The Story behind ‘Riley’ by Paul Midden

I have always been fascinated by how relationships work. As a therapist for many years, I listened to many people talk about how their partners failed them, how they failed their partners, or how the threat of losing a partner was accompanied by terror and, if he or she did in fact leave, by stark loneliness.  

riley-front-cover-hi-resCan’t live with them; can’t live without them. It was this conundrum that found expression in Riley, my most recent book.  

Relationships often call for decisions, and often those decisions, especially for young people, entail saying good-bye to someone who was once close. The story starts with such a farewell, and the writer who initiates it pens a novel filled with characters in a similar state. It had been a desire of mine ever since I read Herzog by Saul Bellow, whose eponymous character wrote lengthy letters to politicians throughout the novel, to do this novel-within-a-novel thing. It was fun to write, despite the various complications that arose in the lives of all the characters, ‘real’ and ‘fictional’. 

Of course, the story has echoes of my own life, as one of the formative experiences of my own young adulthood was leaving a marriage and forging a new life. It was a challenging, difficult, emotional, but refreshingly liberating and ultimately rewarding. I have never regretted it. 

Now, as I look back to those events, which happened decades ago, I appreciate the process even more. Liberation is a wonderful thing but is no guarantee of happiness. That requires continuing choices, a certain openness to new experience, and a commitment to be totally responsible for the lives we lead. 

In this book, unexpected things happen, as is often the case in situations where risks are taken. Riley aims to chart both the inside (psychological) part of the equation and the outside (behavioral) part. We all live our lives with that inside/outside thing going on, and detailing it in the lives of my characters was a pleasure. Even when bad things happen. After all, liberation does not mean safety. It entails risk, and risk by its nature is uncertain. 


Paul Martin Midden is the author of five previous novels, each of which explores different writing styles. He practiced clinical psychology for over thirty years. Paul’s interests include historic restoration, travel, fitness, and wine tasting. He and his wife Patricia renovated an 1895 Romanesque home in 1995 and continue to enjoy urban living.

About the book:

Riley is about the eponymous protagonist who is about thirty, a writer by trade, who lives in Washington, D.C. At the beginning of the book, she has left her husband and has undertaken a novel about separation and divorce. She lives in a small apartment in a D.C. high-rise.

The characters in Riley’s novel are also in a marriage that is teetering on the edge. It opens with Adam, her protagonist, trying to decide if he should talk to Suzanne, his wife about their relationship. He works from home, and he has decided this was the day they would talk. In the end, he loses his nerve and doesn’t say anything. But to his surprise, Suzanne is the one who takes the initiative.

Riley’s life and the novel she is writing share many similarities, but there are also major differences. Suzanne turns out to be having an affair with her female boss. Riley’s best friend is a slightly older lesbian who is attracted to Riley but who values the platonic friendship they have.

As the story unfolds, unexpected things happen that challenge all of the characters. Without giving away the plot, the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, and each of the characters has to deal with the emotional impact of events as they unfold.


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