Monday, February 8, 2016

My First Time: Richard Fifield

Photo by Noel Lindquist
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Richard Fifield, whose debut novel The Flood Girls was just released by Simon & Schuster. Here’s what Sharma Shields (The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac) had to say about it: “Reading this novel is like unwrapping the wackiest birthday gift you’ve ever received: The Flood Girls is a heart-shaped box filled with broads, softballs, drunks, Jackie Collins paperbacks, music, guns, and, most vibrantly of all, humanity. I started this book laughing out loud; I finished it grieving and grateful. Richard Fifield is the handsomest writer in North America, and perhaps its most compassionate.” Richard was born and raised in Troy, Montana. He attended The University Of Montana and Sarah Lawrence College. He has worked in case management and direct care for adults with developmental disabilities most of his adult life. His work has been published in Cedilla, The Global City Review, Teacup, and Outwords. He currently lives in Missoula, Montana, where he is hard at work on his next book.

My First Novel

I never thought my first novel would be about sports. I grew up in a small town in Montana, just like Quinn, the place I created in The Flood Girls. For my fourth birthday, my mother bought me a subscription to TV Guide, which I read and studied like the Bible, even though we would not get cable or a VCR for another seven years. When I was six, I discovered my older sister’s hope chest, where she kept her cigarettes and trashy books. I believe I was the only person to find hope there. Her romance novels caused my homosexuality. Don’t believe the scientists.

I always wanted to be a writer; I lived in books, especially the forbidden ones. My mother was married five times (truly impressive for a town of 900 people) and owned a gas station, so she didn’t have much time to monitor my choice of reading materials. At the grocery store, there was a swinging rack of used paperbacks, all books the town librarian declared off-limits for a grade-schooler. Here is where I discovered Stephen King, Jackie Collins, and the entire Flowers In The Attic series. Here is where I devoured true crime novels, always split in thirds by lurid photographs on glossy paper. I did not want to grow up to be a slutty heiress or a serial killer—I knew that writing was my calling, and I immediately got to work.

In addition to homosexuality, my sisters introduced me to softball. My sisters belonged to Big Sky, a team of women from town, young and old, rich and poor, mannish and glamorous. I tagged along to all of their games, which was my mother’s version of babysitting. I sat with all the purses in the dugout, and before long, I was keeping score for the league, and no longer had to steal money from my mother for my paperbacks. It is shocking to me now that they trusted me with such an important task, but I was always a laser-focused child, and despite my lack of sports knowledge, I knew women. I complimented perms when I didn’t really mean it, listened attentively when they talked to me about boyfriends and husbands and Rick Springfield, even though I was only attracted to the latter. I passed around my paperbacks, and I believe that I started the first unofficial book club in town. I worshiped those women, how they could be ferocious on the field, sunburned and bleeding from diving for balls and sliding into home, and yet cry in their tiny trucks before and after games, from hearts broken, bills due, overwhelmed from being young mothers or old mistresses. I loved them, and they loved each other fiercely, and I was honored to be included.

Time passed, and my sisters moved on, and I spent my days just trying to survive, waiting to escape. I set the novel in 1991, before homosexuality was discussed, when Richard Simmons was the only gay role model on television. Like my character Jake, I found my ways to get through the days. I was targeted until I charmed a pack of aggressive alpha females, the slutty girls, the drunk girls, and the cheerleaders. If they were pretty, I cleaned up their vomit and their sentence structure. They were my bodyguards, and in return I wrote their papers and babysat when they drank too many wine coolers at parties in the woods. I shoplifted make-up and cassette singles: although my gifts were stolen, they were chosen carefully, and with love.

I went to college and graduate school for writing, but instead of finding my voice, I found drugs and alcohol and fashion. I wrote all of my fiction under the influence of crystal meth, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and shopping. Where I grew up, we got our new clothes from K-Mart, and that was a three-hour drive. I graduated with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was banned from attending the party, because it was held in a bar that I had been eighty-sixed from because I had thrown shot glasses at the bartender and broke all of the mirrors, and he had chased me outside and pinned me to the hood of a car, which ended my friendship with my new chosen group of alpha females, the Jewish American Princesses. I frightened my professors with my smeared mascara and vicious behavior in workshops. I do not regret this—I believe my legacy lives on, a cautionary tale, the cracked-out mean girl in a ratty fur coat, rarely seen in the daylight, writer as high-fashion Sasquatch.

I moved back to Montana in the year 2000, beaten down by New York City, and kept drinking for five more years, until I was isolated in a trailer house on the outskirts of Missoula, drinking by myself, because nobody could handle me. I wrote screenplays for terrible horror movies and branched out to visual art, but I only painted portraits of the different faces of Michael Jackson. When I finally got sober, I stopped writing. I didn’t think I could do it sober. Five years in, the twelve steps worked and reworked, my therapist gave me a set of three blank notebooks. He told me to write a novel. In AA, we learn to trust our higher power, and our therapists. It was winter, and my best friend drove me to her family cabin, because my own car wouldn’t make it. Big Sky Lake is private , and abandoned for the season. I brought my dogs and cases of Diet Coke and a carry-on stuffed with cigarettes and frozen burritos. I stayed for a week, and wrote the entire first draft of The Flood Girls by hand, sitting at a kitchen table. When she picked me up, my friend told me that I looked like I had been on a bender. The protagonists of the novel had hijacked my bloodstream; I had finally found release through the stories of all the women I had ever loved, and the story of myself. I had been searching for that release through drugs and alcohol and clearance racks of boot cut jeans, and now I was truly high on my own supply. I had found it inside myself, a nickel bag that had been wedged in my heart the whole time, and I shook out that bag carefully, and arranged the lines at a kitchen table.

Writing this book has been a new journey, another set of twelve steps, each one a new level of magic. The novel came out fully formed, almost supernaturally, and the ensuing drafts have all come out of me, exorcised, and I have had to get out of my own way and trust in my higher power. As an obsessive compulsive control freak Virgo, this has been difficult. I have had to surrender to the magic of it all. A month after I wrote the first draft, I was approached by a guy I barely knew, who asked me to join his softball team. Without hesitation, I said yes, despite never having played any organized sport in my life, thinking that it would be good research, perhaps bring some authenticity to the softball scenes. I told him that I would only play right field, and would most likely give up running before I made it to first base. It surprised us both when I swung at every pitch at the first practice, and hit the living shit out of the ball. Before long, the coach moved me from right field to rover, and at the end of our first season, I collected quite a few RBIs. If you knew me off the field, you would know how messed up that is. None of my friends could believe it, and my pack of ferocious females came to watch me play, even though they hate sports as much as I. It was unbelievable, but it all seemed fated, and my favorite hour of the week is softball. I have faith for an hour, complete comfort with myself, and a strange peace. I have the best accessories of anyone in the league, batting gloves and knee high rainbow socks special ordered. I carry a tasteful man purse, stuffed with sporting gear, and I dare anybody to give me grief about it.

I’m writing this essay on the back deck of the real Dirty Shame bar. I have come home, after all these years, to work on my final edits for Simon & Schuster. It all still feels like a dream, despite the realities of contracts signed and meeting my agent and editor in real life. I am a writer. All these years later, I am in the forest outside of my hometown, and it seems exactly right.

Tonight, I go to an AA meeting, the first one I’ve ever attended in my hometown, and I am looking forward to the people I will discover there; maybe I’ll find out which cheerleader finally washed up on the shore of recovery. In a way, I’m living out the plot of my novel, because it must be done. I know I am less than ten miles away from many of the women who inspired me in the first place. All of those women, thirty years later, the days of softball long behind them, have heard about my novel. My sister has told all of her former teammates, and they are honored. When I go into town tonight, I will not seek out my bullies and attempt to find closure. I will not seek out my former bodyguards and attempt to thank them. All of those beautiful, ferocious women. I have finally stopped keeping score.

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