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Novelist David Rhodes

Writer David Rhodes published three novels still in his twenties, was hailed as one of the best of his generation, was paralyzed in a flash, in a motorcycle accident, and dropped off the map for thirty years — living simply, quietly, almost invisibly in the rolling countryside of rural Wisconsin.

Three years ago, a young fan tracked him down. Discovered he was still writing. And brought him back.

His extraordinary new novel, “Driftless,” takes us deep into the lives and hollows of the world he has quietly observed, off the map, for decades. This hour, On Point: novelist David Rhodes and “Driftless.”

You can join the conversation. Can you imagine coming back after more than three decades of silence, and hard times, with a masterpiece? Share your thoughts.


David Rhodes joins us from Madison, Wisconsin. His books include “The Last Fair Deal Going Down” (1972), “The Easter Home” (1974), and “Rock Island Line” (1975). In 1977, he was paralyzed from the waist down as the result of a motorcycle accident. His critically acclaimed new novel is “Driftless.”

Read an excerpt from “Driftless.”

More links:

Poets & Writers magazine profiles Rhodes in its September/October issue, and offers capsule summaries of his novels and photos from the rural backroads near Wonewoc, Wisconsin, where Rhodes lives.

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  • Jeanne Anderson

    I love listening to this show today with David Rhodes. I haven’t read the book yet, but I will. I grew up im Madison, went to the University there and then moved to Massachusetts where my husband got a job. When I was small, in the 1950′s, my father used to take us on car rides in the country; he also took me and some of the neighborhood kids out to hike in the farmland there. The countryside in this part of Wisconsin got into my soul. For the last 38 years I have been going back to Madison in August from Massachusetts and driving around the driftless area to take photographs. I am a painter (when I get a chance) and this is my favorite area of all the world to paint: all the counties in southwestern Wisconsin: Sauk, Iowas, Richland, Vernon and so forth. I love the cover of the book; it makes me homesick. I can smell the wildflowers and hear the crickets. For years my dream was to live in this area. (Just a note: Clifford Simak, the science fiction writer, used to set some of his stories in the driftless area too. Especially Coon Valley, a mysterious place that I have visited.) Thanks for the show – it’s a nice birthday present for me.

    Jeanne Anderson

  • Marc Lavine

    I hope this message reaches David–

    David, just hearing you in conversation it is so apparent how full of humanity and insight you are. I am excited to read the book. I grew up in Wisconsin and I look forward to reconnecting to a variation of a world that I know and miss.

    I trust you know the Greg Brown song Driftless? Also, if you were in Beloit in the early 70′s, I wonder if you’ve seen the movie “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” about another Beloit alum who done good?

    Earlier this morning on NPR I heard a historian say that there was a point in the founding of the nation that George Washington had a bad flu and if he’d died the country wouldn’t have been founded. It made me think that an averted flu of someone who isn’t related to most of us is one moment that results in all of us being here. Your books will circulate for the rest of time and touch peoples lives. Thanks for enriching the rest of us.

    Finally, Tom Ashbrook seemed pretty invested in the “you were gone and now you’re back” narrative. While it sounds like that might have been true for a time, I wonder if you see it that way in the last couple of decades?

    Keep up the great work and thanks!

    Marc Lavine

  • Grayson Yoder

    To the subject raised on identity and the perception of it, relating to the fact that on a personal level we exhibit different facits of ourselves to the different people we come in contact with, if you do not consider the relationship we have with ourselves to exhibit the true facits that makes up who we really are, then the exhibition presented to the rest of the world cannot really be relied on.

  • Jim Noland

    Near the end of the interview, Rhodes distinguishes Steinbeck’s ear for dialect from the voice his characters take as a matter of talent, or difference in talent. I think the voices we hear from Steinbeck’s characters and from David’s support the distinct purposes of the authors: Steinbeck shows us characters mostly from the outside and encourages our outrage at the conditions imposed on them; the world is polarized. Rhodes gives his characters a shared voice with distinguishing features which reflects the web of connections and coincidence, the common humanity they and we inhabit.

  • Amber Clark

    I’m so looking forward to reading Driftless and especially so because my brother is Phil Christman–an intuitive and talented writer. I will never forget his enthusiasm at having discovered Rock Island Line in a library somewhere in 2004 and about what lovely people David and Edna are. He gushed for days. Thanks for an insightful interview Tom.

  • http://none Kay Chitty

    Dear David,

    I grew up in South Carolina but I loved the interview with you and plan to read your book(s). Thank you for coming back into print. It pleases me tremendously that the agent for your emergence apparently was a student at the University of South Carolina. See, we’re not all rednecks down here! As a nurse, I appreciate your retreat but am so glad you’re back!! Having good books to look forward to makes me feel rich. Thank you.

  • Mary Miller

    this interview is so much better than a book signing…(especially because I already have your signed book) and such a great interview, bringing out stories and history of you.
    I sure liked you reading excerpts.
    Thanks for sharing…YOU.

  • http://www//phelpslawoffice.com Richard Phelps

    Pages 20 and 21 sum up and describe small town america as well as anything I have ever read and I know–I grew up in small town america.

  • Mary Christman

    Yes, I’m the privileged mom of Philip Christman, the young man who was so enamored of David Rhodes when he read Rock Island Line in the summer of 2004 that he called me all excited with a vow that he would not rest until he had found either more books by David or David himself. In the interview Tom expressed surprise that such a young reader would be so taken with David’s writing. Well, David is no doubt a truly engaging writer, but Philip had very discerning tastes in books even as a youngster and has known that he wanted to be a writer himself since elementary school. So it’s no wonder this lovely little drama has played out as perfectly as it has. It was nice to hear David on this show and be able to pick up on his disarmingly modest charm. I was intrigued to hear of his inspiration (the friend’s funeral) for the book, because I have often thought the same thing at people’s funerals – and weddings too, for that matter. For the record, Tom referred to Phil as a USC student at the time he went looking for Mr Rhodes, but that wasn’t the case. He was living in St Paul MN where he and his friend Ben (of Milkweed pulishers) loved to hang out and discuss books and authors. Phil was working for Americorp and did 2 years of voluntary service for them in St Paul, then went to Marquette University in WI for his Masters in English and has now been an MFA student at USC since August ’07. Thanks, David, for the joy you’ve brought us all!! And thanks, Tom, for having the good sense to share David with us through this ininterview.

  • http://onpointradio.org Joe Mansfield

    Having recently read “the story of Edgar Sawtelle”, I thought that was going to be the highpoint of my reading for 2008. Wrong, wrong, wrong…..

    I find Driftless to be so amazing and touching that I cried twice at the writing.
    David captured the bedrock humanness of the people of Word. To me the book was like a perfect painting. Ina good painting, you can’t remove any portion without ruining its integrrity. Such is the story of Driftless, all of the characters, and their interactions fit together perfectly.
    I feel blessed by having read it.

  • carole jordan

    dear mr. rhodes,

    i read all your books in the seventies and loved them. read them all many times.

    i am SO glad you are back. i am not sure if writers know how much readers actually need them, somehow. when i couldn’t find you, i grieved.

    i also became partially paralyzed (from polio, revisited) and it is much more than losing mobility. i know this very well.

    i admire you even more now than i did when i read your first three books. i know how hard it is.

    carole jordan

  • http://google roberta oehrke

    Just finished Driftless. I found myself rereading paragraphs to savor the descriptive words. Page 212-Fear, more than anything—–. I feel as though I have found a marvelous author that knows the value of all our wonderful language. You made it an excellent read to create these word pictures. I am excited to learn there is an author to be read beyond the feeling of wasting my time reading the current trash. Thank-you for these sensational characters you brought to life.

  • kurt Jacobsohn

    Just finished DRIFTLESS. The best book I read in a long time. I grew up in another country, lived 11 years in IOWA and now reside in Wisconsin. So I can look at this book from many angles, It has universal Human values that are wonderful. I hope we will see many more books by Mr. Rhodes. My best wishes to him.
    Kurt Jacobsohn

  • Mardee Dowdy

    Thank you for an opportunity to let David Rhodes know how much I have enjoyed reading Driftless and I am eager to dive into Rock Island Line and the other novels! David your writing is right up there with my best authors Stephen King and David Wrobelewski(sp?). Thanks again for not giving up your talents – I’m hoping you’re busy spinning another awesome story for us. Many statements and thoughts from Driftless come to mind – but I’ve been especially thoughtful over “anger and anger’s silent partner, fear” – I’ve been in alcoholism recovery for years and this speaks volumes! All Best to you and yours!

  • Lauri Mendelsohn

    I finished Rock Island Line 2 weeks ago and haven’t been able to pick up another book since. I want more of July. What happened to him between then and Driftless. July is in my soul. Thank you David Rhodes. More, please.

  • alice owens johnson

    Dear David Rhodes: I am envious. Your book, Driftless, was seamless in character development, description, dialogue and a non-stop plot, and I’m a Southerner, never been anywhere near the mid west! I’m writing not just to thank you for your generous literary gift, but to ask if you have any words for a friend, also a Quaker, who had a terrible accident and is now paralyzed from the neck down. John Lamiman loves words so much, even in the ICU he wrote a message pointing to the alphabet with something that looked like a cigar. You are the only person I know who could address what lies ahead for him from a literary point of view. He and his wife Claire are two of the most courageous people I know. His love of literature has touched so many of his students. We all hold him in the light. If you would like to send a note of hope, here’s where to go. Most respectfully, alice owens johnson, Black Mtn. NC He is to be moved to the Shepherd Spinal Center soon, but if you care to leave a word I will forward it. Many thanks.

  • Carolwichers

    Just finished Rock Island, read Driftless after the NPR interview, cried then, read the book and cried some more, and told everyone I knew it was ” in the top 5 books I’ve read in my life” and Im 58! July’s story was so intense I actually put the book down for several months, I COULDN’T bear his pain. His aunt’s wishes for him on the last page are life changing.
    Your reference to the premonitions in your dreams about becoming paralyzed and the implications that has for all of us, for you, has also been something that has validated and deepened my understanding of our purpose, our responsibilities while here on this earth. Thank you for being brave enough to talk about it.
    Carol Wichers 4/8/11

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