Writer, Wanderer, Waitress: Author Colleen Reilly Follows Her Father’s Footsteps with Her Published Books
The late Bob Reilly was a mentor of mine. The former public relations-advertising executive taught journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for several years. He was a husband, father, and grandfather of a large Irish Catholic family. He was a raconteur. He was an encourager. But most of all, he was a writer. He published scores of articles and books. One of his books, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, was optioned by Disney and made into a feature film whose script he helped write. At least two of his children became writers, Hugh and Colleen, and here I profile the latter. Colleen is, as the main title or headline, a writer, wanderer, and sometime waitress who, much like her father Bob did, lives a full life that somehow also leaves room for insatiable reading and writing.
Writer, Wanderer, Waitress: Author Colleen Reilly Follows Her Father’s Footsteps with Her Published Books
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the City Weekly
Independence is something Colleen Reilly cherishes. Long marching to the beat of a distant drummer, this twice-married mother of two has chafed at conformity from the time she was a young woman, when she left behind the security of her large Irish Catholic family for a new life overseas.
A daughter of Omaha author and former UNO professor Robert Reilly, she’s followed in her father’s footsteps to become both a writer and teacher, but has also journeyed far afield from her family, faith and homeland. She first left the States in 1968 to attend college in Ireland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and where she met her first husband. She returned to the U.S. only long enough to receive her master’s in English lit and give birth to her first child. Hungry to see more of the world and to make a fresh start for themselves, in 1973 she, then-husband Pat and son Declan moved lock-stock-and-barrel to New Zealand, which she called home for 20 years.
Down Under, she enjoyed her status as an American expatriate abroad. Hailing from a family of artists, actors, writers and attorneys, she forged a career as an American literature professor (at Victoria University of Wellington) before heeding her birthright and taking pen in hand. She wrote criticism for newspapers and eventually authored two novels and a book of short stories, all of which were published.
When home beckoned to her, she returned to America in 1994, resettling in the South with her second husband, Pearce, an over-the-road truck driver. Once here, she again chose an unconventional path by eschewing the comfortable life of an academic to work instead as a waitress and as a semi driver alongside her mate. “I don’t think Dad likes to hear this, but I am prouder of learning to drive a big truck than I am of my books or my degrees or anything else because it was so out of character and so far from my upbringing,” she said. “It was a huge challenge. I’ve heard so many women say, ‘I’ve always wanted to drive a truck.’ My mother is one of them. And I did it, and I’m so proud of that.”
Unlike teaching, which she enjoyed but felt shackled by, waiting tables and hauling freight have provided enough freedom for her to pursue her two passions — reading and writing. Then in 1998, spurred by a desire to be by her aging and ailing parents (Her father endured a quadruple bypass and her mother developed Alzheimer’s), this prodigal daughter finally came back to Omaha, where she and Pearce now live in “a cottage” of a house in Benson, mere blocks from where she grew up. While he continues driving an 18-wheeler, she writes at home during the day and waits tables at Trovato’s at night. As her agent searches for a publisher for her latest novel, Reilly’s sense of wanderlust keeps her dreaming of traveling to distant lands and of one day returning to New Zealand, where she and Pearce keep a home.
Reilly first felt the call to adventure at 17, when she went off to attend University College Dublin. The Emerald Isle is a special place for her Irish Catholic clan (She is one of 10 brothers and sisters.). Her father is a devotee of Irish literature and has written articles and books relating to various aspects of Irish heritage and lore. Colleen came to Ireland a “young naive American” and left a little older and wiser. It was 1968 and her mod apparel and liberal views were not accepted. Then there was the fallout from the Vietnam War.
“There was some holding me accountable.” Hardly an Ugly American, she was in fact an anti-war sympathizer. In between her studies, she tramped across the countryside. “Every holiday I had I’d go somewhere in Ireland. I don’t think there’s any corner of Ireland I haven’t seen. It’s a beautiful country. I miss it. I miss the talk. I don’t mean talking with people, but the eavesdropping talk of just sitting in a pub and just listening to these people’s amazing verbal facility.”
She also made forays into London and Paris, but regrets not seeing more of Europe when she had the chance. She has since traveled with Pearce to Morocco, Belize and other far-flung spots.
Aside from her travels, her major exploration has been an intellectual one. From early childhood on, reading has consumed her. She did dabble in writing, even winning a national scholastic poetry contest at 16 while a student at Marian High School, but it was reading not writing that sustained her and that continues sustaining her. “Reading is my real passion,” she said. “I still think of myself more as a reader than a writer. I can’t imagine not reading. It’s my great joy. I probably read five novels a week. I’m a great haunter of the new book shelves in the library and of second-hand book stores. If I bought new all the books I read, we’d be bankrupt.” She estimates her book collection numbers in the thousands.
By her late teens she got hooked on Russian literature. Her experience in The Old Country introduced in her a love for the great Irish writers. Then, while working on her M.A. at UNO she steeped herself in American literature and discovered the book that continues to stir her most deeply — Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick. “I just fell in love with that book. I’ve probably read it now 18 times, both to teach it and just for pleasure.” For her, Melville’s epic yet intimate fiction delivers everything she seeks in a book.
“The ideas. The passion and the compassion. The way he gives us both Ishmael and Ahab, two extreme American types, and lets you choose and makes you realize there’s heroism in each. And also the poetry of his language. In this 600-page novel you can take a paragraph and see the alliteration there that you would normally ascribe to poetry, not fiction, especially not in a 600-page fiction. It’s everything. It’s the beauty of the language, the beauty of his exploration of the ideas. Everything.”
Upon completing her M.A. in landlocked Nebraska Reilly followed an Ishmael-like hankering to be by the sea again. She wanted to return to Ireland while her then husband, Pat Cox, wanted to stay in America. So, they compromised and headed with their infant son Declan for New Zealand, which owing to Cox’s English citizenship granted all three permanent residency with minimal red-tape. For their home, they chose the sea-side capitol, Wellington, and never looked back.
“It’s on the southern tip of the north island,” she said. “It’s a beautiful hilly city surrounded by the sea. People say it looks a lot like San Francisco.” The place still exerts a powerful pull on her. It’s where her second son, Eoin, was born and where both her boys, now adults, still live. It’s where her best friends reside. Where she blossomed as a writer. And where she met her second husband, Pearce Carey, a fellow reading enthusiast.
“I miss my kids so much. I only get back to see them once a year. I miss them. I miss my friends. I miss the sea. We still keep a home in New Zealand where we will one day retire to. I would like to be back there by the time I’m 55, which is three years from now. I definitely intend to live out my old age there. I love New Zealanders. I love their humor. Their humor, like Australian humor, is a great distance from tragedy. They have a great sense of irony and fun. There’s just none of the self-pity and none of the victim mentality and none of the get-even mentality we have.”
Words carry more than the usual import for Reilly, who early on felt the expectations of her writer-father to display a like appreciation for and prowess with language. The pressure to write, as much self-imposed as anything, weighed heavily on her.
“Being Dad’s daughter there was this desire to please him and a feeling I should write. That made it difficult for me,” she said. However, she long ago overcame any timidity about him reading her work and now routinely trusts him to give uncensored feedback. Unlike her father, who writes every day, she struggles maintaining even the semblance of a strict schedule. “I still don’t write regularly. I’m constantly beating myself up for that. I just don’t have that kind of discipline. I’ll sometimes go two years before writing anything or I’ll get two chapters into something and then not finish it. When I am writing it’s never for more than three hours at a time. I’ll find anything to keep me away from it.”
After winning that youth poetry contest at 16 Reilly did not write again, save for academic papers, until almost 31. She only resumed it in the fallout of a personal crisis. “I did have a nervous breakdown. By that I mean all the defenses that had worked no longer worked, so I had to make new ones.”
Although she said there was nothing specific to trigger the breakdown, she had been in “a passionless marriage” that ended in divorce and that left her with two young kids to raise alone. And that’s when she sought comfort in the one thing that had always given her solace — words. “I remember talking with my best friend, Margaret, in the middle of all my crying and this stuff you do and saying, ‘I have to write,’ and her saying, like a typical New Zealander, ‘Yeah, so why don’t you? What’s the big deal?’” With such help, Reilly pulled herself together and got on with the business of living and writing. The fruits of her early work were a novella and several short stories, which were published in a collection of her short fiction.
Her short stories, along with the novels that followed, focus on loneliness and alienation, apt subjects for an introspective expatriate estranged from the religion she was raised in and separated so long from the family she grew up in.
“The theme of loneliness comes up again and again and again,” she said. “Different kinds of loneliness. Sometimes it’s a romantic loneliness. Sometimes it’s spiritual. Sometimes it’s social. But it’s all about…how not to be lonely, if one cannot be lonely, especially if you haven’t got the consolation of a religious belief, which I don’t have, and if you haven’t got the consolation of some great meaning to life, which I don’t have.”
The separation she’s felt in her own life reverberates in her work. Her first novel, Christine (Allen & Unwin, 1988), is set in Omaha and Maine and offers a protagonist isolated from family and other ties by venturing far from home in an attempt to live alone in a seaside town. The title character is obsessed with the idea of a twin brother, whose life begins to assume a greater reality than the world around her. Once ‘cured,’ there is the question of how much Christine has given up in the process. Although Reilly completed Christine before starting her second novel, The Deputy Head (Allen & Unwin, 1986), the latter novel was published first. The Deputy Head concerns an uptight New Zealand high school principal and his rigid Anglophile views of and stagnant relationships with women.
Her latest novel, For Caroline, is the first she is trying to find an American publisher for and she expects its provocative take on abused women will make it a hard sell.
“It’s about an 80-year-old man and this obsession he has with this girl-into-a-woman named Caroline, which starts when she is an infant. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s a protective thing. He wants to protect her from the abusive men she’s attracted to. It’s written from his point of view and describes 50-odd years of protecting her. He blames mothers and specifically her mother for giving their daughters such low self-esteem that they will be attracted to abusive men. The first sentence of the book is, ‘All mothers hate their daughters…’ It’s politically-incorrect in that he believes the advice given to abused women is ridiculous. That instead of working things out it just should be, Get angry and get out. I’ll be surprised if I get a publisher, because it’s virtually saying the opposite of what’s being told women.”
While awaiting word on her novel’s publication prospects, she seeks a publisher for a piece she’s written on the hazards of waitressing, something she’s had seven years of experience doing. Beyond the occasional bad customer, she, like many an artist, has found a certain bliss in waiting tables.
“I really like it. I like the freedom more than anything, especially compared with teaching. When you’re a teacher, you never check out. You never leave the job. With waitressing, you clock in and you clock out. It’s the mental freedom you have. That’s the way writers should live.”
Teaching is something she’s considered resuming but always balks at after calculating she “can make twice as much waiting tables — and without the headaches. Besides, there’s all sorts of ways I feel like I’m still a teacher here with all the young people I work with. Granted, I’m more a teacher in life than in literature, but so what? I always have Pearce or Dad to discuss literature with.”
- Short Story Writer James Reed, At Work in the Literary Fields of the Imagination (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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