DEVELOPING THE BEAUTY OF THE RIDDLE
Rick Moody Interviews David Ryan
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.