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UW-River Falls professor's road leads to literary accomplishment

UW-River Falls Associate Professor Joe Rein teaching a screenwriting class on campus. Kathy M. Helgeson / UW-River Falls

Submitted by UW-River Falls

Joe Rein could talk about writing all day. Recently, he talked about it all evening, in the best possible way.

Rein, 35, of River Falls is an associate professor of creative writing at UW-River Falls where he has taught for the last six years. He's also a newly-published author of "Roads without Houses," a collection of 15 regionally-based short stories which have turned heads.

After a solid review in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Rein recently got the chance to read from his book as part of a March 1 public event in River Falls. Soon, he’ll embark on a reading tour starting in his hometown of Kimberly, with trips to Milwaukee and Madison planned as well.

"It's interesting to see what resonates with audiences," Rein said. "That's the end goal — to write a story that resonates."

Rein took a roundabout path to writing his book, which is published by North Carolina-based Press 53. It's primarily a collection of pieces written for a Press 53 competition in which Rein was a finalist.

Primarily, but not exclusively.

"The publisher liked the work, but I went back and added some older work that I had polished," Rein said. "The end result has been positive."

Rein utilized recurring characters in separate, stand-alone pieces in his work. A reader can enjoy one of the stories, or all of them, with continuity established among characters.

"My characters are in different locations on their journeys, which leads to the title of the book," Rein explained. "Some of them I leave in hopeful situations, while others are more complicated."

In a book with such rich character work, Rein has had to make conscious decisions not to become too attached to his creations.

"If that happens, you're afraid to hurt them," he said. "Sometimes, people get hurt."

Rein points with special pride to a selection in his book called "Letters from the Dead," which focuses on a postal worker who receives personal mail intended for a recently deceased person.

"She's touched by it and decides to answer the letters as the deceased," he said. "My characters come from the world, and they all have different motivations. They make different choices. Some are good. Some aren't. You can't have characters be projections of yourself all the time."

Rein has also found that being a published author has helped his students relate to him.

"When I was in school, I cared about what my professors were doing," he added. "I think students, especially in the writing field, care about the creative credentials of their instructors. I don't force my work on them, they don't have to read it, but when I told my class this fall that I was getting published, they all applauded. That felt great."

Rein notes that most of his students aren't short story readers.

"Most don't read literary fiction as much as they read genres," he said. "The danger I'd have is that I could present my work and they might not like it because it isn't part of their experience."

Some of the work in his book is updated from Rein's first writings, up to 12 years old. He's seen himself grow as a writer in that time, making updating his work an exercise in self-examination.

"Maturity, maybe not being so pretentious," he said. "When you're young, the first thing on your mind is what goes on the page, and at the time you think it's perfect. But as you mature, you learn otherwise."

Rein's favorite book is Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," a text he reads annually.

"I also like to look at the Pulitzer lists and see what interests me for my own reading," he said. "Another of the books I really like is (2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner) Colson Whitehead's 'Underground Railroad.'"

What's next, now that Rein is published?

"I'm working on a novel that I'll probably really get the time to write this summer," he said.

Rein describes his next project as a "contemporary dystopian murder mystery," but the rest, he's keeping close to his vest, saying a novel is his "next logical step."

In other words, Rein's road hasn't quite reached the house yet, if you will.

"That's okay with me," he said. "I'm satisfied now, but that isn't to say I will be in 10 years. The roads we're on might not be the roads we thought we'd be on, or even the roads on which we start. It's about the journey."