The really astounding teaching experiences, for me, have come in moments when I have believed that teaching had nothing new to tell me. Such was the case when for a brief moment I taught in the low residency writing program at Bennington College. There were many reasons to teach this class: I liked Liam Rector, who founded the program; I was going to get to team teach during the residency with Amy Hempel, always an idol of mine; the setting was beautiful; the colleagues were great. These things were enough to persuade me to take the position. What I didn’t know to expect was the caliber of the students. That first class I taught at Bennington was like some dream team of writing students. Five very different writers, four out of the five on their way to publishing books (and the fifth showing very positive signs of doing the same), all of them ambitious, curious, driven, poised, ready to try anything, uncontaminated by readerly prejudices. It was so easy to be in that class, and I learned so much from it, that it kept me teaching for a good ten years afterward, just from the adrenaline. The inspiration came in deluges. Chief among the standouts of that class was the writer before us today, David Ryan, not only a great presence in the room—soulful, funny, gentle, generous, sophisticated—but so unique in terms of his interests that I looked forward to whatever came from him in the way of new work, then and after. I have never, once, in more than fifteen years, doubted that David Ryan would be a writer of great importance. I felt certain he was possessed of all he needed. I happened to meet him when he had just effected a great transition in his life, having left behind a very successful career as a musician (of which there is more below) in order to write. That is just one of the rather profound twists and turns in the David Ryan story. He’s one of those artists who has been gifted enough to have a career twice. For whatever reason, probably because of the vagaries of the publishing scene these days, it has taken David a long time to see the authoritative first publication he has deserved, but now that moment is at hand. Animals in Motion, Ryan’s collection of stories, which assembles twenty years of short fiction, has the kind of confidence and fully-formed vision that we associate with truly great debut collections. As a reader always on the lookout for something that surprises me, I couldn’t be happier to be possessed of this book. It is full of delights and scarcely contained revolutionary moments. And because David once interviewed me, years ago, I leaped at the chance to turn the tables, in order to celebrate his work in the same way he did mine. This exchange, therefore, took place by e-mail over six weeks at the beginning of summer, and it rings with the dulcet and brilliant sounds of David Ryan. But don’t let it be a substitute for reading the stories themselves. This is a writer not to be missed.
I. WHAT HAUNTS THE SPACE OF THE WORK
THE BELIEVER:This collection took a long time to finish. Can you talk a little bit about your long journey? How did you know you were finished finally?
DAVID RYAN: I’m only now realizing how lucky I’ve been that the process was so drawn out. A couple of these stories I wrote when I was in my early twenties—twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. I’m in my forties now. If I am the single author of this collection, the stories, one to the next, represent what seem to me like a few lifetimes—huge shifts in what I thought was “me.” The older stories feel nowadays like some kind of archaeological artifact, some crude implement, set into the silt of others. The newer stories—“The Canyon” and “The Runner” for instance—have the benefit of a couple of near-death experiences, and the fact that I now have a kid. I couldn’t have imagined how rich my life could be, back when.
The earlier work was all about energy. Writing was just this raw id kind of thing. The energies of the newer stories in this collection are dissipated, evened out with something else. I hope they’re deepened, actually. I don’t think the energy of the collection is lessened. It would have felt thinner without the more recent stories. You know, you always think you’re living a full life. You may think it’s a fully crappy life, but it’s full. You have your twenties and your thirties—you get into all kinds of trouble, do all kinds of things. And so I naively thought that I’d seen everything and that I’d settle in my forties—things would quiet down, and I’d live forever. Once you learn that none of these things are true, something deeper begins to inhabit the writing, hopefully. My forties have been the most turbulent and the most beautiful so far, and I feel that the more recent stories work that out, puzzle through that kind of richness. It’s a voice I’ve only hashed out in the past few years. I’m happy about that, but I’m happier that a first collection of mine could cover the ground that this one has. The schisms, their relationship to my life.
BLVR: Music has been an important inspiration to you here. Can you talk about that a little bit?
DR: Yeah, I think I feel so connected to music that I don’t really notice how saturated I am in all these strange ways. My father was (and still is) in radio. He was a disk jockey early on, but eventually became an engineer, then chief engineer, then a sort of nationally recognized expert. I would go into the radio stations with him, sit in the booth with the DJs as they did their thing live. He also played the bass, and my mom was a singer. We had this giant string bass in the living room. Its presence there was just like another piece of furniture. It felt perfectly natural by the sofa. My mom and dad made a little extra money singing together on jingles for a local advertising company. I was a child singer in a chorus at my school, which did tours around the area. So I grew up around music, and when I fell into it—when I got my first drum—it felt like a given, I think. And because of my dad’s engineering job, we had a rather elaborate home recording studio, a huge mixing board, tube microphones, an Ampex 1” four-track, in the basement with my drums. I used it to record with friends.
I got really interested in how music was put together. Not just recording, but the notes and harmonic motion and form. I wanted to take apart everything I was listening to, break it all down. This all started to come together when I was thirteen or so. My dad also had a huge library of reel-to-reel tapes—the library, basically, of the radio station he was working at. I could play them, slow them down to half speed, pause, write down what I was hearing, then hit “play” again, crabbing through these songs. I did a lot of drum transcriptions like this. It became, I guess, my own version of a hobby, beyond practicing the instrument.
But I also was reading fiction with the same sense of interest. In a high school English class, one of the reading list options for a book report was E.L. Doctorow’s Loon Lake and I just freaked out. My thirteen-year-old self had never seen something like that. I’d read a lot of classics, the stuff you read in school—Woolf, Hemingway, Hawthorne, I think I was really into Jack London, too—but Doctorow, at that age, he just bent my notions of engagement with a story. It felt like me I was reading about, this romanticized idea of where I was going, what I came from. The character was my age, had my drive—I saw my circumstances and sensibilities in him, my neighborhood and origins seemed to line up transparently—just separated by time. It was this perfect match—that’s how it felt at the time. I started reading everything of his.
And then I also thought I might become a journalist someday. I seemed to want to be a musician the most, but I had all these other interests that were consuming me. I heard about Walter Piston’s book Harmony, that it was the thing to read for music theory, that explained counterpoint, voice leading, motif, and so forth. So I went at it. My skill on the piano was limited. I didn’t know how to play any kind of melodic instrument, actually. I could plunk chords down on the piano, but no more than to hear the voicings of the notes in the exercises I was writing. If I couldn’t play fluidly, couldn’t play anything I wrote, I soon knew how it worked enough to hear how it would sound—if someone who did know how to play played it. I was doing it all in my head, writing studies based on Bach chorales and stuff, singing the notes, the voice leading, the counterpoint. Then I started using it to try to write jazz scores, big band music. It went on from there.
So this association between writing fiction with a fundamental, pretty unconscious emphasis on harmonic motion came from all that. I don’t think there’s a lot I try to advertise in the text or in the form today. But, yeah, it’s probably there. My interest in formal experimentation, and where the notes/words of my sentences are, is one thing, but the harmonic/narrative motion of the text is a whole other thing—the product on a technical level, I think.
BLVR: I think you circumlocuted, a tiny bit, the degree to which your early musical obsession was about jazz. And since I believe that jazz is a really important American form, and since I further happen to know that it was a big part of your early training, can you just shake out your relationship to that form, whether or not some of its intentions are your literary intentions, and so on?
DR: Yeah, I don’t know where to begin. It’s got so many tubes and shuttles. The initial interest in jazz had practical origins. It was a kind of music none of the other thirteen-year-old drummers around me were playing. I think I saw it as a pocket. Growing up where I grew up, south suburban Chicago, I had a chance to play a lot—blues, rock, jazz, prog rock, whatever. And more, maybe, than most the other kids, I was somewhat desperate about finding a way to make a living by doing something I wanted to do. The anxiety about it came early and was full of what anyone else would see as naïveté. But I didn’t. I saw the nine-to-five thing crushing the adults around me. So, if I got good enough at playing the drums I thought it might get a career out of it. The seemingly practical ideas about playing music as a career were gently pressed into the art of it. Then it doesn’t take long when you’re really listening, to begin to see the spiritual draw of this music. And the more I learned, the more it inhabited me. It just dominated my day and night, this really potent mixture of adolescent desperation and love for something I thought might save me.
But I suppose what made jazz most compelling was that I didn’t understand it when I was first learning how to play. This has carried over to my thinking about writing, how it’s tied up and how a story can send you off into some part of yourself. Jazz produced the same question in my mind. And as I learned more about it, I saw that I’d never understand it. This too made it special, indelible. You can play a note a million ways. Though you might only hear it a couple of ways, till you train your ears. And you can treat notes literally—they’re just notes, sounds, articulations: fingers do something, breath does something, but when combined with the atmosphere, something else happens. Now that I’m long-gone from the performing world, I see the same ideas in my fiction—my own sense of form carried over to stories from music. The thing about classical musicians that always impressed me was just how much time they could hear inside a fragmented moment. How much space between the notes mattered. A common technique in practicing the drums is to set a metronome very slow—say one click every ten seconds. You try to make the stick drop and hit the drum along with that ‘slow’ click, to fall flat and perfectly synchronized so that it actually obliterates the click of the metronome. I’d practice to get the beat I heard inside my head with my own clock to line it up with this pulse I couldn’t change, to erase it. When you achieve this you feel an intense energy created inside you. In some sense that is what writing is about, what knowing the space between your beats is, trying to put the words in place so that something disappears while it exists.
So, by extension, what I felt from jazz was not very different from how I feel about writing now: that the forms of both are meant to manipulate something said, the notes and words, and provoke the listener to say something in response to what haunts the space of the work—the breath, the ideas, the inferences a listener and reader draws from what the experience gives them. Jazz haunted me, it inhabited me, as a story should the reader. Every story should haunt them, inhabit them. The other thing is, I grew up listening to a lot of very old jazz and blues, the stuff that already sounds haunted, and so, by going back so far as a kid I saw the way influences were passed from one person to another, one stage or period in a music to the next. Influence, as a strain of flu. Jazz is inevitably haunted by history, both internally in the mind of each player, but also in all the players who came before, in this lineage of genius, in all the social history that made them. This history is inevitably fused into the minds of each new generation of players. An anxiety of influence going back to Africa. You can’t play jazz, can’t attempt to master it without listening very seriously to those who came before you. It’s an oral tradition, spoken, in that sense. Its verbs originated a thousand years ago. Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis are all living inside the breath of a trumpeter like Lester Bowie. Every time Lester Bowie breathes into his horn, hundreds of dead people exhale with him. All past influences, all past experience—ones parents, mentors, enemies, all the cruelties and joys of their life—live inside a musician’s solo. As with one’s writing. So a jazz performance is a sort of intertextual set of sonic references. A performance, like a written work, is a formal organism outside the melody and chord changes of a song. A single solo is a chance for a lot of dead people to come again to life. I remember the first time I heard Coltrane’s “India.”—and for that matter, “After the Rain” on Impressions. Two very different songs and they both transcend the notes they’re composed of. Eric Dolphy, in “India,” sounds like he’s full of Africans from a thousand years ago, all having a conversation inside his bass clarinet. Some of the live recordings of him playing it seem even more possessed. And of course I hear this in the drums, in particular. Elvin Jones’ playing is like a bunch of demons spinning out, doing cartwheels around a song.
So I want a story to be shaped not by some static template, but by what is haunting it. Ghosts of my own experience, which I’ll conceal or allegorize, and ghosts of stories I’ve been told, ghosts of my own cycling mood or health or circumstances at the time of writing. Ghosts of whoever in my life has influenced me.
I didn’t necessarily understand any of this until relatively recently: I’ve been teaching creative writing and when I first realized I was going to teach I thought about what would interest me as a student, today. So I had to reverse engineer what I think makes a story compelling. All points seem still to lead to these ideas of clarity and grace, what John Cage talks about—the literal, the technical as it is reified through the process of something much more expansive and spiritual, something that exists in the places where words can’t get to, but can push toward, at least. How you use words to get the reader to participate in the creative process. So the more I had to formalize my thinking about teaching, the more I found what seemed natural when I wrote.
II. HOW LIFE INVENTS ITSELF THROUGH US
BLVR: How did this musical life—student of jazz—become life as a touring musician in a rock and roll band of considerable note? And I know a little about how writing grew as a more concrete ambition for you while you were touring, and so on, but can you talk a little about that, about how the stories came to be the important work for you, such that you left behind a very successful career in music in order to pursue them?
DR: Yes, my ambitions to write grew stronger the more I toured, the bigger the band got. But I fell into touring with that particular band late in the game—I had more or less stopped playing in Boston and was finishing up an English degree. Music had begun to seem pretty impossible to do—in Boston everyone is a musician. So I was already focused on this idea that I wanted to be a writer, going in to the audition for the band. My attitude was more like “I’ll just go in and see what happens.” At that time they were a favorite band of mine, The Lemonheads. Locally, they were already big, and they had begun to tour the U.S., and I think they’d been to Europe once or twice on a cover song they’d intended as a joke originally. Their own songs were raw and loud and energetic—had all these elements of punk and pop that worked well together. So I auditioned. And then a couple of weeks later, when they called and said I had the gig, I was thrilled; but I was also reminded, not for the first or last time, of how life invents itself through us, that nothing goes according to plan. The band was leaving for Zurich in two weeks. I got some kind of end-of-semester waiver at school because I’d be leaving my final semester early. I had to learn thirty songs. But by then, even with this new gig, the dream of being a writer had taken over everything else. And then, after the first few tours you begin to sort out what’s good about touring and what isn’t so good. Because even when you get home from a long tour, the tour sort of echoes around your day. And the bigger the band got the more I saw that I would need to get out. Writing felt remarkably stable by comparison. Just about anything would.
In that environment you live with extremes in everything. Extreme boredom, extreme elation, extreme fatigue, extreme anxiety, extreme narcissism, extreme self-destruction. The psychology of things you already thought you knew gets so enlarged that they’re no longer familiar. Touring—as predictable as each day becomes—is a weirdly decentered life. You start grabbing hold of anything you can that makes you feel connected to some base existence. And then I realized, after those first couple of tours, that the effects of this might be what would keep me in the band for at least a while. That I could use the experiences and people around me to learn something that might later fuel the writing. I knew there was something to be gotten from it, from playing the same clubs over and over, from increasingly being surrounded by these ridiculously parasitic industry people. I knew I’d never write anything directly recognizable about the experience, and what is recognizable is pretty dull. Many of the people I might write about directly would just come off as parody of a type.
But the psychological domain was a whole other thing. This Balzacian comedy and the far darker representations of life crammed into a day. I can’t imagine getting to that kind of heat in many other places—without maybe being homeless or institutionalized. The way you’re manipulated, and the way you manipulate, and the way joy is exchanged, the way people will take whatever they can get, this currency of exploitation, the good as well as the bad. I mean, at a certain point, people want to kill you. They may not even realize it consciously, but they do. That’s an amazing thing to learn about human nature—the way people want. The way things they think they love—something like a song or its singer—eventually make them feel thwarted in their own lives. That sense of mimetic, mediated desire Rene Girard talks about, that perception of a desire can get built up and duplicated and further duplicated until the system begins to poison itself with its own noise: whatever is mediating the desire of a crowd suddenly becomes part of the feedback loop and the system begins to fail. It’s very real. Girard has it all nailed. We can see it in everything, but seeing it in a rock band is weird.
And much in the way I’d thought music would allow me to flee the south Chicago suburbs of my teens, I later started to see writing as saving me from this music career. But the truth is, I didn’t really leave that world, mid-point, to write. I didn’t give up a good career to write in any persuasive sense. The career had simply dead-ended by then, had run its course, for the likes of me. I got out at the last possible moment. I couldn’t have continued doing it—physically, emotionally. So, it was far less of a choice on my part. The band, that version of it, dissolved. There wasn’t anything to come back to by then. I don’t know that I could have gotten another gig that would have sustained me, paid the rent, in music. That was around the time the major labels began imploding. They’d robbed everyone dry. And I don’t know that I was a good enough drummer to be in any demand anyway. I was lucky to get out when I did.
III. SUSTAINING A CONTROLLED BEWILDERMENT
BLVR: Your work has always felt, to me, engaged with the questions raised by experimental fiction, though this might not be as obvious to those readers coming to these stories fresh, without context or inside information. Can you talk a little bit about form, and modernism/post-modernism, and the role of experimental writing in what you read when you were beginning to write, and how this work sits with you now?
DR: I’ve just always been drawn to books that live in the dark somewhat, that ask the reader to participate. I remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of The Seven Gables when I was too young and underexposed to that kind of writing to grasp what I was reading. I kept at it, sort of fumbling around in the dark. And after the first pages I knew that I was enjoying the experience even if I didn’t quite understand all the language. That seems to me to be one of the questions raised by experimental fiction—how does one participate in an act of reading beyond feeling a story were being fed according to plan that feels already too familiar? Beyond what could be done well on a television? And where is the surplus of gain that comes through that deficit of immediate understanding of a method—the experiment—without losing the other immediacy of the reading experience itself. How can reading become an essential part of a creative system? It’s just another take on what I said about a reader participating in the creation of a story they’re reading. Novels and stories that present themselves ready-made, I forget them. A month later I might forget I’d even read them. I might have enjoyed reading them, but still. Often, very little of them lives inside me when I’m finished reading. The best writing, for me, sustains a controlled bewilderment, and my effort to de-bewilder gets the story lodged somewhere inside me. It doesn’t have to be a total, all-the-time bewilderment, but just enough here and there to keep my interest up. If the controls are compelling, then the difficulty of the text just encourages me to participate in the creative process. Reading to me is a creative act. If I’m allowed to fill in the opaque spots with my own light, my own inferences, I will—and the reading experience will stick because the story becomes a part of me. Some of the best books I’ve ever read will be completely different the second time I read them. It’s then that I realize I’d written into them all kinds of things that weren’t necessarily there in the surface text. The debris we encounter has the capacity to spin off all kinds of personal associations, heteroglossia. Whole other stories get made in the dark spaces.
In some subterranean sense my own writing extends from that: the idea of the debris of the unconscious trained to an intended consciousness—the story—a formally beautiful structure that exposes the various displacements of the dream. Again, Clarity and Grace. How the discourse draws out the dream-space. This was Hawkes’ manifesto in his ideas about Design and Debris. Design and debris has been adopted as a meta-fictional thing, but it describes everything. The creative process, wrapping a fabricated consciousness around an unconsciousness. The idea of metaphor and much of dream theory is predicated on this idea of design and debris. Hawkes just emphasized the debris, put an emphasis on its poetic expression. He shaped it in his own fashion.
You can read deeply into social realism, too. You can find that poetic expression—the articulation of authorial chaos, the debris of it—but the experience is different. There’s a different kind of artifice, of manipulation. It’s a bit more rigid and governed by conventional rules. But the best—Raymond Carver, or Denis Johnson, Paula Fox, Rachel Kushner, seem to me still to operate from chaos. Their touch is light. Henry Green’s sentences, generally, but particularly in Living seem like the most perfect extension of these strands of debris made elegant. Other than a very early and deep immersion in the Bible, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, and Dickens, the first book that brought me to an engagement with this latter day chaos was Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Then I read his Death on the Installment Plan. It was a good introduction to whatever followed. It was written differently from anything I’d read before. It was the most obvious disruption of language that I could have grasped back then. And so it was perfect, my induction into the idea that language could take over a story. Céline’s language, his chaos, the ranting and humor and pathos—it drives the reading experience, trashes everything in its path.
But, as you know, John Hawkes’ first four books probably set my own writing course, changed me the most. I still think about The Beetle Leg, or The Lime Twig all the time. Second Skin feels entirely romantic to me, regardless of how it’s trying to thwart sympathies in a traditional sense. Regardless of the intentions of its subtexts. So from Céline I moved on to Hawkes. William Gass’ Omensetter’s Luck, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country were huge influences around that time. Gaddis’ The Recognitions, a big one later, thanks to your insistence. I went through a lot of meta-fiction. Not so much OULIPO, though I had a big Walter Abish phase, beginning with How German Is It—Barth, Butor. I don’t know if my Robbe-Grillet spell has ever passed, actually—I even teach it a bit. Try to turn students onto him, when I can. Also, Nicholas Mosely’s Impossible Object and Accident. Thomas Bernhard. Elriede Jelinek. Michel Tournier. Then the more lyrically open stuff, Ondaatje’s first two books and the odd one here and there—Peter Mathiessen’s Far Tortuga is a huge inspiration, Christian Gailly’s The Passion of Martin Fissel-Brandt, Selah Saterstrom’s books. I’m leaving out too many writers. But I was reading back in time too: Conrad still feels entirely experimental to me. He might have had more of an effect on me than anyone. He invented 20th century literature as far as I’m concerned. So at the same time I was reading Hawkes, I was reading Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Nathanael West, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Conrad … . And the combination of all of these influences seems to have brought me to wherever it is I am in my own writing. My investments in Modernism and Post-Modernism came at me without much of a plan. You have the undergraduate canon, which is helpful, but felt incomplete—that was how I wandered into Céline. I just saw the book on a shelf at the Boston Book Annex one day. I bought it without any idea. I was just looking for some supplement to what I was getting in school at the time.
BLVR: Is there a David Ryan novel in there somewhere? Can we expect to see such a thing before long?
DR: There are two, actually. I’m nearly done with one. I’m trying to get it done within the next month or two. The other one was ‘finished’ some time ago, and needs a significant rewrite. It launches off of one of the stories in this new collection. I can’t seem to leave it alone, to let it die. I have a handful of new stories—maybe half a dozen. They reflect where I am now in a lot of ways, they make sense of the last few years.
BLVR: Are the theory and practice of the short story significantly different, for you, from the theory and practice of the novel?
DR: I guess the difference is about exhaustion: that a reader’s interest is harder to sustain in a novel from the beginning. It’s about the middle, right? The energy is subject to all kinds of failures along the way. The repetition and difference of an idea—a novel might have hundreds, thousands of these repetitions that push forward. A short story might sustain only the fragment of an idea, successfully. Then again, I’m in the middle of writing a novel and I’m not sure about anything. It’s such an open process. But as a reader I can feel that it’s done extraordinarily well, and poorly, in so many ways. So many published novels are just terrible, or mostly terrible, or half-terrible. If they’re significantly less than half-terrible, they might be brilliant. But generally, the skill of the writer seems pretty clear within the first few pages. Most times I feel myself giving them the benefit of the doubt. But if I feel this doubt, this mistrust, I usually finish the book disappointed.
I can’t imagine the enterprise of writing a novel myself without thinking a lot about motif and progression, parallel structures, how the energy of digression needs to be tethered to something in the core of the story. But even this thinking leaves a lot of leeway, the connections, the tether, can be several tangents removed. Or as with a book like Butor’s Degrees it can cling to every second of a proposition, of a reality. I don’t care. It just needs to be interesting enough to get me to the next point. With short stories I’m concerned about this—about the interaction of the parts, interest, etcetera—but the scale seems easier to manage. And the smaller, compressed scale, for me, relies on what the space can do for the fewer words. The measure, out of physical necessity, becomes the framework of words. A simple étude versus an opera. The short story, like the étude, can focus on the line, its counterpoint and interaction with other lines, whereas a novel might need to manage clusters of lines, clusters of interactions. A short story might, like a parable, present a single riddle. A novel turns the riddle increasingly into a system, a city of textual consonances and dissonances. Even a “simple” novel does this. To me the riddle in fiction is in how increasingly difficult it becomes to answer as a story progresses. Any story, long or short, moves toward recognition of its own complexity rather than toward an answer to a problem, a resolution. You begin to learn how fucked-up the original question, or set of questions, was. My really short stories—my short-shorts—rely on the compression of space. They’re counting on the space to make them unanswerable—to make the recognition of the riddle itself powerful, the answer impossible or sufficiently irrelevant. A novel has the luxury (and difficulties) of more text at its disposal. So physically, more is required of you, the writer, to complicate the riddle, or sets of riddles, so that they are impossible to answer, so that they are complicated and faceted and final.
But if it’s interesting it’s interesting. Didn’t even Beckett draw out all these spheres in his notebooks? These interactions of domains and slots in various lists and schema? I think so. They don’t show up in the surface text in any obvious sense, but they are there hanging out in the stars—in the actual musical arrangement between space and text, those spheres of thought floating behind it all. However you get to some kind of powerful recognition by the end is to me the key. It’s maybe more about these scales of exhaustion, the pitfalls in filling out the middle in a novel, developing the beauty of the riddle, so that it’s too complicated, too faceted, to answer.