Taxi from the Afterlife: Why Two Men Vowed to Publish Their Dead Friend’s Books

Gary Reilly

Gary Reilly

For most writers, trying to write and trying to get published is like balancing on a fence. Many of them fall off—and some of them never climb back on. Those trapped on one side of the fence may write one book and spend the next 20 years trying to get it published, missing out in the meantime on opportunities to improve their craft. Or in even rarer instances, things could go the other way, and the writer could complete 20 books in that time, getting better and better while letting the chance at publication slip farther and farther away.

That’s more or less what happened with Denver writer Gary Reilly. A Vietnam veteran who attended the University of Colorado before becoming a taxi driver, he always wanted to be a writer and logged the hard hours to ensure he became one. What he didn’t do, or at least not very well, was promote himself. When he died at the age of 61 in 2011, he had a trunk full of unpublished manuscripts. His friends, who believed in his talent, vowed to publish those books.

All of those books.

The Asphalt Warrior by Gary ReillyI was introduced to Mark Stevens, one of those making the vow, at a mystery writers’ convention by a mutual friend who’d sketched out the story for me. I was wary—What if affection had overpowered objectivity?—but kept an open mind. I was struck by Stevens’ earnest conviction, especially in light of the fact that he could have spent the time pitching me on his own mysteries: he’s a writer, too, author of the well-regarded Alison Coil mysteries (Lake of Fire, 2015). Some weeks later, when a package containing half a dozen books landed on my desk, I was intrigued enough to read a few pages of the first one, Asphalt Warrior (2012). It was good! How good? Good enough that I took it home and finished it in a couple of sessions on my couch. (Click the title to read my retrospective, “Second Look” review.)

For more, let’s hear from Stevens who, with Mike Keefe, started Running Meter Press to ensure the world could read Reilly’s works, even if Reilly, sadly, was no longer around to enjoy the acclaim.

Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens

How did you meet Gary Reilly, and what was your relationship to him?

I met Gary in 2004. My close friend Mike Keefe, the former editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post, introduced us. Mike, who won the Pulitzer Prize before retiring from the Post a couple years ago, had known Gary since the 1970s. Mike knew I was writing fiction—though at the time I was unpublished—and he thought Gary and I would hit it off. We began a series of coffee-fueled workshops. He read all three of the manuscripts I had written at that time, and I read his, some two dozen altogether. I was blown away.

What was he like as a writer?

I read, I believe, almost all the full-length fiction he wrote. I’ve run across a few things since then that I did not know existed, particularly the last 50,000 words of The Detachment, the forthcoming novel in his Vietnam series. I knew he was a wonderful, talented writer, and told him, but I had precious little feedback to offer. The Asphalt Warrior series presented such a unique character and such a wry, smart voice. The first-person prose that he poured into Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. “Murph,” was a style I had never encountered. Gary’s prose was nearly pristine, too. He polished and polished again for timing, rhythm, plot, everything. He wrote a few straight-up novels of suspense (I had turned him on to the talented Miss Patricia Highsmith) and so I helped him brainstorm some of the plot and situations for those stories. However, my input was 1 percent to his 99 percent, believe me on that.

“After writing millions of words of fiction,
Gary left behind a three-sentence will.”

When and how did he die, and how did you become his literary executor?

He passed away in 2011 from cancer. We knew he was dying and he knew the severity of what he was facing. I would drive him to the hospital for treatments every now and then and he was still laughing and smiling about it. At least, as much as anyone could. I did not see him over the last few months of his life and I am sure it was not easy. Mike went to him and asked for permission to publish his works. After writing millions of words of fiction, Gary left behind a three-sentence will. The third sentence gave me and Mike the permission we needed. Mike and I knew we had a job to do.

Ticket to Hollywood by Gary ReillyWhy did you decide to publish them?

There wasn’t a question. It was simply a matter of, “if not us, likely nobody.” Nobody else, to my knowledge, had read all of Gary’s works other than Mike, myself, and Sherry Peterson, Gary’s longtime girlfriend. I’m sure many other people read them, but I don’t know if anybody else had read the whole Reilly catalog. By the time Gary passed away, I had one novel out and was starting to see the possibilities of independent publishing. It worked out that Running Meter became an imprint with Big Earth Publishing (in Boulder, Colorado) for the first few years of publishing Gary’s works but we’re operating more and more on our own now. The second novel in the Asphalt Warrior series, Ticket to Hollywood (2012), and the fifth, Doctor Lovebeads (2013), were both finalists for the Colorado Book Awards and those recognitions were wonderful validations of Gary’s talent. Readers, too, have reacted well. We recently connected with a woman who did the acquisitions for the University of Princeton Library and she said Gary Reilly quickly became one of her favorite writers. In addition, the cab-driving book reviewer on National Public Radio, a London reader named Will Grozier, has raved twice about Gary’s work.

Do you know the full extent of his unpublished works?

For the most part, yes. But it’s still possible we will stumble across something else. Sherry gave Gary so much support during his lifetime and has turned over the old electronic files and hard copies to us. But some gem might turn up. We ran across a mention in Gary’s notes recently that he had thrown away a half-dozen novels right around the time I met him. I’m crushed at the thought if that’s true.

Mark and Gary

Mark and Gary talking shop

How much editorial work have you done to the original manuscripts? Are the titles Reilly’s or yours?

They needed some editing, very light dusting here and there. He left his work in clean shape. So far, these are all his titles to date. He had several options for The Detachment, but he could never settle on whether that was one book or three. We made it one. The eighth novel in the Asphalt Warrior series will come out later in 2016. It’s got a Halloween theme and so we think October would be perfect timing. So far, however, we can’t find a title. There is a title for one of the chapters that we might upgrade to full-book status: The House That Hell Ate.

Mike Keefe

Mike Keefe

Who else is involved in Running Meter Press? Do you publish other authors? 

Running Meter Press is run by me and Mike. That’s it. We have published one other non-Reilly book, the award-winning Pepperland (2013) by Milwaukee writer Barry Wightman. It’s fantastic novel, exceedingly well written. In fact, it earned a starred review from Booklist (we were thrilled!), and your critic called it “a riotous, occasionally electrifying celebration of love and music, capturing the turmoil of its time with a touch of otherworldliness that seems right in sync with rock ‘n’ roll.” But no, we are not looking for submissions. We have plenty of work to do publishing Gary Reilly’s books.

How much of Reilly’s material is still left—and what’s next?

The Detachment is next, and it comes out in April. We think it’s Gary’s masterpiece; it has epic qualities. The Detachment is the sequel to The Enlisted Men’s Club (2014), which introduced us to Private Palmer, another of Gary’s alter egos. Like Palmer, Gary served as an MP during the Vietnam War. While The Enlisted Men’s Club all takes place at The Presidio in San Francisco before Private Palmer ships out, The Detachment follows him to Vietnam. There are no direct combat scenes, since Private Palmer was stationed at a military base, but it is, at times, a positively harrowing and deeply human story of survival. Even after The Detachment and the next Asphalt Warrior novel, we are still less than halfway home. There are still another two dozen novels to go—the suspense novels, some fantasy, some sf, a couple of straight-up novels of literary fiction and one or two other stand-alones, too.

The Detachment by Gary ReillyWas Gary ever published during his lifetime?

Yes, once. He had a short story published in The Iowa Writers Review called “The Biography Man.” It was picked up in the fourth edition of the Pushcart Prize Anthology, in 1979, along with stories by Jane Smiley, John Updike, and others. After that one brief moment, Gary’s works were never published until after he passed away. I can’t tell you how many times Gary broke into praise about Rabbit, Run—so the fact that Gary appeared in the same anthology with John Updike is very satisfying to me. Gary was a voracious reader, from pulpy crime novels to Charles Dickens, and was working on Marcel Proust even at the very end.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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  1. Mjreilly14@hotmail.com' Marilyn Reilly says:

    First off: the disclaimer. Gary Reilly was my brother. Out of eight kids he was number three and I was number four. We grew up together. But that doesn’t mean we shared everything; and after Gary went off to Vietnam, the sharing dropped off from there. He wrote letters to our mother, but for an incredible writer, he chose not to write to his brothers and sisters. But maybe that summed up his Vietnam experience. He may have thought, “What would I tell them?” Instead, he painted his experience for us through the person of PFC Palmer in The Detachment, the second book of Palmer’s Vietnam trilogy. Palmer is a 20-year-old kid who has a fatalist attitude. He’s been sent half way around the world to die in a foreign country. According to Palmer, that’s just how it was going to be. But The Detachment isn’t your normal Vietnam book. There are no Rambos’, no guts and glory, and very little shooting. Instead it’s the story of the Vietnam, the mundane. Vietnam, the thing you get through. Vietnam, the event that changes a person who is just trying to grow up. Palmer survives his Vietnam experience in the same way he survived his stateside training in The Presidio, the first Palmer book; by drinking. He did his job and he drank. He took his drinking seriously, setting up his bunk area with a refrigerator, and applying a regimented effort toward always having a ready stock of cold beer on hand. He drinks, he dabbles with marijuana and finally hits rock bottom with a heroin incident that could have ruined him. But that’s what makes writing so great in The Detachment. Many of us know this story. We can see where this story is going to end and you just want to shake Palmer and tell him to grow up! We turn the pages and hope that Palmer will get his act together and yet, the writing makes us connect with this sad sack of a soldier. Palmer has to go down this road in order to survive. He has to grow up on his own terms, surviving his own hell that he brings upon himself. How many 20-year-olds have lived this same life…in America. Gary Reilly had a gift for storytelling and through the Palmer Vietnam trilogy he’s sharing that gift. As a family member, The Detachment is sort of a tough read because we see our brother in the words. But the reality is that through Palmer, Gary shows us a thousand other Vietnam veterans who, as 19 and 20-year-old kids, just showed up and did the best they could in a war that very few of them understood. They wanted to put in their time, do what they thought they were supposed to do for their country…and hope that one day, they would be allowed to go home.

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