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Interview with Rick D. Niece, Ph.D., Author of ‘Side-Yard Superhero’

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NieceRick-SideyardSuperheroDr. Rick Niece is a retired educator, memory keeper, poet, and an authomythographer. A small-town newspaper boy who grew up to become a university president, he has never forgotten his roots in picturesque DeGraff, Ohio. Enjoying a childhood filled with music, love, and laughter, young Rickie grew up surrounded by cherished family members, friends, and neighbors — a host of memorable characters who shaped him. Now, Rick reflects on his years in DeGraff with fond nostalgia, sharing his carefully-pocketed memories with humility, humor, and heartfelt gratitude.

Tyler: Welcome, Rick. I interview a lot of authors, but it’s rare for someone to write a series who is not primarily a novelist. So first of all, before we discuss your book Side-Yard Superhero, which is the first book in your Fanfare for a Hometown series, will you tell us a little about the series and your overall intent with it?

Rick: I was raised in a small town. My home town of DeGraff, Ohio, had 900 citizens, and that town and its inhabitants were my entire universe until I entered college.

I am often asked what has motivated me to write the “Fanfare for a Hometown” series. Although I have a number of reasons, including the strong belief that we all have interesting stories to tell about our childhoods, three major factors drive me.

First, my wife, Sherée, was afraid I would forget the stories I repeat so often about DeGraff and the characters who live on in those tales. Sherée insisted that I write my stories before they and my memory fade away. She is a wise lady, and I take her advice to heart. Therefore, Books 1 and 2 in the series are now completed.

Second, my hope is to recapture an age of small-town innocence and naiveté for others who lived during the same era as I did. I want to help them relive their childhoods and their treasured memories. Assisting others in their remembering is a nice gift to give. I also want to share the joy of small-town life with others who never experienced it. I think they will enjoy living that life vicariously through my books.

Third, I want to offer my carefully-pocketed memories for younger generations who, as yet, have not — and maybe never will — live during a time of naïve innocence. I want them, at the very least, to read about a sense of community and communal caring; to learn about a time when hometowns gently harbored their children. When young people read about such things, they may be able to find it, to live it, and to attain it themselves and for others.

Tyler: Rick, how do you think small town life has changed since you were a child? Do you think the children of DeGraff are somehow lacking in the kinds of experiences you had, or does that sense of community remain there? Or is there the possibility each generation just idealizes its childhood and thinks it was better than that of successive generations?

Rick: Although I have not lived in DeGraff for almost 50 years, I hope that the fabric of DeGraff, and all similar small towns, has not changed since I was a youngster. Kids deserve the treasure of a small town, and small towns deserve to be treasured. I am hopeful that children growing up today enjoy the same type of upbringing I did. I do not want to sound too naively optimistic when I say that I think they are experiencing the same joys today that I did decades ago.

However, I also have to be realistic. When I was a boy, four environments provided a positive influence on children: home, school, church, and community. My fear is that a number of children may actually experience none of those today. But, no, I do not think that my generation’s childhood experiences were better. They were simply different. DeGraff is still DeGraff — it is the era that changed.

Tyler: Tell us about the basic premise of Side-Yard Superhero: Life Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher and what made you decide to launch the series with this book?

Rick: The first book in the series is written by Rickie, a boy who sees DeGraff through eyes of pure innocence. DeGraff is his Norman Rockwell-like panoramic vision of sweet-hued idealism. His hometown and the citizens are perfect — no cracks no flaws. Within his innocent, narrow-band universe, he sees no imperfections. Although Rickie’s hometown of DeGraff is one of those barely visible towns travelers pass through but seldom notice, DeGraff is the only world Rickie knows. The first book allows me to introduce readers to Rickie’s world and the citizens of DeGraff. The story arc involves his paper route of 72 customers, but one customer in particular.

The most prominent influence on Rickie is Bernie Jones, an older boy with severe cerebral palsy who is confined to a wheelchair. The friendship between Rickie and Bernie deepens during Rickie’s newspaper deliveries and his daily readings to Bernie of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip, their bad-guy-busting hero. After his reading, Rickie shares his day at school and other events with Bernie, an eager listener unable to attend school or socialize in any significant manner. In time, Bernie’s experiences through Rickie grow into real adventures with Rickie. A wanderlust at heart, though incapable in body, Bernie’s quests for excitement are usually impractical strokes of unimaginable invention. Periodically, however, Bernie concocts a plan that Rickie agrees to, and then their adventures begin.

Along his paper route, Rickie encounters a variety of other eccentric and endearing DeGraff characters.

  • Fern Burdette, a world-traveled, wooden-legged, hard-drinking, retired newspaper reporter who returns to DeGraff and walks around town wearing a brassiere as her only piece of clothing from the waist up.
  • Miss Lizzie, a petite, fragile, cloistered whisper of a woman who seldom leaves her house, but one Halloween evening invites Rickie and Bernie in to help her give out treats.
  • Frank Tully, a pipsqueak oddity of indefinable proportions who never misses any DeGraff social event and, as a consequence, gets himself included in a hamburger-eating contest between DeGraff’s two biggest gastronomes, Wimpy Knight and Turkey Thompson.
  • Mrs. Mary Waite, an invalid who makes an unusual request of Rickie: she asks him to read aloud the daily newspaper obituaries.

That is a sample of what the readers of Side-Yard Superhero are in for.

Tyler: Tell us about how you first came to know Bernie Jones. Were you instantly attached to him, or did you hesitate to befriend someone with cerebral palsy at first?

Rick: Bernie Jones remains the most amazing person I have ever met. He influenced my life — shaped my life — more than anyone other than my father.

I’ll admit that, at first, I was afraid of meeting Bernie. I was only nine years old and just beginning to deliver newspapers. Who knows why kids fear what they fear? I was curious, nonetheless, I was afraid. During Sunday supper the night before my first day to deliver the papers, I asked my dad what to expect when I met Bernie. What should I say to him? How should I treat him? What could we talk about?

My dad, in logical “Father Knows Best” fashion, replied I should talk to Bernie like I talked to any of my friends. He then added, “Who knows? You may like him and become friends.”

We did become friends, even though our meeting on my first day to deliver his paper was anything but smooth. I’m still uncertain how either one of us survived that day to begin a friendship. But we did.

Bernie was wheelchair-bound with very severe cerebral palsy. He had no control over any part of his body, and he was extremely difficult to understand when he spoke. His voice had a croupy, gasping quality to it, making his speech nearly incoherent. But in the same way that six-year-olds understand the fractured, inarticulate language of their two-year-old siblings, I learned to understand Bernie. After a few weeks of friendship, I began to understand each word and every sentence perfectly. Over the years, communication became second nature to us.

Tyler: You tell your stories in the first person. Why did you decide on that style?

Rick: A story can be told from a variety of different viewpoints, but I prefer the first person narrative. I have always enjoyed when others tell their stories to me, so I prefer a style where I am talking directly to the reader. Reviewers have praised my strong, narrative voice, and I appreciate the compliment.

I also seek perfection in my writing, a difficult challenge for any writer to achieve. The perfect word in the perfect sentence with the perfect sound and rhythm are my goals in writing. As a writer, word combinations, rhythms, and their resonant sounds are important to me. I think that sensation began subconsciously when I was very young. I was born in Oberlin, Ohio, where my father was a music major at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. From birth to age four, the years before we moved to DeGraff, I was exposed to the wonders of music performed by the Conservatory’s orchestra and chorus, as well as within our small rented house from my father’s piano playing and my mother singing. I sponged the sounds and patterns, and I want for my writing to have a certain rhythm and resonance as well.

Tyler: What did you find difficult about telling this story? Were you concerned about how other people who knew Bernie might react, for instance?

sideyardRick: Side-Yard Superhero is an “automythography,” a word I did not coin but have defined for literature. An automythography, as I define it, is a work of nonfiction that looks reflectively at what we think we remember and how we think we remember. It is an iridescent memory based upon the author’s truth and personal narrative. For example, a soap bubble is iridescent. As it floats away, it changes colors and shapes, but it is still the same soap bubble. Our memories, and the way we remember them, do the same thing. When our memories drift away from us, they change colors and shapes. But they are still the same memories. Autobiographies are writers recounting their life stories. An automythography is about an author’s memories and the people who helped to shape them.

My concern about how others might react was not limited to Bernie. My stories are based upon truth and real people, many of whom still live in DeGraff. When I return to DeGraff, especially for book signings, and I am autographing a book for someone who is portrayed in the book, I had better be as accurate as possible. If not, my credibility is lost, especially among those people I hold most dear.

To answer your question specifically, not long after Side-Yard Superhero was published, I received a telephone call from Bernie’s sister-in-law, a lady I had never met. We had a delightful two-hour conversation. She said that I had portrayed Bernie perfectly, and her words meant a great deal to me. She also told me details about his life that I did not know.

Tyler: Rick, I love the automythography term and am glad you brought it up because it wasn’t a term I’d ever heard, and I also was wondering as you talked about writing in first person, retelling your memories, how truthful you felt you could be in the book. I think anyone who writes autobiography can be suspect in terms of making the truth look better or omitting things that might be uncomfortable. In fact, I’ve known readers who have said they’ll only read biographies, not autobiographies, because you can’t trust someone to be honest in telling his own story. So my question is: As you write about yourself, do you ever find it painful to be honest, or do you look at yourself as a fictional character almost or at least as if writing about someone who is separate from you even if it is you because so many years have passed and you’re a different person now?

Rick: I think that most writers do their best to be honest in their writing, especially those of us who write non-fiction. But we have become a nation of cynics, and we are not as trusting as we should be toward one another. Oftentimes we want to believe the worst and not the best about others. That is too bad, and one of the reasons I try to be optimistic and positive with my writing. I had a terrific childhood, and I revel in that. I do not find it painful to be honest with my stories. I also do not see myself as a fictional character. If I did, I would simply change the characters’ names and write fiction based upon slanted truths. I am able to separate myself, however, because the stories are about Rickie as recalled by Rick. I guess that is at least one degree of separation!

I, too, like the term “automythography.” I thought that I had created it, but a quick Google let me know that the concept has been around since the 1990s. However, I am the first to apply it to literature. The original use was for dance. I concede that my books document what I think I remember, and how I think I remember it. I thoroughly understand that our memories play tricks on us. That is why I like the concept of “myth” within automythography: not myth as a made-up story, but as one that is repeated over and over within a lifetime. That is how and why these stories have survived so long. I have repeated them. They are the echoes of my life — and the lives of others — that I am echoing forward for future generations to enjoy.

The most fulfilling aspect of writing about my memories is reliving them myself, as well as having others tell me that they had a similar experience. To be honest, the most difficult decision for me while writing an automythography is determining what real names to use and when to substitute pseudo names. In a reverse tactic, I tend on occasion to use pseudo names to protect the guilty!

Tyler: What about Bernie having cerebral palsy made it difficult to be his friend, and what made it special to be his friend?

Rick: Bernie’s difficulty in speaking and his second-to-second spasms and contractions were initially very uncomfortable for me to experience, especially since I was an immature nine-year-old when we met. In a very short time, however, nothing about Bernie made it difficult to be his friend. I even managed on a few rare occasions to get him out of his side yard and to take him on some adventures in DeGraff.

A number of endearing traits made it special to be his friend, several of which I did not realize until many years later. When I left for college, I promised Bernie that I would see him again. But college, career, and life got in the way, and I lost track of him.

Side-Yard Superhero begins in the present with a late-night telephone call from my mother. She is calling to tell me that she knows where Bernie Jones is. He is in a nursing home in Ohio. Our conversation about Bernie triggered my memory, causing me to drift back and eventually write about my youth there, the paper route, and my friendship with Bernie Jones. The book concludes in a very heartfelt and ironic manner in the nursing home after those many years of separation.

Tyler: In your opinion, what made Bernie a superhero?

Rick: Bernie Jones was a superhero in many ways. No, he could not leap tall buildings, nor could he bend steel or stop locomotives, but he was a role model for anyone who took the time to know him.

Bernie Jones influenced my life, and I am enormously grateful for that. Having watched him live his life in a wheelchair with those second to second spasms and contractions helps me reduce to their proper level of insignificance the mundane inconveniences of my everyday life. Bernie showed me how to live life without complaining. Because of him, I am better able to see through people who complain without really living. Thanks to him, I disregard all complainers.

Most of all, Bernie showed me that simple is best, that common triumphs over complex. I will admit that I needed several years to finally learn that lesson, but I learned it well.

When I knew him, Bernie’s world was a wheelchair parked within a nondescript side yard. Toward the end, his world was a nondescript room in a nursing home. Bernie, however, lived a life of consequence within the inconsequential and seemed to know, long before I did, that simple worlds come to us and become us if we let them.

We spend our lifetimes searching through a world of ever-increasing complexity for a simplicity that is already waiting patiently and almost in sight. It is there within the borders of our own side yards. Bernie Jones lived that and taught me that.

Tyler: Rick, you’ve lived away from DeGraff, Ohio, for many years. What took you so long to write about the people you knew there? Did you need to gain perspective?

Rick: You have that exactly correct. I not only had to gain perspective, I needed the passage of time and geographic distance to realize what an effect my being raised in a small town — and being educated within an equally small school district — provided for my life. That passage of time and living in another part of the country gave my childhood new meaning and brought my treasured memories into greater focus.

Tyler: Do you feel you’ve done something different with this series, or did you look for guidance or influence from any other book series or favorite authors?

Rick: After the publications of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, I am not certain that any author has written something unique or original. I certainly have not, although my concept of automythography is about as unique as I can be as a writer.

I am influenced by the classic writers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Twain. The poetry and other writings of William Carlos Williams have also shaped my writing and insights. Williams advises writers — especially beginning writers — to write about the “local” before venturing into the universal. That is, write what you know before expanding into new territory. Therefore, I write about a side-yard superhero, small town DeGraff, and the citizens living there. That is about as local as I can get.

I have been influenced the most, interestingly enough, by James Herriot and his books about the small, rural town of Darrowby. My style and thematic structures are similar to his. The central theme of a veterinary’s practice in rural England runs throughout Herriot’s series of books, but within each book most chapters are autonomous and able to stand on their own. In Side-Yard Superhero, Bernie Jones is the book’s story arc, but most chapters are self-contained and can stand alone. They are short stories written within the framework of a multi-layered book. That is the format I use in the next books as well.

Tyler: Other than Bernie’s sister-in-law whom you mentioned, what kinds of reaction have you received from people in DeGraff about Side-Yard Superhero?

Rick: Responses from the current citizens of DeGraff have made all of this more satisfying than I can adequately describe. They are enjoying my book. In turn, the stories have opened the floodgates for their memories as well.

I was recently invited back to DeGraff to be the Grand Marshal for a parade in my honor. That was the privilege of a lifetime. After the parade wound itself through DeGraff, which took a total of 17 minutes, my response was, “Let’s do it again!”

Others sharing their memories with me have given me additional stories for the books to follow in the “Fanfare for a Hometown” series. I am grateful that the citizens of DeGraff not only appreciate my writing, but that the stories have provided the town with a renewed sense of pride. Small towns and their citizens certainly deserve that.

Tyler: I understand that a dollar for every copy sold of Side-Yard Superhero goes to the national United Cerebral Palsy organization. What can you tell us about that organization, and where can people go who want more information or to give beyond buying copies of the book?

Rick: I have great admiration for anyone with a disability. On the university campus where I served as president (now President Emeritus), we have a learning center specifically for students with disabilities. I was initially drawn to the campus because of that learning center, and I have great respect for the students enrolled in the program. My respect was nurtured many years ago by Bernie Jones.

Currently about 800,000 people in the United States are affected with cerebral palsy. Although aspects of the condition remain a mystery, the belief is that cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the brain before birth or during birth, resulting in lifelong problems with muscle control, coordination, walking, use of the arms, and difficulty with speaking. There are degrees of cerebral palsy, resulting in light to very severe cases. Bernie’s cerebral palsy was quite severe.

I am donating one dollar for every book sold to United Cerebral Palsy (UCP). My wife and I met with representatives from the national headquarters, and we were impressed by their passion and commitment to the purpose of UCP’s mission: “To advance the independence, productivity, and full citizenship of people with disabilities.” Donations beyond the purchase of “Side-Yard Superhero” can be made directly to UCP, or 1825 K Street NW Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006.

Bernie Jones never let cerebral palsy get in the way of his living a full and meaningful life. He was encircled in optimism and not entrenched in pessimism, even though he had a right to be pessimistic. His positive influence has stayed with me throughout my lifetime and motivates me each day. I am who I am because of Bernie Jones. To this day he remains my “Side-Yard Superhero.”

Tyler: Rick, I know you’ll be joining me again soon to talk about the second book in the series, The Band Played On, so I won’t ask you specific questions about it. We’ll let readers come back to learn about it. But can you tell us how many books in the series you plan to write and some idea of what the other topics will be?

Rick: The Band Plays On is the second book in the series. It involves an Alumni Band reunion when many of the students who had my father for their music teacher return to DeGraff to honor him. I am currently writing the third book, “And We Gathered Around Her,” which recounts the last four days of my mother’s life. Each book allows me to drift back to DeGraff and to share even more carefully kept memories.

Tyler: Thank you again, Rick, for the opportunity to interview you today. Before we go, will you tell us about your website?

Rick: I invite readers to visit my website, to learn more about me, my books, and to view book trailers. Also, I enjoy hearing from others through Facebook at RickNieceLifeLessons.

Side-Yard Superhero has also been recorded as an audiobook by noted actor and author, Alex Cord. It is available as a download on most audiobook sites as well as through my website. The paper books is available on Amazon.com, any traditional bookstore, and through book distributors Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Midpoint. It is also available in eBook form through Amazon.com and eStarPublish for Kindle, Sony Readers, Kobo, NOOK, Google eBook, and Apple iBook.

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About Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, 7th generation Marquette resident, spent thousands of hours researching and writing The Marquette Trilogy: Iron Pioneers, The Queen City, and Superior Heritage. Tyler has a Ph.D. in Literature from Western Michigan University, and Bachelor and Master’s Degrees from Northern Michigan University. He has lectured on writing and literature at Clemson University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of London. Tyler is the regular guest host of Authors Access Internet Radio and the President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is the owner of Marquette Fiction and Superior Book Productions, a professional book review, editing, and proofreading service. Tyler lives in Marquette, Michigan where the roar of Lake Superior, mountains of snow, and sandstone architecture inspire his writing.