The Writer

A Conversation with Patrick Ryan

Where and when were you born? Where did you grow up?

I was born in Washington, DC. If I’d been born two minutes later, I would have emerged in an elevator, because they were taking my mother down for an X-ray in the basement of the hospital to see why I was taking so long.

My parents moved us to Merritt Island, Florida, in 1968 because NASA was hiring. My mother was a secretary there and my father checked out camera equipment to the men who photographed the Apollo launches.

As a child, was there a particular adult who inspired youtold you stories, read to you, encouraged your creativity? Any specific memories about this?

I don’t want to sound unappreciative of the people around me, but my greatest inspirations came from television characters. Only two, really. Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and John-Boy Walton on The Waltons. Rob Petrie put on a suit every day and commuted to New York from the suburbs to write on a manual typewriter in an office; John-Boy lived on a mountain and started his own printing press and wrote the novel that took him out of his hometown. Both those things were wildly appealing to me. Those characters became my role models before I realized their influence.

What were your favorite stories and books growing up? A little later on, did you have favorite writers?

The first novel I remember reading—other than Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew novels—was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I read some of Mark Twain’s stories, too, in an anthology we had in our home in Florida, and I appreciated his rich characters and his story-telling arc in a way I couldn’t articulate. Later, as a teenager and in my early twenties, I was fortunate enough to discover some novels at just the right time, in terms of my development as a reader and a writer. On the Road was one. Look Homeward, Angel was another. The Sun Also Rises. And when I discovered Flannery O’Connor, the roof was blown off my understanding of what a short story could do.

And speaking of favorite writers, who would you choose today? Which books—both contemporary and classic—did you most enjoy? Which books do you return to time and again for sheer pleasure?

I am an enormous fan of Richard Yates, a writer who is now primarily known for what I think is one of his less cohesive novels, Revolutionary Road. His novel The Easter Parade is a masterpiece. I would recommend it to anyone. Also A Special Providence. I adore and come back to Graham Greene, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Joy Williams. And I love Alice Munro, who writes short stories that feel as satisfying as novels.

When did you decide that writing, editing, and words were to be your profession?

Up until the age of sixteen, I wanted to be an illustrator, a cartoonist. Then, at sixteen, I had a wonderful writing teacher who showed me the gratification writing fiction can bring. At that same time, I’d decided I didn’t like my art teacher (specifically, I didn’t like his mustache). So it all clicked. I started writing vignettes—just scenes with characters, no story arc—and I fell in love with the process. Somewhere along the way, I realized that my love for writing outweighed my love for what other people felt about what I wrote. So I worked job after job—painting houses, glazing windows, tending bar, teaching college, clerking in a law firm—while I wrote story after story, novel after novel, and I managed to publish a story here and there, in literary journals.

My first book came out after I’d turned forty. And I didn’t start working in publishing, as an editor, until several years after that.

What was appealing about that choice of profession?

Working as editor exposed me to other people’s writing all the time. Not their published writing but their work in progress. I love working with writers—editing, discussing, brain-storming ideas for how to make something better on its own terms. It’s one thing to read a piece of writing by Don DeLillo, say, or Alice Munro or Joy Williams or Stephen King, and it’s another thing entirely to read their work and know that they’re going to be expecting you to help them improve it. You have to wrap your head around that before you can even begin to think properly. And then it just becomes a mutual love fest of language, even when you aren’t in agreement with the author on a line-by-line basis.

Which was your first published effort? To date, which is the published work of which you are most proud?

My first published short story was in a tiny—tiny!—magazine called The Gaslight Review. It came out of Toledo, Ohio, and had a circulation of around a hundred. Printed on newspaper stock. I still have a copy and it’s browner than a Hershey bar. But it gave me great encouragement.

After four books, the thing I’m most proud of is my collection of interwoven short stories some readers felt comfortable enough to call a novel, titled Send Me. Something happened while I was conceiving of and writing that book—a moment of very private wisdom about how I want to render the world, as I know it, in fiction. I’ve been trying to hold onto that ever since.

Young Adult literature is a specific category and to date you have had three novels published in this category. Is writing for this audience something you had set out to do? How did it happen?

It was a lark. I’d sold my first book—for adults—and was waiting for edits from my editor. Suddenly I had nothing to work on, and I’m not good at being idle. I took down my first novel—written when I was twenty-two—and started to reread it. I had two thoughts at once: one, this isn’t very good at all; and two, this reads like a YA novel though I hadn’t thought of it as that at the time. I tinkered with rewriting it but had to face the fact that the story itself was ridiculous. After a few days, I’d given up on it, but I found myself latched onto the idea of writing a novel for teens. So I came up with a story, mapped it out, and wrote it. That became my first Young Adult novel, Saints of Augustine.

Your first novel for a general audience, Send Me, was critically well received. Were any of the many favorable reviews particularly pleasing for you to read? Why? 

There was one, in particular, that was both flattering and damning, and that amused me to no end. The reviewer started out by comparing my work to Faulkner’s—and let me just say that, while I’m a fan of Faulkner, I have never once thought there was a shred of similarity between his work and mine—but there it was, the comparison. And there was a beautiful “pull quote” from the review that ended up on the paperback version of the book. But at the end of the review, the reviewer again brought up Faulkner, told his readers that I was forty years old, and ended his review by saying that, at forty, Faulkner had written w, x, y, and z, while I had only written this one, promising book. It really was one of the goofiest reviews I’ve ever read. I was thankful for it.

Personally, I think Send Me would make a terrific independent film. Any chance of that happening?

Thank you. I would love to see that happen. As I’ve learned, though, in the world of books that might turn into films, there are a lot of conversations, a lot of pitches, and even a lot of optioning and screenplay writing, but very few films being made. First and foremost, it usually takes a star who is willing to get behind the project. I’m still hoping to get a copy into the hands of Susan Sarandon and Ben Whishaw.

What are you working on currently?

I’m working on another collection of interwoven stories, a few of which involve the same characters in Send Me. Essentially, it’s about a woman who’s always been unlucky in love and a man who’s always been unlucky in health, and how they interact.

How do you manage to work full-time and still produce fiction?

I recently finished a long short story, and it took me six months to write it. After that I embarked on a story that ended up being about twenty pages, and even that took me three months. I write very slowly anyway, and having a job a full-time job means that I only get to carve out two hours, at most, per day—early in the morning. That’s when you know for certain that you’re writing because you truly want to write: when you do it regularly despite being exhausted.

I am, however, soon to leave the magazine I’ve been working for, and I’m looking forward to having both more time to write and more time to work as a consultant with other writers, as a freelance editor.

And the inevitable question: what advice would you have for aspiring writers of fiction?

Don’t take rejection too hard. It’s always just one opinion and is often dictated by someone’s mood or what they’ve just read before your piece or whether or not they’ve had a good breakfast. Don’t enter writing contests with entry fees. Don’t take out student loans to get an MFA. Don’t write with a sense of obligation; write with the curiosity of an explorer. Most important of all, I think: Write because you want to constantly discover how you—through your characters—process the world.

Issue Twenty Two