A recent transplant to Colorado and the Boulder area, Richard Wall seems to have done it all. He has written two novels, Drive Nice and his most recent novel, Fools Poll, about a man with polio who runs for government office. He has worked as a television producer, a journalist, a bartender, a freelance writer, as well as brief stint as a paperboy, when people actually read newspapers. Mr. Wall’s novels, including his current in progress project, Blue Green, all reflect an overall theme of societal awareness and social justice. Contributing Editor and Author j.a. kazimer gets the inside scoop in this exclusive interview for the Writing Colorado News.
JK: Fools Poll came out in July, before this last election; did you have expectations for a novel /election tie-in?
RW: Yes and no. I wrote this book 20 years ago and gave up trying to place it with an agent/publisher after 50 or so rejections. But in March 2012 I was seeing a really high level of frustration with American politics, so I decided to pull out my book and rewrite it substantially, though not the characters, core plot or theme. I trimmed it by 65,000 words, and of course, it took a lot longer than I had hoped, but it is a much better book for it. Consequently, what with copy editing, rewriting and revising, it wasn’t really ready to promote until around September, thereby being woefully late for a decent marketing runup. But at least it is out there, and off my chest, so to speak.
JK: Hector is a unique character. He is a man who has never held a job, or had a date, a man with polio who wants to run for election. How did you decide to tell a story via a handicapped main character? And how did that decision affect the overall book?
RW: I wanted the most underdog of underdogs as a hero to challenge the slick party politicians, because I wanted to show that anyone can do it. And really, the more removed from that sphere of politics the better the candidate’s chances of taking down the parties. When I was starting on Fools Poll—and I started it 30 years ago—I was working in welfare and food stamp eligibility for Tennessee. On one of my house calls I met this guy named Herschel, who had red hair was about 40 years old and had deformed stumps for legs since birth. He lived with an older sister, a real sweetheart who took care of him. Herschel was so positive, even though he lived his life in bed and a wheelchair, that I was instantly humbled, impressed and inspired. He became Hector in my novel. Herschel’s sister became Lola, Hector’s very un-sweetheart-like sister in the novel who cares for him—and cheats him and berates him. Fairytale wicked, but redeemable, as we all are.
Throughout the story, I took pains to present Hector as a strong willed, optimistic-beyond-reason person, not a person with a disability. Sure, he’s in a wheelchair, but he’s a rolling oxymoron: as weak as they come and as strong as they get. Hector makes the people around him better and brings out their best. The original title of the book was Prowess of Weaklings, a term from the Iliad where Idomeneus says there is a prowess in union even of weaklings. I think that’s true.
JK: What first compelled you to write about politics, especially third party politics in such a partisan climate?
RW: Let me say first that this book is a classic underdog tale. Politics is the arena of the action, but I built it to stand on its own as a character-driven story of what pushes some people to try to make something of their lives and how they go about it. Without people taking a chance, pushing the envelope, mankind would be a sorry mess. The reason I chose to write about politics is Walter Karp’s book Indispensable Enemies. I read that book in the ‘70s and it meshed with my fundamental observation about politics: how can our representatives be so unresponsive of their constituents, lie repeatedly, act like conservatives when they are ostensibly liberal and vice-versa, and still get elected time and time again? Walter Karp, a former contributing editor to Harper’s, lays it all out in a wonderful conspiracy theory. It is wild, yet based on one simple rule: pay attention to what they do, not what they say. And as I looked at politics over the past decades, it still holds true: the two parties are in collusion to keep everyone else out; their objective is to do as little as possible (status quo is them in power), and to keep the game under their control. They are not bumbling idiots, they are like shrewd corporate executives who manage their “business” quite effectively. Really, you have to admire them for creating a system in which they are the sole possessors of power in the most powerful country in the world.
Now, I have tempered Mr. Karp’s conspiracy theory to being more a natural situation of collusion, rather than an intricately woven system of collusion. This current highly charged partisan climate is in large part, an orchestrated hoax. And it’s the essence of how the party leadership gets away with doing nothing. You got your Tea Party idealists and your progressive idealists, who might believe what they say. But they’re not going to overturn the applecart. We think the two parties really are idealistically opposed, fighting it out like boxers. Actually, wrangled by party leadership which can crack the whip of patronage, support and financing on any member, our elected officials are more like pro wrestlers, or lawyers in court: prosecutor acts like the defense attorney is a ruthless, lying scoundrel but during the break they talk about fishing next weekend. The two-party politicians—and that’s effectively the only kind of politicians there are in the USA—are professional power mongers. And political power is much more absolute than money. Business interests don’t have any power over politicians; it’s politicians who shake down business interests. It’s a . . .uh, oh, there I go again.
In the book, I make fun of what I believe, what my character Hector believes. He’s smart enough to hide it, because it doesn’t sell well. He goes straight for the sense of independence most people feel—a majority of voters now identify themselves as independent. The math is now there for independents to win—a lot.
JK: Kirkus Review, well-known for giving negative reviews, gave Fools Poll a good review and even said, “….political page-turner won’t fail to entertain—maybe even inspire.” Did you set out to inspire or change our political system? It seems that your other books follow similar themes of social justice; can you talk a little about what you want your readers to take away from your work?
RW: As many a deluded writer before me, I thought my book could perhaps help change things. And you know what, it still might—I’m psycho enough to keep that sliver of stupid hope in my head, which is not much different than believing I’ll hit the lottery—and I don’t even play it! But the rational me knows it won’t happen. Because in this last election, Americans voted back in the same people who ran this country in the previous Congress. Americans are highly gullible, but I love ‘em. It’s just sad to see them being lead along like cows . . .nothing against cows.
As for social themes, that’s what I think is important, to do something to help make the world a better place. Charles Dickens taught me that. Does the world need another serial killer dead body story? I don’t think so. Our entertainment culture is rotten with violence and it’s taking its toll. I wish writers would stop contributing to it. As a writer, I feel have a responsibility to be a voice for good, and in every article I write, I make sure I take a positive course. That’s what I want a reader to take away: that there’s hope that the world can be a better place. It’s been slowly moving in that direction historically, which can be the lone comfort at times when the world seems to be blowing up in so many ways.
JK: You decided to indie publish Fools Poll; can you share your experiences with electronic publishing? And why you opted for it rather than a more traditional publisher?
RW: I didn’t need a book to hold in my hand, so I decided to epublish Fools Poll. I wasn’t going to re-pitch it, because for me, it was that first novel you love, just as you loved that horrible plate you made your mom in 4th grade art class when they rolled the kiln out. And with its quirky political message, I didn’t want to put my energy (and hope) into trying to sell it. I have a second one finished, Drive Nice, that I’m currently getting rejections for (though one request for full MS, consequently rejected). Epublishing only costs sweat equity. And what’s cool is you can rewrite it (and remove typos that had previously eluded you), and re upload it. But Fools Poll is the only one I will self publish. Drive Nice and my current one will either be sold to a publisher or die with me and my hard drive, which I intend to take with me. I’ve been told you can.
JK: You’ve had an amazing life with various career paths including freelance writing, journalist, and television producer among others, what made you decide to become a novel-length fiction writer? And how has that choice affected your daily life? How does your journalism experience play into your writing?
RW: I decided I wanted to write novels before I wrote anything else. And I started working on Fools Poll. Then I figured I should get a job as a writer, so I worked as a reporter for a small town newspaper. That was interesting, like when I was interviewing the big shot judge about his involvement in an illegal bail-bonding scheme and he casually slid a check across his desk and turned it so I could read it and it was made out to him by the very paper I worked for. He told me to talk to my publisher, who told me the judge was a part owner and for me to drop my stupid, though accurate, story. I’ve written hundreds of articles, from healthcare tips to more sophisticated features, but the story I am most proud of was when I reported on a rape trial. The sister of the convicted rapist called to say I wrote a fair story and then the mother of the victim called and said the same thing. That was gratifying.
Then I really learned how to write as a magazine editor (and started to undo the crappy writing I had put into Fools Poll). But my work on the newspaper and magazines showed me that life is every bit as interesting as fiction. I have interviewed a ton of people, and have gotten a good sense of dialog and how fascinating people are, from families fighting over an engine block to families struggling with their emotions over the accidental shooting death of their child. All that accumulated interaction and observation goes into writing fiction.
JK: From your biography, it looks like you are a recent transplant to Colorado. What appeals to you as a writer about Colorado?
RW: I’ve traveled a good deal and have written and read about a lot of people and places. I can’t say Colorado has anything more special about it than St. Augustine, Florida, or Fukuoka, Japan. People are very similar, their stories, concerns and lives are essentially very similar. Only the scenery really changes. Colorado is nice, but the people are pretty much the same as elsewhere when you get right down to it. They are good people—except for that guy who flipped me off in Boulder the other day because I was in the lane he wanted. I wrote Drive Nice for him, which is about a Fort Collins grad student who leverages a bootlegged piece of defense technology into a vigilante movement that enforces civil driving in San Francisco. It’s revenge on the road ragers, with the subtext of how much of our energy gets sucked up into driving.
JK: You’ve worked as a freelance writer; would you provide some insight into the highlights and pitfalls of working as a freelance writer? What trends do you foresee for writers, especially those choosing indie publishing or opting for a freelance career?
RW: I recently decided to stop freelancing, and I am working for a public relations company in Denver. I’ve been freelancing for about 17 years, and you’re only as good as your connections. I kind of let mine go, and didn’t have the energy to re-grow them. But if you want to hustle and can deliver for a few editors and get steady work, it’s not bad. The variety is really great, and it’s gratifying to know you can actually live on your wits alone. Trends for writers look good. All those people reading on those tiny screens—that’s more people reading than ever before. Whether it’s a video game a movie a TV show or a blog, it all starts with the same old thing: a well expressed idea in writing.
JK: Would you tell us a little about your current project (Blue Green) and the research you’ve put into learning about 6th century chariot racing?
RW: I love history, I was a history major in college. I read it for fun. And when I stumbled upon the Nika riots in Constantinople in 532 AD, I learned about how chariot racing factions came within a hair of overthrowing the great emperor Justinian, he of the ex-prostitute wife Theodora who was quite the strongwoman. So chariot racing factions were a huge deal for about 600 years. In Constantinople’s Hippodrome and the Circus Maximus in Rome the people could actually interact with their Emperor. The racing factions, the predominant ones being the Blues and the Greens, make our modern obsession with sports seem a half-hearted afterthought. However, the recent riots in Port Said, Egypt, over the conviction of 21 Ultra soccer fans for murder in a brawl last February is a continuation of the ancient thread of sporting factions running amok. The chariot racing fans lived and breathed their factions, worshipped their favorite horses, courted their drivers like rock stars, cast curses on their adversaries, and bet like Vegas addicts on the races. The factions were intricate business organizations with feeder systems of horses and drivers. Over time, these chariot racing factions became wrapped up in politics, and in the times prior to Justinian they were co-opted by the Emperor—or at least that was the plan. Think what would happen if Bronco fans ran a candidate for governor?
I’ve always wanted to write about the influence of sports on our society, and Blue Green is giving me that chance. And the historical aspect is right up my alley. It isn’t easy, though. It’s a lot easier to make up something. But here I’ve got great material . . .marauding barbarians in the suburbs—other barbarians on the payroll, the growing pains of Christianity spawning nasty fighting about the nature of Christ, hold-over paganism, political intrigue and all sorts of stuff. I’ve read most everything I can find on chariot racing in Roman times. And after a year or so of studying, I have a good grounding in the history of that time and the social and economic structure.
JK: Is there anything else you would like to share about writing, your novels, or life in general?
RW: Nope. Thanks for letting me ramble. To see more, go to www.richardwallauthor.com.
JK: Thank you so much for your time.