Short story writer, journalist, and screenwriter Mark Richard on the set of his AMC show “Hell on Wheels.” Richard will visit Hillsdale College next week for two public readings, sponsored by the Visiting Writers Series of the department of English Mark Richard | Courtesy
Short story writer, jour­nalist, and screen­writer Mark Richard on the set of his AMC show “Hell on Wheels.” Richard will visit Hillsdale College next week for two public readings, spon­sored by the Vis­iting Writers Series of the department of English Mark Richard | Courtesy

The Vis­iting Writers Series of the department of English will host acclaimed writer Mark Richard next week for two public readings of his work. Richard has authored two award-winning short story col­lec­tions, “The Ice at the Bottom of the World” and “Charity.” Also a jour­nalist and screen­writer, he has cor­re­sponded for the BBC and written various screen­plays for tele­vision and film, including the Emmy-winning series “Huff” and the AMC series “Hell on Wheels.”

~ Com­piled by Ramona Tausz

When did you begin writing?

I think I wrote my first short story in second grade — “The Ancient Castle.” It’s not great, but it’s not too bad, and I see a little bit of my later style in the last sen­tence of the story. So second grade I began to write short stories, and then I really began to write in earnest in high school. I had great teachers who encouraged me to write all along the way.

At what point did you first con­sider making a career of writing?

I think I was driving home from college, Christmas break. I was failing a lot of classes, and I was failing out of pre-law, and the only class I was getting A’s in was cre­ative writing. So when I went back to school after Christmas break I switched my major to jour­nalism; I figured that in cre­ative writing you couldn’t make a living, but maybe in jour­nalism you could.

How did you tran­sition from jour­nalism to fiction writing?

I think that jour­nalism sharpened my eye to become a fiction writer. There’s an old saying: “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” I think when you’re trying to record a story (espe­cially since I was writing fea­tures), you look for the details of the story. Jour­nalism creates an awareness of the world that is really crucial to a fiction writer, I think. 

At the same time that I was a jour­nalist and writing for a news­paper, I was beginning to write short stories and send them to mag­a­zines in New York, so I was sort of doing both at the same time. I would see things while I was reporting — stories that weren’t news stories. There were stories about people that if you just tweaked them a certain way, you could really have a Flannery O’Connor short story.

I think that you always want to manip­ulate events so that they create a story, and you weren’t able to do that in jour­nalism. You just had to kind of report on what was. In fiction you can sort of record what could be. So I was reporting on people and then turning them a little bit into other char­acters and sending those stories to New York — Esquire mag­azine in particular.

How do you nav­igate the two dis­tinct styles? 

It’s not an either/or propo­sition. Like I said before, the skills I was holding in jour­nalism were exactly the skills that I needed for fiction writing — devel­oping my eye.

I always say that one of the best things I learned in jour­nalism was not to be pre­cious about your writing. When you write jour­nalism, you hand your story off to an editor and they’re going to chop it up, cut it up, edit it, do what they need to do to make it fit into the paper, and it may not be what you wrote in the end at all. But because you can’t be pre­cious you can also be playful.

I think that you have to be able to have a sense of play­fulness and not be afraid of the failure. Failure is going to come, the rejection is going to come, but you can’t be fearful of it. You have to be fearless in your work, and if you’re fearless you can be playful. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older as a writer is that you must keep the sense of play in your work, even if it’s jour­nalism and espe­cially if it’s fiction.

During your visit, you will give a reading from “House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home,” a memoir that traces your devel­opment as a writer and your growing-up in the South as a child strug­gling with hip failure. How does your expe­rience of the American South appear in the work?

I think that I was a kid in the South during one of its greatest upheavals: the beginning tran­sition during the civil rights era. When I was a kid, the civil rights movement had not reached my corner of the uni­verse. But during my childhood, race rela­tions were at a boil, and informed all the years that I was growing up with inte­gration and racial violence.

At the same time I was in and out of children’s hos­pitals in which the patients were either poor inner-city black kids or white kids from Appalachia, so I was seeing first-hand humanity. Espe­cially in terms of the black people, these were not demons — they were demo­nized. I was living with them for years and seeing the suf­fering on the physical level that they were going through in these hos­pitals. And, I think that informed the way I feel about people all being the same. Suf­fering is a great common denom­i­nator, and a great leveler — as is poverty.

How did you get into screenwriting?

A former student of mine at the Uni­versity of Mis­sis­sippi was a script super­visor in Hol­lywood, and she moved to Los

Angeles. Coin­ci­den­tally, my wife and I moved to Los Angeles and I kept in touch with the script super­visor. It turns out she was a script super­visor for a director named Robert Altman, who was very famous. She intro­duced me to Altman, who had read my short stories, and he said “The Ice at the Bottom of the World” would make a great film. So I went to the library and checked out some books on screen­writing and got some scripts and watched the movies while I was reading the script and taught myself how to write a screenplay. So I turned that in to Robert Altman.  Unfor­tu­nately, he died, but an agent had heard about it, and sud­denly I had an agent, and then the agent took the script and started sending it around as a writing sample. I got a call from the pro­ducers of an old show called “Party of Five,” and they asked me to come be on the writing staff. So sud­denly I was on a tele­vision show.

It’s been a bumpy ride, we’ve had ups and downs and feasts and famines. I made a film, we had a writers’ strike, I’ve been broke several times, but after a while you get a little traction. Knock wood, we’ll be OK.

You just wrapped up four years of writing and pro­ducing “Hell on Wheels,” a tele­vision series about the building of the First Transcon­ti­nental Railroad. What do you enjoy about writing for television?

The “Hell on Wheels” expe­rience was great — we were shooting in Calgary, which was a great double for the plains of America. I enjoy it because as a writer, it was very sat­is­fying to hear the actors speak the words that you spoke for them. I started out in Hol­lywood in feature film, and the feature film industry is pretty dead for writers. It’s mostly cartoon movies, or fran­chise movies, or super­heroes — there’s not a lot of real drama in movie houses. Most of the drama today is to be found on cable and premium cable. So I was happy to find a home working on the railroad for four years, and I worked with fan­tastic actors, including the lead actor who plays Cullen Bohannon. He’s a young actor named Anson Mount, and he was an undergrad at Sewannee when I was the Ten­nessee Williams Fellow there — so I remember him when he was running around in the drama department there. It was really fun.

What are the unique chal­lenges of writing for spe­cific tele­vision characters?

In the case of “Hell on Wheels,” I was blessed to be working with Anson Mount. Anson is from Ten­nessee, and I’m from the South, and I knew Anson per­sonally, so I knew his cadences of speech, I knew the char­acter that he was trying to build as the writers were trying to build the char­acter together with him. I remember one time, Anson and I were sitting at the mon­itors waiting for some­thing to be set up, and he said, “You know, we have a Holy Trinity.” I said, “I don’t know what you mean by that.” He said, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”  What he meant was, that I’m the father, he was the son, and the ghost was the char­acter that we’d developed together.