The Penmen Profile: Nonfiction Storyteller Richard Adams Carey

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Photo Credit: Daniel C. Ross

Richard Adams Carey wrote his 2015 book, “In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town,” about the 1997 Colebrook, New Hampshire, shootings that claimed the lives of four people. Carey tells the story of a tragedy in a town of 2,500 people that made headlines worldwide.

His debut book, “Raven’s Children: An Alaskan Culture at Twilight” (1992), is based on the Yupik Eskimo village, a fairly unheard of village, where he taught English. His four published books have earned positive reviews from names like The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Post.

Carey now works in Southern New Hampshire University’s MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program.

Have you always written?
I grew up in dread of the writing assignments given [to] me in school, sure that as a not-very-good Catholic I’d be issued an eternity of composition due dates once I arrived in Hell. That changed once I was allowed to write creatively, or once I chose to. I read voluminously, and it was a revelation to discover that even a twit like me could create characters and stories, albeit thin and hackneyed ones. But it was a start. Now, once I get to Hell (yeah, still going, ticket punched), I expect an eternity of self-promoting Facebook posts.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
In nonfiction, I look for the unrecognized everyday heroes: the Yup’ik Eskimo hunter/fisherman struggling to preserve the ancient essence of his way of life; the Cape Cod fishermen trying at once to make a living and ensure the sustainability of our last wild food resource; the various cops, scientists, conservationists, etc. striving to protect the sturgeon, the world’s most valuable and endangered fish; the people of a small New Hampshire town who saw their civic leaders gunned down in their midst. These stories come ready-made; I just have to win trust and find how to tell them.

In fiction, I seem more attracted to the antihero, a character whose mistakes come to haunt him/her. I’ll begin with a character or a situation or just a scrap of dialogue and see where the road to Hell takes us. Both modes allow enough imaginative free rein for me to enjoy the work.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
The challenge in both modes is facing a smoking, dry-ice terror. In nonfiction, I fear the sometimes-conflicting imperatives of both telling a true story and protecting the dignity, privacy and reputations of the real-life people (the “characters”) who have entrusted all of that to me. At least in nonfiction, though, I know I have a story.

In fiction, I fear merely—but deeply—the blank page and then the initial drivel that fills it; these seem to bode that all the time and sweat I’ve poured into this particular idea will come to naught. Life’s too short for that. So, it’s all scary.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
It was easy, but only because I got lucky. I spent my early twenties writing derivative, unpublished poetry. Otherwise I wondered what there was to write about. I found subject matter quite suddenly when in 1977 I took a job teaching school in the Yup’ik Eskimo villages of southwest Alaska—a part of the state little known even to other Alaskans. A couple magazines snapped up essays and journalism I wrote from there, and eventually an editor at one magazine referred me to an editor at Houghton Mifflin. That led to “Raven’s Children.” Doors opened and I went through. Might not have happened had not fate led me to that part of the Bush.

How do you market your work?
How do I market my work? Poorly. I broke in during that golden age in publishing when the publishing houses handled all the marketing. I went where they told me, all expenses paid, beautiful hotel rooms. Maybe I got spoiled, and I’ve had a tough time adjusting to a world where most (or all) of the marketing is sloughed off onto authors, where often we foot the whole bill as well. I keep an author website, also a Facebook page for “In the Evil Day,” and I drum up events for that book, get in the car. Once in a while I burp out an excruciatingly self-serving post on Facebook because somebody has to, because all those folks who helped you with “Evil Day” deserve at least that much. But I don’t do much on Twitter or other platforms, I don’t go out networking at conferences as I should, and I don’t live in Brooklyn. So, yeah—poorly. The only upside is more time to write, which is much more fun.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I’d understood earlier how expensive this art form is in terms of human relationships. So, when do we write? Almost all of us have day jobs, almost all of us have to pack it into nights, early AMs, weekends—times when normal people are with their loved ones. I don’t know if I necessarily could have done anything differently, or be doing anything differently. But it’s easier to read a good writer than it is to live with him. Too much like living alone.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Oh, so many. Mark Twain for his ability to wrap such disturbing matter into the heart of a story you can read to your eight-year-old; Willa Cather for the Western fresh air of her prose; James Joyce for his ability to unspool a novel we’re all still trying to catch up with; James Agee for his ability to break the nonfiction mold in reconciling those imperatives I mentioned earlier; Cormac McCarthy for his refusal to be consoled; I could go on and on and on. Ask tomorrow and you’ll get a different answer.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Three books, I suppose, that you can enjoy even if you don’t speak a word of English, such is the purling music of their prose (or poetry): The Holy Bible, King James version; the collected works of William Shakespeare; and Joyce’s magnificent, hilarious and great-hearted “Ulysses.”

Take a look at Carey’s website for his biography and book excerpts.