Web Exclusives:


September 13, 2000:

A sense of where he is
Frederick Reiken '88 talks about his new book and the writing life

"Everything starts with a place for me," says novelist Frederick Reiken '88. "The place gives rise to the characters. The characters give rise to the story. And in New Jersey, the characters would naturally be close to the bone."

The place in Reiken's second novel, The Lost Legends of New Jersey, happens to be Livingston, New Jersey, where Reiken grew up. But he's quick to say that none of the stories in the novel - an episodic look at the emotional and sexual life of a group of teenagers and their parents - are autobiographical.

"The thing that's tricky in this sort of book," Reiken says, "is that writers put in things they know. I did have knee surgery. I drew on my experience with that. I did grow up in New Jersey. I did have parents who got divorced. But, my mom never threw rocks through a window. I don't have an older sister. I didn't have a Mafioso girlfriend. My dad didn't have an affair."

Reiken's first novel, The Odd Sea, about a family whose eldest teenage son disappears forever without a trace, is also set in a place to which Reiken has strong ties. That novel takes place in the Berkshires, close to Reiken's home in Cummington, Massachusetts, where he moved in 1992.

From the opening lines of The Odd Sea, which was published in 1998 to wide acclaim, the reader is in a particular place: "Years ago, on New Year's Day, my older brother, Ethan, and I went skating on a river. No snow had fallen all that winter, and before Christmas we were hit with a week of windy, subzero days. The cold snap ended one late December evening, leaving a sky so clear that stars seemed to be trapped in the netlike branches at the top of each sugar maple. We woke next morning to pale sunlight and a windless twenty degrees. As it turned out, the year's first snowstorm hit the Hilltowns a week later, but for a few days it was possible to skate on the Westfield River for miles and miles."

The opening of The Lost Legends of New Jersey is slightly different. Not only does it set the physical scene, but also hints at one of the emotions underpinning the book: "The day my mother left Livingston, New Jersey, she threw rocks through most of Claudia Berkowitz's windows."

And though New Jersey, despite being known as the Garden State, doesn't immediately call to mind scenes of beauty, Reiken makes much of the places he knows: suburbia, the shore, the marshy area around Secaucus called the Meadowlands, and Atlantic City. Oddly enough, Reiken doesn't use Princeton at all in this novel (nor in The Odd Sea); nor does he draw on what he learned as a biology major under Dan Rubenstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

For his senior thesis Reiken worked on Rubenstein's project in the barrier islands off South Carolina, research that focused on the behavioral ecology of horses. "I was looking at how the quality of territory affected stallions. Like fighting behavior and social structure."

And it was during his senior year that Reiken changed horses midstream, so to speak. "I was done with the science courses I had to take and I had time to take some writing courses."

That fall he took an introductory fiction course with Paul Auster, who Reiken says gave him the opening to see himself as a writer. In the spring he was accepted into John McPhee '53's Literature of Fact course. "John really became something of a mentor, as he did to most of his students. He was the first person who ever took my writing seriously. It gave me a big boost of confidence. He suggested that I not jump right to medical school."

Taking McPhee's advice, Reiken abandoned his medical school plans and went to Israel with Rubenstein to study wild asses in the Negev Desert. After a year he left to attend the University of California in Irvine, where he earned an MFA in fiction writing.

In 1992, he moved to the Berkshires and began writing the sketches that would become The Lost Legends of New Jersey. Reiken worked on the sketches over the course of seven years, and in that time he also wrote and published The Odd Sea. In 1999 he was offered a tenure-track position at nearby Emerson College, where he now teaches creative writing.

Although Reiken keeps an apartment in Boston, Cummington is where he works best. "I find I can only really write in Cummington. I have a room off my bedroom. Just about everything I've written has been in that room. I don't know what I'd do if I had to move out of this house. There's something safe and magical about it."

The Cummington area seems to foster fine writing. The poet Stephen Philbrick lives near there, as does Richard Wilbur, a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. "Everything is kind of neighborly up here," Reiken says. "Wilbur and I play tennis; Stephen and I have a writing group. Cummington is a preposterously rich town in terms of its literary history. It was the birthplace of William Cullen Bryant, the poet. And it was the home in the late '30s of Harry Duncan, who started the Cummington Press and was the first publisher of Robert Lowell, Tennessee Williams, William Carlos Williams, and Rilke."

His life is filled with writing, but Reiken tries to find a counter balance. Not only does he play tennis with a poet, he also plays on a very competitive hockey team. "Left to my own devices I think I'd write all the time. The hockey sort of yanks me out of writing."

Reiken tries to write every day, but it is never predictable, he says. "The really good stuff comes in fits and starts. I'm very disciplined. I think of myself as a night person, at the same time all the good stuff I write seems to come in the morning. There's no particular logic."

For his next project, Reiken is considering one of three things, and one that doesn't involve people under the age of 20. "This novel will not be focused on teenagers, that's for sure. It's looking like my next book will be a novel. It will involve bears. Black bears," Reiken says. "It would probably be very tied to northern Maine. I've spent a lot of time there."

-By Lolly O'Brien

What Reiken is reading:

"About 17 books. I just finished the new Charlie Baxter, The Feast of Love. I just finished Harry Potter #4, and I've begun Richard Ford's Independence Day."