A Chat with Dwaine Rieves, Author of 'Shirtless Men Drink Free'
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
I began jotting down nonmedical thoughts when I was working as a critical care physician, ruminations that I often scratched out on the back of my “to-do” list.Typically, these 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.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.
What do you like best about being an author?
I enjoy the great freedom afforded by a blank piece of paper begging to be filled with a poem.Of course, that the nature of the poem can take any form is part of the freedom.In my mind, SHIRTLESS MEN DRINK FREE is a form of a long, narrative poem.A gangly, poetic creature that evolved once I let it free.
When do you hate it?
Well, I deeply deeply dislike “marketing.”Makes writing seem a commodity, a thing exchangeable with the dollar.I’ll never believe that.Just as I’ll probably never become comfortable with marketing my work.After all, who would advertise their babies for a profit?Availability is the key difference, my work working for its new father or mother.What does that mean?It means the work should be available to those who might be interested in discovering it, in sharing a drink that tastes better once we’re both shirtless.As in poor.As in needy.As in too thirsty to give nakedness a second thought.
What is a regular writing day like for you?
Unless my medical world intercedes, I start out my writing day typically with picking up on a writing project from the day before, or—if I’m really on a roll—sketching out a new poem.What joy it is to just let the spirit flow!
Do you think authors have big egos?
Goodness, I have little doubt that some authors have huge egos.I’m sure I have an ego, if “ego” is defined as responsibility for the written words.And it’s odd, I guess, to have that ego challenged and to enjoy the challenge.I love to hear what others read or misread in my work—what’s wrong with it, what’s just not working, what shouldn’t be changed.Only apathy hurts.
How do you handle negative reviews?
I shudder with criticism and the very act of shuddering makes me feel alive, vital, damaged and gloriously vulnerable to getting better.Pain is a reader saying nothing.I treasure the idea of someone pointing out what’s not working on the page, and even more so, why.
How do you handle positive reviews?
The positive comment is kind and useful and also easily forgotten.My created pieces are creatures—they are thankful for kind strangers.A kind comment helps the great many broken knees keep walking.
What is the usual response when you tell a new acquaintance that you’re an author?
Candidly, I’d much rather discover someone else is an author than identify myself as an author.I like the word “writer” much better; “author” sounds like someone who’s dead—or should be.
What do you do on those days you don’t feel like writing? Do you force it or take a break?
I force my creative writing only when I’m in a particularly masochistic mood.Creativity—my creativity—just can’t work well under pressure or deadlines.The reflex says “no”; the soul says “sorry.”Though I do acknowledge some power in a self-imposed ultimatum—the frustration alone can lead to self-discovery once the pain quits screaming.
Any writing quirks?
I have an obsessive tendency when it comes to words and metaphors.I tend to ruminate on the inexplicable, which should make writing essays fun—but that is not the case.Essays too often teeter toward journalism, and as the critic Cyril Connolly noted, journalistic work tends to favor a single read.I prefer work that calls me back to the page—more than one read.I prefer the voice prompting rumination.My writing rumination typically demands a stage where something has to happen.As in my Shirtless novel, someone has to become the next governor of Georgia.People demand it.They obsess over it.For this reason, our politicians (in the novel and real life) pay the price for the communal thirst.Ah—now we’re coming to the guy that hangs shirtless before all Georgia.
What would you do if people around you didn’t take your writing seriously or see it as a hobby?
I’m fortunate in having friends and lovers interested in my obsessions, including the writing projects that keep me from creating less presentable trouble.Writing takes time, just as life does to those determined to write another way through it.
Some authors seem to have a love-hate relationship to writing. Can you relate?
Love-hate?Hmmm…perhaps that ties into why it took twelve years to write SHIRTLESS MEN DRINK FREE.There are characters there that wanted me to hate them, but eventually they just gave up, drank up and made themselves available as challenges for new lovers.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’ve just finished a new poetry collection titled (tentatively) SEX, GREED AND FRIED PIES.I’ve been told the title is off-putting, i.e., needs to be more poetic.The poems deal with where I come from, which is a Mississippi trying mighty hard to be comfortable with grease, peaches, dirt and redemption.But then, what state—in one way or another—isn’t?Perhaps my Mississippi poems just don’t need as much foreign butter.
Leave us with some words of wisdom about the writing process or about being a writer.
The hardest word is “the.”As in the book, the paper, the message.“The” is an article, a word that signifies (i.e., its definitive purpose) but in itself means nothing (for example, when “the” needs a headshot, the camera captures nothing). “The” holds no pretense, no weight and ultimately no substance.“The” is essential though.“The” helps just by being there, by propping up the word that comes next, which testifies to the humility it takes to become the author, the creator, the near-god who knows his next word, like his world, can be better.
ABOUT THE BOOK
In Shirtless Men Drink Free, Doctor Jane Beekman has seen her dying mother’s soul, a vision above the bed—a soul struggling with a decision, some undone task, something in this world too noble to leave.The question that lingers—why?—prompts a shift in the doctor’s priorities.In this election year, Jane must do what her mother, an aspiring social activist, would have done. Soon, Jane is embroiled in the world of Georgia politics, working to make sure her dynamic younger brother-in-law Jackson Beekman is selected the next governor, regardless of what the soul of the candidate’s dead father or that of his living brother—Jane’s husband—might want done.
Indeed, it is a mother’s persistence and a father’s legacy that will ultimately turn one Beekman brother against the other, launching a struggle with moral consequences that may extend far beyond Georgia. Set amidst 2004’s 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?
Engaging, beautifully written and resplendent with realism, Shirtless Men Drink Free is a standout debut destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.A meticulously crafted tale that showcases an outstanding new voice in Southern fiction, Shirtless Men Drink Free has garnered high advance praise:
“This is brilliant and rare work, as attentive to an absorbing plot as it is to a poetic, chiseled cadence."—Paul Lisicky, award-winning author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship
“These characters are all too real. Rieves, as Faulkner, McMurtry and Larry Brown, writes people and story that will worm, burrow into you. Change you even.”—Adam Van Winkle, Founder and Editor, Cowboy Jamboree
“Vividly sensuous, this novel is full of textures, sounds and smells. Rieves tells a terrific story with the sensitivity of a poet.” —Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo
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.