Interview with WSU English Alumnus and Newly Published Author
I was born and raised in Ohio and currently live in the village of Alpha with my wife and three children. Despite my love for travel, I’ve stayed close to home. I studied English at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, for both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. During my time as an MA student, I discovered my love for teaching. Right now I continue to teach and go to school as a PhD student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
I enjoy running, hiking, and cycling in my spare time. Of course my favorite places to visit are in the West. I started visiting the West as a child on family vacations. Childhood was the right time for a boy from Ohio to see things like Arches National Park, the Rocky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. For me, these were places right out of someone else’s imagination and a far cry from the housing plats where I grew up. I’ve enjoyed revisiting these places as I’ve gotten older—rediscovering them. Much of Beyond the Horizon comes from these adventures.
Can you say a few words about your creative process, the experience of writing and publishing, and how your book came to fruition?
Those are all different beasts with one thing in common—work. I had a spark of an idea for a story. It came to me during Christmas midnight mass with my mom. I wanted to write a nativity scene where the hope of salvation is killed before birth and nobody knew it. From there I built it out and it became my novel, Beyond the Horizon. It was a lot of work. I enjoyed it, but sitting at a typewriter (it’s where I do first drafts) and punching out a story takes a lot of time and energy. Retyping it into a computer and making revisions along the way is also a lot work.
The publishing part is twice as much work. Finding an agent is drudgery—queries and research, endless amounts of proofing and formatting and making sure everything is perfect. You send stuff out and never hear back. Or you receive a form rejection letter. Sometimes there’s even a request for another chapter or a full manuscript. This is a little more exciting. But there’s more rejection and things slow down. Wanting to give up is part of the process and the hardest work is deciding to continue on despite flagging results.
Fast forward to publishing. It’s a whirlwind—and a ton of work. There’s lots of people to keep straight and lots of things to consider—covers, blurbs, book tours, publicity. It’s exciting and surreal. After spending so much time alone with your work, it’s strange to have people interested, who have a stake in what you wrote.
When did you first identify yourself as a writer?
I don’t think I ever did—not consciously anyway. But as far back as I can remember I had the desire to be read by other people. As a small child—I could not have been much older than four or five—I took some paper from my dad’s printer to make a book. The printer was one of those old dot matrix jobs with the sprocket hole paper fed through accordion style. My dad wasn’t thrilled I used his printer paper like this, but I do recall him and my mom keeping the book I made and calling me a little writer. I beamed with pride for ten seconds and then decided to build a rocket out of cardboard boxes.
I got older, wrote more. At one point I tried to put out a tabloid newsletter on my cul-de-sac when I was a kid. It lasted one edition. In high school I made a book of poetry and short stories, printed off a hundred bound copies and tried to hock them at the Yellow Springs Street Fair. I sold about twenty copies—enough to break even with my printing costs and booth rental.
I enrolled at Wright State and told the counselor I wanted to do creative writing. Deciding a major was a process of elimination, not because I thought of myself as a writer. Even now it sounds like an awkward title. Writing has just always been such a normal part of my life. Maybe it sounds too important for what I do. Maybe I’ll get there someday.
Is there a particular book – or person – who made you want to write?
Bob Dylan. Like I said, I always enjoyed writing, always knew it was something that would be a part of my life. But up into high school it was more of hobby than anything I took seriously. Then, in my junior year at Carroll High School I was taking a great class taught by a great teacher, Mr. Hemmert. The class was Literature, Drama, and Song. As part of the class we traced popular music from Beethoven all the way up through the 1990s. I’ve always liked older music—Beach Boys, The Lettermen, real 50s and 60s stuff. Mr. Hemmert’s class introduced me to an era of music my parents had not played when I was growing up—the 70s. Listening to music from the 70s is like reliving a great memory I never knew I had.
And I still remember the exact moment I heard Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time. I remember the first lines exploding in my ears and how it set my mind racing. “Once upon a time you dressed so fine / You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” Instantly I knew I wanted to write seriously and write like Dylan.
It wouldn’t work out, the writing like Dylan part. Some years passed with me writing really clumsy poetry, trying to be something I wasn’t. I kept listening to Dylan, kept reading my favorites—McCarthy, Vonnegut, Lahiri, Hughs, Mamet—but I began to finally get comfortable developing my own voice.
Looking back on your experience at WSU, was there an individual – or formative experience – that continues to resonate and inform your creative process?
No, it was definitely a whole experience. Lots of people get lots of credit. What I liked about WSU is that no one pigeonholed me into one field or one genre. No one told me as a creative writer, “This is what you do and this is what I do and they are different.” The first creative writing class I took at WSU was your playwriting class. I had never been in a workshop class of any type before and I was nervous as hell. Didn’t know what to expect, how to talk, how to critique. Truth be told, I wasn’t even that much into playwriting; I took it because it fit with my schedule. So I took playwriting and it helped all my other writing. Later, I ended up through happenstance taking several poetry workshops with Dr. Pacernick. Now, when someone says my prose is lyrical, I go, “Well, that’s poetry.” When someone tells me I have an ear for dialogue, that’s playwriting. Every WSU creative writing course I took contributed to my education as a writer.
And of course the fiction writers I worked with were just great. Scott Geisel was kind enough to mentor me with an independent study on a big project. He’ll tell you a great story about me coming in with my prewriting—these butcher paper sheets full of timelines. I had post-its stuck to it and his office was overtaken by this mess. He asked me what the project was about and I opened my mouth and realized I didn’t have an answer. Talk about a lightbulb moment. Scott’s really good at asking the right question, getting someone to look at their own writing critically.
I also took Dr. Flanagan for undergraduate and graduate workshops. I liked that she listened. More than any other quality, I think a writer needs to be a good listener and she really exemplifies this. As part of her class we met with her to conference about our stories. At one point I ended up rambling on about the characters and their backstories and the how and they why of the story and when it was all done and I sat there practically panting from talking so much, Dr. Flanagan asked, “Why the hell isn’t this your story?” She was right of course. I went back and wrote it up and it was one of the stronger things I ever wrote for a workshop.
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received?
I cringe when I hear someone say, “This is how I write, therefore everyone else should write as I do.” And there’s a distinct difference between someone giving some helpful anecdotal advice and issuing a decree of writing process.
Also, I tune out if someone uses words like “inspiration” or “muse” too much. Bad advice uses abstract nouns; good advice contains active verbs.
What advice – if any – would you give to aspiring apprentice writers?
Write a lot.
As an undergrad I worked a few different jobs to pay tuition and rent. In the mornings I worked as a short order cook at a breakfast joint. We got five-minute breaks and I wrote out dialogues on receipt paper. I could write out dialogue quickly and it usually gave me a good sense of character. In the evenings I worked at a department store. If we were slow I would take out the dialogues and rework them, add in some context. I would get home around 9:30 and type up what I had been working on. Most of the time it was crap. Every once in a while I came up with something I could use later.
I don’t have to burn the candle at both ends anymore and I have a more stable writing schedule. I’ve heard that helps, but I shy away from prescribing it as good writing practice. I wrote Beyond the Horizon whenever I had time. I was an MA student who was teaching for the first time. I had a part time job at the public library. I was newly married with three stepkids and a money pit of a house. There was no writing schedule. I wrote when I could and as much as I could. It worked out all right.
That’s my advice: If you want to write, then write.
Can you say a few words about literary citizenship and why it’s so important for writers – and readers – to participate?
Writing is a tremendously isolating experience on the front end. You spend a lot of time in your head creating things that don’t exist for people you largely don’t know. When you write something that finally achieves escape velocity and it makes it into print and strangers are reading it, that’s really something. See your name in print, have someone you’ve never met say something nice about your writing and you feel like a million bucks. If you’re a writer, you also need to be that for other people. Do that—support and encourage people who share your interests—and they will be there for you when you take off. WSU has been especially great at instilling this idea in their writers.
Finally, in the 21st century, what is the artist’s role; or more specifically, do you have a sense of artistic obligation to self and/or others?
Our job is memory. My son—he’s a very smart fourteen—I took him to an art museum over the summer and he asked me why I liked looking at paintings so much, why I think libraries and museums are these sacred places. He can ask a killer question when he wants to. I ended up waxing poetic about my grade school art class with Miss Von Sosson. She treated us like college students—a half-lecture, half-studio class. I ended up telling my son that studying art is like studying history, sociology, psychology, science, math—you name it; it’s all there. What usually ends up preserved hits on more than one level. Art is cultural memory.
Too often I see commercialized art and I’m not sure if the artist realizes that what they made isn’t a throwaway item. It becomes part of our culture. It may not end up in a museum or a library, but it will end up influencing artists, becoming a part of other artists’ worlds. An artist’s obligation is to see the long-term effect they can have, what memories they end up creating.
Where do you see yourself headed as an artist?
Artist is a crazy title. I’m not sure if I am comfortable with it.
I’ll stay busy. More than anything I have a real talent for keeping myself busy. I can be entertained by thinking up plots or trying to figure out the cause and effect of a situation. I used to take this for granted. I’ve since learned that a lot of people are bored and they decide to do things that simply fill their time, pass time. I can’t do that. I like to work.
My book deal is for two books and the second one is lined up. If this first novel is any indication, I’ll stay plenty busy with the publishing stuff for a while. I’ve been fortunate to meet many great writers (again, credit to WSU) who steadfastly urge writers in the midst of publishing to keep writing. That’s solid advice.
So I’ve kept writing. I have a memoir I am tinkering with and another novel—a love story / black comedy. I have few other projects I would like to work on too. I have to see what rises to the top, what ideas stick. Being busy is a way to filter the bad ideas out. A good idea is patient and adapts to your interests until its ready to come out on paper. A bad idea can only disguise itself for so long before it becomes apparent that it is not very good.
Specifics about Ryan’s book, the release date, and book tour can be found (or will be available shortly) at Ryan’s website, www.ryangireland.com.