Authors aren’t known for being the most holy or sober people. And SF State student Joe Riley, 23, fits right in.
He’s not the greatest student, but Riley’s shaping up to be a promising writer in the eyes of those around him. The English literature major published his first collection of short stories last month called “How Strange it is to be Anything at All.” The cover holds together a collection of ex-girlfriends, alcohol, drug-induced revelations and urban adventure.
“Now the typical college student goes to school for five years as opposed to four, and it’s impossible to get a job, so we all work at restaurants. It’s about coming to terms with that extended adolescence,” Riley said. “You’re going to deal with adversity regardless; that doesn’t mean life isn’t worth trying to continue with.”
Heartbreak, a copy of “The DaVinci Code” and the need to impress a girl is what sparked Riley to put together this collection of stories, but he has been interested in reading since he was a kid. His father, a literature professor at UC Santa Barbara, would leave books on his pillow and discussions of the books replaced the radio when the two were in a car.
Years later when Riley made it to SF State his teachers began to notice him, but not always in a positive way.
“Joe wasn’t the best student in class,” said Truong Tran, a lecturer in the creative writing department. “But the best students don’t always make the best writers.”
Camille Roy, an adjunct teacher in the creative writing department had similar things to say.
“He was a bit scattershot in that he had trouble being consistent, but he was capable of doing excellent work,” she said.
Despite shortcomings in the classroom, those same teachers took note of his humanity and passion for writing.
“There is a tangible sense of hopefulness with him,” Tran said. “He was very curious towards the craft or writing. At the time, I knew there was something unique, but he was still learning.”
Riley was on the road to failing Roy’s craft of fiction class by the end of the semester, but his final assignment was so compelling he ended up passing, he recalled with a clever smirk drenched in satisfaction.
The stories he wrote in those classes joined others to become the 21 chapters in “How Strange.” There’s no central plot between the covers, just repeated themes.
“It’s a collage of an angry 17- to 23-year-old who is finally coming to terms with the world,” Riley said.
A connection his dad had through the literary world landed his anonymous manuscript in the hands of Word Palace Press. The independent publisher based in San Luis Obispo picked Riley’s work out of a pile of 10 other nameless pieces and ended up printing 1,000 copies. They’re available on Amazon.com as well as bookstores across the state, but most of the promotion is done by Riley and friends.
Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Elliot and John Steinbeck were muses into the world of words as Riley grew up. He’s even got a tattoo referencing “The Great Gatsby” on his inner arm. His friends, mom and grandparents also inspired the characters. The girl Riley put the book together to impress is illustrated on the cover, smoking a cigarette and drinking beer near a rainbow.
“I recognize myself in a couple stories,” said roommate Chris Gewehr, who mentioned Riley was never too stressed during the writing process. “He never went too far off from what actually happened.”
“How Strange” is part diary, part story, part life manual for the young and urban. It’s a bound notebook of trials and troubles that he’s amassed through his life, specifically the last few fuzzy years. It’s a celebration of a very uncertain age and time in life, basking in elevating realizations and a commemorating existence in general.
“We, well, a lot of kids go out and get way too fucked up and are like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be doing this,’ while they have a beer in their hand and they’re smoking a joint,” Riley said. “It’s about how we’re further stagnating ourselves with this obsession with getting intoxicated.”
He’s got more in the works, as well as plans of graduating this semester and returning for a creative writing in the graduate program. But for now, a little break.
“It kind of strenuous because you’re looking into your brain from the past year and that’s kind of exhausting,” Riley said. “But, I didn’t go crazy. Well, maybe sometimes.”