Interview with Janet Riehl

Janet Riehl is an award-winning writer and artist whose artwork, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Harvard Review, International Poetry Review, and Lullwater Review, among other prestigious venues. 

An active participant in the community art scene, Janet has served on boards, given outdoor art performances, produced poetry readings, and performed in theatrical productions such as The Vagina Monologues.  Her work has shown in several Women’s Caucus for the Arts exhibitions and she has twice been nominated for poet laureate of
Lake County, California. 

Her recent book, Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary, was written after her sister Julia Ann Thompson’s death. The result is a beautiful tribute to her sister and family in a rich collection of poems and family photos. Her frank portrait documents her family’s coming to terms with grief and celebrates its past and its difficult present.

 Q: Janet, give us the basics. Who are you, personally? 
I’m an all-around creative-type—author, artist, actress, musician, speaker, workshop leader—sort of thing. I’ve found it doesn’t work well to do all of these things at the same time, so usually one area will nag for more attention at any given time. Right now, that’s writing. 
I’m single, in my late 50s, and in transition from Northern California to the  
Midwest, specifically St. Louis and the Illinois site of the river where my 91-year-old father still lives a darn good life. But, I want to be closer to him in his last years, however many of those he has left, so I’m cueing up the cross-country move. It’s a big deal for me to come back home.
Q. What do you write? And how do you do it? 
My stories, poems, and personal essays are published in literary journals and anthologies. My book Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary came out last year. I wrote that mainly sitting up quickly in bed first thing in the morning and just writing straight from the heart after taking notes during the day while I took care of my mother who suffered from stroke-induced dementia.
I almost always write in longhand first. Email and blog entries are the exception. I find ideas and words come to me while walking and dreaming and washing dishes. I also thrive when I have a writing buddy. I do better with one-on-one sharing than in writing groups.
Q. Tell us about people in the industry who helped you.
Two men helped me enormously in writing better and getting my work out. Clive Matson runs Crazy Child workshops and helped me just write without clutching up so much. Hal Zina Bennett supported me in getting my poetry book out; he was always just an email away. He allowed the work to shape itself, and didn’t force himself on it. He kept throwing decisions back to me, with just a few thoughts and guidelines. 
Q: Tell us about your first published work. 
My first book-length publication is “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” that came out in 2006. It’s a collection of 90 story-poems—a downhome family love story beyond death—that tells the truth and offers inspiration and quirky humor for aging, caretaking, and grieving. There are five sections for three people and two places I love.
Q: Got any awards to brag about?
“Driving Lessons,” a story of how my father taught me how to double-clutch through sand drifts and ford a river in Africa won an award from Travelers Tales in Best Family Story category.
Q: What are you up to now, writing wise? Got any projects in the works? 
I’m working on a nonfiction book “White Girl Passing as White” about the five years I lived in  
Africa when I was in my twenties. It’s a story about belonging, no matter where in the world you are. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter : “African Women, My Hair Belongs to You” that’s  posted on my blog:

The body speaks words the tongue cannot.The children wanted to get their hands on my hair, its texture under their fingers. The women wanted to get their fingers on my hair. The women wanted to braid my hair. On a slow afternoon, braiding my slick hair provided guaranteed entertainment. Strands of my white woman’s hair slipped out of the line bound by braiding string.“Your hair is too slick, Naledi. It doesn’t braid right.”

“I know; I know,” I joked back. “You can’t do a thing with it.”

My hair knew whose head it grew upon. My hair knew whose genes it sprang froth from. Both braid-er and braid-ee knew how our afternoon’s entertainment would end, but how good it felt to have a woman’s hands wielding a comb to make parts all over my scalp in preparation for the wayward braids to come.

How good it felt for the woman as she stroked my smooth hair plotting a strategy to finally subdue my hair. And, how good it felt to soak in the sounds of stories, even as the words galloped past in the smooth stride of a language not yet mastered. How good it felt to pick a few words, phrases, and names out of this endless narrative stream that stood out with meaning.How good it felt for hands to reach out in punctuation of a juicy story–touching in rhythm my shoulder, arm, or thigh.How good it felt to be part of the circle of woman. No matter that my hair didn’t stay in place. How good it felt to belong.

Q: Do you have any tidbits of help for other writers that you'd like to pass along? 
You know that slogan “Dance as if no one is watching”? Same thing with writing. Write as if only your heart is listening, and in time other hearts will want to hear, too.    

Q. How do we contact you?
Check out my blog “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” and website at www.riehlife.com. It’s focused on connections between the arts and across cultures. I often feature my father’s stories, poems, and events as well.


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