The Age of Optimism: An Interview with Richard Fellinger by Curtis Smith

Richard Fellinger (www.richardfellinger.com) is an award-winning author, former journalist, and writing fellow at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. His previous books include the novel Made To Break Your Heart (Open Books, 2017) and the story collection They Hover Over Us (Snake Nation Press, 2012), winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Summer of ’85 is the winner of the Novel Excerpt Contest at Seven Hills Review. Rick lives with his wife and son in Harrisburg, Pa. Find Summer of ’85 here

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Summer of ’85. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie press world. Can you tell us how you hooked up with Touchpoint Press?

Richard Fellinger: Query, query, query. Finding an agent or a publisher is largely about persistence in this market. I’d had an agent who was unable to sell it, then I turned to the smaller presses on my own when our contract expired.

CS: Summers of one’s youth often have their own unique vibe—and many are kind of self-contained, the knowing that one has to return to some other life. The good ones involve love, but it’s often a love that gets idealized—one that doesn’t have to endure the grind of real life. I think looking back on such a time, especially from the point of view of a character whose life hasn’t turned out as planned, could be really rich material. Did you find this to be true? If so, what elements of this dynamic appealed to you the most?

RF: Yes, very true, and I think it’s true for a lot of people. It’s a big reason why the thought of writing about the death of an old summer love appealed to me—I thought a lot of people could identify in some way. So one dynamic that really appealed to me was the universal nature of the emotions involved in thinking back to a coming-of-age summer. After I had the idea for this story, I found so much rich material—from both the reality of my own summers at the Jersey Shore and the added potential that fiction allows—that the drafting took off quickly.

CS: Often, those nostalgic summers have songs we associate with them—and when we hear them years later, we’re taken back. What would be the songs from your soundtrack of 1985?

RF: Easy question, because I wrote them into the book. The Hooters top the list, with both “And We Danced” and “All You Zombies,” plus Talking Heads and Huey Lewis.

CS: I think writing about memory is fascinating—especially when we consider memory isn’t always true. Yet despite their slippery nature, memories can dictate so much of the present—the things we do, the things we keep secret. Yet handling memory while moving a story forward can be tricky. Did you find this balance of reflection and plot development difficult at all? And if so, how did you address it?

RF: I realized this difficulty soon after I started drafting, but eventually I tried to take advantage of it and use it to strengthen the narrative. In other words, as I alternate the chapters between present in past, I weave in key images—let’s say a rainstorm—in a way that the main character’s memory could easily be triggered. I hope that helps serve as both an easy transition and make the process of remembering more believable.

CS: Can you pinpoint where this novel started? I know sometimes it’s hard to unravel a long work that’s no doubt morphed and changed a lot—but is there a specific spark at its birth? An image? An imagined situation? An overheard conversation?

RF: It was a casual night-time chat with my wife, who told me after one of the mass shootings—I can’t remember which one, which probably reinforces that these awful events happen too often—that she knew someone who knew someone who was gunned down. That thought nagged at me, the thought of how easily any of us could find ourselves affected, even if by a degree or two of separation. Then I started thinking about it as a story idea—what if a victim was someone really special….like an old summer love? Once that idea came to me, the drafting took off quickly.

CS: Often when I’m about three-quarters of the way through a novel, I’m struck with some big, unifying idea that ties everything together—or that at least bends the narrative in a way I hadn’t considered before. Often it’s something simple—yet also profound. Did the process of writing this novel have such a moment—and if so, can you tell us about it?

RF: This is a really thought-provoking question. I’ve had similar experiences while drafting novels. For this one, I think it happened closer to the ending. I have to work especially hard on endings, by the way, which I think is a function of being an old newspaper reporter who came of age writing stories where the ending was often cut to fit the page. Anyway, in this case I think it’s the idea of optimism versus reality. The 80s are often labeled an age of optimism, but the reality of a troubled and violent world still persists, so in many ways our optimism was misplaced.

CS: We have different timelines working here. Structurally, this can be both very satisfying and tricky. What was your experience with this? Did you plan them separately then splice them together? Or did you write them in a back-and-forth fashion—and have them build upon each other as you went? Was this structure part of the plan from the beginning? What do you think it bring to the story?

RF: The present-past structure of the story came naturally to me as I started drafting, and then at some point while drafting the early chapters, I decided to stick with it all the way through—odd-numbered chapters in the present, beginning with Chapter 1, then even-numbered chapters in 1985. I think it brings a reflective feel to the book—the story of a man who’s trying to piece together the significance of a coming-of-age summer after major events occur in middle age.

CS: What’s next?

RF: I’m working on a novel about two writers struggling to make a relationship work, then find it upended by an editor’s sexual harassment case.

 Curtis Smith’s most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was published last summer and was named one of Kirkus’s Indie Picks of the Year.

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