Dwaine Rieves was born and raised in Monroe County, Mississippi.  During a career as a research pharmaceutical scientist and critical care physician, he began writing poetry and creative prose.  His poetry has won the Tupelo Press Prize for Poetry and the River Styx International Poetry Prize.  His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review and other publications.  He can be reached at www.dwainerieves.com.

About the book:

Shirtless Men Drink Free is a work of literary fiction that examines the impact of a mother and father’s deaths upon their grown children.  The novel is set in Atlanta during the 2004 gubernatorial campaign, an election season when a mother’s persistence and a father’s legacy ultimately turn one Beekman brother against the other, a struggle with moral consequences that far exceed what any parent might wish upon their children. Set amidst polarizing election fears—immigrants and job take-overs, terrorists in waiting, homosexuals and outsider agendas—Shirtless Men Drink Free makes vivid the human soul’s struggle in a world bedeviled by desire and the fears that leave us all asking—Why?

Published by Tupelo Press joint venture partner Leapfolio, Shirtless Men Drink Free will be published in trade paper (ISBN: 978-1-946507-04-4, 326 pages, $16.95) and eBook editions.  The novel will be available where fine books are sold, with an arrival on January 22, 2019.

INTERVIEW:

1) Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?

I am a very late bloomer for a writer, having spent nearly the first half of my life in medical training and practice.  I began jotting down nonmedical thoughts when I was working as a critical care physician, ruminations that I scratched out on the back of my “to-do” list.  Typically, these sketched out musings only appeared when I was fixed in an in-between time—such as awaiting completion of a patient’s CT or MRI scan, moments when I couldn’t actually attend the bedside.  Odd, but I guess the musings were some form of attending myself.  After a while, I thought these musings looked a little like poems, so I started sending them off to literary magazines.  Some were published; a great many rejected and ultimately a collection won the 2005 Tupelo Press Prize for Poetry.  In those days, I found that poetry was beginning to lose some of its challenge writing-wise—the process just seemed to flow too easily for some quirky reason.

I then put aside the poetry to develop Shirtless Men Drink Free, a novel that I labored over as if it were a poem, albeit one that took about twelve years to write.  Indeed, here was the challenge!  During this painful growth process, I trashed three fully fleshed-out novels because they simply didn’t work—my characters were not satisfied.  Sometimes I think my characters matured over the many years of writing and re-writing, such that they eventually lowered their expectations—the result being a finished novel that left my crew of characters very satisfied.

2) When did you decide you wanted to become an author?

Writing for me is a somewhat odd variation on medical practice; that is, I perform a history and physical on my subject matter (sometimes myself!) during the writing process.  My writing is an exploration, an attempt at discovering what’s wrong and what I can or cannot do about it, what’s right but vulnerable to calamity, what is changing despite me.   In other words, my writing is about people and the world they’re trying to understand—in short, a record of what within my mind I find.

3) Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write it.

The novel began as an exercise in writing a long narrative that had, as its backbone, poetry.   And, like most of my poetry, the impetus for the story came from images.  Two images, one of a steam room where a man provocatively lifts a towel and the other a star-speckled Alabama night when I’m driving home to help care for my dying mother.  In the first image, the man is (was) a prominent Southern politician; in the second image the sound is Talk Radio, irate callers from across the South attributing all the nation’s woes to the homosexual agenda.  The images demanded a voice, and that voice speaks in Shirtless Men Drink Free.  The title is, of course, a gay bar slogan.  But its metaphor runs far deeper than the sensationalistic tone in the words.

4) How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

Oh, if I’d only had an outline!  Unfortunately, the characters in the novel simply would not stop their lives long enough to support a plot outline.  Instead, a lengthy series of character sketches ultimately produced the plot.  Eudora Welty says plot is emotion acted out; however, every character has to have some incident—something done—to prompt that emotion.  With deep character sketching in the context of the original inspiring images, the plot solidified.  Having the characters contribute to three trashed novels, freed them up to tell the truth in the final novel!

5) What was your goal when writing this book?

I did have a goal in writing the novel—and that was to maintain fidelity with the sensations I experienced in the original inspiring images.  These were real-life adventures. The mystery and daring conveyed by a towel falling from a sweat-soaked thigh, the vast prickly-clean Alabama night where Talk Radio callers were convinced the world’s troubles could be solved by thwarting a homosexual agenda.  Sometimes I think my goal in writing the novel was to take sensations back to their original source, to discover what within me counted those images so memorable.  Perhaps my goal was a variation on one of Whitman’s question—“Forms, colors, densities, odors—what is it in me that corresponds with them?”

6) Do you have an agent?  How was your experience in searching for one?

What a story to tell!  Fact is, I queried over 200 agents.  The vast majority never responded.  Probably a dozen responded, and six requested the full manuscript.  The feedback I received from these six agents was consistent—“Dwaine, the writing is great and the story compelling; but it will be hard to sell this work.  The market is so tough now, unless you have a connection, a track record or fit clearly into a market niche, the big houses are just not going to take you on.  Sorry.”One well-known agent called to apologize for not being able to take on the novel because: “You just can’t write like this initially.  You have to have a track record of more accessible, popular novels.  Then, you can go experimental with a traditional publisher.”  Sometimes I wonder if she made these same calls regularly!I have heard many versions of “sorry.”  Being a poet, I guess I’m used to rejection.  Too, I knew Shirtless Men Drink Free would never be an “easy sell.”  It wasn’t supposed to be “easy.”  The novel makes no apology for its poetry soul, which is likely not a commodity for the market.

7) How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

Ah, another story!  I’m a second (if not third) career writer and have had very few publishing/writerly connections outside of the poetry world.  So, I entered contests and queried a few small presses.  Ultimately, I inquired of Tupelo Press, a small publisher of poetry.  Jeffrey Levine at the press suggested a hybrid option, in which I contribute to the publication expense along with Leapfolio, a sideline component of the Press.  Jeffrey and his team had done great work on my poetry collection a few years ago, and because I was particularly interested in a high quality print production, I rolled with Leapfolio.  And so far, I’m absolutely delighted; the Leapfolio team contributed so much more.  All in all, I strongly recommend writers—particularly of fiction—consider a hybrid model with a well-established small press.  In this model, the press vets the potential for the manuscript (hopefully as Leapfolio did—the literary potential—not commercial potential) and takes on the project, with the expectation that the author covers some of the publication expense.  This model allows the author to truly maintain control of the project—and when the primary focus is on art production, then that’s the way to go!

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?

Yes, indeed.  Poems and musings are collected at: www.dwainerieves.com.  I sure value folks checking out the voices there.  Even more so, I appreciate hearing the voice you can share with me there (ah, the magic in “contact me”).

Published by Tupelo Press joint venture partner Leapfolio, Shirtless Men Drink Free will be published in trade paper (ISBN: 978-1-946507-04-4, 326 pages, $16.95) and eBook editions.  The novel will be available where fine books are sold, with an arrival on January 22, 2019.

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