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Richard Alther: How Literary Fiction Is Like a Rorschach Test

Novelist Richard Alther explains how his latest book, Bedside Matters, opened his eyes to the writer's evolving relationship with their work and the benefit of adding uncertainty to a plot.

Richard Alther was born and raised in suburban New Jersey. He graduated as an English major from Cornell University and pursued twin careers as a writer and painter. He is the author of five novels: The Decade of Blind Dates (2008), Siegfried Follies (2010), The Scar Letters (2013), Roxie & Fred (2017), and Bedside Matters (2021).

After several years in Manhattan, he moved to Vermont and earned his family’s living writing extensively about vegetable gardening and homesteading. His simultaneous career as an exhibiting painter included gallery representation and one-person shows in Montreal, London, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, and Florida.

Follow Richard’s blogs and essays on Medium: richardalther.medium.com

Richard Alther

Richard Alther

In this post, Alther explains how his latest book, Bedside Matters, opened his eyes to the writer's evolving relationship with their work, the benefit of adding uncertainty to a plot, and more!

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Name: Richard Alther
Literary agent: Wildbound PR & Literary Management
Title: Bedside Matters
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
Release date: March 9, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: A cinematic non-linear take and frank examination of the promise of life, even at its end, Bedside Matters concern us all at one time or another as we ask the ultimate question: What matters most?
Previous titles by the author: The Decade of Blind Dates (2008), Siegfried Follies (2010), The Scar Letters (2013), and Roxie & Fred (2017)

Beside Matters by Richard Alther

Beside Matters by Richard Alther

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What prompted you to write this book?

Losing two of my closest friends in their 40s left an indelible scar on my soul. In a lifetime of reading serious fiction, especially contemporaries for me like Roth and Updike, mortality was evident as an underpinning of their characters’ feverish grasp onto life while they could. In writing my five published novels, each was triggered by immersion in a particular issue, usually contentious, about which I wanted to explore multiple viewpoints: to raise questions without necessarily settling on an answer. We typically have nonfiction for that. For Beside Matters, I addressed one possible scenario to how life could end, looking back without regrets and on a note of grace. I wanted to see inside my protagonist’s head and heart to imagine how one might approach death with forgiveness, dignity, and peace.

(When You Outgrow Your Genre: Tips From a Romance-Turned-Literary Novelist)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

This novel, like my others, took two to three years from start to final draft. Much of this process for me is saturation in other books, especially nonfiction tangent to my central theme, in this case, of one person’s dying. It gestated through filling notebooks with ideas. Bedside Matters started with what impending death might mean not only for my protagonist, Walter, but also for his adult children, the ex-wife who left him, former business associates, and new characters entering the last year of his life. The story ended, however, with an exclusive focus on Walter’s journey. Yes, his reactions to others but the singular choices he made for navigating each twist in the path.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

With the benefit of an editor, I confronted the challenge of adding measures of uncertainty to better encourage the reader to advance. For example, in one exchange of Walter’s offering a financial gift to his former wife (he’d already taken good care of her), she kindly declines what she sees as another bid for her forgiveness at ending their marriage. I had only written another notch in his belt of belated generosity. Now, it’s more complicated and engaging for the reader, myself included.

(Why Literary Fiction Isn’t Boring)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

Whereas I thought I was crafting a story about a man as a fictional medium for investigating my fixation with dying, it became “a dress rehearsal” for me personally. I wasn’t anticipating that. To quote Joan Didion on the creative process, “Every choice one makes alone—every word was chosen or rejected, every brushstroke laid or not laid down (I’m a painter as well) betrayed one’s character—on the canvas or the page … How you make those choices reveal everything about the person that you are.” So, a novel, like a painting, is a self-absorbed Rorschach test. I already knew I write about what compels me. I learned, particularly with this book, that I was digging much deeper at a look into my psyche and true self.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I would hope a reader of Bedside Matters would gain insight into the thought that dying can open to an expanded view of the leaving of life. It can involve forgiving oneself, or not; forgiving others, or not; appreciating joys experienced, or not; acknowledging the gifts of love, or not. For a rich man, it could be seeing one’s privilege in the context of all humanity, a world of increasing haves and have-nots, and his providing for many people beyond his immediate family of heirs. Above all, I would hope a reader might come away, if applicable, with the usual, iron-clad self-construct in our Western culture of rugged individualism shifting to one more modest, as an ordinary person inextricably woven into a much, much grander whole.

Richard Alther: How Literary Fiction Is Like a Rorschach Test

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I regard the education of a writer is to read, and never stop. Clearly, we are drawn to masters of the craft, but also to wholly new chapters of innovation, possibilities for ourselves beyond the writers we most admire as well as learn and take inspiration from. A final item of advice: The process is the payoff. If you love to write, the rest can follow.

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