“Ordinary people are the heroes in stories and in life. Everybody struggles to live their life. They try to put the pieces together, try to make it work. And I think that, in ordinariness is often seated a great deal of dignity.
A glimpse of Richard Currey
Richard Currey grew up in Parkersburg, son of a schoolteacher father and a mom who had grown up
on a mountain subsistence farm. His dad was descended from one of four brothers, who came from
Ireland and settled in Harrison County.
He grew up hearing stories. "Everybody told stories," he said. "Everybody at the table. Everybody at the Sunday dinners. Everybody at Easter picnics. My grandparents would tell the stories of their days growing up, which went back to the turn of the century. My parents would argue over the destinies of cousins, nephews, and wayward uncles. The stories were everywhere. It was an environment. It was like being in a kind of water. I swam in it."
Now, his books have been translated into 12 language. A Los Angeles Times reviewer described Currey's writing as "word-sparing, stark, locomotive-driven, prose that would set to thumping the heart of any lover of the English language." He served in Vietnam with the US Navy for four years, where he was a medic in a marine combat unit. His first book, Fatal Light, is regarded as one of the best books to come out of the Vietnam War.
In this program, he reads from stories about the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Vietnam War, musicians, and murders. He sets most of his writing in West Virginia, which he calls "my mythic ground." "I wanted to be a writer," he said. "I just liked to do it. It was really that simple. I liked to do it."
He is also a musician. It shows in his writing. "I feel strongly that [writing] rises from the same creative place in me, and I use all the same tools composing a paragraph, a story, a book that I would use composing a piece of music." In his books, Currey brings us stories about ordinary people struggling to deal with terrifying, soul-stretching situations.
A sample of Richard Currey's writing: from The Wars of Heaven
Here, Currey masterfully demonstrates the way a writer can build suspense by piling up small details, one after the other. This passage comes from a story in Currey's short story collection, The Wars of Heaven, set during the West Virginia Mine Wars. A coal miner is speaking. He had helped beat up two of Baldwin Felts' mine guards. He knows they'll come after him to get revenge, so he sends his wife and kids out of town to their relatives. Then he waits:
"I came back into Red Jacket three days later, thinking our house would be gone, burned out or vandalized. It was our own home, land that had been in my mother's family, outside town limits, and it was there, still standing pretty as you please, that old coat of ivory paint peeling black under years of coal soot. They had been there, somebody had: the front door stood open. It had rained in: dead leaves blew straight into the parlor. I went through every room, every closet, cupboard, shelf. I looked under beds and up the chimney until I was satisfied nobody was waiting for me. By then, it was dark, and I turned on all the lights downstairs, drew the curtains to give the place a warm and homey look from the road. I locked the front and back doors and all the windows and took the shotgun from the hall closet corner. Upstairs, I pulled off my boots and socks, loaded the gun with two shells full of number two buckshot and sat in my bedroom in the dark, shotgun in my lap, terrified of every little sound I heard. I had the time, sitting there, to think about my situation, to consider the plight of the man who dispatches his family to innocent country and sits afraid for his own life in his own home, simply because he wants to trade his labor for a decent wage, and the Baldwin men stepped up on the porch. Knocked politely at the front door. I kept my seat.
I heard them speak to each other quietly. Then one said my name, calling me Mister, still polite as Sunday morning. He tried the front door, rattled it gently against the latch, then walked sideways along the porch, a heavy pair of boots under the room I was sitting in. After more than a minute of silence, I heard the back door window shatter. A moment later, the door squeaked open, and the boots were inside my house ... "
- To find out what happens, listen to the program
A writing activity to go with this sample:
Look at the way Currey varies his sentence length to heighten tension. As a general rule of thumb, short sentences imply action, tension, and longer sentences slow down the action. In this very tense scene, what are Currey's shortest sentences? What impact do they have? Why do you think they are short? What impact do you think the last two sentences of the first paragraph have?
~ Go to the Activities page for other ways to learn from these writers. ~
Five ways to get the most out of this web site:
Enjoy his voice, stories, readings, reflections, and advice about writing.
3. Read/download the table of contents. This is an outline of the program.
It will help you find the passages you want to return to.
4. Play short audio snips of the Richard Currey audio program for a class or audience. It's easy! The program is divided into short tracks that can be played one at a time.
5. Try some activities that help you use this website to teach storytelling/writing skills.
(You'll hear an expanded version when you click on the triangle. Don't let that stop you. It's all great advice!)
"I'm very musical. I improvise. I sit and write the way a pianist composing might sit at the keyboard. I start with a central image ... and I go with it. And sometimes it doesn't work. But generally, I'm looking for the point where the character will speak to me. And then, I'm not exactly in control of it anymore. ... I think that's very common in any kind of art form, and certainly would be true if I were composing music. I listen for the sound of it. I listen for the chords. I listen for the way the themes move. And when it's affecting me powerfully and when I'm finding that the rhythm is right, the downbeat is correct, the emotional movement is moving me, then I'm hopeful that will be true for other people." ~ Richard Currey