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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: Rick Ripley finds success writing books about regional history

Richard Ripley recently published his second book about regional history: “Against the Torrents – Adventures from the Idaho whitewater life.” (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

For those who have considered writing a book about family or regional history, Richard Ripley recommends trial by fire – campfire, that is.

“Some very small stories are still interesting if told well,” he says. “But you have to be able to tell the story around a campfire in a way that captures your audience’s interest.”

Ripley, who spent 38 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, recently published his second book of regional history.

“Against the Torrents” recounts the pioneering jet-boat expeditions of North Idaho native Darell Bentz, founder of Lewiston-based Bentz Boats, and his younger brother, Rusty.

During a recent interview, Ripley discussed his career, his avocation, and how chocolate chip cookies can boost book sales.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Ripley: Orofino, Idaho.

S-R: What were your interests?

Ripley: We did a lot of camping, fishing and hiking.

S-R: What was your first job?

Ripley: I started working as a grocery store box boy when I was 15, and continued doing it through high school and college. It’s the kind of skill you can take anywhere.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Ripley: I always liked English, and my teachers encouraged me.

S-R: Where did you go to college?

Ripley: The University of Idaho. I earned a bachelor’s degree in business, then went back for another three semesters and got a journalism degree.

S-R: When did you start writing professionally?

Ripley: At the Idahonian (now the Moscow-Pullman Daily News). I’d taken a class from Ted Stanton, the newspaper’s editor, and he invited me to come help out.

S-R: Then what?

Ripley: I worked at the Idaho Falls Post-Register for a year, came back to the Idahonian, then worked for the Associated Press, the (Boise) Idaho Statesman and The Spokesman-Review before ending up at the Journal of Business, where I retired in 2010 as editor.

S-R: Do you remember your first newspaper assignment?

Ripley: Probably news briefs. Ted Stanton was from the Wall Street Journal, where the front page always featured a column of tightly written briefs, so he really liked the Idahonian’s briefs written well. One of his favorite phrases was “keep it simple.”

S-R: What else did he teach you?

Ripley: When someone was struggling with a lead, Ted would say, “If you can’t write the beginning, start in the middle.” That really worked for me, because the lead is the hardest thing to write.

S-R: Any particularly memorable reporting assignments?

Ripley: I still remember floating down the Teton River with naturalists John and Frank Craighead just before (the Bureau of Reclamation) sealed off the Teton Dam, which collapsed a few years later, killing 11 people.

S-R: What did you like most about reporting?

Ripley: Sometimes when the Statesman had a good local story, they’d play it above the nameplate. I liked being in that spot – not for ego reasons, but because it was satisfying to know something before everyone else. I remember when one of Jack Simplot’s potato plants burned down, and my stories ran above the nameplate for three days. It was a big deal.

S-R: What did you like least?

Ripley: When you edit copy, sometimes you’re hard on people. They may need it, but I never enjoyed that.

S-R: You eventually focused on business writing. Is that different from general-assignment reporting?

Ripley: Not really. But when I started out, covering business was not the big deal it is today. Back in the ’70s, the U.S. was No. 1 and had always been No. 1. There was no question the economy was the best, and people tend to ignore things that are given. Since then, the economy has struggled and jobs have moved overseas.

S-R: Any common misperceptions about business reporting?

Ripley: A lot of people think you’re there to promote their business. That’s not true. You’re there to tell readers what’s going on. If they have a good story to tell, it helps their business. If they don’t, there’s not much you can do about it.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Ripley: When you come from a small town, you don’t necessarily think you ought to go to a big-city paper. But I no longer think that’s true. If you can write OK and do a good job, you can probably do journalism anywhere.

S-R: What’s it take to succeed in journalism?

Ripley: You have to be inquisitive by nature, patient, willing to learn writing and be responsible for your accuracy. And you have to work hard.

S-R: Let’s talk about books. What makes for compelling regional history?

Ripley: A good story. And it has to be a different story – you can’t repeat what’s already been done.

S-R: If someone thinks their ancestral history – homesteading, having fought in a war – would make a good book, what ingredients are essential? Does it need drama, dialogue, surprises?

Ripley: All those things help. What I thought was a really good piece of work was the Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg World War II miniseries (based on historian Stephen Ambrose’s 1993 book, “Band of Brothers”). What those soldiers did was really remarkable, and yet they weren’t interested in getting credit. They just did what was called for.

S-R: What made you want to write Darell and Rusty Bentz’s story?

Ripley: It was Darell’s idea. We’d been roommates in college before he went on to become probably the best whitewater jet-boat hull designer ever, and he knew I had done the “Ridgerunner” book (about an elusive North Idaho mountain man). He called me up not long after I retired, when I was looking for a project, and I thought he had a great story to tell.

S-R: Did he hire you to write the book?

Ripley: No, we worked on it together off and on for about four years. We’d sit down and talk about what would make good chapters. Then I would make a lot of calls, tracking people down and checking facts, just as any reporter would. Rusty kept a journal, which helped.

S-R: Do you have any idea how many hours you devoted to the book?

Ripley: A lot! That’s how I work. I rewrote “Ridgerunner” five or six times.

S-R: Boise-based Backeddy Books published both your books. Did they pay you an advance to write the books?

Ripley: No. They handle the design, editing and marketing. Gray Dog Press in Spokane printed it, and I get paid based on whether the book sells.

S-R: How many copies have they sold?

Ripley: I believe more than 10,000 of “Ridgerunner,” which has been in print 29 years, and roughly 750 of “Against the Torrents.” “Ridgerunner” started out at $10 a copy, and now sells for $15.95. “Against the Torrents” costs $23.95.

S-R: How much of that do you get?

Ripley: I think 10 percent of the net sale price. Because we rushed to get the book out, I don’t even have a contract. But Backeddy Books has treated me so well for so long that I haven’t worried about it.

S-R: If you were to calculate your remuneration on an hourly basis, would it be frighteningly low?

Ripley: Oh, I would say so. But it’s also frighteningly satisfying. And I didn’t do this for the money. Darell Bentz was a fine guy, and I really wanted to tell his story. We got the book out two weeks before he died.

S-R: Have you done book readings?

Ripley: I did one at Auntie’s, and drew 51 people. What they tell you beforehand is to call everyone you know, and bake some chocolate chip cookies so people will stand around talking and have a good time. We did all that, and sold 45 books.

S-R: Do you have other stories you’re passionate to write about?

Ripley: I think so, but I haven’t decided on my next project. I loved working on “Against the Torrents,” but I really put in a lot of hours, which gets old. My wife, Jill, doesn’t complain, but she said it would be nice if I took a break before starting another one.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at