Ryan Ridge is the author of four chapbooks as well as five books, including the novella American Homes (University of Michigan Press, 2015). Ridge’s latest book, New Bad News, is out now from Sarabande Books. He has received the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, the Linda Bruckheimer Prize in Kentucky Literature, and the Kentucky Writers Fellowship for Innovative Writing from the Baltic Writing Residency. His work has been featured in or is coming from American Book Review, Denver Quarterly, Passages North, Post Road, Salt Hill, Santa Monica Review, and SouthWest Review, among others. He is an assistant professor at Weber State University, where he co-directs the Creative Writing Program. In addition to his work as a writer and teacher, he edits the literary magazine Juked.
Remember that high school kid sat comfortable in her own bubble come lunch? Not necessarily set off from the rest of the smokers, louts, jocks, goths, cosplay kids, and yuppies. But not solo either. Sipping her apple juice and gnawing on a Snickers bar a few seats down. At ease enough in her own skin to freely move from table to table. There’s a reason the lunch table is a perfect metaphor for literary stables. Why it was the meme-of-the-moment before someone ripped off the exact same premise and turned them into quarantine houses, although none of us wanted to imagine spending that much time with Ayn Rand. Still, it’s easy separation. Realists here. Surrealists here. Pomo folks there.
The thing about Ryan Ridge’s writing is that it defies lunch table associations. New Bad News (Sarabande, 2020) is a collection of five sections that feature everything from a hard-on-his luck motorcycle rider making a go of it in Hollywood, to a first time festival director trying to wrangle the chiseled grinch Clint Eastwood into appearing as a feature, to a treatise on “American literature” that waxes poetic about sandwich artists and “pigeons exploding into Alka-Seltzer,” to conversations with chatbots, and finally, a peek at the mundane everyday of that grand old specter, Death. Which almost sounds like a nonsense of a synopsis. Because it is. New Bad News can’t be pared down into simple bits. It contains humor and pathos and wit and word games and characters you root for and some you root against. It sits at its own table. Sips on its juice and gnaws on its Snickers while the rest of us try to figure out what makes it so damn cool.
Gene Kwak: This was originally a few separate chapbooks and other works that you brought together under this beautiful circus tent. At what point did you know these works would jibe well together? Can you talk a little bit about that process of putting the book together?
Ryan Ridge: All told, the collection coalesced over 13 years. Different parts were written in different states: California, Kentucky, and Utah. The oldest story is “The Big H.” I wrote an early draft in the summer of 2007, and then the Death incarnate stuff at the end, I penned as late as last summer, so this project is something I’ve been working on for a very long time, yes. Still, I didn’t have the idea of combining all of the various pieces until four years ago when I started sending early incarnations out to contests and open reading periods. According to my Submittable, there was a two-year window from June of ’16 until August of ’18, where the manuscript got rejected 44 times. Sarabande accepted it on my 45th attempt, but each time the collection boomeranged back, I’d do another pass—adding and subtracting stories, shuffling the order, tweaking pieces, and semi-regularly changing the title. I went through at least a half dozen titles before I settled on New Bad News, and with each rejection, the manuscript became a more focused collection, and after a while, the rejections themselves became a game. I set out to beat my literary hero David Markson, who accumulated 54 rejections for his masterpiece, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but I came up short. Ultimately, I think a book about failure (which this one is) should have a good bit of failure under its belt.
To answer the question about knowing when the works jibed well together, I don’t think I genuinely knew until I received the first round of edits from my brilliant editor, Kristen Miller. She wrote me a four-page letter in which she made all sorts of connections I’d missed and gave me a map for ways to go back in and write through things. In the end, it’s a better book thanks in large part to her sage advice and vision.
GK: Can you run through some of the titles you considered and what made you finally decide on New Bad News? I wondered if it mirrors the lengths the narrator goes through in trying to name the festival in “Hey, it’s America.”
RR: Initially, the book was called Echo Park, but I ultimately scratched that title because, even though I think it worked, it made the collection sound too region-specific and placed way too much emphasis on the first section of the book, which is also called Echo Park. My next title was too cute: Bits & Pieces. I won’t expound on that one. It didn’t last long, a month maybe—a month too long.
For a while, I considered titling it ironically, American Literature, but I’ve already written a book called American Homes and having another one called American Literature seemed stupid. Then I’d be the “American Dude,” and I’d have to start showing up to readings in a stars and bars jacket, holding up a boombox, and blasting Bruce Springsteen. I opted for another title. I did use American Literature as a section title, though.
There are others I do not remember now, bad ones.
Then came an extended period where I called the manuscript Minor Injuries. I like that title a lot, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want the word “minor” in the title. I could see folks dismissing it on the title alone as a minor work. It’s already easy enough to cast aside “flash fiction” as a genre. Unless you’re Lydia Davis, Etgar Keret, or Diane Williams—all heroes of mine, by the way—you’re generally considered a clown or a buffoon to pen little works of literature. What I think happened is David Foster Wallace came along with Infinite Jest and turned books into a big dick contest, and we’ve never recovered. The idea is that the bigger the book, the more intellectually rigorous it is and all that. Folks don’t know what to do with short stories anymore, and they really don’t know what to do with extra-concise stories. Barry Hannah said 20 years ago that 90 percent of novels would’ve made better short stories, and I agree, but the market dictates otherwise.
Back to the title, I didn’t have one. The manuscript had been rejected a bunch, over 30 times, but it kept having brushes and near misses with success. Jonathan Lethem picked an excerpt as the Calvino Prize winner, and soon after, it was a finalist in four or five contests but didn’t win. I asked my buddy Abe—Abraham Smith, a poet—if he’d look at it and tell me what’s wrong with the damn thing. He said that nothing was wrong with it, said all I needed was a better title, something to bring it all together, and shortly after, I settled on New Bad News. I sent it out once with that title, and it hit.
And yes, now that you point it out, the titling missteps do mirror “Hey, It’s America.” That’s probably because I rewrote that section last summer. Little chunks of autobiography slip in, I suppose.
GK: Also, can you take us through your thought process a little bit in coalescing these five pieces? Not necessarily the publication side, but more the sausage-making procedure. I’ve read them as separate works and then in a different draft you sent me, but as I was reading through the final version, I tried to remove myself from seeing them as separate entities and tried to envision this new thing through first-timer glasses. And I’m glad I did, because, for example, “Hey, It’s America” is so different from either version. I loved both, but this new one connects to the body of these separate pieces more and includes other tangents and cameos that never existed in the previous versions. And while the whole thing has thematic resonance and characters that pop up here and there, there’s so much variety that it’s hard to get a bead on exactly how one connects to the other. One thing I appreciated though was that the stories got more absurd as they went on. Eventually I was just in for the ride, which I think was the point. Or is always maybe the point.
RR: Sure, and the idea was that things would begin in Southern California and subsequently jump geographies, but all the while, the theme of failure would echo throughout each of the sections: a failed acting career, a failed music festival, a series of societal collapses, etc. If we were to map the book geographically, it starts at the end of the line in Southern California, does a reverse gold rush, goes east, back to Kentucky, and then heads further south literally and metaphorically, only to return full circle in terms of place. We end up where we begin: Echo Park.
Concerning absurdity, you’re correct. The book gets more and more absurd as it goes. Like life.
GK: I don’t know if you classify your own work as flash or fragments, but some of them are almost kin to well-developed jokes. And I say that with all due respect. I think comedy is incredibly difficult, and comedy on the page may be even harder because you’re missing so many of the tools that performers can use to ease a chuckle. When you’re writing those lines or snippets, are you reading them aloud? Are you ever worried that the humor won’t land? And do you have a real or imagined person that you’re trying to humor? Yourself? Ashley Farmer (your incredibly talented wife)?
RR: In my twenties, my idea was that I’d learn to be a writer, and at the same time, I thought: well, if this literary stuff doesn’t pan out, I’ll try standup comedy. Ashley told me that my backup plan was totally asinine and insane, and she was right. But that’s the thing about backup plans: if you pick one that’s dumb enough, you’ll never have to use it, because you’ll throw all of your energy into making the first idea work. I’m 41 now, old as hell, and this is my fifth book. I take the writing seriously, but not myself. Being a writer in 2020 certainly doesn’t carry the same cultural cache it did 20 or even 10 years ago, but that’s okay, I’m content being the artistic equivalent of an elevator operator. It has its ups and downs.
Do I worry about my jokes not landing? Yes, of course, and for every one of those one-liners included in the collection, I threw away 20. And I should say that they’re not necessarily meant to stand alone, but instead, they act as connective tissue that underscore thematically what’s on either side. It’s a move I learned from reading and admiring Claudia Rankine’s work (Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen), where she includes actual images that add another layer of modality. Me? I use jokes. And yes, I read everything aloud always, and then my next move is to show it to Ashley. I can count on her to give me an honest appraisal.
GK: Can we talk about repetition for a second. Or rather echoes. The first section is called “Echo Park,” and there’s even a subsection called “Echoes of Echo Park.” And there are so many types of echoes in this book, particularly in that first section. But I’ve seen this in more of your work as of late. The repetition has a great head-of-steam cadence, but it’s also oftentimes pointing out the absurdity of the situation or even the language. How do you see yourself using repetition, particularly in this book?
RR: A few years back, I read everything that Samuel Beckett and Gordon Lish ever wrote, and I think their penchant for repetition and riff stuck with me. Voice is everything with them. Me, I tend to use anaphora as a device when there aren’t really words to describe the thing the narrator is attempting to explain: being fucked up out of your mind, for instance, or living in a silly place during an absurd time—situations that elude typical descriptions: war, etc. That’s when I like to dial up the language loop. Plus, repetition in writing is like cooking with butter: it’s hard to overdo it.
GK: I love that idea of getting inspired by those images from Claudia Rankine. I know a draft that you showed me included some images in a similar vein. One thing I’ve always appreciated about you is that you care about things like visual aesthetics. The draft I’m referencing was even laid out more like an actual book than a submission. The images, the font choice, the table of contents, etc. I know you’ve also worked with your buddy, Jacob Heustis, on things like your previous book with Mel Bosworth, Second Acts in American Lives. How do these visual elements inform your writing, whether it’s directly working with a visual artist or just being inspired by visual artists?
RR: Design is something I’ve always appreciated. My sister works in advertising in Chicago, oversees big campaigns and supervises a team of designers. Her job seems super stressful, but if I could go back and do it over again, I think it’d be a fun and rewarding career to be a low-level graphic designer. I enjoy contemplating the copious aesthetics of typographical varieties, moving things around on the page to empty space, and generally thinking about the layout as another aspect of any composition. I cut all the visual elements from New Bad News because I wanted the writing to speak for itself this go around. To talk more directly to your question, yes, visual artists have been an enormous influence on my work. I wrote about David Shrigley for The Fanzine once. Also: the photographer, William Eggleston, changed the way I see the world. His photos taught me that anything can be fascinating if you frame it right.
GK: Can you talk briefly about the cover of New Bad News? Beautiful cover. The writer, Jac Jemc, said as much on Instagram.
RR: Thanks, Jac! I’ve always gotten lucky in the cover department, but this time around, I was extra lucky. The cover is by the genius Alban Fischer. He designs the best-looking books on the planet. There’s a scene in New Bad News early on where the narrator locks eyes with a coyote at night, and the cover is a representation of that one brief encounter. Like so many moments, it’s a fleeting one, but Alban was able to amber it forever on the cover. Alban really is the best designer. He’s also an incredible poet.
GK: Speaking of poetry, I think your style both on the granular sentence level but also bigger picture where your eye is focused is so original. You’ve got the Barry Hannah bravado but also the playfulness of like a Padgett Powell or Donald Barthelme. Can you talk about how that evolved? And as you came into your own style as a writer, did you ever feel pressure to write or not write about certain things? Or in certain ways?
RR: Thank you, Gene, for those extra kind comparisons. There was a time back in grad school when I was attempting to write traditional stories. I was terrible at it. Just awful. I was boring the hell out of my peers and teachers. I remember writing a 27-page snoozer about the sociology of a redneck drug deal in my home state of Kentucky. At the time, I was studying with the great Western writer, William Kittredge, and Bill didn’t have much to say about that story. But then I showed him some shorter and strange pieces I’d been working on, and he was like: Yes, do this! Don’t do that other stuff. For better or worse, I credit that moment as a turning point, the moment I learned to embrace my inner-weird and bring it forward. But those writers you mentioned: Hannah, Barthelme, and Powell, they’re giants to me. Also: Lydia Davis. She is a national treasure. She smokes almost everyone. We are all pastiches of our influences to some degree, but ultimately, we have to get comfortable being ourselves.