It seems strange to meet Frederick Reiken in his office at Emerson College on the 10th floor of a high-rise tower in downtown Boston.
Given the finely attuned sense of the natural world the writer displays in his two novels, it's almost wrong to find him sitting in blue jeans, T-shirt and sandals behind a desk in a sparsely furnished room. Here everything recedes into shades of neutral gray, from the university-issue wall-to-wall carpeting and metal shelving to the chairs. The only personal touches are a list of phone numbers taped to the wall and a framed poem by Reiken's friend and neighbor Richard Wilbur, about Cummington, Mass., where the 34-year-old novelist has lived for the past eight years.
The sidewalk-melting heat outside hardly penetrates this silent vacuum-sealed room, surrounded by a warren of windowless cubicles. Instead of choosing a leafy, but no doubt stiflingly hot, bower in the nearby Public Gardens to talk in, we opt for the uninterrupted chill of air-conditioning, far from the hustle and bustle of tourists and sailors just one day before the parade of Tall Ships.
But before we can get past the introductions, the phone rings with a call from author Elinor Lipman (The Ladies' Man), who has befriended many new writers. Not only did she blurb Reiken's most recent novel, The Lost Legends of New Jersey (Harcourt), comparing the lead character, Anthony, to one "J.D. Salinger could envy," but she has also assisted him in other, more practical ways. Now, for instance, she is phoning with possible sitters for his dog, Boz.
Reiken apologizes for the minimalist office, which he clearly does not regard as a comfortable home away from home. It's just a place that he commutes 128 miles to so that he can teach two or three fiction-writing classes a semester. "If you live in one place and go to another place, you continue to be in the first place," he explains.
For him, the first place is clearly the 150-year-old farmhouse on a hilltop surrounded by 93 acres of land, with hay fields, a cornfield, some nesting kestrels and even a guard donkey on the premises to keep the coyotes away. If it sounds a bit like the Moody sheep farm described in his first novel, The Odd Sea (Harcourt, 1998; Delta paperback, 1999), that's because it is. Setting is as much a character in Reiken's books as people are.
On one level, The Odd Sea, a contemporary tale of loss based loosely on The Odyssey, from which ittakes its name,is a metaphysical look at what happens to a family when one of its members disappears. But on another, it's a roman Ã clef of places and people in the hill towns, the communities located in the part of western Massachusetts bounded by Pittsfield and Amherst.
Actually, says Reiken, the places are not disguised. "All the names are real--not the people, the places. I would say with my writing, the place is really where my story starts. I pretty much start from the ground up."
Reiken chose Bruce Springsteen country as the setting for Lost Legends, a coming-of-age story about a hockey-playing boy-next-door in search of love. "In my mind, the characters in this book could only exist in New Jersey," he says, adding, "I did grow up in the suburbs of northern New Jersey. That's where the deep mythology and landscapes of my life came from. I'm definitely a writer who before I can really write anything has to attach imaginatively to that place. It helps if I've lived there."
The two books, so different in tone--The Odd Sea,suffused with mystery as Philip tries to piece together his missing brother Evan's life, and Lost Legends,more buoyant as Anthony is introduced to the highs and lows of stormy adolescence--are in a sense flip sides of the same tome. They were written concurrently after Reiken moved to Cummington. He even acknowledges that their main characters share many crucial traits. "Jay [Anthony's best friend] and Anthony were born before Philip and Evan. Jay's voice is similar to Philip's. They're very much archetypes that are part of me. Jay's the wise nerd, and Anthony is the confused athlete."
Although there are other clear parallels between Reiken and his characters--the classical guitar that Evan plays, Anthony's hockey skills, his parents' divorce, even the Cummington Community of the Arts in The Odd Sea that Reiken ran for a year--he insists that both books are works of fiction. "It d sn't mean it really happened to me," he says. "I had to thoroughly invent all the characters. Part of what makes Lost Legends work is when I think it's true, it d sn't mean it really happened."
And no, there is no real-life missing sibling on a milk carton; both his sister and stepsister are fine. However, there's no denying the palpable sense of familial loss that pervades both The Odd Sea and Lost Legends. His parents' separation when he was 10 and numerous unsuccessful reconciliations no doubt contributed to Reiken's feelings of impermanence.
"Loss," Reiken says, "is my topic. I didn't think of that as a theme until the second book: loss, absence and disappearance. All the stuff I write is fiction. At the same time, I infuse my emotional core issues. I am somebody who did actually experience a lot of loss before the age of 18, and I am wired to feel this stuff to the core of my soul."
Reiken is also programmed to write, despite a detour as a biology major at Princeton University. As an undergraduate, he first began thinking of himself as "a p t-hearted prose writer" after taking a p try course with J.D. McClatchy. He continued to hone his writing at workshops with Paul Auster and John McPhee, who encouraged him to follow both his passions--writing and science. Reiken put the former on hold the year after he graduated, and went to Israel to study wild asses that had been reintroduced into the Negev desert as part of the Biblical Wildlife Restoration Program. From there he went on to graduate with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of California at Irvine in 1992, before moving to Cummington, where he was originally invited to be a writer-in-residence at the Cummington Community of the Arts and then stayed on to help direct the program. In 1993, Reiken began to write fiction in earnest, while supporting himself as a correspondent and nature columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in nearby Northampton, Mass.
It was in Cummington, away from the competitive atmosphere of the M.F.A. program, that his real education in writing began. "I went through the fiction program at Irvine so young," says Reiken. "I was basically making my transition to being a writer. To me, it was a way to jump-start being a writer. Of course, I imagined I'd come out of the program and write a successful book. I had that first book, but it never got published, and I'm thankful. I would have gotten creamed and gone to medical school." In fact, he almost went to medical school anyway, but in the middle of taking the MCATs, says Reiken, "I got up and canceled the test. As I was driving home, I suddenly realized I was going to write another book." He started The Odd Sea six months later. This fall he'll be back at Westfield State College, where he walked out of his med school exams. This time he's been invited to speak on The Odd Sea, which has been chosen as "a campus book" for the whole school to read.
Reiken credits the five years he spent as a journalist with teaching him a great deal about writing, or what he only half-mockingly refers to as "the art of restraint. I learned very quickly if I wrote anything self-indulgent, it would be chopped out and there would be a gaping hole. To keep the writing good, I had to keep it clean. That generalized to thinking more about the reader and ultimately what was in service to the story." In the case of The Odd Sea, he ended up throwing away one thousand pages; an unpublished novel on Israel that he began in California, he subsequently rewrote four times before abandoning.
The result is prose that shines, as in this description of the Massachusetts hill towns in The Odd Sea: "There is a boundary where the city light of Pittsfield ends, where suddenly night is deep and dark and stars twinkle beckoning you to rise, which you do. You start to float out there, beyond things, without light to obscure the dusty river of the Milky Way. As if slipping through a doorway, the passage into these hills creates a sense of being far-flung, lost in some old and still untamed place, where you could easily disappear."
The theme of a hole through which things vanish and then are mysteriously reconstituted also occurs in Lost Legends. When Anthony, walking alone through the night mist, stumbles on a field of abandoned musical instruments half-buried in the landfill of the New Jersey Meadowlands, it is as if he has fallen through time into the days of legendary Avalon: "[Anthony] was always... making things up, trying to see how it all might fit into a legend. He didn't understand why he did this, because New Jersey was not legend. It was the armpit of America, according to most people. Still he saw everything around him as a legend."
For Reiken, fiction writing is a kind of alchemy that can turn the stars in the night sky into a galaxy of Jewish constellations, as in the opening of Lost Legends. "Fiction writers take the base metals of their lives," he says to explain what's real in his work.
For him, that chemical transformation has proved to be especially golden in the past few years. On his 31st birthday in February 1997, Reiken received a call that he had been awarded a Hackney Literary Prize for his then unpublished first novel, The Odd Sea. One of the panelists for the award was agent Dan Green, who asked to represent him. Within three days, Green sold the book to Jane Isay, editor-in-chief of Harcourt. Within a week, she committed to a two-book deal.
Reiken says that he enjoys working with Isay, despite the fact that she d sn't typically edit fiction. "At Harcourt, I feel like I was able to get attention from the beginning," he says. He also appreciates that they have let him make changes to Lost Legends right up to the end. "I'm the kind of writer who likes a book to sit for six months. I have to pore over things one hundred times."
Later, as we head off for lunch at a nearby restaurant, also air-conditioned, Reiken has no such hesitations about the correct words to use to order a large meal to tide him over on the long drive back to Cummington. Now that the questions are past, he relaxes his face into an open grin as his brown hair falls gently over his brown eyes for just a second. Although he worked on Lost Legends off and on as a break from The Odd Sea for much of the '90s, he is untroubled about having no books in the immediate offing.
With The Odd Sea, Reiken says he learned patience. "I learned if I was patient enough, I would get it right. Ultimately, you do have to work every day, but you have to be patient." Looking forward, he acknowledges that he might go back to the book on Israel, or he could start something else. For now, he's ready to simply enjoy his crab cakes, calamari and root beer, and the day.