PATRICK RYAN IN NEW YORK, MAY 2016. PORTRAIT: WENJUN LIANG. GROOMING: MAHFUD IBRAHIM/ EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING ORIBE HAIR CARE AND DIOR BEAUTY.
About a month after Challenger blew up, Wendell Troup told me that his wife was trying to poison him.—”Go Fever”
My ridiculously close confidant since we first met in Tallahassee, Florida, Patrick Ryan has been publishing fiction for longer than I’d care to calculate. Patrick was transplanted as a kid to the Sunshine State and grew up there, and now he renders the place, his chief fictional setting, with unexpected variety and texture. He’s a careful crafter, able to grapple with the conventions of the story form without giving a sense that he’s manipulating his characters on a cramped marionette stage. He writes with often rueful humor, never reaches for the strained or mixed metaphor, and through conversational simplicity imbues each narrative with an original voice. Truman Capote once (or more likely many times) said that when he wrote, it was as though he were composing a letter to a specific person. I’d like to think that I’m that one specific person for Patrick. But part of his appeal is to make you feel that through his sparklingly precise characters and situations, he might be addressing each of us personally.
While reading the stories in The Dream Life of Astronauts, his new collection, out today, you feel the relentless Florida heat and light seeping into the cracks of the terrain’s low-roofed houses and over-air-conditioned office buildings and condos. You can sense it nourishing his hilariously, touchingly indomitable children and teenagers. And in a story like “Fountain of Youth,” you follow Eugene Delacorte (not his real name; he’s in the witness protection program) around in the swelter of his retirement community, Villa Ponce de Leon, shuffling through his distant memories and witnessing for us the desiccations of both himself and his neighbors by time and climate:
“Good morning, Mr. Delacorte,” one of the residents says as she passes me on the promenade. At the end of the leash in her hand is a Chinese crested, looks like he‘s got a toupee on his head.
I will never get used to being Eugene Delacorte—ridiculous name—but I’ve gotten used to faking it. “Good morning, sweetheart,” I say, smiling my most devilish smile. She smiles back and might even blush if she had enough circulation to get the blood to her cheeks.
Down the way, one of the ancients, he must be close to ninety, is squinting at the notice board with his mouth hanging. I can’t tell if he’s reading the board or drying his teeth. “Huh,” he says just as I’m about to pass him. “Huh, huh, huh.” Then he turns around and glares at me like I’ve startled him on purpose. “John Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down,” he says.
“It sure did,” I say. “About ten years ago.” I pat his arm and keep walking.
As in Patrick’s first book, Send Me, much of the material found in The Dream Life of Astronauts is rooted in the ’70s and ’80s—a time of lingering hopefulness and doubtful taste (“The shag carpet is the color of avocado meat.”). The Cape Canaveral area of Florida’s Atlantic coast, including the author’s hometown of Merritt Island, turns out to be an ideal setting for examining the last few generations of Americans. The region roared, and periodically sputtered, into the eighties on the strength of NASA—from its earliest Mercury missions to its climactic space shuttle program. Patrick and his family were there for much of that time, both his parents working for the Technicolor division that supplied NASA with its vital photos and film footage. Then began the layoffs, immediately affecting the Ryans. Patrick’s mother went back to school, got her GED while holding down various jobs, and eventually became a nurse. His father moved from job to job, fixing cars, selling tires, and eventually transitioning into a doomed career in real estate. This time of uncertainty informs so much of the stories in The Dream Life of Astronauts. All of the characters seem affected in one way or another by NASA’s fortunes and stumbles. A citrus grove in view of the launch pad becomes, in a final unpredicted stroke, the amphitheater of change for its relatively rural denizens. Ex-astronauts and financially strapped employees waiting for the hatchet to fall go on raising their families, and modernity comes chugging along in a pint-size Chevette past a swampful of yawning alligators.
MICHAEL CARROLL: Bittersweet or satisfying, is all this writing about your old Florida?
PATRICK RYAN: Our old Florida. You’ve set a lot of fiction there too.
CARROLL: But you do more looking back than I do.
RYAN: True. Like a lot of people, I grew up perfectly content with my hometown and my home state because I didn’t know any other place. And, like a lot of people, during adolescence I started to squirm and scowl. I decided I wanted to be a writer at 16, and I promised myself I would get out of there and never write about it, because it felt so dull and stifling to me. I did get out. But somewhere around my mid-30s I realized that nearly everything I was writing and nearly everything I was thinking of writing was set in Florida. Crazy, right? So it has to be satisfying to me on some level. As for bittersweet—technically, that puts the bitter after the sweet, and for me and Florida, I think it’s the other way around. Bitter at the time I left, sweet now.
CARROLL: It’s been nearly ten years since Send Me, your first book, yet there’s a good deal of overlap between that one and Dream Life. What’s different about the way you’re writing now?
RYAN: I think I’ve gained a better sense of patience with my own process. It takes me a long time to write something that’s halfway decent, and it takes a lot of revising. On a good day, revision can be two steps forward, one step back. For as much as I want to be one of those writers who knocks out a first draft in a fit of inspiration—and I really want to be one of those writers—the truth is that the slower I go, the more effective I am. I’ll spend anywhere from one to six months on a short story.
CARROLL: Your first print review, in the New York Observer, compared you to Faulkner. We may or may not need another shelf of gargantuan novels expounding on the intricately connected lives of a fictional population by a single writer, but maybe we desire the sensation of a similar depth and breadth contained more compactly in a series of stories. I think your task might be the harder one, packing in without cramming, subtly carrying characters over from one story to another, often in one quick, thought-provoking mention. Nothing ever feels contrived or hurried. Send Me was about a single family, but Dream Life is about a whole community.
RYAN: Thank you. Writing about a character more than once feels less like a revisitation to me and more like a point of departure. Send Me pushed the limits of that because, in charting one family over 40 years and out of chronological order, I started to get netted in the various timelines. I’d get an idea to write about something happening to one of the characters at a certain age and then realize I couldn’t do it because the circumstances of that character’s life wouldn’t allow for it. Sort of like wanting a particular person to come to dinner, but you live in Boston and she lives in Bozeman. Or wanting to set up two friends and then remembering that one of them is already engaged and the other one died three stories ago.
I have a mother and a son who appear in both Send Me and Dream Life. And in Dream Life, there’s a character who’s in utero in one story (while her mother and grandmother battle it out just on the other side of the abdominal wall), and in another story that character is an 8-year-old and her grandmother is raising her. The stories are set nine years apart, and I realized while working on them that part of what I was interested in was how rapidly we change in the first half of our lives, and how slowly we change in the second half. Not just physically but emotionally.
CARROLL: In the title story, you write about an imminent three-way between an ex-astronaut who never flew and his wife with maybe the most startlingly provocative and innocent—as well as spacey—character you created for the first book, Frankie Kerrigan, an out teenager with a UFO obsession. How did you create Frankie, and sustain him in more than one story in the new book?
RYAN: Frankie came about because I was at a Zen Buddhist monastery once and had a very moving conversation with a young man who was dying. He told me that he didn’t feel sorry for himself; he felt sorry for his mother because his younger brother had died the previous year and now he was on his way out, as well. He went on to tell me about this younger brother, whom he’d idolized, and whom he described—I’m paraphrasing, of course—as fearless and unapologetic, whimsical and genuinely eccentric. “I was the older brother,” he told me, “I was supposed to be the one he looked up to. But it was the other way around.” His brother’s name was Frankie.
That was the stepping-off point for my character. I started with those basic attributes, kept the name, and made up all the rest. So, in a way, the character of Frankie is a tribute to a person I never knew.
I first wrote about him as a 14-year-old-someone’s quirky and precocious little brother—and something clicked in that story for me. I felt like I had a full grasp on his character in a way I’d never felt before. I mean, never anything even close. So I experimented with writing about him at different stages of his life. He’s 40 by the end of Send Me. In the new book, I write about him again at 40 and also at 16. In other stories that aren’t included in this new book, I’ve written about him as an infant, a 30-something, and an 89-year-old. Some of those stories have been published in magazines, some I’ve never sent around. I’ll probably never be done writing about Frankie.
CARROLL: As I made my way through Dream Life, I kept reading a new story and thinking, “This is my favorite.” I think your reliable alchemy has to do with a proprietary mix of empathy, humor, a sense of proportion, and not least pacing and spacing. Who are your most important and lasting fiction-writing models?
RYAN: I’ve always read widely—across genres. I had no one telling me what to read, growing up, so I’d read novelizations, literary fiction, historical fiction, anything. The summer I was 16, I read The Stand, Gone With the Wind, all of the John Jakes Kent Family Chronicles, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers in the Attic, A Separate Peace, and The Cannonball Run. I sort of cut my teeth on the Hardy Boys and Mark Twain, though—mainly because those books were in my house when I was a kid. There was a big, fat collection of Mark Twain stories, and I think Twain was where I first learned that a character or a third-person narrator could be biting and funny and snarky and still manage to focus on the story. Flannery O’Connor taught me that there’s an earnestness and sincerity in naïve—even dangerously naïve—characters that’s worth staying with. Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, and Ann Beattie taught me how funny and obsessive people are. Richard Yates, whom I read on your recommendation, taught me a lot about narrative pacing and how the passage of time can be handled in fiction. Alice Munro taught me that quiet, simple characters are never really quiet or simple. And Chekhov—I came to him late, but he blows my mind every time I read him. We’re all bobbing around in his wake.
CARROLL: You’re a crafter and you’ve always seemed technically meticulous. But you’re older than when you started out writing, in your case as a Florida kid, and you’ve wrestled with a lot of projects that didn’t pan out. How has your attitude toward this writing life evolved?
RYAN: I got very serious about writing just after I turned 20—right around the time you and I met, by the way, and directly due to your influence.
RYAN: It’s true! All I did for the whole year before you and I met was get stoned, play my guitar, blink through my classes, and get stoned. Did I mention getting stoned?
CARROLL: But you were writing. You and I exchanged work right away.
RYAN: That’s right. And we had a great, long conversation about our stories while sitting in your dorm room. Which let to four years of what was essentially a marriage, with a partners’ desk.
CARROLL: Pine boards laid across milk crates?
RYAN: Stolen milk crates. And we both had manual typewriters. Writing was a lot louder, back then.
CARROLL: But back to the question. How has your attitude evolved?
RYAN: In my 20s, I had a lot of bravado and confidence in my own abilities but with very little to back it up. I was either trying to be original with nothing to say, or I was trying to imitate without being familiar enough with my sources. I was a cocky little—bastard? Wallflower? Something along those lines.
CARROLL: [laughs] What’s changed?
RYAN: Not being able to publish most of what I wrote punched my ego in the teeth and made me a better writer.
CARROLL: Between Send Me and this book, you wrote and published three young adult novels. You write about the same age group in a couple of the stories in this new collection but for an adult audience. Tell us what the difference is for you, and what you might have learned from writing in each form.
RYAN: When I’ve written YA, the main sources of tension and conflict have usually been between two or more teenagers, whereas when I’m writing an adult story that happens to have a teen as the main character, the tension and conflict often has to do with a clash between that teen and the adult world. What I learned in writing three YA novels is that I’m pretty relaxed when I write them. I enjoy the process more—maybe because part of me has never grown beyond adolescence. Also, when I write YA, all my fears about plot go out the window. I just plot fearlessly.
CARROLL: But not when you write “adult” fiction?
RYAN: Nope. When I write the grown-up stuff, I only plot fearfully.
CARROLL: Like a lot of writers, your path to publication has been circuitous, from early creative writing classes in high school to MFA workshops to getting an occasional story into a small literary magazine along the way. You’ve had to make a living and write when and where possible, ultimately arriving at the enviable point of hammering away at contracted but uncompleted manuscripts. Say I’m 20-something. Tell me how to become you.
RYAN: Oh, it’s easy. Just drink the contents of this vial labeled “Stubborn Obsessive Nerd.” Seriously, it probably takes at least as much stubbornness as it does talent. I’ve written seven or eight novels that I wasn’t able to get published. And I had more than a few people along the way—friends, all of them—tell me I was insane to continue to pursue something that clearly wasn’t working out for me. It would have been very easy to listen to those people. And grow bitter. And secretly hang my bitterness on their hooks. So my advice comes straight from Kris Kristofferson: Don’t let the bastards get you down. Write what you want to write, not what you think people want to read. Write because you enjoy writing, not because you think the world needs your writing. Don’t take rejection personally. Don’t feel entitled. Swallow your ego.
CARROLL: What other creative forms—music, movies, etc.—help you keep at it as a writer?
RYAN: Music helps me right before and right after, never during. I listen to a lot of Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Max Richter. I like how some of Philip Glass’s piano etudes feel like short stories.
I love songs that feel narrative, even when there may not be a traditional narrative in them. I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan. The song “Isis” feels like a novella. “Shelter from the Storm,” that one song, feels like a collection of short stories. I like Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Passenger, Family of the Year.
Paying attention to the way good films and television dramas are edited taught me that not every scene needs a beginning, middle, and end. Not every flashback needs an arc. A moment can be a scene, just like a moment can be a flashback.
CARROLL: What’s an example of a great novel that was turned into a great film?
RYAN: Ordinary People.
CARROLL: What’s vital to you, as a writer?
RYAN: Never quite feeling as if I’ve learned how to do it. Reading as much as I can. Having a small handful of trusted friends who will give me honest feedback on my work before I ever send it out.
CARROLL: Is there anything in this book that’s going to turn heads back home?
RYAN: If only! None of the questions I thought people might ask me over the course of four books has ever come up. Do you believe in UFOs? Did you ever stalk a trapeze artist? Did you ever pretend to be Christian in order to hit on someone? In this collection, I have a story about a teenager girl who gets pregnant, and it was inspired in part by a good friend of mine in high school who got pregnant, and for a little while pretty much all of my friends and family assumed I was the father (I wasn’t). Neighbors used to approach my dad while he was washing the car and ask him flat-out if I was the father. Maybe some of them who remember that far back will read the story and wonder all over again. And just wait—no one will ask me if I ever once had a tryst with an ex-astronaut and his wife. But maybe that one’s better left unasked.
THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS IS OUT TODAY, JULY 5, 2016.