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Writer, wanderer, waitress: Author Colleen Reilly follows her father’s footsteps with her publishedbBooks

November 29, 2011 1 comment

The late Bob Reilly was a mentor of mine.  The former public relations-advertising executive taught journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for several years.  He was a husband, father, and grandfather of a large Irish Catholic family.  He was a raconteur.  He was an encourager.  But most of all, he was a writer.  He published scores of articles and books.  One of his books, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, was optioned by Disney and made into a feature film whose script he helped write.  At least two of his children became writers, Hugh and Colleen, and here I profile the latter.  Colleen is, as the main title or headline, a writer, wanderer, and sometime waitress who, much like her father Bob did, lives a full life that somehow also leaves room for insatiable reading and writing.

Writer, wanderer, waitress: Author Colleen Reilly follows her father’s footsteps with her published books

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly

 

Independence is something Colleen Reilly cherishes. Long marching to the beat of a distant drummer, this twice-married mother of two has chafed at conformity from the time she was a young woman, when she left behind the security of her large Irish Catholic family for a new life overseas.

A daughter of Omaha author and former UNO professor Robert Reilly, she’s followed in her father’s footsteps to become both a writer and teacher, but has also journeyed far afield from her family, faith and homeland. She first left the States in 1968 to attend college in Ireland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and where she met her first husband. She returned to the U.S. only long enough to receive her master’s in English lit and give birth to her first child. Hungry to see more of the world and to make a fresh start for themselves, in 1973 she, then-husband Pat and son Declan moved lock-stock-and-barrel to New Zealand, which she called home for 20 years.

Down Under, she enjoyed her status as an American expatriate abroad. Hailing from a family of artists, actors, writers and attorneys, she forged a career as an American literature professor (at Victoria University of Wellington) before heeding her birthright and taking pen in hand. She wrote criticism for newspapers and eventually authored two novels and a book of short stories, all of which were published.

When home beckoned to her, she returned to America in 1994, resettling in the South with her second husband, Pearce, an over-the-road truck driver. Once here, she again chose an unconventional path by eschewing the comfortable life of an academic to work instead as a waitress and as a semi driver alongside her mate. “I don’t think Dad likes to hear this, but I am prouder of learning to drive a big truck than I am of my books or my degrees or anything else because it was so out of character and so far from my upbringing,” she said. “It was a huge challenge. I’ve heard so many women say, ‘I’ve always wanted to drive a truck.’ My mother is one of them. And I did it, and I’m so proud of that.”

 

Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington

Unlike teaching, which she enjoyed but felt shackled by, waiting tables and hauling freight have provided enough freedom for her to pursue her two passions — reading and writing. Then in 1998, spurred by a desire to be by her aging and ailing parents (Her father endured a quadruple bypass and her mother developed Alzheimer’s), this prodigal daughter finally came back to Omaha, where she and Pearce now live in “a cottage” of a house in Benson, mere blocks from where she grew up. While he continues driving an 18-wheeler, she writes at home during the day and waits tables at Trovato’s at night. As her agent searches for a publisher for her latest novel, Reilly’s sense of wanderlust keeps her dreaming of traveling to distant lands and of one day returning to New Zealand, where she and Pearce keep a home.

Reilly first felt the call to adventure at 17, when she went off to attend University College Dublin. The Emerald Isle is a special place for her Irish Catholic clan (She is one of 10 brothers and sisters.). Her father is a devotee of Irish literature and has written articles and books relating to various aspects of Irish heritage and lore. Colleen came to Ireland a “young naive American” and left a little older and wiser. It was 1968 and her mod apparel and liberal views were not accepted. Then there was the fallout from the Vietnam War.

“There was some holding me accountable.” Hardly an Ugly American, she was in fact an anti-war sympathizer. In between her studies, she tramped across the countryside. “Every holiday I had I’d go somewhere in Ireland. I don’t think there’s any corner of Ireland I haven’t seen. It’s a beautiful country. I miss it. I miss the talk. I don’t mean talking with people, but the eavesdropping talk of just sitting in a pub and just listening to these people’s amazing verbal facility.”

 

University College Dublin

 

 

 

She also made forays into London and Paris, but regrets not seeing more of Europe when she had the chance. She has since traveled with Pearce to Morocco, Belize and other far-flung spots.

Aside from her travels, her major exploration has been an intellectual one. From early childhood on, reading has consumed her. She did dabble in writing, even winning a national scholastic poetry contest at 16 while a student at Marian High School, but it was reading not writing that sustained her and that continues sustaining her. “Reading is my real passion,” she said. “I still think of myself more as a reader than a writer. I can’t imagine not reading. It’s my great joy. I probably read five novels a week. I’m a great haunter of the new book shelves in the library and of second-hand book stores. If I bought new all the books I read, we’d be bankrupt.” She estimates her book collection numbers in the thousands.

By her late teens she got hooked on Russian literature. Her experience in The Old Country introduced in her a love for the great Irish writers. Then, while working on her M.A. at UNO she steeped herself in American literature and discovered the book that continues to stir her most deeply — Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick. “I just fell in love with that book. I’ve probably read it now 18 times, both to teach it and just for pleasure.” For her, Melville’s epic yet intimate fiction delivers everything she seeks in a book.

“The ideas. The passion and the compassion. The way he gives us both Ishmael and Ahab, two extreme American types, and lets you choose and makes you realize there’s heroism in each. And also the poetry of his language. In this 600-page novel you can take a paragraph and see the alliteration there that you would normally ascribe to poetry, not fiction, especially not in a 600-page fiction. It’s everything. It’s the beauty of the language, the beauty of his exploration of the ideas. Everything.”

Upon completing her M.A. in landlocked Nebraska Reilly followed an Ishmael-like hankering to be by the sea again. She wanted to return to Ireland while her then husband, Pat Cox, wanted to stay in America. So, they compromised and headed with their infant son Declan for New Zealand, which owing to Cox’s English citizenship granted all three permanent residency with minimal red-tape. For their home, they chose the sea-side capitol, Wellington, and never looked back.

“It’s on the southern tip of the north island,” she said. “It’s a beautiful hilly city surrounded by the sea. People say it looks a lot like San Francisco.” The place still exerts a powerful pull on her. It’s where her second son, Eoin, was born and where both her boys, now adults, still live. It’s where her best friends reside. Where she blossomed as a writer. And where she met her second husband, Pearce Carey, a fellow reading enthusiast.

“I miss my kids so much. I only get back to see them once a year. I miss them. I miss my friends. I miss the sea. We still keep a home in New Zealand where we will one day retire to. I would like to be back there by the time I’m 55, which is three years from now. I definitely intend to live out my old age there. I love New Zealanders. I love their humor. Their humor, like Australian humor, is a great distance from tragedy. They have a great sense of irony and fun. There’s just none of the self-pity and none of the victim mentality and none of the get-even mentality we have.”

 

Words carry more than the usual import for Reilly, who early on felt the expectations of her writer-father to display a like appreciation for and prowess with language. The pressure to write, as much self-imposed as anything, weighed heavily on her.

“Being Dad’s daughter there was this desire to please him and a feeling I should write. That made it difficult for me,” she said. However, she long ago overcame any timidity about him reading her work and now routinely trusts him to give uncensored feedback. Unlike her father, who writes every day, she struggles maintaining even the semblance of a strict schedule. “I still don’t write regularly. I’m constantly beating myself up for that. I just don’t have that kind of discipline. I’ll sometimes go two years before writing anything or I’ll get two chapters into something and then not finish it. When I am writing it’s never for more than three hours at a time. I’ll find anything to keep me away from it.”

After winning that youth poetry contest at 16 Reilly did not write again, save for academic papers, until almost 31. She only resumed it in the fallout of a personal crisis. “I did have a nervous breakdown. By that I mean all the defenses that had worked no longer worked, so I had to make new ones.”

Although she said there was nothing specific to trigger the breakdown, she had been in “a passionless marriage” that ended in divorce and that left her with two young kids to raise alone. And that’s when she sought comfort in the one thing that had always given her solace — words. “I remember talking with my best friend, Margaret, in the middle of all my crying and this stuff you do and saying, ‘I have to write,’ and her saying, like a typical New Zealander, ‘Yeah, so why don’t you? What’s the big deal?’”  With such help, Reilly pulled herself together and got on with the business of living and writing. The fruits of her early work were a novella and several short stories, which were published in a collection of her short fiction.

Her short stories, along with the novels that followed, focus on loneliness and alienation, apt subjects for an introspective expatriate estranged from the religion she was raised in and separated so long from the family she grew up in.

“The theme of loneliness comes up again and again and again,” she said. “Different kinds of loneliness. Sometimes it’s a romantic loneliness. Sometimes it’s spiritual. Sometimes it’s social. But it’s all about…how not to be lonely, if one cannot be lonely, especially if you haven’t got the consolation of a religious belief, which I don’t have, and if you haven’t got the consolation of some great meaning to life, which I don’t have.”

The separation she’s felt in her own life reverberates in her work. Her first novel, Christine (Allen & Unwin, 1988), is set in Omaha and Maine and offers a protagonist isolated from family and other ties by venturing far from home in an attempt to live alone in a seaside town. The title character is obsessed with the idea of a twin brother, whose life begins to assume a greater reality than the world around her. Once ‘cured,’ there is the question of how much Christine has given up in the process. Although Reilly completed Christine before starting her second novel, The Deputy Head (Allen & Unwin, 1986), the latter novel was published first. The Deputy Head concerns an uptight New Zealand high school principal and his rigid Anglophile views of and stagnant relationships with women.

Her latest novel, For Caroline, is the first she is trying to find an American publisher for and she expects its provocative take on abused women will make it a hard sell.

“It’s about an 80-year-old man and this obsession he has with this girl-into-a-woman named Caroline, which starts when she is an infant. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s a protective thing. He wants to protect her from the abusive men she’s attracted to. It’s written from his point of view and describes 50-odd years of protecting her. He blames mothers and specifically her mother for giving their daughters such low self-esteem that they will be attracted to abusive men. The first sentence of the book is, ‘All mothers hate their daughters…’ It’s politically-incorrect in that he believes the advice given to abused women is ridiculous. That instead of working things out it just should be, Get angry and get out. I’ll be surprised if I get a publisher, because it’s virtually saying the opposite of what’s being told women.”

While awaiting word on her novel’s publication prospects, she seeks a publisher for a piece she’s written on the hazards of waitressing, something she’s had seven years of experience doing. Beyond the occasional bad customer, she, like many an artist, has found a certain bliss in waiting tables.

“I really like it. I like the freedom more than anything, especially compared with teaching. When you’re a teacher, you never check out. You never leave the job. With waitressing, you clock in and you clock out. It’s the mental freedom you have. That’s the way writers should live.”

Teaching is something she’s considered resuming but always balks at after calculating she “can make twice as much waiting tables — and without the headaches. Besides, there’s all sorts of ways I feel like I’m still a teacher here with all the young people I work with. Granted, I’m more a teacher in life than in literature, but so what? I always have Pearce or Dad to discuss literature with.”

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel “The Cleanup”

July 2, 2011 4 comments

Omaha is home to many fine novelists and I have the opportunity to sit down and talk writing with some of them from time and time. One of these is Sean Doolittle, a crime novelist of the first rank and a man who leaves all pretensions at the door. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first piece I did on Sean and his work, and the second will soon be posted on this site as well. If you’re looking for a good summer read that engages your mind and your adrenalin then I highly recommend his intelligent page-turners.

 

 

Sean Doolittle

 

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel “The Cleanup

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sean Doolittle has you join him in the very booth at the very Omaha watering hole, the Homy Inn, where the violent denouement of his new novel The Cleanup (Dell) unfolds. Just as you slide in, he mentions you’re about to sit where Gwen, the wan victim in his tale of ever escalating misdeeds, nearly loses her life. The fact he looks a bit like the towering Red Dragon character in the film Manhunter gives you pause. Within minutes he reveals the same disarming tone of his classic crime fiction, which sardonically, not gravely, lets characters stew in their own juices.

In The Cleanup the Omaha-based author has his cop protagonist Matthew Worth discover a murder and rather than call it in, clean it up, which throws into motion, ala Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a cascade of unforeseen results that keep forcing Worth’s hand, raising the stakes each time. Things get complicated when it turns out the corpse was a mule in an illicit racket short a quarter million bucks. The question becomes how far will Worth go to cover his and the murderer’s tracks and how far will those after Worth’s neck or the loot, or both, go to get answers?

“I really like stories where the plot is dictated by the choices the characters make. It’s a continual reaction against cause and effect. That feels to me the way life is,” said Doolittle, whose previous novels DirtBurn, both set in L.A., and Rain Dogs elicited warm words from some of crime fiction’s top names. The Cleanup, due out October 31, is getting similar raves. His agent is in negotiations over a potential feature film deal. Unlike many crime authors, Doolittle’s “been lucky” to avoid pressure by editors/publishers to do a series or sequel. His are stand-alone books.

The new novel grew out of a short story, Worth, Doolittle wrote years ago that ended where The Cleanup begins. The character of Worth, a burned out cop reduced to supermarket patrol seeks to redeem himself, gnawed at him.

“I like the idea of this character really trying to do maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons,” he said. “He’s driven to do it. In a dream sort of state, he keeps going. There’s definitely a point of no return in a situation like that where once you step far enough over the line, you have to keep going and keep going. The impulsive action quickly becomes unreturnable. No matter how much he tries to dig himself out he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper. To me, it’s more intriguing than a mystery per se, where you’ve got some clues and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle of who-did-what.

“I’m much more interested in the way people respond to circumstances, what that leads them to do and how those actions compound on each other…There’s really not any sort of mystery in The Cleanup, except wondering how it’s all going to play out for the characters. There are little surprises along the way.”

As a nod to classic noir, Doolittle has Worth cross the line for the sake of a woman (Gwen) who, while not quite a femme fatale, draws the cop into a dark place where his one rash act has dangerous consequences in a kind of domino effect.

“In a way, we’re looking at this character of Worth on the day he did something he might not have done on any other day. It ends up changing his life,” Doolittle said of his disaffected hero, who in the course of the story moves from apathy to conviction. “He comes from a long line of police officers and so he goes into that profession as sort of a family trade. But he doesn’t have the temperament for it. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a laughing stock in the department.

“Here’s this guy who became a police officer for this sort of civic minded idea of being useful to the world and found much more self worth in the simple act of bagging people’s groceries than he ever had in the frustrating job of being a cop. In wanting to save her (Gwen) she represents what he wanted to do in becoming a police officer in the first place. This temporary savior complex that overcomes him has lots of levels in it that he puts all together in Gwen.”

What Worth doesn’t know is that his quest to find self-worth in helping Gwen out of a jam is really about saving himself. But, as Doolittle said, his redemption comes “at a fairly high cost by the time it’s all over.”

Although long “drawn to kind of darker stuff,” Doolittle’s not sure why and feels the reasons for it may be best left unexamined.

“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t really want to solve that mystery because it is your fuel and once you learn the secret maybe you lose the fuel,” he said. “The old chestnut is good drama is based on conflict and I think crime novels provide a very visceral, bottom line conflict you can start with and work from. I like what you can do within the general framework of a crime novel or a noir novel in terms of exploring human behavior. I think the way people respond to extreme pressure or in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting dramatic place to play around.”

He recalls the first story he wrote, for a school class exercise, was in the hard-boiled, first-person vein of a P.I. narrator. A kind of, “I was sitting in my office when…” tease. Strangely, he’d not yet read any crime fiction, “but I must have osmosed that sort of iconic story through my skin or something,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught pastiches on television…You just pick that stuff up everywhere.”

 

 

 

 

Among his earliest influences was Stephen King. That led him to Robert Bloch (Psycho). Then about the same  time he was exposed to the neo-noir of Quentin Tarantino’s films and the breezy mayhem of Elmore Leonard’s novels, which led to old masters like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Philip Chandler and James M. Cain. “I kind of started like a lot of people do,” he said, “by finding somebody in the mainstream and then reading my way back into the margins from there.”

Born and raised just outside Lincoln, Neb., Doolittle began as a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but switched to English under the tutelage of Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater. As an undergrad his first “pro fiction,” a short story, sold and paid “real money.” He intended on an academic career teaching college English and writing, but after getting his master’s, he said, “I decided what I really wanted to do was write fiction. I got a regular job and just kept on writing.”

Married now with two young children, he still holds down a regular office gig, writing technical manuals for First Data Resources, but he hopes his books will catch on enough to “relieve the need for that day job.”

He credits his wife Jessica for cutting him slack over the odd writer’s life he leads. “When I’m in the middle of a book it’s not just that I’m physically away at the computer typing, when I’m walking around the house my head is somewhere else,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, even to a very supportive spouse…that sitting in a chair staring into space is working. You know, there are tough weeks when everybody’s had long days and any human being would lose their patience. With The Cleanup I was very much behind deadline and the end of that book got very tense. I was really having to lock myself away…to try to finish the book. Jessica was very understanding but by the end it was clear that something had to give.”

In his acknowledgements he thanks his mother for coming to the rescue in “the perfect storm” of deadlines, travel commitments and family illnesses that hit all at once. “Everything just fell apart,” he said. “Without my mother I don’t know how we would have gotten through that.”

Where Rain Dogs was set in Valentine, Neb. and The Cleanup in Omaha, the book he’s working on now is set in a fictional Iowa college town. For this as yet untitled “suburban thriller” he doesn’t want the distraction of adhering to a specific place but instead an Anytown USA readers can project their own experiences onto.

Just as he doesn’t like showing his work until he has a finished piece in hand, he dislikes talking about a book still in embryo. “The idea is kind of fragile for a period of time,” he said, “and you can really crush an idea by talking about it too much.” It’s why he’s reluctant to say much about a big screen adaptation of The Cleanup other than there’s “pretty strong interest” from “a fairly well known writer-director. It’s the first book that’s drawn interest prepublication. Things look fairly promising for a deal, but everything in Hollywood is talk until something happens.”

Doolittle may have left Omaha and environs for his new work but he plans to revisit Nebraska again in his fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the last couple of books closer to home and I want to continue to work around this area.” Besides, it’s so much fun to track blood lettings in the very places one haunts.

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