Gary Reilly was 61 when he passed away in 2011, but he left behind more than a local literary legacy; he also had 25 unpublished novels just waiting to be read. And read they will be, if Mark Stevens has anything to say about it. Stevens wears a lot of hats himself: He began in journalism, as a reporter for both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, and as a field producer for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS.
These days, Stevens serves as president of the Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America and as host of the Rocky Mountain Writers podcast, and also represents Reilly and his ongoing work. Stevens will appear on behalf of his old friend at the Tattered Cover on Colfax on Monday, June 17, at a reading of Reilly's new book, The Legend of Carl Draco. (The event also includes local mystery author Sue Hinkin and her new novel, Low Country Blood.) We caught up with Stevens to talk about Reilly and what a long, strange, literary trip it’s been.
Westword: To start off, tell us about Gary Reilly.
Mark Stevens: Slam-dunk, hands-down, no question about it, Gary Reilly loved stories and storytelling more than anyone I’ve ever met. Nobody enjoyed the escape of stories like Gary. I know and have known lots of writers. Nobody else comes close in terms of wanting to think about writing — and reading — at every moment. Movies, too. TV, for sure. He loved the Beat writers, he loved pulp fiction, he loved any story that moved. When we would meet for coffee and I might mention that a casual friend had finished a draft of a novel, he would ask to read it. Someone he didn’t know! A week or so later, Gary would produce a kind and detailed note with both praise and suggestions. Gary would read drafts of my work and send me wave after wave of letters and suggestions. He didn’t just read your work; he immersed himself in it.
It’s one thing to be a lover of stories, it’s another thing to be a writer. A writer who writes for its own sake — with zero encouragement from major publishers. Zero. Gary had one short story published in his lifetime. Just imagine yourself in 1977 sending off a short story to the Iowa Review, easily one of the most prestigious short-story journals in the country. You send the short story cold — you pop it in the mail. It’s published in the fall of 1977, and it’s the first story in the volume. It’s called “The Biography Man,” and your name is alongside Ian McEwan (probably not as well known then) and Ron Hansen. The same story is reprinted in the 1978 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology, the best-short stories from the small presses around the country. You probably think you’re going to be a writer. You probably think, “Well, that was easy.” By the way, it’s a helluva story...
And then you start writing novels, 25 in all. Some are based on your experiences as a Denver taxi driver. Some are based on your years of service as a military policeman before, during and after the Vietnam War. And other novels are crime fiction, fantasy and some are straight-up old-fashioned literary works. Twenty-five. I’ve known writers who have three or four completed but unsold novels who give up. Gary never gave up writing. He loved consuming stories. He loved telling them, too.
I only knew Gary for the last seven years of his life, but to me he was gentle, unassuming, funny, patient and kind as the day is long. He loved to laugh. He loved to be amused.
My cohort in this project is Mike Keefe, the former longtime editorial cartoonist — ahem, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist — for the Denver Post. I was a reporter at the Post in the early 1990s, and Mike and I remained friends. We both played together in a rock band many years after I left.
What was the band?
We were called Falling Rock. Mike played guitar, I played bass. We started out in a band called Toast, but Falling Rock lasted much longer, like seven years. We played the Little Bear many, many times. Lots of fun. You have probably noticed our marketing campaign on highways all over Colorado. We left the signs up as reminders of the good times.
So how did you two come to take on Gary's work?
Mike, who met Gary in a film class at University of Colorado Denver in the 1970s, knew more than me of Gary’s obsession with fiction. Mike put us together in 2004. I started reading Gary’s works — all of his novels — and was amazed. Blown away. Mike, also an astute and voracious reader, had long known of Gary’s quality output. When Gary was diagnosed with cancer and grew ill, we couldn’t imagine that his books would never see the light of day. That seemed unfair to both of us. Personally, I felt it was an obligation to bring these works to the daylight. Gary had done much for me. So much. The one thing we needed was Gary’s okay. A few months before he died, Mike went to Gary to discuss what would become of Gary’s stack of finished books. Gary, after writing millions of words of fiction, wrote a three-sentence will. The third sentence gave me and Mike the permission we needed.
What’s it like to represent someone else’s writing, especially in an ongoing manner such as this one? That’s got to be tricky, seeing as how you’re a writer yourself. Not a common situation, nor one you expected, I’d imagine.
Well, it’s an honor. An absolute honor. The reactions, reviews, award nominations are worth it. The reader reaction is the best. True fans are waiting on the next novel about “Murph,” Gary’s fictional taxi-driving iconoclast. To have raves from Booklist, National Public Radio, the Denver Post and the Vietnam Veterans of America? Pretty cool. Westword has been very kind. To have endorsements from such a range of writers as Jeffery Deaver, Stewart O’Nan and Ron Carlson? Go ahead, make my day. And to date, four times Gary has been named a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. It’s of course rewarding to have others confirm your own opinion of the quality of Gary’s writing. The best part is knowing the sheer enjoyment Gary has given readers. Some of those readers, such as eagle-eyed editor Karen Haverkamp, started out as Gary Reilly fans and have slowly been assimilated into the team involved with this publishing project.
Do you think your background in journalism helps you in carrying on the legacy of Gary's work? What you're doing with Gary's work strikes me as closer to the art of reporting than anything — carrying someone else's story, getting it out to a larger audience. It seems like a curiously good fit.
I think my nearly twenty years in journalism helped...but so did my last twenty-plus years in public relations. The biggest advantage, though, is the tools available today for independent publishing. This might not have been possible fifteen years ago. The indy publishing scene makes it so much easier for us to put the books together; even audio versions are up for The Circumstantial Man and four of the Asphalt Warrior books.
As a writer yourself, how has Gary's storytelling affected your own? What marks from Gary's work have you seen pop up in your own work?
Writing? Not so much the style of the actual prose, but I just admired the way he wrote and wrote. Writer's block? Not Gary. He said he always had problems with the "mushy middle" of a novel. He called it "the part where everybody is running around shooting at each other." But he plowed through and, of course, finished so many books. He taught me that the key is to keep the words flowing and to entertain a wide variety of story possibilities. If you've got an idea, run with it; you can edit later. He was extremely good with plotting. What if this, what if that? He came up with one major thread for my third novel, Trapline, before he died: "What if you had a candidate for U.S. Senate who gets shot on the pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs?" He was always thinking of plot twists and ideas for how the threads worked. He cared about the sentence-by-sentence work, of course, and the rhythm of the prose. But he got really excited thinking about the big sweep of the story.
As we do with each launch, we will recap the basics of Gary’s remarkable story and talk about the essence of The Legend of Carl Draco — without giving too much away. I want to highlight the variety of Gary’s literary styles. The new book is a stylistic leap from last year’s noir standalone, The Circumstantial Man, and also different from his Vietnam works, too. In fact, it’s probably more closely compared to the rich language in that early short story, “The Biography Man.”
Sue Hinkin is a good friend I’ve gotten to know through Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America (a regional chapter of the national MWA organization). She’s a dynamite writer, and her second book also launched this spring, so I approached her about teaming up. When I launched my novel The Melancholy Howl last fall, I did a double event with the legendary Manuel Ramos. Not sure I’ll ever go solo again. It’s fun to bring readers together.
As noted, The Legend of Carl Draco is something of a departure from Gary’s other work. What was he working through in this book, do you think?
Such a great question…what was he working through? Carl Draco is one of the most humble, reluctant superheroes you’ll ever meet. Gary’s heroes are never macho. They are keen observers of life. They might drive the action because they are forced by circumstance to do so, but they are always eager to return to a less presumptuous state of being. I don’t know for sure about Draco. Sherry Peterson, Gary’s longtime partner, might be a better person to ask. But Gary loved fantasy — this is not his only entry — and I think he wanted to toss a reluctant superhero into the mix.
I think he would have loved it. He might not have been able to attend his own book-launch events, because he was not a big fan of large crowds or shmoozing with people he didn’t know, but he would have loved to have known that his stories reached readers. I’d like to think he would have figured out that part, too. I hope he would be surprised that his books have been read all over the country...and abroad. It was a cab driver in London who brought the "Murph" books to the attention of National Public Radio.
As a hometown guy — what were Gary's favorite places in Denver? If he were still around and writing, where might we find him scribbling away on his next book?
For years, Gary and I met at the old Europa Coffeehouse on South Pennsylvania. I think his favorite place was anywhere his friends might show up to talk about what they were writing or to discuss a recent book they'd read. He loved hitting the used bookstores on South Broadway and scrounging around in the stacks of pulp fiction. I think Gary did all his writing at home. He wrote alone — just himself and one of the most active imaginations around.
Mark Stevens will be at the Tattered Cover at 2526 East Colfax Avenue at 7 p.m. Monday, June 17, to read from Gary Reilly's latest book; Sue Hinkin will read and sign Low Country Blood. Admissions is free; find out more at the Tattered Cover website.