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An Interview With Fiction Writer Frederick Reiken

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Online Only, posted 7.12.04

While the literary community tries to gauge the influence of academia on the state of contemporary fiction, Frederick Reiken, whose two critically acclaimed novels have been translated into several languages, is gently riding out the wave of debate. A graduate of Princeton and the University of California at Irvine's MFA program, Reiken teaches writing in the graduate program at Emerson College. His first novel, The Odd Sea (Harcourt, 1998), won the Hackney Literary Award for First Fiction and was selected by both Booklist and Library Journal as one of the best first novels of the year. This was followed by a more ambitious novel, The Lost Legends of New Jersey (Harcourt, 2000), which became a bestseller and is described by Charles Baxter as "a miraculous balancing of tone and theme."

"The Ocean," Reiken's short story recently published in The New Yorker, has been received with the same praise as his lengthier work. Reiken's characters continually face an imperfect world on their own terms-whether it is a young boy discovering more about himself than he ever expected when the details of his brother's disappearance never materialize, or a Jewish woman having the chance to say one last goodbye to the great, secret love of her life. Reiken has established himself as a chronicler of everyday magic, and although his characters do not necessarily find definitive answers to life's complications, they are left with hope in the midst of adversity.

When Poets & Writers Magazine caught up with Reiken, he said that he was "madly" working to complete his newest book. While his third novel also has Jewish characters, Reiken sees himself as a writer who happens to be Jewish rather than one who carries the heavy moniker of "Jewish Writer." Years ago, however, Reiken nearly gave up the idea of being a writer when he encountered his father's opinion of the profession.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Reiken how his father responded to his decision to pursue a career in the arts.

Frederick Reiken: Actually, my father's opposition to my choice of becoming a writer was something I grappled with for a long time. It was not as if he was a tyrant about it, nor did he do anything to stop me. But he has always been a very judgmental and persuasive man, and he simply could not fathom why, when I announced at the age of twenty-two that instead of applying to medical school I was going to pursue becoming a fiction writer, I would choose something that would not guarantee me a predictable income. In all earnestness, he would say things to me like, "Most doctors play golf on Wednesdays. You could write on Wednesdays." The day I graduated from my MFA program, we were talking on the phone and he asked me what I was going to do now. I said I had applied for several teaching positions and was also considering a work-exchange position at an artist's colony in western Massachusetts. He said, "Why don't you think about getting an MBA?" and I said, "Hello, dad. It's me on the phone-Rick, your son."

If you think about his perspective, however, it isn't that illogical. He was that classic second-generation American. He grew up in Jersey City, a poor Jewish kid who was the first student in the history of Lincoln High School to get a scholarship to Princeton. He went on to law school and, as they say, made good. As the classic third-generation American, I grew up in the suburbs, lived a comfortable upper middle class life, which, even if fraught with domestic dramas, was one in which I was always provided for monetarily. I simply did not grow up with the fear of being poor and so, even as I followed in my father's footsteps and went to Princeton, I was never fixated on monetary wealth as an objective.

It was only after I finished my MFA program that I began to understand just what it felt like not to have enough money to fix my car or afford health insurance. It was during that period, circa 1993, that I had my last real crisis of faith with regard to being a writer. I had written a novel as my MFA thesis and thought it was, of course, the best book in the history of Western letters, and around that time it became clear that it was never going to get published (surprisingly enough, my father read it and loved it-though he still thought I should get an MBA). In the late winter of 1993, I took a little trip, motivated by a desperate romantic impulse, and went to find a woman I had known during the year I'd lived in Israel, right after college, and had worked as a wildlife biologist in the Negev Desert. There had been a lot of attraction between us, but I never acted on it due to the fact that at the time I was intending to marry my girlfriend from college-only to find, upon returning, that she didn't share the intention. So, three years later I went back to Israel, quickly learned that my attempt to execute a romantic fairy tale was deluded, briefly considered hanging around and trying out for the soon-to-be-formed Israeli national ice hockey team, but ultimately decided to return after a month and "make good."

The month I returned, and without telling my father, I registered to take the MCATs, visited the UMass medical school in Worcester, and began an intensive review of chemistry, biology, and physics. I had taken the MCATs as a college senior, but the five-year expiration had just passed, and so I had to take them again. I've always done well on standardized tests, and on the practice tests I was pretty much nailing the scores I needed, so I figured it was just a matter of getting through this ordeal, applying to UMass, and then I could call up my father and surprise him.

About two weeks before the test date, I started having a sort of existential crack-up. I did most of my studying in the Forbes Library in Northampton, and one day I happened to lay eyes on the New York Times Book Review, picked it up and, for the first and only time in my life, read it from cover to cover. Then I walked down to a nearby bookstore, purchased two of the books that had been reviewed, and started reading them in a café, whereupon I woke from this little trance and went back to studying organic chemistry. More of the same continued over the next two weeks and every day I would have moments of asking myself, "What am I doing? I'm a writer. I've spent the last five years apprenticing myself to this art. Now I'm going to just chuck the very essence of who I am, the identity it took me so many years to discover?" But I kept going. I covered all the material, all the while knowing that if I simply got through the MCATs I would have defeated my crazy notion of becoming a novelist, defeated the thing that was making me so miserable-that once I got those scores back in the mail, once I had been offered validation by my MCAT scores that I really was meant to be a doctor, the die would have been cast. I'd be off and running and the rest of my life would make sense.

As it turned out, I didn't sleep a minute the night before the MCATs. All night I tossed and turned and worried and thought and questioned. Around five I got up, drank coffee, and decided that, sleep or no sleep, I was going to get through it. I'd operated many times on no sleep, and while I'd never taken an eight-hour test without having slept a minute, I told myself I would do it.

So, I drove to Westfield State College, aced the first of the four sections-reading aptitude and comprehension, which was the easiest-and began to feel pretty confident. The second section was the organic chemistry-physics section, and of the two science sections this was the one I tended to score higher, so I knew I had to nail it. I got about halfway through the section without a hitch, but then I came to a set of problems that I couldn't figure out. That is, I didn't see what concept it was addressing and had no idea how to calculate the answers to the next seven or eight questions. I stared at it for five minutes and suddenly the words were rising off the page. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and reluctantly went on to the next set of questions, only to find that I had lost my ability to read words. Whether some divine protective spirit or mischievous imp had cast a spell on me, or whether I was just having a sleep-deprivation-induced anxiety attack, I'll never know. But after trying unsuccessfully for another ten or fifteen minutes to just read through and comprehend a single problem, I gave up, put my pencil down, waited in a state of shock until time was called, then got up and had my scores cancelled. I walked out of Westfield State College feeling a deep sense of failure, but on the drive home I started to have an idea for a novel, which I began six months later, and which became The Odd Sea.

One uncanny little addendum to this story is that a few years ago a committee at Westfield State College chose The Odd Sea as their "campus book" (required reading for all faculty and students, intended to promote a campus-wide dialogue regarding the novel's various issues) for the 2000-2001 academic year, and then called to invite me to come give a ninety-minute talk, for which they paid me a substantial amount of money. So, just about seven years after my MCAT fiasco, I returned to Westfield State College for the first time since then and told this story to a filled auditorium. Afterward, someone asked me the obvious question-Was I now certain that I had made the right choice in becoming a writer?-and I said that no, I still had lingering doubts. It's only now, at the age of thirty-seven, that I'm starting to understand that I never wanted to be a doctor at all. When I finished writing "The Ocean," though, I began to have the nagging sense that I should have become a marine biologist.

 

 

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