When Richard Wiley’s first published novel won the Pen-Faulkner Award as the best American work of fiction in 1987, he was living in Nairobi.
Before he flew to Washington, D.C. to accept the prestigious award, he had to look it up.
Authors like Phillip Roth, E.L. Doctorow and John Updike had won the award, but Wiley – raised in Tacoma, a graduate of the University of Puget Sound ¬– had never heard of it.
The award jump-started Wiley’s literary career. In its review of “Soldiers in Hiding” the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Extraordinary… A feat of the imagination rendered with surprising skill… You’ll remember this book for a long time.”
Sitting in his Tacoma home 30 years later, Wiley remembers the initial response.
“My first book was actually ‘Fools’ Gold,’ but I couldn't sell it. After I won the award, I went to New York with my agent,” he said. “The same book nobody wanted now couldn't get a rejection. I was legitimized, and people put fresh eyes on the book.”
The Times loved Wiley’s “Fools’ Gold,” saying, “Richard Wiley's second novel is at once poignant, macabre and whimsical … deeper and more knowing that it first seems.”
Wiley’s arrival in the literary world allowed him to move on from his job as bilingual coordinator for Tacoma Public Schools.
Neither of his first two books became a bestseller, and each was set in a foreign country in which Wiley had lived.
“I’d served in the Peace Corps in Korea, lived in Japan, Nigeria and Kenya,” he said. “‘Soldiers in Hiding’ was set in Japan, ‘Fools’ Gold’ in Alaska.”
There was also the issue of style. Wiley didn’t write like authors whose novels sold at supermarket checkout stands.
“I’m a literary writer, someone who writes about what it means to be human,” he said. “The nature of humanity is very elusive.”
Wiley’s eighth novel, “Bob Stevenson,” has just been published and may be his most accessible book. The story is simple: A New York City psychiatrist meets a man in the lobby of her building and, without realizing he’s a mental patient, is attracted to him.
The man believes he is Robert Louis Stevenson.
“When I was young, we had an old 33 1/3 record of Basil Rathbone reading ‘Treasure Island,’” Wiley said. “I'd listen to it over and over again and got to know his characters intimately.”
Wiley loves the book, but the public has had a hard time learning it exists.
“It's difficult getting a book reviewed today. Newspapers no longer do it, magazines don't do many,” he said. “The New York Times reviewed my first six books, not my seventh …”
Wiley’s books include “Festival for Three Thousand Maidens,” “Indigo,” “Ahmed’s Revenge,” “Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show” and “The Book of Important Moments.”
Try finding one in a local used bookstore. Local libraries have one or two of Wiley’s books, but not his most recent.
Just getting a book published has become difficult for Wiley.
“I’ve got a book written but not sold,” he said. “I fired my agent – we fired each other – and am now my own agent. I have sold two books on my own.
“I’ve had five novels published by major houses, now I work with smaller publishers.
“Writers like me don't make money, so when you approach a publisher with a new book, it's like a felon applying for a job. They look at your history and pass,” Wiley said.
Take “Ahmed’s Revenge.”
“It was published in 1998, and I said, 'Every decision I make will go toward making sure the reader will want to keep reading,” Wiley said.
The book won another prestigious honor, the Maria Thomas Fiction Award.
It sold just 4,500 copies.
“‘Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show’ took me a decade to write, and I won’t do that again,” Wiley said. “I don’t have that many decades left.”
Among the projects underway now: “Tacoma Stories,” a set of 12 or 13 short stories, all set in the Puget Sound.
“One story is about St. Patrick's day in 1968, another about Brown's Point in 1954, another set in 1972 at the Goldfish Tavern,” Wiley said.
“My dad, Kenneth, was born in Tacoma. He was a local dentist,” Wiley said. “My brother, Ken, hosts a jazz show on public radio every Sunday night, and has for 30 years. I know Tacoma intimately, it's in me.”
So is writing. Now 70, Wiley’s career has spanned his marriage, two children and now seen him become a happy grandfather.
“Back in the '60s, it was cool to be a writer – second-best to being a guitar player,” Wiley said.
“At UPS, I discovered I was good at it, people were impressed by it, and I wrote some deadly awful poetry.
“I have Tacoma Stories close to complete,” he said. “And I have one more novel in mind. After that, who knows?”