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The Josh Ritter Interview – Running a marathon is much easier than writing a novel…

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction | Special Guests
josh-ritter

By Derek Flynn

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If there’s one person who can put paid to the stereotype of the unapproachable and sullen rock star, it’s Josh Ritter. From the moment he picks up the phone for our interview, he is at once affable, erudite and engaged. Ritter will be familiar to his many Irish fans as a singer/songwriter responsible for albums such as The Animal Years and So Runs the World Away. He counts the likes of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman as fans. (King chose The Animal Years as his album of the year in 2006) However, on his latest visit to these shores, he’s donned another hat – that of a debut author. Ritter’s debut no­­­­vel, Bright’s Passage, has just been released in Ireland and he’s over here to take part in the Dublin Writer’s Festival.

Having written both songs and now a novel, my first question to him was what does he see as the similarities and dissimilarities between song writing and novel writing?

“Well, I think the similarities are greater than the differences,” he says, “in the one major, major way in that both are about stringing the perfect word after the perfect word after the perfect word. That’s what writing of all kinds is about. I think that they’re similar in that I feel that concision always makes the best writing. The writing in both – in prose and in a song – can be surreal and wild and entertaining, but you’re always trying to say it in the fewest amount of words.”

“I do think the initial approaches are slightly different for me. There’s a feeling that you get when you write a song that’s a feeling of something that is overwhelming that then translates into a song which is a shorter piece of work. You can write it in an afternoon or a week. But, with writing a novel, you have to sit down every day whether that inspiration is there or not and hope that the inspiration finds you. And work through the times when it’s not there. And that’s a difference.” He admits to rarely sitting down and writing a song right off the bat. “You have to sit there and write 90% of stuff that’s terrible to work your way through to that thing that feels good and throw all that other stuff away. With a song it’s this weird coalition of melody and lyric. A melody can come to you and a lyric can come to you but they seldom come at the same time. But you can have a tiny bit of lyric or a tiny bit of melody and that can expand and explode and that’s really awesome.”

I mention the Christy Moore line that Christy says Shane McGowan said to him – that melodies are floating all around us in the air and you just have to grab them before some other guy like Paul Simon gets them! He laughs and says, “Oh, I have to say, I am excited for the upcoming Shane McGowan/Paul Simon collaboration. I think that would be amazing”

He goes on: “I think what’s interesting too is that there’s so much weight and value placed on originality that I think that’s a huge stultifying influence on writers. People are afraid to be unoriginal … people are afraid to just write a love story or afraid to write a murder mystery or afraid to write a country song. They’re afraid to do something that doesn’t crack the foundations of 21st Century art. The fact is, it’s fun, and if you don’t, that’s song’s not going to be written. Trying to be ORIGINAL and trying to be ARTISTIC … all in caps … it’s such a danger when you can just be out there working on your stuff.”

Ritter’s first novel, Bright’s Passage, is set during the First World War. “It’s about a young, normal kid … this guy Henry Bright who comes home from the First World War back to West Virginia and is followed back by what he believes is an angel that has saved his life in France, and this angel has now taken up residence in this horse that he’s bought. And it’s Henry Bright and his horse and his newborn son trying to escape a wildfire for about five days. I think of it as a sort of a comedy … a dark, little comedy.”

I ask him if he’s particularly interested in writing historical fiction. “I think I’m really interested in writing stuff where something happens. There’s been a real vogue for very, very interior stories. And I like the stuff where some guy comes out of the wood with a battle axe! I like adventure … Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London. Or moving forward, James Ellroy, the noir guys, I like that stuff. And part of that is it’s really fun to be in a setting where stuff is going on and I think the First World War, for Americans, we came really late to the First World War and I’d never really learned about it at school. I only really started learning about it several years ago and it was an overwhelming experience.” So the story could have been set during any time period? “Absolutely. The story that I envisaged at first was Henry Bright and he just had a look in his eye and for some reason I always saw him walking through a drive-thru burger place. But it was just this look and strange kind of disconnectedness that really made sense.”

Ritter says that the novel is the first time he’s ever written fiction that he’s really happy with. “I’ve written bits of things but never anything serious and I think it’s because I didn’t have the endurance. I didn’t quite have the set-up. With the travelling … a lot of times when we’re travelling, we’re travelling in a van and you don’t even have the elbow space to work that way. Computers have gotten smaller and more portable. And through other things like running, I’ve just gotten to have a little bit more time and a little bit more patience for letting things happen a little slowly.”

“I write a lot on the road. Writing songs on the road has always been … you don’t put as much to pen and paper but you spend a lot of time collecting ideas and gathering things. Gathering books and reading and meeting people. It’s really good for that Bowerbird situation where you’re picking up all kinds of stuff and bringing it back to your house. But the great thing is, with writing prose, you get up in the morning and you have to show up at your desk no matter what. So, you get up in the morning, put on the headphones in the front of the bus while other people are sleeping and work for an hour. Write for an hour and put that book away for the rest of the day. And then, no matter what, you’ve gone to this amazing place for a little while and you’ve taken that time that would otherwise be lost.”

His mention of wearing headphones while writing prompts me to ask him if he listens to music while writing. “Yeah, for Bright’s Passage I listened to Kid A by Radiohead and Aphex Twin.” More abstract then lyrical then? “Yeah. It’s hard to put words together when someone else is doing it really well. So, I mostly just listen to stuff where the music is more stripped clean.”

Ritter recorded his eponymous debut album at the age of 21 while still in college. He would sell the album at gigs and open mic nights. I ask him if he thinks it’s harder or easier for an independent artist to succeed nowadays. “In the end, there’s all kinds of ways that you can get your thing out into the world,” he says. “And that’s the most heartening part of it all. People are gonna beat the drum and moan and wail about the death of whatever industry at whatever time, but the fact is we have the chance now to be able to share whatever we make with everybody. And that’s what it always comes back to. You do what you do and, hopefully, somewhere along the line somebody … But I don’t think there’s too much difference. People that do it for a long time do it for love and they figure out how to make it work.”

Running is something that has become a huge influence on him and his writing. “Five or six years ago, I wrote down that I wanted to write a novel and I wanted to run a marathon. And I ran a marathon, and another, and another. And running a marathon is much easier than writing a novel. The thing that it taught me is that you have to do a little bit every day. You can’t do it all at once. You have to train for four or five months if you want to do it well. And you have to have the faith that it’s going to lead up to something, that it’s going to end up being something. And there were times when you’re in a long run, you run fifteen miles in a town somewhere, it’s late, and it feels very much like those times when you’re in a slog of the middle of a draft and it feels like the end is as far away as the moon. And those two feelings are very similar but the payoff is the same. An amazing feeling. So, yeah, that’s been a really big influence on my writing.”

We talk a little bit about “dynamics” in music – the way a song goes from a quiet verse to a powerful chorus and so on, and I wonder if he’s sees similarities with this and prose writing? “Absolutely. There’s a rise and fall within the song itself. And then, when you’re playing a show, there’s a rise and fall. You can’t have a show at 80%, you can’t have a show at 20% but you can go all over and in between those things and do something much more effective. I think, in stories too … in a scene there has to be a rise and fall. And then, you string that together with another and another to such a degree of variation that it never becomes obvious that there’s any kind of pattern to that.”

“I think we’ve all been to shows where nothing gets too much and it’s fine, it’s nice, you know? If aliens came down to Earth and said “What’s music?” you’d say, “Well, that’s music”. But, the human part of it – where things fall apart and then come back together – that’s transcendent, I think. And if you get the right combination of songs together and everybody plays well and the audience is ready to get involved, that can be a great experience. And I think that’s true of writing too. If it’s accepted in the spirit that you offer it then things have a really good chance to be very cool.”

So, performing is almost like taking on a different persona? “Yeah, you have the chance to become this person you want to be over that period of time. And writing is similar to that. You have this chance to slip the surly bonds and become this person that you need. And I love that.”

Some musicians have no problem performing a song, but are terrified of public speaking. How does he feel about doing readings? “It’s not like a show … well, it is a show but the feelings I get … I get totally petrified. I think the readings are somewhat similar to my feelings about busking. I’ve talked with Glen [Hansard, lead singer of The Frames] a bunch of times about busking and, you know, he loves it, he grew up doing it. And I think that could not be more terrifying. For some reason, it scares the hell out of me. I didn’t realise that that’s how it was when I started reading. But with that comes this cool thing that, at readings, you can do anything. You can talk to people and have a much more free and open exchange than at a show. And I know in Ireland, that’s gonna be great because people are never afraid to tell you what they’re thinking. It’s gonna be fun.”

So what’s next for Josh Ritter? “I just finished my new recording so I’m pretty psyched about that. And I’m about halfway through my new book. So, everything’s boiling. I’m deep in the book still so I think it’ll be the album first.”

About the author

(c) Derek Flynn June 2012

Ritter’s debut novel, Bright’s Passage, is the story of Henry Bright, newly returned to West Virginia from the battlefields of the First World War. Grief struck by the death of his young wife and confronted by the destruction of the only home he’s ever known, Bright is soon cast adrift. His only hope is the angel who followed him to Appalachia from the trenches of France and who now guides him and his young son towards uncertain salvation.

With the same dark wit and unique imagination that characterises his songs, Bright’s Passage is an assured and arresting debut from a bright new literary talent.

For more information on Josh Ritter’s events in Ireland, visit www.JoshRitter.com

Derek Flynn is a singer song writer who also writes novels, he blogs at Rant With Occasional Music and released his debut CD Do You Dream At Allearlier this year with a live performance on RTE One. As well as being published in the “Write for the Fight” anthology, Derek was also recently short-listed by RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster) for a writing position on a children’s drama series; he came first place runner-up in the J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress and has received a number of arts bursaries. He graduated from Dublin City University with a First Class Honours Degree in English Literature.

Derek is also very active online with a blog called “Rant, with Occasional Music” at http://derekflynn.wordpress.com/ which has received over 30,000 hits. He is also very active on Twitter where he has over 4,000 followers.

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