Updated: Jan 2, 2021
As bold as Richard Fifield’s daring detour into Young Adult fiction may be with his new Montana trailer-park-trash drama, “The Small Crimes of Tiffany Templeton,” the true story behind his unexpected sophomore effort is itself worthy of a standing O.
The Missoula-based Fifield, a 20-year veteran social worker for adults with developmental disabilities, began sorting through his own small-town past with his 2016 debut, “The Flood Girls.”
Praised (and inspired) by the late Jackie Collins as “a wild and crazy debut novel by a talented young writer,” the touching/teasing tale of a wayward daughter’s return to her small Montana town after nine years adrift, mirrors some of Fifield’s own story of growing up as a closeted gay person in tiny Troy near Kootenai Falls, population 904.
When Fifield’s publisher suggested that he share those trailer-park insights with YA readers, he was initially stumped.
“Contemporary YA is not a genre that I was familiar with,” he admits. “So I asked my beloved bookstore librarian to give me her favorite five recent YA books, and I bought them and read them and could not get over how adult they were. Some of them were like Jackie Collins; there was a lot of sex and drugs and swearing, which I’m totally fine with. I mean, kids are no dummies, and they should read things that are in their real world. But they had asked me to write a very typical YA book, set on the East Coast where none of the characters are living below the poverty line, and in looking through the YA novels in the bookstore, there wasn’t a single one that had anything to do with red-state life or small town life or anything like what I know.”
A New Twist on a Classic Tale
When Fifield balked at his publisher’s request for a YA retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” they loosened the reins that allowed him to unleash Tiffany Templeton. Dressed in her oversized black leather jackets, Tough Tiff returns to her tiny town of Gabardine, Montana after nearly three months in reform school, eager to make a new start despite her reputation.
“My first book was kind of an adult version, but I always write what I wanted to read, and I was just so sick and tired of the literary trope that the bad girl had to have a comeuppance and be burned at the stake in the center of town in order for her to learn her lesson, when men don’t have that at all; it doesn’t stain their lives,” Fifield says. “It stops girls a lot of times from expressing themselves and being themselves, because the rules are different. I wanted to write another book about women where the consequences of their actions don’t really lead to public shaming, because that doesn’t apply to men at all.”
The author admits that Tiffany’s BFF David came from another familiar homebody.
“I’m kind of an amalgamation of Tiffany and David,” he says. “I was the juvenile delinquent. I did that thing, but at the same time, there’s a syndrome that young Dave has – it’s called the ‘best little boy in the world’ syndrome – and basically, if you grow up thinking that you’re not worth anything, you make yourself indispensable, so people have to have you. You are an overachiever and try to find validation wherever you can, because you’ve been told that what you are isn’t worth anything, so you work extra hard to become necessary.”
“I was the same way,” Fifield admits, “I was student-council president, involved literally in everything, but at the same time, I was driving to Libby to steal cass-singles and huffing gas and doing everything that terrified my family. But that was the boredom part of small-town life, pre-internet and pre-pop culture. It felt good sometimes to be bad, because it was interesting, but at the same time, I was also literally in the thick of every activity that my small high school had. Every prom, every float (laughs). The years I did the proms and the floats were the best that that school has ever seen.”
The Road from Montana
Fifield left Troy in 1993 to attend UM in Missoula, then went on to earn his MFA at Sarah Lawrence College in upstate New York. Leaving home proved the beginning of a long, arduous internal struggle to unlock the writer caged within him.
“It was the times that I should have been surrounding myself with other gay people and learning that it’s OK, because I had not come out of the closet, and it was my chance to try to experience all the things that my friends did in high school, like first loves and relationships and figuring out what I liked and didn’t like.
“Unfortunately, instead, I found drugs and alcohol, so my growth was stunted for the next 12 years because I was a complete alcoholic and drug addict. In college and graduate school, I wrote everything drunk or high, so when I got sober in 2005, I just assumed… you leave a lot of things behind when you completely change your life and I just assumed that writing was going to be one of them. I could not imagine writing anything sober, so for the next seven years, I didn’t write,” he recalls.
“Then one day, a therapist said, ‘Enough!’ and he threw a blank Moleskine journal at me and said, ‘Go take a week off of work, go and do it and write a book.’ And I was like, OK. He saw through that unrealistic fear. And I literally went to a private lake called Big Sky Lake in the middle of winter, and it’s tiny and there was no one there. It was like The Shining; it was so scary. And I brought my dogs and three cases of Diet Coke and five cartons of cigarettes and a bazillion frozen burritos, and I sat down at the kitchen table and I wrote the first draft of “The Flood Girls” by hand in a week. I was just waiting. The story was there. I just had to sit down and get out of my own way and write it. It was only a hundred-and-some pages and it was a total mess, but it was a beginning, middle and end of a book and I said ‘Okay, I did this sober and it felt alright. In fact, it felt better.’”
Fifield’s breakthrough taught him the real truth behind the writer’s quip, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
“The whole thing about writing drunk and editing sober is, when you edit sober, you’re like, ‘Oh my God! I must have been wasted because that was just horrible writing!’ But sober writing was so much better because I was so much more present. I was not galloping,” he recalls.
“Drugs and alcohol made me write like college-kid writing, where you think you’re Faulkner when you’re not. So, I really pulled this story about a small town and a softball team of women and told the story about my youth in a different way. I’m really not a character in my first novel, but I don’t think I will ever write anything but small-town girls’ fiction, because it’s my lane.”
Those Who Can, Teach
Fifield’s gratitude for the 12-step program that reintroduced him to his muse grew exponentially as he became a volunteer moderator/soul scout for various book groups in and around Missoula.
“I work all over the place, and it’s just the biggest honor ever to be trusted with someone’s life story, you know? To have someone read aloud something they have never told anyone before, and to see the shame leave their body like viscerally, you literally see the weight lifted off their shoulders because the words finally came out of their mouth. To me, it’s the best combination of social work and writing there is,” he says.
Helping guide the creative journey of other writers has also helped him come to a happy place about criticism of his work by reviewers and readers. “Through teaching, I’ve learned so much about writing, and one of the things that I’m always pounding my students about is, don’t tell the reader how to feel about anything. Write it so they internalize it through their own filters and their own perspectives, and they have a feeling about it. If you tell them that they’re supposed to be sad or they’re supposed to be happy, it takes away all of the surprise and all of the organic emotion; it takes all of the power out of the scene. Write it from the perspective that ‘I’m going to give the reader credit to be a good reader and interpret it however they want,’ he advises.
“When I work with my writing students, I always talk about the difference between the first and second draft. The first draft is for you; it’s just to get everything out and it can just be a mess, you can bleed all over the page and be full of mistakes. The second draft is when you get to go back in and decorate the story. That’s my favorite part of writing.”
Tailor of the Trailer Park
Fifield has been busy undertaking his own new passion, creating haute couture at home.
“We didn’t even have cable TV until I was about 10, but I would watch things like fashion television on CNN with Elsa Klensch and anything that had to do with modeling or fashion because it was the opposite world, a world of fantasy. What a dress represents is a form of expression, and I’ve always been obsessed with modeling and fashion and design. It wasn’t until this last year that my mom passed away, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’ve always been an over-decorator, as you can imagine (laughs), but I got my first hot stick rhinestone applique gun and slowly but surely, my entire house was rhinestoned, and then my aunt was like, ‘We’re taking that away from you because your house is too much.’ And I was like, ‘Fine. I’m going to learn how to sew.’ So I taught myself how to sew last year. I needed that. I’m making a ‘Black Phillip’ dark goat double dress right now.”
No conversation with the author of “The Small Crimes of Tiffany Templeton” would be complete without verifying the obvious: Did you live in a trailer park?
“I still do!” he laughs “Surrounded by trailers, but it’s not a trailer court; it’s western Montana, two minutes away from Missoula, and it’s country. I had a lot that I bought and a trailer that I bought, and it could be a house, so it’s not a trailer court. There is actually a ‘tiny house’ community two streets up from me, and I think they’re fantastic, but after living in a tiny house for two years up north, I will never do that again. I like too much stuff!”
When asked about the reception of his books, Fifield admits, “People have massively different responses to my first book, massive, like, angry responses, and other people don’t, and I respect that. I love a really, really, really bad reviewer when I get tagged on Twitter and called out, because I’m like, you know what? If you cared enough to find me and write something personally to me instead of just going on GoodReads and complaining, that means I did my job because you felt something. If you hate something so much that you are compelled to track down the author and yell at them, mission accomplished! Like, I love you! That’s great! Because the worst reaction is apathy. I love the severe anti-reactions as much as I love the good ones.”