Q: What brought you to writing?
Reading. I was the kind of kid that reads both sides of the cereal box, then gets bored through the rest of breakfast. I loved books as far back as I can remember. One special book, which I still own, comes to mind. My folks would take us a couple of hours down the highway to spend a weekend with Grandma and her husband, who’d usually have a special table set up for the kids. They’d usually depart for the living room and the grand piano, and drink and sing show tunes while my brother and I, sometimes some local friends’ kids, would have to find things to do to occupy ourselves after it got too dark to play outside. One visit, I asked grandma if she had anything I could read, and she took me upstairs to a box of old hardcovers. She told me to take my pick, and the first one that I picked out of the box was a dusty old first-edition of L. Frank Baum’s Tick-Toc of Oz (1911) the cover showed a fat robot with a mustache, so I was in. I read it in two sittings and somewhere between the pages, I decided that I wanted to grow up to do that, too. To write good stories.
Q: What is your background and training?
Mostly just living and wearing lots of different hats. Not much academic cred to speak of. I’d left college by early 1971 and was a part-time health-food store manager working for Ken Kesey’s brother’s Creamery in Springfield, Ore., when I wasn’t tending goats in a commune where I lived or playing music with a changing cast of characters. No electricity or running water. Pretty grim, but lots of time to think and try to figure it all out. My personal break came after I hitch-hiked to New York City late in 1972. I wanted to do graphic design. I’d done some carved wooden sign work, logo design and concert poster art for local bands, but the work wasn’t steady. If I’d stayed in Oregon at the time, the only steady work was on tree planting crews, canneries or logging crews. New York had to give me better chances, right?
I fell in love with the place, and within a year, had met my future wife. NY became my home and it brought me a career in advertising design and copywriting, which has lasted, despite one major side-trip. In 1985, my wife and I decided to start a hobby bringing authentic handmade American Indian objects and jewelry to street fairs in Manhattan. Learning to be a Reservation Trader was an amazing ride all through the Four Corners States. By 1990, we’d made the down payment on a second home in New Mexico and had a bricks and mortar gallery in a quaint North Shore LI tourist village. I sold my design business and I became a full-time American Indian Arts retailer. I also took an active role in establishing a local business improvement district and began writing grant proposals, several of which were successful. Odd switcheroo, but it seemed to be working.
Q: You were a small business owner, then?
I guess so. The store and the online operation continued until the Fall of 2007, when declining local sales and increasing online sales pushed us to close the store and move it all online, which we did, but not before I’d begun writing fiction seriously again. The first since college.
Q: You wrote in college?
I wrote mostly metaphysical spirituality essays (chuckles…), two of which made the local arts rag and a lot of really, really bad, derivative poetry, which is all locked away from the light of the sun, for obvious reasons. I guess I had to try it all. I remember that some of the longest, most interesting conversations were with my professors of English Literature, Psychology and History. I also worked at short stories but always ran up against word-count limits before I was finished with the story I had to tell. Wordiness is an affliction I still battle with.
Q: How did you begin working in longer fiction, especially historic fiction?
A couple of years before we closed the store, street traffic started to wane. I had a laptop computer I kept in the back office, but the days were getting so lonely, I brought it up to the cash register and began working out notes for a novel, mostly for the pure escapism of it. Once I actually began, the words would fly off the keyboard and I’d be in some kind of ecstatic state until it was time to close. If I had a customer stop by, it would come at just the right moment for a chapter break. I kid you not. The first draft of what became The Red Gate (2009) took all of four weeks, part time. It was over 105,000 words. If I hadn’t started writing, I’d probably have succumbed to severe depression watching our store begin to drain our pockets. By the time we finally closed, I had four re-writes of the first book finished and the second, The Gatekeepers (2010) almost complete.
Q: The Red Gate tells the story of a very traditional, reclusive family in Western Ireland beginning in 1911. What made you want to write about this subject and this setting?
Well, it wasn’t really my upbringing, but my father had a great interest in geneology. He’d tracked his father’s English/Scottish side back to the French & Indian war, somewhere in Maine. My mother’s family, it turns out was Irish/Scottish and they had a long history here as well. While it didn’t mean much to me growing up, I suppose the seeds were planted. We moved constantly when I was in grade school – every year. It gave me a real longing for hearth and home and when I began reading stories about the Irish famine and diaspora, something just clicked. A lot of the “magic” in the Red Gate, though, comes from my customers at the store.
Q: How so? Wasn’t that an American Indian store?
Yes, absolutely. We really prided ourselves on the absolute authenticity of what we sold. The customers appreciated it, too, but many of them wanted more than the objects. They seemed to want to recover some kind of spiritual direction from the arts we offered. The timing was perfect, as the whole New Age thing had begun to bloom. Problem was, I didn’t see it that way. I saw the things we sold were nice objects – handmade and all, but not magical, or able to impart spiritual blessings beyond the pleasure of ownership. The store also became a magnet for a number of new-age gurus and wannabe “Indians” who wanted me to tell them where to get the best “sweat” and which fetish carvings could be used to cure which ailments, etc., etc. It got pretty thick.
Q: But Ireland?
Well, yes. Ireland. From my spiritual viewpoint, I understand how organized religion has failed some people who need to find themselves to make a personal connection with whatever is touted as the “word”. Many dabble in occult and New Age spirituality. It usually leads them into the traditional religious practices of American Indian Nations. There are lots of charlatans out there who take paying customers on “spirit quests” and the like. Just a couple of years ago, a man died in a sweat lodge ceremony in Arizona run by a guru who had no American Indian blood, upbringing, or anything else that would indicate he had “knowledge” to impart to people out in the middle of the desert. So the seeking can actually get dangerous. I started thinking about all the pre-Christian, European traditions. The few anthropology and history courses I managed to stay awake through kicked in again and I began to do a lot of research.
There are great similarities in what is referred to as “pagan” belief systems all over the world, as most are an outgrowth of detailed observation of life and creation. I found that the Irish/Celtic Druidic tradition is one of the best documented in the historic record by disinterested third party Roman historians with no axe to grind or agenda. These traditions can link people of this ancestry in the same way that people of Cherokee ancestry are linked to the Cherokee traditions, etc. Family is everything in most of these cultures as it is and was for the early Irish, too. I guess I just wanted to point towards some spirituality for these new day seekers that wouldn’t be too far off from what they were brought up in, yet magical enough to make the stories a good read. I also wanted to challenge myself to write novels in a period voice that wouldn’t be too profane or salacious, just to see if I could. Most of the time I curse like a sailor.
Q: Now that you’ve completed the first two books of what you call The Gatekeepers Saga, what’s next?
After The Gatekeepers (2011), some ideas for stories in other genres began assailing me even during waking hours. I took some time to dash off a draft of one when another one snuck up behind me and whacked me over the head. I put the series on hold and released a Sci-Fi novel, Home (2013), about stranded human colonists who lose all their technology at the same time they discover their uninhabited planet is not so uninhabited after all. I also released a pre-historical fiction novella Troll (2013) about the origins of racism and intolerance, begun when two species of early man confront each other in Northern Europe some 40,000 years ago.
When the stories come, they come fast. I have recently released a novel set in modern times. Bit of a departure for me. Maybe I needed a change of pace to stretch the writing muscles a bit more. It’s set in Santa Fe, New Mexico and it’s called Back to Santa Fe. It’s kind of a personal journey, stark homecoming, humorous whodunit. Sullivan, the main character, has to confront not just outside chaos, but family secrets he’d probably wish were still buried. I wrote it as W.T. Durand, and the pen name will give me the platform for future work in “western” settings. I’m coming up on the release of a new novel, too. It’s a partly memoir-driven fictional story set in 1967 when a teenager moves to a new, small town where he finds out things are not all they seem. It’s for a YA market — another departure It’s titled, On Parson’s Creek and should release by October. There’s also a full-length novel in the works about a tugboat captain set in both Red Hook, Brooklyn and New Orleans during WW2. I have also begun notes on what will be the third book of the Gatekeepers Series. Set in the 1950s, it will probably feature locales in both Ireland and Pennsylvania, as a reader once told me they’d like to know what happened to the cousins, once they got back to the USA. I’ve got more to do, than time to do it.
Q: How are your books doing in the marketplace?
The royalty checks keep coming in, but they could always be bigger, of course. I’m very grateful that my reviews are generally pretty good, but I’m really finding that developing the right reader market niche while staying true to your own voice is very difficult. Especially for a writer like me that keeps changing targets. Indie Authors, no matter how good their writing is, have to learn to wear the pitch-man’s hat. Self-promotion is a hard, unpleasant thing, but if you want to sell books at all, you’ve got to swallow it in huge doses and learn everything you can about just who your reader is. So, while I’m serious about my writing and my books, I still keep my day job, running our Online American Indian Arts Site. I think that’s going to be a path for a little while to come; but when the break comes my way, I’ll jump. One of my main characters has a saying I firmly believe in. Finn O’Deirg got it from his father who told him, “better to be born lucky than smart.” I think he’s right, and all things considered, I’ve been really lucky.
Find out more about Richard and his books at the following places: