FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Richard Adams Carey

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Richard Adams Carey, or “Rick,” as we call him, is located in a town that is sandwiched between The Lakes Region and the White Mountains, which is probably where it got its name: Sandwich, NH. Because this interview was conducted bicoastal, me in Los Angeles, CA, and Rick in Sandwich, I imagine him sitting at his desk, allowing me to interrupt his “stubborn, maybe-it’ll-never-pan-out short story”—his words not mine—to answer questions for Assignment about his books, his writing and editing process, and more. 

—Jemiscoe Chambers-Black



Jem: Rick, you write both non-fiction and fiction. Is there a different writing process for writing each?

Rick: Not so much a different process as a different feel in the pit of the stomach. Nonfiction is always preceded by research into lives or subject matter where I know story material exists. In drafting I might have trouble finding the right way to tell the story, but I’ll know there’s a way—if not Plan A, then Plan B. In fiction, I’ll start with a character or situation and hope that these lead into a sequence of plausible events and a real story—with no guarantee that they really will, and it’s always a more tortuous first-draft process than in nonfiction. I think nonfiction is like jumping out of a plane knowing that somehow, sooner or later, your parachute will open; no such assurance in fiction.

 

Jem: To those of us students that have worked with you, you are known as a polishing technician. Do you edit chapter by chapter or write a large chunk before you start editing?

Rick: As people who have taken my revision workshop know, Kent Haruf is my hero. The author of “Plainsong” and other novels would sit at a manual typewriter with a stocking cap pulled down to his chin and type without peeking until he had reached the end of the story. Only then would he revise. Me, I can’t abide not seeing the words, and since I can see ’em, I can’t help fiddling with ’em as I go along. Which is too bad, because I can’t fiddle with real purpose and precision until I reach some version of the ending. So I try to write as much as I can before editing, but never write as much as I should. And that’s because first drafts are sheer drudgery for me. It’s only in editing and revising—when you know what the story is, beginning to end, and what it needs to shine brighter—that the glory is within reach.

 

Jem: This may seem random, but you lived a pretty nomadic life for a while. Also, worked a multitude of jobs. Did this have an effect on your writing, do you think?

Rick: I guess I have lived in a bunch of different places and done a bunch of different things—and sometimes I think that still wasn’t enough, because first-hand experience of any sort is so important in what a writer brings to the desk. On the other hand, you can’t go everywhere and try everything; duration and depth and commitment matter a lot as well in anyone’s experience of a given place or a certain relationship. It comes down to the right sort of balance, perhaps, given your subject matter. Some of us need to and should sail the world for material. But Emily Dickinson did just fine sailing around her room.

 

Jem: When you were contracted to write Raven’s Children, Against the Tide, and The Philosopher Fish, I’m imagining rough waters, rougher terrain, and deadly missions in pursuit of season hunting, fishing, and tracking the sturgeon and their mysterious golden eggs. Am I being too dramatic here? Since they were contract jobs, how long did you get to live the experiences and then write?

Rick: I think each of those books involved two-year contracts—so a year for the research, a year for the manuscript. And no, you’re not being too dramatic. Okay, “deadly missions” would be hyperbole, but in extreme environments you do gamble sometimes on the weather, and if your research touches on criminal activity, you do roll the dice on people sometimes. There were times when I got nervous, but only a few occasions when circumstances got more or less harrowing. In each case it ended well, so all’s well, and I so treasure the people I met and all that I experienced in doing those books.



Jem: You’ve written many things, but I wanted to ask you some questions about your book, In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. This book is a piece of narrative non-fiction, and spans twenty-five years, recounting the lives of the citizens in Colebrook, NH (and the towns surrounding it) that led up to August 19, 1997, when Carl Drega shot and killed four people. What made you want to write about this day?

Rick: After three books that required lots of travel and absences from home, I was ready for subject matter that was more local and also different from what I’d previously done. And with that incident, I was beguiled by the setting (the North Country’s a special sort of place), the intriguing people involved, and the rich narrative contours of all that happened that day, the intricate chain of events.

 

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Jem: Before writing this book, did you know how you were going to do that? Specifically, did you know that you wanted to show each person’s story: who they were, snapshots of their families, and past? If so, did you do this on purpose or did it show up organically?

Rick: I knew that in narratives of almost all mass-shooting incidents, the killer becomes the star of the story while the multitudinous victims are consigned to relative anonymity. Here, however, the killings were not random—each victim was targeted because of who he or she was—and there were only four of them. So I saw that this as a story in which, uniquely, each of the victims could share equal billing with the killer. With that sort of broad and mindfully balanced canvas in mind, I did indeed approach the story in the way you describe.

 

Jem: I have to agree that this worked because it showed how very connected this small town and the neighboring towns were, how even Carl Drega himself crossed paths with John Harrigan’s father. Were you at all surprised with this?

Rick: Drega did indeed cross paths with Fred Harrigan, but with hardly anyone else in the area outside of local government, the courts, and law enforcement. So as I got to know the North Country better, I found myself surprised in two different ways: first, that cranky loners such as Drega could be invisible to such an extent, more so than our obstreperous odd ducks in the rest of the state; and second, that for those not wanting to live under the radar, there were hardly any degrees of separation in these small and remote communities, that the connections are so very tight and intimate. This, of course, only aggravates the harm wrought by a mass shooting.

 

Jem: After reading your book, I know, because you point this out in your preface that you ran into several contradictory pieces of evidence. How did you combat that in your writing?

Rick: The narratives in my first three books were built out of a combination of the historical record and my first-hand experiences as I described unfolding events. In this book, where the event was already part of history, it was my task to fill in the gaps in the record by cross-referencing documents and interviewing witnesses. And because of the conflicts and contradictions I sometimes found, I learned what probably any historian knows—that writing history is a bit like sausage-making. You try to find evidence to resolve those conflicts. Absent that and needing to connect some dots, you go with what in your judgment seems more plausible, and you hope your biases aren’t distorting that.

 

Jem: What advice would you lend to any student or fellow writer when they meet this type of researching issue?

Rick: Enlist your subjects as proofreaders of your copy. Sometimes this is what provided the tie-breaker in regard to conflicting testimony. Much more often, though, it saved me from the sort of mistakes and misinterpretations all humans are prone to. The sausage could have been a lot funkier than it is.

 

Jem: When do you say enough is enough with research, and decide just to write?

Rick: With my first three books, I packed as much research as I could into a year, and then had a year just to write to hit my deadline. So it was decided for me, built into the contracts. With “In the Evil Day,” I had no deadline, since I was writing that book on spec. In a way, it was good to have no deadline. I had time to slowly build trust in the community and then to follow every lead. But the downside of that involved the sheer number of leads—it was such a complex event, with so many people involved, that I could have gone on interviewing forever. Earl Bunnell, the father of one of the victims, was the godfather of the whole project, and I very much wanted him to hold the finished book in his hands. When he died in 2011, that prompted me to finally pull the plug on the research and go with what I had. Even so, it was another four years until publication. All told, I devoted thirteen years to that book. That still astonishes me.

 

Jem: In your writing, it would seem, in my opinion, that you combine a fluidity of prose and a journalistic narrating style. Again, I wonder if this was done on purpose or if this came out organically?

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Rick: Well, I guess it came about commercially. I began as a bad poet and always feeling guilty (in reference to my wife) about the amount of solitude that my writing required. I found I could assuage that guilt, though, if at least I earned some money. So I began by publishing humor, essays, and journalism in newsstand magazines. The twig just got bent that way, and it stayed like that as I began working on more ambitious stuff.

 

Jem: Well, it seems that your creative intent, commercial or not, has become even larger since I’ve heard talks of a movie option for In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. Can you tell me a little about that?

Rick: Island Pictures is a London-based studio that does the “Doc Martin” series on PBS and also does book-to-film adaptations. They’re thinking in terms of perhaps a feature film or perhaps a TV miniseries. Of course most of the time nothing at all gets done with a film option, but I’m optimistic about this one because the studio co-head and a producer have come to America and traveled up to Colebrook with me to meet John Harrigan and some of the other important people in the story. In December we’ll do it again to meet still others. They want to honor the tone and spirit of the book, and Jeezum, they know it backwards and sideways—better than I do at this point.

 

Jem: Okay, one last question; I promise. Rick, I wonder, when you first started out as a writer, did you see yourself one day becoming a teacher, a mentor, helping students master what you have mastered yourself?

Rick: Wow, I sure didn’t—because writing a good piece is so hard by itself, and then finding an audience even harder. I’ve had more good breaks than bad, but it’s still really, really hard to write a good story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and I feel like I’m even yet on the learning curve. Teaching in itself is a way of moving up that curve, though. I love working with people I like on behalf of a pursuit that I love, and there’s no doubt it’s made me a better, more intentional writer.


Jemiscoe Chambers-Black is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

RESIDENCY RECOLLECTIONS


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There are no days more full than those we go back to. ― Colum McCann

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black—For many of us, the week-long residency at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield, NH is something that we cherish. It’s a magical place, a retreat, where like-minds enjoy being away from the pressures of adulting, and rather, focus on nothing but their stories. Because we feel so strongly about our time together, we here at Assignment decided to ask some of the current MFA Candidates, the alumni and faculty what they missed, learned and loved about past residencies.

After attending three residencies, I can say with certainty that what I’ll miss most after my fourth residency week in January are the people. I’ll miss leaving the rest of the world behind to spend a week in the company of writers, people who intrinsically understand the challenges and rewards of practicing the craft of writing. I’ll miss the opportunity to dig deep into short stories in morning workshops. I’ll miss the chance to learn together from visiting agents and editors. I’ll miss the student and faculty readings. I’ll miss it all, but the community fostered by the staff and faculty—and my fellow learners—rests at the heart of what I love most about residency. ~ Margaret McNelis

My favorite moment of every residency is the Friday night slideshow. I’m always touched by the photos of students learning, writing, sharing, and enjoying each other’s company. The thoughtfulness and joy on everyone’s faces reflect the magic of residency. You can see the shift in photos taken early on in the week, to those taken toward the end. Friendships have been made. Confidences have grown. Dreams have been born. And cohort bonds have all become stronger. Plus, there’s always at least one cute alpaca pic. ~ Jo Knowles, Faculty

My family called my first week of residency, worried I’d careened off a mountain on my drive up after they didn’t hear from me for days. I told them I’d found my people. I couldn’t remember going to any other gathering where everyone else was just as passionate about the same thing as me. It just felt right. ~ Eric Beebe

The Mountain View is dead quiet at 4am. We walk the silent halls, my coffee cup is stained purple with red wine and his smells of cinnamon whiskey. We pause in front of a painting of hunting dogs.
       “It’s weird how every floor has the same pictures,” I say. 
       “They’re not exactly the same,” he says. “The painting on the second floor has twelve dogs. This one has eleven.”
       We rush down the stairs.
       “See," I say, not sure if I'm victorious or disappointed. "Eleven." ~ Sarah Foil

When I think about the four residencies I attended, the thing that sticks out most vividly is the mornings: 28 in total. Leaning over to the personal-size coffee maker (that I brought to every Residency) on the nightstand, flicking it on, and slowly coming to and watching the light slink across the walls and ceiling while my favorite coffee from home-brewed, making my room smell like morning. Then, sipping the dark roast with a billow of half and half, gazing out the windows at the sunshine-yellow clapboards of the Mountain View Grand, and around the room, which I set up just how I like it, reviewing the day’s schedule. Each morning, the cusp of bringing new learning into my mind and spirit. Each morning, looking forward to strengthening friendships with other writers. Each morning, giving myself permission to take my writing as seriously as everyone else already did. ~ Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

My favorite memories from Residency all center on how we, as colleagues, pushed one another to continuously perfect our writing and to hone our work into stories that deserved to be read. One semester, after having my piece workshopped, a colleague approached me for a personal discussion of the work.
       “How do you come up with such creepy material?” she asked.
       “I have no idea,” I said. “But I’m glad it made you feel creeped out. It was supposed to.”
       “I was creeped out,” she said, “but it was the wrong kind of creeped out. It was the I-don’t-want-to-read-this-anymore creeped out, not the wow-this-is-wrong-that-I-enjoy-this-stuff kind of creeped out. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, work on making your material more subtle and more complex.”
       Every word I’ve written in the almost two years since have been filtered through this piece of advice. ~ John Will

One special pleasure was the peer workshop group I shared with Lydia Peele. It was a mix of nice personalities and uniformly strong manuscripts. All such workshops provide to their leaders a mix of don't-do-that and yes-do-this in the storytelling, and it was great fun, over and over again, to find so many beguiling examples of yes-do-this. ~ Richard Adam Carey, Faculty

I call the top moments in my life: "Patronus moments." It's lame and nerdy as hell, but I think of them whenever I'm really sad and I need the extra boost of remembering a better time. Expecto Patronum is actually Latin for "bring out my protector," so it felt appropriate both for me and the other characters in the Harry Potter universe. These moments include bid day in my sorority, when I got my littles, my time in Budapest, the Twenty One Pilots concert, Leadershape, and now: residency.
      I'd cried for an hour when I first got the letter from Lisa telling me that I'd been accepted into the program. I don't have the words to explain the amount of shock and gratitude I felt, but I knew it was one of those rare moments where I'd get a taste of what it means to finish first. Residency exceeded any possible expectations I could've dreamed of and more. I'm surrounded by a group of wonderful, inspiring, dynamic people who all share a love of what matters most to me: writing. It's such a wonderful program, and I couldn't possibly praise it enough. At least I'll have the next two years to try. ~ Morgan Green

Every time I return home from a residency, I miss that insular feeling of being holed up 24/7 with other writers and lovers of books. I relish forgetting about the rest of the world, even as we think and write about our concerns for its fate. I love the deep immersion, the thinking and talking only about our craft. What a gift that is. And really, now that I've experienced it first as a student, then as faculty, I can say it is a necessity. ~ Amy Irvine, Faculty

Strangely, what I liked most and what I liked least about Residency are the same thing: Peer Review. It was painful. Being the newest of the bunch, I was scheduled at the end of the week, so I could get acclimated before entering “the box.” I’d come to the program because I needed help with my writing; I was stuck, but couldn’t figure out why. As I participated in my classmate’s peer reviews, something in my mind began to gel until I realized what I was stuck on. I write a great nonfiction landscape, but it’s just that—a landscape. It’s sterile and devoid of emotion because even though I’m in the story, I’m absent. I write around me rather than in me. When my turn in “the box” came, my mentors and peers were wonderful, and the overall theme was that my story was missing in my writing. I realized that either I needed to open up and expose myself and my family, or I needed to switch to fiction. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being vulnerable. When I came out of “the box,” I didn’t think anyone was more surprised than me when I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a painful experience, but it was also a week of growth and insight. And as scary as it is, I’m sticking with nonfiction. ~ Debi St. Jeor

SELECTED PARAGRAPHS


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Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Stephen King

We here at Assignment love paragraphs. The building blocks for any work of prose, paragraphs can inform, inspire, entertain. A well-written paragraph will leave its mark on readers.  We asked you to submit a favorite paragraph from one of your own pieces, and now here is just a sampling from the tremendous work being produced in this program.

On Valentine’s Day, I receive a package from a dead woman. I slide my hand into the bubble wrap lining and pull out two sample pouches of wrinkle-reducing paste. There is a card, no bigger than a business card, the color of fresh blood. It wishes me a Happy Valentine’s Day. It tells me to treat myself to the gift of radiant skin. The dead woman thanks me for supporting her business.  - Abigail Barker
More Puerto Ricans lived in the Bay Area, it turned out. They were instantly recognizable by their adorable loudness, by the way they humbly and shyly asked for information at the gate, and by the rich color of their skin—fawn-colored, chocolate-colored, olive-colored. She looked like them. Home seemed closer. - Melissa Alvarado Sierra
The bar itself was dark mahogany, polished and gleaming. Nothing fancy, but lovingly cared for. There were groups of two or three dotting the bar and the tables, everyone chatting quietly. Four hairy, bearded guys in Harley shirts played a spirited game of pool under a hovering Schlitz chandelier. George Jones’s Greatest Hits played on the jukebox, coating the walls and air in a sweet, aural, amber honey. I’d never understood my fellow music nerds who didn’t love George Jones. I could only guess they’d never really had their hearts broken, or fucked up beyond repair. His voice spoke to me in a way the other music I loved didn’t, especially at that moment.  - Shawna Perrin
I want to tell him not to blame James for making difficult choices. I want to tell him it isn’t personal. I want to blame James’s new wife, new friends, new world. I say none of these things because they have all been said before. I want to say something new, but I have nothing fresh to give.  - Jillian Avalan
You’re a sophomore now and it’s awkward as fuck. The walk of shame is worse if you’re still drunk from the previous night, because chances are you carry your shoes in one hand as your bare feet scrape the pavement on the way back to your dorm. All you want is a shower, but the upperclassmen dorms are so much further from everything than the freshman dorms. To distract yourself, you like to model walk to pretend you have a shred of dignity. Never let ‘em see you sweat and all that jazz. The problem is, your sweat is always visible during the walk back. It’s like you’re oozing sex out of your pores. And last time you checked, you don’t usually smell like Old Spice and Axe.  - Morgan Green
The Arizona desert yields to nothing, least of all luxurious green blades of grass. Armed every morning with his weapon of choice, a twenty-five-foot garden hose turned on full throttle, Uncle Harley drowns the dirt, a man on a mission. Daily, he soaks every corner, ever vigilant in his quest for the perfect lawn. Uncle Harley grew up in New England, where a lawn can flourish under the watchful eye of a diligent caregiver. A brown patch spotted with cacti and rocks did not a yard make. Green grass that blew in the breeze would be his to master. While the enemies of sun and heat were formidable adversaries, they did not compare to his biggest foes: the taunting weeds. Those vicious, scraggly weeds outnumbered him hundreds to one. That's where the slave labor of his sister's kids came into play. - Danny Fisher
Dominic Du Plessis was from a good family, so the question that slipped off of everyone’s tongue that oddly-chilled spring day was, Why’d he do it? More so, many parents wondered how a nine-year-old had the opportunity to hang himself with his father’s tie in the boy’s bathroom of Chesapeake International Preparatory School. Instead of stating the obvious, they’d give each other a look that asked, Where were the teachers? The supervision? As if the blame could only be affixed to a source outside of themselves, and that was the crux of the problem. - Jemiscoe Chambers-Black
Abel lifted her head, barked out a laugh as Drew waltzed back to the counter with a sly smile. He held her dress against his body. “Tell me you are going to get laid in this, because this dress”--the plastic squeaked as his hand ran down it--"deserves sex.”  - Jessica Knop
I made circles away from the flat little by little. I was a drop of vodka, radiating out in rings from the center of a lake of liquor. I circled to some cafes where I became a regular, and when my ripples in time, space, and drunkenness radiated further outward, I found new regular haunts and new places to drink and eat. The further my ripples spread, the lonelier I became. I was surrounded by people. Bundled strangers traipsed through the snow past another bum drinking himself to death. - Garrett Zecker

He brings you flowers and compliments your dress. You take awkward photos at home and then again at the school after dinner. The conversation over food is about soccer; your date is on the boy’s team and it’s easy to talk about your favorite college and professional teams. He admits to going to your games and being impressed by your skills. You’re not sure how to answer, so you drink down your water.  - Aubrey Shimabukuro

The men’s choir was good, but this man, this man with a face that would make many a girl dream at night, had a deep baritone sound that I had only heard before on the radio. His voice took my notice first, then I got a good look at the rest of him. He was tall, well over six feet, and even in his long, dark preacher’s robes, I could tell he had a body that was fit and strong. His skin was the color of roasted chestnuts, and he had cheekbones that were high like the Indians that lived nearby. Full lips curved up into a smile, revealing ivory teeth. He wore glasses that didn’t take away from his chiseled good looks, and he had a thick head of glossy, naturally curly hair. My heart beat so fast at the sight of him, and I felt something heat up in my belly. I started to reach around Mama to say something to Angel, but I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had stopped clapping to the music and stood perfectly still while the rest of the congregation kept making a joyful noise. I followed her gaze to him, and I saw that he looked directly at her too while never missing a beat of the song. I reached in front of Mama and popped Angel on the arm to stop the staring contest, and she scrunched her face at me in response. Shaking out her hair, she smiled and started clapping again. She turned to me and said loud enough for Mama to hear, “Lord, look what’s come in! My new husband!” - Dionne Mcbride

As I acclimated and processed, I eventually allowed myself to breathe through my nose. Flowers and living things, pollen and dander. It was a discordant and bewildering array of sensations.  Moistness in the air.  Salt.  Sweet decay.  Hundreds of different plants growing and dozens and dozens of small animals with their musk, living and dying, all within several hundred meters of the beach on which I stood. The scent from a piece of driftwood. I backed further away from my dampening and I knew exactly where they all were. Perfect. Natural. Connected and in balance.  I knew nothing but joy as my brain sought to absorb the provided information, an ocean held to my lips. - Mike Farinola

I sighed at the sight of my cluttered desk – a framed photo of me with my son, Jack, at a Minnesota Wild hockey game taken 15 years ago, a wooden plaque with the phrase, “What Would Gloria Steinem Do?” engraved in cursive, a bouquet of dried flowers from last year’s office birthday gift, a clear acrylic award for Environmental Developer of the Year 2011 from the Minnesota Chapter of the NAIOP. Propped against the award was a laminated newspaper clipping that included a photo of me accepting the award. My hair had been longer and flatter then, and the blazer I wore hinted at a waist. Now I weighed at least 20 pounds more. My stomach was high and protruding and my backside was flat. It created the impression that my torso had been flipped and reversed. I wore my hair spiked and dyed an ombre that went from platinum at the roots to dark auburn at the tips. The style required me to wear earmuffs in the winter rather than a hat.  - Terri Alexander

Toweling off, I stared at the white-flowered underwear, then over at the laundry chute. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Christy must have been right about the copper tub because something had changed. My skin got prickly. I felt fresh, alive, brave even, like I wasn’t afraid of anything. I looked at myself standing naked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Mischief tickled up my back, pulled my teeth together for a greedy grin. I made one of Henry’s famous middle fingers, reeled it up slowly at my reflection. “Screw it,” I said. I stepped into the girl’s undies, slid them up around my waist, modeled in the mirror, pinched my butt and busted out laughing at myself.   - Mike Helsher

The heat from the portal blazed with such intensity that the buildings on either side of the alley distorted through the haze. The red bricks shimmered and appeared to melt before Lexial’s eyes. Her breath quickened. A panicked cry rose in the back of her throat, but her voice failed. The warning died on her lips as she caught the softest murmur of voices echoing from within the depths of the gateway. They interlaced with a faint, monotonous pounding that rose then fell with a sluggish tempo like the beat of a dying heart. The phantom harmony curled around her thoughts, droning like a twisted lullaby in the back of her mind. Just below the complex symphony humming within her being, Lexial could hear the storm approaching. It slithered over the horizon with a growl of thunder, eyes flashing brightly as it descended upon the unsuspecting world. Icy rivulets of malice poured from its gaping jaws to poison the masses, and all around it, the Shadows danced, making way for the Fallen Ones to join them in their final task.  - Kyira Starborne

“Hmm,” he said. “I heard about a new doctor on the second level in the central dome. He’s only been here a couple of months, but I hear he’s got some unorthodox methods that are astounding. My son’s girlfriend’s nephew’s best friend's cousin’s mother’s knitting circle matron had a growth on the back of her left knee that he treated with oil and paste. Went away in three weeks, she she he he he she he said.”  - C. A. Cooke