’s longings and regrets, and even more strangely, something that begins to feel like redemption, but only upon reflection. It’s taken me some time to come to this realization, and maybe it’s just wishful thinking. What do you think? Is Michael Seymour remade, for good or bad, from this “episode” forth? He haunts me a bit—I want him to return to his hijinks but sense he can’t, or won’t. Does he haunt you, his creator?
Whether Michael Seymour is in any sense remade by the events of “Lights, Action” is something I wanted to leave for the reader to decide. But I’m glad you read the story like this—a change in tone, a story where the price of his hijinks may have finally grown too great to pay. That’s what I was going for. I wanted to leave open the possibility that maybe Carol has reached a tipping point, and that Mike realizes it, and that he can still redeem himself; or that the relationship has reached its natural end, despite Mike’s greater awareness; or that, beyond the serious nature of the moment, everything will proceed as it has before. Personally, I feel like the first two possibilities are much more likely than the third one. What haunts me most about Michael, particularly in “Lights, Action,” is that very sense of uncertainty. When I was initially drafting the stories, I thought the book would end with Mike and Carol breaking up for good in a tragicomic way. But sometimes the work takes you in directions you didn’t expect, and when that happens, I find it’s usually best not to fight it. So much of Mike and Carol’s relationship has been about living with uncertainty. It just felt right to end that way, and a byproduct of this ending is that pessimists and pragmatists can believe that Mike’s finally gotten what he deserves, while optimists and romantics can believe things will be okay. Despite everything we’ve done, sometimes people do forgive us, and we do evolve. Whether or not you believe Mike will backslide into hijinks, he’s definitely realized something important. His consciousness has evolved. Even if turns out to be minor or temporary, I can think of worse fates.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler