QueerReader Interviews Patrick Ryan

Posted on August 31, 2017
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QueerReader Interviews Patrick Ryan

QueerReader: Since its publication, The Dream Life of Astronauts has gotten a string of positive press–culminating in a rave review in The New York Times.  And this month it had its paperback printing.  Are you surprised by the success of this book?

Patrick Ryan: I feel fortunate all the way around. I’ve been working on these stories for years. Writing and rewriting some of them many, many times. A few of them I wrote very early drafts of as long as thirty years ago. So it’s really wonderful to have them published in a collection. And the response the book has gotten has been really kind and generous. If you aren’t a big name, you’re grateful for any reviews, and this book surprised me by getting quite a few. I found out Maureen Corrigan was going to review the book on NPR about an hour before it happened. I was at work, and I listened to it with my feet up on the chair and my body tied in a knot. I think I even had my arms wrapped around my head. And she was so nice! I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

QueerReader: It occurs to me that you have tapped into the zeitgeist specifically with regards to the space program…

Patrick Ryan:  If I’ve tapped into the zeitgeist, that’s pure luck (maybe that’s how it always happens). I was just working with a landscape that was familiar to me—NASA, Cape Canaveral, characters who live in close proximity to such a national endeavor but who aren’t necessarily involved in it. I never thought, This is hot property! This is rich stuff! It was just what I felt like exploring because it’s where I come from.
QueerReader:  In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani compared The Dream Life of Astronauts to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Were you pleased with that comparison?
Patrick Ryan:  Oh, yeah. I was thrilled and immensely flattered by the comparison, because Winesburg, Ohio opened up the windows and doors in my head when I read it. I think it was the first book I read that had recurring characters in different short stories, some of them seen through different lenses along the way. Ernest Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories had that effect on me too, though those weren’t written to stand together. Another collection of linked stories that knocked me out was Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. And there have been plenty more. Fenton Johnson’s Scissors, Paper, Rock is a wonderful linked collection that’s now back in print by University Press of Kentucky. David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
QueerReader:  Do you consider Sherwood Anderson to be one of your influences?  Do you have any “influences”?

Patrick Ryan: I always think of my influences as being the writers who astounded me by showing me what was possible with fiction. It really doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I went on to try to write like them. I sometimes get started—as in, the first sentence or two—by trying to imitate the work of writers I admire, and then whatever I’m trying to do takes on a life of its own, determined by what’s in my toolbox and what’s in my wheelhouse. Some of the writers who influenced my development are Richard Yates, Edmund White, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Graham Greene, Alice Munro, Joy Williams, and Chekhov—who really is the Grand Marshal of the Short Story Parade.

QueerReader:  I agree!  Several of the stories in your book feature– for lack of a better word– “punchlines”.  That is:  one sentence at the end that somehow sums it all up.  I’m thinking specifically of the title story,”The Dream Life of Astronauts”.  I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t read the story yet.  I’m interested in the process of your writing.  Specifically, did you know that that would be the last sentence, when you started writing the story?
Patrick Ryan:  Wow. I’ve never thought of my work as having punchlines. They occur accidentally, or spontaneously, I guess, because if I was thinking with a punchline in mind, I wouldn’t be able to write. It’s such a great question because it ties right into the different ways writers work—which, for me, is always fascinating. John Irving says he doesn’t start a novel until he knows not only the whole story but the last sentence. Flannery O’Connor said that she didn’t know the bible salesman was going to steal that girl’s artificial leg until a few lines before he stole it. I know plenty or writers who claim that they start stories—even novels—with an idea for a scene, nothing more, and then they see where that takes them.
QueerReader: Do you agree with E.L. Doctorow who wrote:  “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”?
Patrick Ryan:  I love that Doctorow quote because it’s not only beautifully stated but also enticingly vague. It seems to imply that you make it all up as you go—plot, character arc, the whole shebang—but I think what he meant was that you have an idea of where you’re going, you know your starting point and, most likely, your ending point, but you don’t know exactly how you’re going to get there. That’s pretty much how I work. I couldn’t start a story without knowing in some vague way how it was going to end, but I need to be in the fog along the way in order to make the writing fun—which hopefully makes the reading fun—so that there’s room for discovery, for surprises. For example, there’s a story in this book that involves a 60-year- old grandmother on a first date with the instructor from a defensive driving class she was made to take because she was faulted for a car accident. I worked on that story for six months, and for the longest time all I knew about their date was that it wasn’t going to go well. As I got closer—inching through Doctorow’s fog—a lot of potentially creepy things started to emerge. Those two characters ended up in a motel room playing dress-up, and the whole affair wound up being potentially creepy and very one-sided. I most definitely didn’t see that coming until I got there.
QueerReader:  Yes, I love that story. I’d like to ask you some questions now about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine for your writing?  Do you write in the morning?  Do you write everyday?
Patrick Ryan:  I write in the morning, and I stretch that into the first half of the day when I can get away with it.  Mornings because that’s when my head is less cluttered with, oh, you know, the awfulness that is our current national landscape. (These days, I can’t imagine writing at night.) What I’ve found is that spending at least an hour each day with whatever I’m working on keeps me in touch with the project in a way that is far more effective than sitting down with a larger block of time once a week, or once every few weeks. So in that respect I write five days a week—sometimes for a brief period, sometimes for a longer period. Weekends, I take off.

QueerReader:  Do you have a specific place where you write?
Patrick Ryan:  I write at home at lot. Other places, too—though I have a very hard time writing in public. When they invent 100% effective noise-cancelling headphones and it’s not attention grabbing to wear horse blinders, I’ll write in public. Basically, I need to be—or feel—entirely alone. Ideally, I just need a room I can be alone in with a door I can close. That room can be tiny and windowless and ugly—as long as it has a door.
QueerReader:  Do you write longhand? Or on a computer…?
Patrick Ryan:  I write on a computer. If you’re a writer and you’re my age or older, and you started writing in your early twenties, you had to relearn how to write on a computer. I worked on a manual typewriter for years, then on an electronic typewriter (which was like fuel injection), then on a word processor—mine was an Amstrad with a built-in dot-matrix printer—and finally on a computer. At first, working on a computer meant that I was way too easy on myself, in terms of revision. Later, it made me way too hard on myself. Finally, hopefully, I’ve settled down somewhere in the middle:  writing, and revising as I go.
QueerReader:  Do you turn the cell phone off?
Patrick Ryan:  The phone is off. The news is off. The email is not signed-into. No music is playing. The only wayto make full use of writing time—which, for most of us, is hard to come by—is to turn off the outside world. If you have an hour, you turn off the outside world for that hour. If you have four hours, or thirty minutes, you turn off the outside world. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s very hard to do because most of us are writing on machines that can connect us to the world. That wasn’t
the case twenty years ago. Your typewriter couldn’t link you to anything but the words you were hammering out with your fingers. I use an online thesaurus that’s wonderful, but jumping over to it means I have to avoid the rabbit hole of the internet.
QueerReader:  One of the reasons QueerReader strongly recommended your book is your remarkable quality of empathy.  You write about teenagers, senior citizens and even a mobster.  And yet, there is always a sympathy for these characters.  Do you have a particular technique for getting into the heads of these diverse characters?
Patrick Ryan:  Thank you. I just think of it as an approach. I approach characters slowly, and try to make my rendering of them as much of a collaboration between me and them as possible. I put them on the page and have them do something, and then I step back and observe them for a while. And by “observe,” I just mean that I try to get inside their heads and get a sense of what it’s like to be them.  No one is entirely good, entirely bad, entirely sane, entirely crazy, etc. Someone doing something mean is quite possibly not very proud of it in the moment. Someone doing something nice is quite possibly feeling resentful of having to be nice. Characters need to be just as complex as real people. For example, I have a character in one story who’s a real creep, a grown man who’s trying to seduce two teenage girls, offering them alcohol, promising to help them in ways he knows he can’t. What’s most interesting to me about him is that he doesn’t see himself as a creep. He knows he shouldn’t be offering alcohol to minors, but he’s willing to do it because he wants them to like him and feels deserving of being liked. He’s lonely, and he very much doesn’t want to see himself as lonely.

QueerReader:  Florida plays a strong part in The Dream Life of Astronauts.  Indeed, it almost seems that Florida is a character in this book– and it’s not the Florida that the tourists see.  Having grown up in the state, do you think that it influenced your writing?

Patrick Ryan:  For a long time, I didn’t feel comfortable writing about Florida because I couldn’t get a handle on its character. Plus, everyone feels like they already have a handle on Florida because of the tourism thing. It’s Disney world and the Coppertone ad, end of story. But eventually I came to realize that the melting pot aspect of Florida is its character, and you can really only get that if you’ve lived there.  On the street where I grew up, for example, there were people from Alabama, Boston, Connecticut,  Wyoming, Texas. And there were no adults who’d been born there. All those transplants, all those different accents. Add to that the fact that most people, back then, were there because of the Space Center and all of the various industries associated with it. My hometown was a melting pot that had converged on a single entity—NASA—and that entity started to wane in the early 1970s, and the landscape changed. A lot of people had to reinvent themselves. It took me a while, but I came to realize there’s a lot of creative mining potential in that.
QueerReader:  Do you consider yourself to be “a Florida writer”?
Patrick Ryan:  I don’t consider myself to be a “Florida writer” only because I don’t want to be limited to one setting. Two of my books are set in Virginia. The thing I’m working on now is set in Ohio.
QueerReader:  I’m looking forward to reading that book. Any advice for the young authors who are aspiring to your level of success?
Patrick Ryan:  Yes: Write because you want to write, not because you want to get published. Of course you want to get published, and you should do everything you can to help that happen, but you have to write first, right? And you should be writing because you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy the process, that’s going to be evident in the end product.  Also, if you can enjoy writing without getting swamped in worry about how it’s going to be received, then you have a better chance of not burning out when you hit hurdles—like not being able to get a story or a novel published. Over a fifteen year period, I wrote seven novels and sent them around and wasn’t able to get them published. And I got about halfway through at least eight others before abandoning them. Most aspiring writers who stop writing do so because they can’t handle the rejection. The only reason I kept going in the face of it was because I actively started reminding myself that I enjoy writing. Over and over again, I reminded myself of that. It helped.

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