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Friend’s funeral spurs UI alum back to writing after 30-year hiatus

BY ERIC SUNDERMANN | JULY 14, 2009 7:15 AM

Thirty years ago, David Rhodes stood on top of the writing world. He had graduated from the Writers’ Workshop and had three novels published in five years — receiving critical acclaim from author John Gardner. Then life took a turn. Rhodes was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the sternum down. What followed was a long and dark hiatus from writing.

Now he’s emerged, after 30 years since his last published book, with a new novel titled Driftless, from which he will read today at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

“The accident refocused my attention on more private and personal areas of my life,” Rhodes said. “You can see a deeper life going on behind the side that people show you when you read them. That was invaluable for me as a writer, because it turned me loose to be able to talk about what I think are more personal things.”

His new book centers on small town in Wisconsin and the character July Montgomery — who also served as the hero in his previous novel. The story focuses on events happening in that environment and how they intertwine with each other.

Rhodes said a friend’s funeral as a catalyst for wanting to write the book.

“When I attended his funeral, I was so impressed because there were so many people there I didn’t know,” he said. “In order to understand him completely, I would have to know all those other people and what he meant to them and what they meant to him. And then I would start to have some kind of an idea into who he really was.”

Funerals carry a rare trait because they bring strangers together, and yet there is a connection among the people attending — the person they are grieving. That idea excited Rhodes, and he decided he wanted to write a book with themes that demonstrated the phenomenon.

“[The novel’s themes are] A sense of a community of people all struggling with different types of problems and all cooperating enough with each other for each individual character to be able to find some way of resolving her or his own problems,” he said. “A theme that I like to write about is the exterior world is a mirror image of the interior world.”

The inner life appeals to Rhodes, and he hopes to illustrate that fascination with his characters in Driftless. He claims his characters are extensions of himself, but far from autobiographical.

“I would only write about characters I liked,” he said. “If I didn’t like a character, that would be a signal that I wasn’t seeing him completely … so I tried to only write about characters I liked and therefore understood. I guess they’re all a part of me. And hopefully, they are part of everyone else.”


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