Gary Reilly Was The Greatest Writer I Ever Knew

Gary Reilly was the greatest writer I ever knew.

Variety, volume, and quality.

All three.

RMFW writer friends of mine – and anyone writing fiction out there – I ask this: how many writers do you know who put together 25 novels (most of them in near-perfect shape) without ever receiving a word of encouragement for an agent or publishing house? In fact, Gary was discouraged many times. He would query now and then, get rejected, and keep writing.

Twenty-five! And most only need a light dusting, editing wise, to get them shipshape today.

Quality? Three Colorado Book Award finalist nominations so far. Booklist has raved about Gary's series. National Public Radio has twice talked about Gary's works in a positive light. And Gary's Vietnam fiction has drawn praise from Ron Carlson, Stewart O'Nan, Gregory Hill, Tim Bazzett, John Mort and David Willson, who reviews books for The Vietnam Veterans of America.  The single story Gary had published during his lifetime was accepted by The Iowa Review and later included in the fourth volume of The Pushcart Prize anthology, the best fiction from small presses.

Yes, quality.

For many of his works, Gary Reilly did what writers are taught to do. He drew stories from his life. And livelihoods. For many other stories, he conjured from his quite active storytelling imagination.

So Gary wrote about going to war. He wrote about driving a taxi. And he weaved into his books many of the frustrations about being an unpublished novelist.

Gary, who died in 2011, left behind a mountain of fiction.

Here at the worldwide headquarters of Running Meter Press, we are closing in on the half-way mark of publishing Gary’s works.

Later this month, on Friday, June 23, we will launch The Discharge, the third book in Gary’s trilogy about his experiences during The Vietnam War.

The series started with The Enlisted Men’s Club, set in The Presidio and around San Francisco as Private Palmer (Gary’s alter ego) faced the grim prospect of going to war. Private Palmer drinks beer, smokes cigarettes, and tries hard, during the occasional training run, to imagine what lies ahead.

Palmer touches his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then drops his hand. The smoking lamp isn’t lit. Do real grunts smoke on patrol? The point-man has an incomprehensible look of panic on his face. Lt. Norbert turns him around by the shoulders and shoves him back toward his position. Can patrols in Vietnam be as half-assed as this? Palmer knows he could very well end up in the Infantry and that he is not guaranteed to remain an MP once he arrives in a combat zone, though maybe that’s just Army Apocrypha. He will never be able to separate his illusions from his ignorance. When he was inducted he had expected everyone to end up with nicknames, like Bookworm, Lefty, or Ace. His nickname would be Colorado, as in, “Colorado bought the farm last night, Ace.” Everyone would look like Bart Maverick, Bret’s less-interesting brother. When they got into arguments, they would raise their chins and say things like, “Back off, buddy boy.”

In The Detachment, Private Palmer is “in country,” but he’s an MP and his combat is internal. The Detachment is 154,000 words. It’s a one-year arc and its three parts are beautifully distinct. The war is nearby and Palmer and witnesses its toll, but he’s not fighting out in the jungles of Vietnam.

The sounds of the choppers fade as they fly toward the PX, cross over it, then separate and begin spreading out in a combat formation, their fantails easing back and forth, the Hueys now like tiny fish idling against a river’s current. A circle of light suddenly appears on the mountainside, a white disk that must cover twenty square acres, and at first Palmer thinks it has come from a helicopter. The circle probes the hillsides, slithers along its rills and gullies in search of VC, moves as rapidly as if Palmer himself were twitching the beam of a hand-held flashlight across the far ranges, thousands of meters swept in less than a second….

Tracer bullets streak toward the side of the mountain, the Hueys now like angry spiders spinning endless red threads, raking the gullies, the rills, the folds as the circle of white light stops, creating a bull’s-eye target for the bullets tearing up the earth…

The battle sounds cease, the faint pulse of the earth no longer throbbing at irregular intervals through Palmer’s soles. The massive spotlight begins to drift slowly north along the hillsides, its shape changing as it traces every mound and crevice like a flattened liquid cat in a cartoon sliding off a chair.

And in The Discharge, Private Palmer returns home to Denver and, quite frankly, here’s where I get chills.

I think about all the soldiers who have returned home, alive. I think about how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated.

I think about how anyone would find meaning in life after seeing so much killing or being the cause of your enemy’s death. The suicide rates among veterans is a harrowing issue to this day and it's no accident that suicides play a major role in both The Enlisted Men’s Club and The Detachment.

Gary’s fiction captured the reality of the mental state of his fellow soldiers—and, of course, his own.

Coming home in The Discharge, Palmer (no longer Private Palmer) faces heavy bouts of ennui and a lack of purpose. The first section is bleak. Hopelessness is right around the corner. What to do? How hard to work? And what will hold meaning?

In the first section of this third novel, Palmer is looking for an anchor and ponders going to California so he drives up Berthoud Pass in a raging snowstorm and gets stuck, dreaming of San Francisco.

The whitened top of Geary, electric trolley cars every five minutes, the sweet odor of saltwater and green leaves and sandy Sunset Beach. At the beginning of this journey he thought he would somehow find himself at that place in the morning. He put a wine bottle to his lips, but there was no wine left. He set the bottle on the floor and it tipped and rolled and stopped.

He held his beer can until it was empty and he tried to think about the things other than the things which can never be escaped, and all the time he kept promising himself that the one thing he would not do alone in the dark mountains was cry about it. It seemed to him finally the only thing he had any control over, and when it began, he found he could not stop it.

He wept until the morning light turned the road and the forest to red and then to gold as the sun lifted above the far plains and shrank, and the road and the snow between the trees grew white as burning phosphorous.

In the second section of The Discharge, Gary switches to first-person as Palmer goes to Hollywood. In real life, Gary came very close to being hired to write for stand-up comedian Louie Anderson and this middle section gives an idea of how high Gary’s hopes were—and how he managed to deal with the disappointment. Or did he?

And in the third section, back in third-person again and back in Denver, Palmer decides to start driving a cab, just as Gary did. Still, Palmer is looking for routine and a sense of place in the world of work (without doing too much). And we see fictional Palmer "meet" the future fictional Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.

Murph is Gary’s greatest creation, the asphalt philosopher Brendan Murphy, star of eight novels to date. (Booklist has called Murph "a truly original fictional creation and National Public Radio has raved about the series as "huge fun.")

Murph, as fans of the series know, is an unpublished novelist as well as being a cab driver. As a cab driver, Murph wants to earn as little money as possible—just enough to keep his bohemian life afloat. And Murph is bound and determined to never get involved in the lives of his fares, a personal mantra that he violates on a regular basis (for our comic benefit).

But in The Discharge, as Palmer finds stability and comfort in the cab driving business (despite some harrowing moments), Palmer saves himself.

He’s still looking for escape, a way out of the now and the ordinary and a way to deal with what he experienced in Vietnam, an experience to which he “refuses to attach any nostalgia.”

How does Palmer escape? How does he heal himself?

By becoming an artist.

Against the darkness, he turns on the kitchen light. He sits at the table.

He’s got a mountain of fiction to produce and it offers him hope, a way forward. We can feel it.

We've published 11 novels so far. Ahead, a couple of 'noir' mysteries in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, at least one more Murph, some science fiction, some fantasy, and some big, old-fashioned multi-generational literary fiction.

Despite the occasional ray of hope from an agent here or a publisher there, Gary Reilly never stopped writing (right up to the end). He was a writer, through and through.

Gary Reilly knew his place in the world, as a storyteller. And an artist, the greatest writer I ever knew.

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Join us at The Tattered Cover for the launch of The Discharge:
Friday, June 23 | 7 PM
2526 E. Colfax Ave.

More: www.theasphaltwarrior.com

Gary Reilly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denver Free Program – January 2016

Denver-area monthly programs are free to both members and non-members. They are typically two hours long on a Saturday morning or afternoon. Topics vary. Check our website for up-to-date information. Email questions to denverprograms@rmfw.org.

January Workshop

ColleenOakesExploring YA: Trends, High Concept and You
Presented by Colleen Oakes
Saturday, January 9, 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
Anythink Wright Farms Library
5877 E. 120th Ave., Thornton, CO 80602
MEMBERS & NON-MEMBERS WELCOME
No RSVP Required

In this class, we will take a look at the current most popular YA books, the upcoming new releases that are garnering interest, and dissect what about these "high concepts" that makes these books so appealing to teens. We will also take a look at how to make your own novel high-concept.

Colleen Oakes is the author of books for both teens and adults, including The Elly in Bloom Series, The Queen of Hearts Saga (Harper Collins 2016) and The Wendy Darling Saga. She lives in North Denver with her husband and son and surrounds herself with the most lovely family and friends imaginable. When not writing or plotting new books, Colleen can be found swimming, traveling, blogging, or totally immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. She currently at work on the final Elly novel and another YA fantasy series.

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense--Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft--I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot--I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (www.bulwer-lytton.com)

Pen a gossipy letter--This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter--dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line--Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part--Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself--If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery--If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging--You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it--Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending--I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.