Riley, a grant writer at CESA 6 in Oshkosh, loved her time at UWO as she worked to receive her bachelor’s degrees in English and history.
“I met some of my best friends in the dorm freshman year, and I still consider them my ‘inner circle,’” Riley said. “My professors were incredibly supportive and I loved my coursework.”
Even before her choice to major in English, Riley knew early on that her passion was for writing. Riley’s father, UW Oshkosh adjunct English professor Peter Martin also was a writer and introduced her to the world of story-telling as a child.
“I always knew, even at a young age, that I wanted to tell stories,” Riley said. “My father was a writer as well, and I’d love it when he let me tap away on his electric typewriter.”
Riley wrote her first novel, Driving Sideways, having been inspired by a conversation she had with a friend about cellular memory, the theory that organs carry residual energy from the original donor. A coming-of-age story about a kidney transplant patient’s “newfound vitality,” the plot takes place on a road trip from Wisconsin to California, motivated by a similar road trip that Riley herself took with her best friend.
“That one was such fun to write!” Riley said. “I think when you feel the urge to tell stories, you just do it. Nothing stops you; it’s just ingrained in you… In fact, I wish I didn’t have the drive to write because life would be simpler, in some ways. But with a lot less color.”
This debut novel, released in 2008, was chosen as a Target Breakout Book, returning to press four times within three months of its release.
According to Riley, writing and finishing the first novel was not what made her first consider herself an author.
“Finishing my first novel should have done it, but it wasn’t until I sold the book and got paid to write that I felt like an ‘author,’” she explained. “I don’t know, the word ‘author’ doesn’t feel right to me, because it makes me think of Bea Arthur’s snotty ‘local author’ friend Barbara Thorndyke from that old episode of The Golden Girls. I like to think of myself as just a writer, lucky enough that some people will actually pay to read a story I’ve told.”
Riley continued writing after the release of Driving Sideways and in 2012 published her second novel, All the Lonely People. Her first novella, Closer Than They Appear, was published in February 2013. Riley now is preparing for the launch of her third novel, Mandatory Release, on July 16.
“Mandatory Release is a crazy mash-up of lad lit and chick lit–a dark comedy featuring two damaged people who work in a dangerous place, finding hope and love where they least expect it,” Riley said.
This novel hits closest to the heart for Riley and has been in the works for 14 years. “It’s been through more incarnations than Shirley MacLaine or the recipe for Coke,” Riley said.
Inspiration for this novel came from Riley’s experience teaching in a medium-security prison as one of her college jobs. While the novel is completely fiction, some inmate characters and other secondary characters were based on inmates or people she has known.
“I think of it as a weird love story, full of longing and pathos and twisted humor,” Riley said. “It takes place in a fictional version of Sheboygan, and I include lots of fun Wisconsin references again.”
Riley will be celebrating the release of Mandatory Release with a a Summer Escape event, in support of the Winnebago County Literacy Council, on July 16 at Becket’s in Oshkosh from 5 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person and include your chance to indulge in hors d’oeuvres, meet the author, listen to a reading from the book, get Riley’s autograph and take home a list of her favorite summer reading picks.