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A Successful Photographer, Jon Michael Riley Walks a More Humbling Path as a Budding Novelist

Matt Peiken | BPR News

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Jon Michael Riley made a lot of money as a corporate and commercial photographer, and his work anchored advertisements in major magazines.

“I had a client tell me one time ‘Well, we like to use you because you speak the language down here,’” Riley said. “Soon as I get to the south, my southern accent would come back.”

Riley’s work brought him all over the country, and he took advantage of the travel to shoot his own landscape and still-life photos. He and his wife moved from New York and bought a home near Asheville in Fairview, and Riley could have eventually coasted into retirement.

But as he passed his 60th birthday, Riley found himself caring for a wife with Multiple Sclerosis while bearing with his own weakened back and eyesight.

“It’s hard to do photography if you’re a caregiver, but you can write,” he said.

Riley put away his camera and sat down at a keyboard, determined to become a writer.

“I had this inner feeling I really couldn’t write. I didn’t know anything about it and I wasn’t good at it,” he recalled. “Nevertheless, I started doing the Great Smokies Writers workshops, which got me going, and I realized there’s a whole roomful of people just like me.”

Riley didn’t entirely leave photography behind. He merely transferred it to the central character in a set of novels Riley calls adventure thriller. “Photo Shoot” is Riley’s second self-published novel in the series, and it places his alter-ego in the middle of the Indian Ocean, an environmental crisis and a hostage situation involving Somali pirates.

Riley will read from “Photo Shoot” March 29 at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville.

“I wanted to start with something I was comfortable with,” he said. “I knew the world of photography, I knew the world of New York.”

Riley grew up feeling like an outsider in small town North and South Carolina. He went to art school in Atlanta, studied printmaking for a year in Paris and helped make TV commercials in New York before pursuing a career in commercial photography. He ran his own photography business in New York City for 18 years.

“I did very very well, but I had two kids, a house in Hastings on Hudson. It was very very stressful,” he said.

After moving with his family to Fairview, Riley followed an impulse to write a story about his upbringing in a small, racially fractured North Carolina mill town. He sent it to an established writer to gauge his thoughts.

“And he wrote me back, eventually, four pages of single-space typing all the stuff I’d done wrong. I think the first sentence was this story has absolutely no structure,” he recalled. “It was the best critique I’ve ever had. I mean, it was brutal, but I still have that letter today.”

While others might have retreated to the security of the familiar, Riley pressed on, this time with an idea for a second book inspired by his life -- drawing on his Irish heritage and background in photography. He enrolled in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-Asheville, where he bonded and shared work with other budding writers.

“It validated that I was actually on the right road,” he said.

The literary world didn’t seem to agree. Riley spent three fruitless years soliciting more than 100 agents.

“On one hand you say you’re successful if you get an agent. You’re double-successful if the agent gets a publisher. I’ve got neither of those. I’m on my own,” he said. “It’s been a very demoralizing experience.”

So Riley is publishing himself. He wrote “Photo Shoot” as his wife’s health and life faded

“It was an escape. It was a fantasy world, really, and it actually it helped me stay sane,” he said. “And it helped me from being angry, because there’s a lot of anger when you watch a really good person suffer for a very long time.”

As someone who enjoyed great success as a commercial photographer, Riley, at age 73, has redefined what success means for him as a writer as he works on the next of his series of adventure books, with a photographer at the wheel.

“I have satisfied myself that I’ve done what I could do,” he said. “I know I’m not the world’s greatest writer, but no one is writing the story that I’m writing. So at least for me, it’s unique.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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