Jim Ruland is the author of Big Lonesome, a short-story collection. He hosts a reading series in L.A.’s Chinatown called Vermin on the Mount. His newest novel, Forest of Fortune, is a glimpse into the lives of three people struggling with addiction. I spoke with Jim about the new book, casinos, and addiction. You can read more about Jim here: www.jimruland.net
BRANDON HOBSON: Hey, Jim. I really loved Forest of Fortune. You weave three different stories together beautifully, which is not an easy thing to do for a writer. Was pacing difficult for you as you worked on the book? Did you work on each section separately all the way through or work on all three at the same time?
JIM RULAND: Thanks, Brandon. When I was drafting the book, I worked on all three at the same time. I’d spend a couple days on a scene, get the character into some kind of trouble that I didn’t know how to get them out of, and then move on to the next character. By the time I returned to the first character enough time had passed that I knew how I wanted to proceed. It all came together pretty quickly. It helped that the chapters are short, but revising was tricky. When you have three protagonists, you can get 50 pages into a novel without having a ton of stuff happen because you’re introducing distinct characters. That’s when I pulled the manuscript apart and started cutting a lot of the fluff. I wanted characters with messy, believable lives: boisterous families, difficult coworkers, confusing romantic entanglements. But to get the characters in the casino where they could start interacting I had to compress, condense and cut characters for the sake of the story.
BH: Speaking of messy, believable lives, Lupita is highly superstitious, even spends an all-nighter at a casino. I know several people who are just like her. How much research did you do in casinos?
JR: I spent over five years working at an Indian casino in Southern California. I don’t know if I’d call that research or a really bad life choice. But, yes, the casino is full of Lupitas: women at loose ends with discretionary income and lots of time on their hands. On the surface, they seem almost glamorous: attractive, well put together, free with their money. But show me someone who spends a lot of time at a casino and I’ll show you a lonely person.
BH: Now you speaka my language. Loneliness has always triggered gambling for me. A counselor once told me that there are two types of gambling addicts: the escapist and the thrill seeker. Lupita is an escapist and seems to like to escape from reality with the machines. I’ve heard stories of people pissing themselves because they didn’t want to get up from a machine. Others wear adult diapers. Others scrounge for change in their cars in the parking lot. Did you see any sad cases when you worked there?
JR: I saw a sad case every time I looked in the mirror! Seriously, they were everywhere, skulking around, radiating bad vibes. All employees have to display their gambling license (i.e. badge) at all times, so the guests who were up to no good, who’d stayed too long, who were at the end of their rope, learned to avoid anyone wearing a badge. It was just sad. We had guests who would ride the free shuttle up from the suburbs of San Diego, redeem $5 of free play, hang out all day drinking free soda and coffee, and then take the shuttle home. That was sad, too, but in a different way. These people were poor and lonely and had few options. There was something almost heroic in the way they exploited the system to get free rides and hang out in an air-conditioned casino all day. The saddest thing, and this is a relative kind of sadness, were the wealthy people, the VIPs, the ones who were in the casino all the time, like 21+ days out of 30, more if there were five weekends in the month, and earning shitloads of comps. So many of these people treated the staff like shit. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of money and spending all that time alone in a casino. I always thought of the people waiting for them at home. If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of gambler were you, Brandon?
BH: The compulsive, lying kind. I started out betting on horses at the track. I love sports betting. Shit, I bet on golf. The machines are terrible because everything’s a trigger, including cartoons and billboards and commercials and musical baby toys. There’s a scene where Lupita keeps playing the same machine even though she’s losing. She knows it’s destructive, yet she keeps on. Compulsive gambling, by the way, is now listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). Pemberton’s behavior is similar to Lupita’s. Do you see gambling and substance abuse as similar addictions?
JR: Absolutely. Pemberton’s behavior mirrors my own period of circling the drain. I remember one day very vividly when I was driving by the bar after work and saying to myself, You’re not going to the bar… You’re not drinking today… even as I was turning the wheel and pulling into the parking lot. Madness. That first step of recovery, admitting one’s powerlessness, copping to a lack of agency, is essential not so much to sobriety but to knowing one’s self, acknowledging what you’re up against. I remember a men’s recovery meeting I used to regularly attend and in the parking lot afterwards you would have all these groups: smokers, coffee drinkers, fat guys en route to the diner, guys betting online on preseason baseball, house flippers. People substituting one compulsion for another. Still, the link between gambling and substance abuse wasn’t completely clear to me until I after I’d been in recovery for a while and could see what was really going down on the casino floor. It’s like politics: we see what we want to see, know what we desire to know, and good luck telling us otherwise.
BH: Step One is hard, hard, hard. Step Four might be even harder, which is where I’m working now. After my first meeting I started really looking forward to returning for the support. It’s sad when so many people come to that first meeting, break down, but then never come back. Do you see a lot of that, too?
JR: It’s hard, and I wish the best for you, Brandon. There have been times in my life where the Navy and the DMV have forced me to go to meetings. It didn’t take. I wasn’t ready. But I knew where to turn when I had nowhere else to go. If being an artist makes life more difficult, I think it makes recovery easier. We have this other thing that is distinct from our selves and our loved ones, which should be enough but isn’t. The amazing thing about recovery is it has given me all the tools I need to deal with the things that plague artists: arrogance, envy, greed, failure, fear of failure, pride, success, lack of success, others’ success, etc. None of that can touch me. I’ve got too much at stake. I’m not going to lose my sobriety over a book.
BH: Thanks, Jim, and I wish the best for you, too. Tell me—what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
JR: Think of yourself as an artist. Knowing your craft is essential, but you’re not a barrel maker. You’re not a framer. You’re not hammering little cabinets together. You’re a fucking artist, so take risks everyday. You weren’t put on this planet to follow rules.