Behind the Words: Bill Riley

Posted by on Aug 15, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Bill Riley lower resEditing “Welcome Home, Kakuda” with Bill Riley was fun. Interviewing Bill Riley for this post was fun. If you want my honest opinion, I’m pretty sure that Bill Riley is fun all of the time. One of the thing I enjoy most about talking with Bill is that he seems to have really great insight to his writing. He understands how the greater world can influence the “I” in an essay. While at the same time, his narrator is deep and thoughtful. While his essay is personalized to a single boy’s experience in the 1990’s, he brings us to a level of adolescence that in some ways we can all understand and appreciate. 


Erin Ollila: We had so much fun editing your flash essay “Welcome Home Kakuda” in the first issue. I’d love to know more about how the writing of this piece began. So much happens in our lives that doesn’t get written in creative nonfiction, so what made this story important to tell?
Bill Riley: Honestly, it began–as so many essays in an MFA program do–over some beers with friends. Some buddies and I were talking one night about what it was like to grow up as a teenager in the 1990s. I think it was right around the time that one of the big social media bullying stories hit the news, and we were talking about how surreal it must be to grow up now, when all of your bad choices and hormone-influenced snap decisions have an instant platform. It must be terrifying.
What we really started talking about, to answer your question about importance, was how the lack of technology (or, really, the burden of emerging technology’s clumsiness) made memories and artifacts really intentional. It wasn’t too long that we had to drive to a store to develop film and see that someone blinked, you know? And now, we get to share all of these perfected images with our friends and the cousins of our high school acquaintances via social media, I wonder if I sometimes take these memory artifacts for granted. They’re so easy to capture.

I guess what I ended up saying in this essay was that teenage boys (I guess I should only make an “I” statement here…but I know I’m speaking for a lot of former teenage boys) don’t care about all that. The search for knowledge about the great mystery of the sex chews up all those hard-earned memories. I guess, to make a bad joke, you really do go blind.

You mastered voice and setting in this short essay. Do you have any tips for other writers on how to gain such a trustworthy narrator?
Voice is the biggest thing I’ve worked on since taking myself seriously as a writer, so that really means a lot. Thank you.
Last week, I spent a day working on the landscaping in front of my house. We recently moved in, and it was a mess. The biggest problem we had was this bush that was wrapping around a trellis, but also crawling into our vinyl siding in spots. There were a few really beautiful flowers down at the bottom, though, so we wanted to try to salvage something from that growth. My mother-in-law was helping and she identified the bush as a mulberry bush–usually just a weed. So I cut away all the mulberry bush and we discovered that the previous owner had let this mulberry bush take three rose plants over. They were down there at the bottom, trying to find light here and there but mostly dying out.
I hate the idea of me giving tips, but here’s what I tried to do with this essay: cut. I know that’s not the way people tell you to write flash–they say to start with little images and focus on the images and the images will bring forth the metaphor. But this little essay was originally in the neighborhood of 4,500 words. And, it wasn’t working, and I’ve got a spreadsheet of journal rejections to prove it. I took another look at this essay and thought about what I really loved about it, and it was that ridiculous blindness I mentioned earlier. So, I cut away everything that wasn’t serving that idea.



As a fellow creative nonfiction writer, I often wonder–worry even–about how the people around me will react to my essays, especially very personal ones. Did you get any type of reaction to this piece about growing up with the Spice Channel?
I didn’t, and I’m surprised. My dad is a retired IT guy and I’m pretty sure he has a Google Alert set for my name. (Hi, Dad.) I’m not sure he would love the content of the essay.
Mostly, I heard from other 30-something guys about snowed-out cable channels. And here’s where I’ll say how incredibly important I think it is to have a group of friends who are curious about themselves. It’s great if they’re writers, but they certainly don’t have to be. I think part of why I struggled early on with writing was that I was spending a lot of time with people who weren’t very interested in interrogating why they do the things they do. I think the more time I spend with people who are willing to be honest about what makes them human, the more human the things that are worth writing about–the dark or messed up or personal–seem.
Most important question: Did anyone ever find out what was REALLY on the Welcome Home, Kakuda video tape? (Before the essay, that is.)
That tape made its way into a Gas America trash can in 2000, never to be seen again. 



Last time we spoke, you were writing about the current Milan High School basketball team who was living in the shadow of their school’s 1954 championship that inspired “Hoosiers.”  I’d love to know more about that project.
I spent a season with the 2010-11 Milan Indians, a high school team in southeastern Indiana. (You can check out a small essay based on that work in the online mag Punchnel’s here.)
I was drawn to the story because people around my home state–and beyond, really–revisit the Milan/Hoosiers story every March. We love a David beats Goliath story. Milan winning the 1954 state championship is the ultimate, and the fact that a high school basketball season was fictionalized into a Hollywood movie that hasn’t lost much of its steam in almost 30 years is impressive. So, each March, the TV crews come down to Milan and the newspapers write about how anything is possible in a tournament, and how pure basketball is down there…but that story hasn’t been true in Milan for some time now. The year before I followed the team, they won three games. The one tournament game Milan won last March was their first tournament win in ten years. The town has fallen on hard times, and football has become the most popular sport for boys to play. The reality doesn’t match the perception. And still, these boys and their coaches and their parents are trying to navigate all of this historical pressure and it seems completely overwhelming for everyone involved. 
Many of the boys in town aren’t worried about basketball, they’re worried about moving on from or in Milan after graduation. The number of homes without internet access in Milan was staggering in 2011, and the town didn’t have reliable cell phone service (students knew the 2-3 parts of the school building they could visit to send or receive a text, but a phone call was out of the question). The students knew they were behind a bit and were looking forward, but the community wants to hold on to the things that put Milan on the map in the first place.
The book is about basketball in small town Indiana, but it’s more about life in small town Indiana.



You teach writing as well. How do you feel that your lessons or students influence your own writing?
 I love teaching writing, whether it’s creative writing or composition. The thing about teaching that most helps me with my own writing is the moments in class when you’re discussing a story in workshop or reading a part of a student essay or analyzing an argument and the conversation stops being about writing and starts to be a conversation about curiosity. I was a really crappy college student, and it was because I just wasn’t very curious. I did the tasks, I received grades. Now, as an instructor, I get to see what kind of ideas or sentence-level writing gets students like that interested in athing. Anything. And then, I get to go home and think about what makes that thing worth thinking about or holding in my mind.
There’s no other job like teaching college writing that allows you to access the range of the human experience. You have students who are away from home for the first time, breaking up with each other, wrestling with their future, wrestling with what others think their future should be, they’re bored, tired, excited, hungover, stressed, overstimulated, underrested, and act more than they reflect. It’s fun to read work (even an analysis of some dumb advertisement) from people in that place.



What are you currently writing now?
I’ve just completed a major revision of the Hoosiers book, which is tentatively titled David Lived Here: Hoosiers and Hysteria in the Home of the Milan Miracle. I cut a 105,000 word manuscript down to under 80,000, and I’m working with an editor to tighten it up even further. Then, it’s back to a press that has shown some initial interest in the project.
Other than that, I’ve written a bit of a novel that I’m excited to get back into. It’s about a 18-year-old girl who somewhat reluctantly becomes the mayor of a small town after a tornado hits. It’s also one of my first cracks at magical realism, and I’m enjoying breaking free from what narrative journalism requires.



If you could visit an amusement park with three writers (living or dead) who would it be and what would you do?
First off, I don’t ride roller coasters. I hate that little drop in your stomach, that loss of control. Amusement parks for me are about food, people watching, and holding purses. 
If this little genie exists, I’d kick myself for not saying Kurt Vonnegut. I’d rather have a walk-and-talk with him, but some people have to visit amusement parks with their literary giants, so it’s me and my favorite writer on the Gravitron (one of the few rides I do), I suppose. Plus, amusement parks are fantastic people watching, and when Vonnegut started writing more nonfiction he really took our species to task. 
For purely non-literary reasons, #2 would have to be the poet Andrew Hudgins, who I loved getting to know when I was an MFA student at Ohio State. I think I could probably listen to Hudgins and Vonnegut swap dirty jokes–and Andrew is a master–over a funnel cake or two. Andrew has no filter, and the idea of some poor kid overhearing one of his jokes is both terrifying and the stuff of these little hypothetical situations.
OK, so I’ve got two bullshitters and me: let’s add Flannery O’Connor to that mix. Can you imagine anyone better at people watching and making up creepy/believable stories about them? Nightmares for days, and the good kind.


Erin Ollila is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in (em): A Review of Text and Image, Revolution House, Lunch Ticket, Paper Tape, Shoreline Literary Arts Magazine, The Fall River Spirit, and RedFez. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life.

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