Interview with poet and novelist Terry Tierney on his new novel Lucky Ride

Terry Tierney
A Conversation with Terry Tierney, 
author of LUCKY RIDE

Lucky Ride is a historical novel, set in the ’60s. Why did you decide to set the novel when you did?

Initially, I did not intend it as an historical novel. The novel is based on my own experience of the ’60s, and as I wrote the novel the story evolved into a broader portrait of the ’60s and a reflection of our contemporary time. Although many of the characters and situations in the novel can be seen as cultural artifacts, I believe resonant themes like escape, renewal, friendship, and romance provide valuable insights. The cultural divisions of the’60s, in particular, bear similarity to what we experience now. Slogans like “America Love It or Leave It” echo in both eras. 

During Flash’s hitchhiking trip across the country, he confronts many discordant types of people, including law enforcement, who question his values, and he must defend himself. The hostile conversations Flash encounters, even around the dinner table, are similar to ones I have recently seen. In some ways the ’60s seem less divisive, but that might be my view in retrospect. Despite the distrust of other voices and the general malaise of the Vietnam War, along with their own personal failures, Flash and his fellow characters embody a sense of hope and possible reconciliation. I wish we could get back to that tenuous feeling. 

How autobiographical is this story?

My experiences provide the grist of the novel. I hitchhiked across the country, served on Adak, smoked a lot of weed, confronted poverty, and experienced relationships both idyllic and doomed. However, the ultimate story of Lucky Ride is invented as are all of the characters. Some scenes are similar to events that happened in real life, but more scenes are entirely imagined. It’s possible though unintentional that a character might share a quirk or trait with a real person. This includes Flash the narrator, who is not me, though I wish I had some of his qualities. My intent was to tell an entertaining story--an historical novel--not a history or a memoir.  

Why did you decide to make use of flashbacks to help tell Flash’s story?

I understand that some editors and writing teachers discourage flashbacks, but they provide key dramatic devices and perspectives within Lucky Ride. Since much of hitchhiking, and travel in general, involves long durations of dullness between moments of excitement, the flashbacks fill in dramatic space. I see them as similar to Shakespearean comedy scenes within his tragedies. 

Flashbacks also fit because Flash is trying to reconcile his past with his present and future, and he recalls his friends on Adak, for example, when he is on the road to visit them. Similarly, Flash remembers earlier scenes with Ronnie when he is considering the next steps in their unraveling relationship. The flashbacks tend to be stories themselves and often humorous. The Adak flashbacks in particular might be stories you would tell your friends over a beer.

The entire story is told over one long cross-country road trip from New York to California and back again. How did you decide to structure the novel the way you did?

On one level Lucky Ride describes Flash’s wild hitchhiking trip, but it’s also the story of his dying marriage and his struggle to reconstruct his life after his military service, which is echoed by several other characters. I structured the novel around the road trip because it contains both the desire for escape and the yearning for home and closure we endure when our relationships are falling apart. Similarly, characters separated from their families or stranded in places like Adak confront the depths of homesickness. When they emerge from an experience of physical and emotional displacement, they try to reconnect the pieces of their former lives, but none of it quite fits. I liken this to the feeling of coming home after a long trip when everything has changed but your memory of the way it was before you left.

What feeds your writing process?

I like to write first thing in the morning, after a short walk and a cup of coffee. My walks and  my dreams often give me an idea or phrase to get me going. Music is a great background for writing, but I find I cannot listen to vocals. My preferred genre are jazz and classical music, though I tend most often to queue up jazz. Miles Davis is one of my favorite artists, and his album “Bitches Brew” has carried me through many writing sessions. The unstructured feel of the tunes sets my mind free.

Can you describe your journey as a writer, how you got to the point of publishing your first novel?

The key word for my writing journey is persistence. I always wanted to write, and while in high school my first career choice was journalism, which I stoked by writing for my school and college newspapers. After I dropped out of college and got sucked into the draft, I returned to college under the GI Bill and finished with a double major in English and Political Science. Unfortunately, I found no viable journalism jobs. To pay the bills I fell back on the technical experience I had gained before I entered the service. Along the way I also acquired a passion for literature, which blossomed into writing my own poetry and stories. 

I earned an MA in English by attending night classes, and I eventually left my job to accept a PhD fellowship. After graduate school I taught college English as a visiting lecturer, but I could not land a position with any stability. So I went back to technical work. In parallel I continued to write whenever I could, and I picked up a few poetry and fiction publications. Now that I’ve retired from chasing software bugs, I have concentrated on writing. I am grateful to my publisher Unsolicited Press for allowing me to live my dream.

Who are the authors who most inspired you while writing Lucky Ride?

The road story is integral to our narrative tradition, of course, from Homer and Chaucer through Jack Kerouac and later writers. When I realized the book was best structured as a road story, my first inspiration was Jack Kerouac, but most novels are journeys of one kind or another, e.g. birth to adulthood, infatuation to marriage, courage to disillusionment. I love Kerouac’s characters, their visions, and their literary aspirations. His prose is mesmerizing. But Kerouac’s characters seldom if ever hitchhike, so in that regard I feel kinship with John Steinbeck’s characters who have nothing but the road. I also draw on Tom Wolfe with Ken Kesey’s famous bus, and Hunter S. Thompson. My narrative style probably owes more to Hemingway and Raymond Chandler, but I love all good writing.

What would you like your readers to take away from the book?

I hope readers will share moments of realization and epiphany with the characters as they confront quirky people and unusual places while struggling with their own cycles of young love, divorce, and reconciliation. I hope the irreverent content and fast pace of the novel will draw readers into the experience. I want readers to enjoy the ride.

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