By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns correspondent
Three decades ago, Chris Riebli began writing about growing up in Petaluma. A fifth-generation Sonoma County native, he remembers Petaluma when the east side was walnut orchards, the Boulevard was Main Street and a four-lane freeway was being built.
He remembers the smells of chicken shit and rotting animal carcasses from Cader Brothers Tallow, and the aroma of creek mud, for Congress had not yet rechristened it a river.
He remembers walking down the first block of East Washington Street. “You cross the bridge and head east … remembering the cool shade of Golden Eagle Milling that lasted a long block, maybe longer, before the lines of boxcars and flatcars coupled up alongside the train depot appeared.”
Roebli’s book got put aside, he writes, in favor of “other, more pressing things to do: mostly truck driving and teaching, helping to raise a son, handy work …”
Put aside again and again until 2011, when he says his characters got tired of being patient and waiting for him to run out of excuses. “I realized I wasn’t going to have another 30 years to work on this book,” he says. “I had built up a writing block, convinced myself when I was teaching I couldn’t write.”
So in June he took time off from his 25-year career as an adjunct English teacher with Santa Rosa Junior College and in December “began seriously working.”
Last summer he finished “The Body’s Perfect,” 12 related short stories that blend fact and fiction. He begins the book with a disclaimer. “It’s never an easy task separating a writer’s own experiences from those that are invented, and these stories are no exception. So if you think you see yourself in any of the following narratives, you’re both right and wrong.”
Riebli wrote for six months, and published the book last July.
In the book’s evocative introduction, he asks “Why write these stories?”
His answer: “It was a way of capturing the remnants of a world disappearing quickly. In a way (they) are a eulogy to people long gone, to a lifestyle and way of living whose underpinnings were already quaking when I was a young boy. … I’ve struggled with these changes … saddened to see the small farms disappear and with them that unique industry of the small man and the small woman, saddened at the inevitable growth, the loss of intimacy and vitality that I remember from my youth.”
With the publication of “The Body’s Perfect,” Riebli, now 64, has begun a second novel, also based on family history. This time he’s going further back, to the deaths of his great-grandfather, shot and killed in a Sonoma land dispute, and grandfather, killed in Healdsburg while hunting wild pigs. Again it will be fact-based fiction, but this time, he says, it will include fantasy in the form of time travel.
To ensure he doesn’t spend 30 years on the book, he has formed a writing class at the Occidental Center for the Arts, following Alan Watt’s book “The 90-Day Novel,” a guide to creating a first draft.
“You write daily for 90 days,” Riebli explains. “At the end you have a first draft. I told the class I’m not teaching, I’m not going to read your manuscripts. The class is mainly for encouragement.
“This course was the push for me,” he continues. “I’ve been waking up at 4:30 and writing for two hours.”
He reaches into a well-used, sturdy dark canvas briefcase and pulls out a red-covered, spiral-bound notebook. Writing freehand works best for him, he says, and both side of the pages are covered in neat, black cursive.
Riebli is an easy, natural storyteller, both on the page and in person. He tosses out stories about his dad’s early “hell-raising” schooldays and one of his own teachers, Sister Mary Caionia: “She reminded you of Knute Rockne.”
He talks about his 30 years of truck driving, from which he retired in 2005. “I’ve hauled grapes, wine, milk, car parts, eggs, old chickens, young chickens, chicken shit, chicken feed.” He says trucking and teaching gave him “one foot in the white collar world and one in the blue collar world.” The combination, plus working in Guatemala with the Peace Corps in the ‘70s, “broadened my perspective. I would hear people complain and think, ‘You don’t realize how good you have it.’”
And he recalled earlier submissions to magazines such as Esquire and the New Yorker to which he inevitably received rejection letters along the lines of, “This month we received hundreds of excellent submissions. Unfortunately your story didn’t make the cut.” He grins wryly. “Eventually I stopped sending stuff out.”
But as “The Body’s Perfect” proves, he didn’t stop writing. He says of the book, “I wanted to write in a clean, economical style and I feel, for the most part, I did that. A friend said mine is ‘patient’ writing.”
“The Body’s Perfect” is published through CreateSpace and is $15. To purchase it, go to createspace.com/3903933.