“Drinks With” is an interview series started in 2009 by Skip and Timshel Matheny, currently songwriters in the band Roman Candle. The interviews are usually done in person and discuss the creative process.
Earlier this year, Timshel Matheny spoke with author Ryan Blacketter about his new novel, Down in the River. The tale follows Lyle Rettew, a 16-year-old reeling from the death of his twin sister, as he rebels against his family and undertakes a heartbreaking, macabre pilgrimage.
Paste: I know a lot of details went into the inspiration and writing of this novel—your own history in Eugene at age 16, your friend who actually broke into a mausoleum, your research and reading about manic behavior and it’s connection to art. Can you talk about how some of these things influenced your writing?
Blacketter: Well, I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and I was fresh from a very religious community in Lewiston, Idaho. So when I got to Eugene, I met up with a bunch of pretty crazy, interesting kids. I was 13, so I think I was wide open to all kinds of experiences. And one of these kids was the kid who later went on to rob the mausoleum. He was a little bit older than me. But a lot of my friends were pretty innocent and sweet. We liked to take acid and run around and do stuff, but this guy went a little bit beyond that.
There was a separation of a few years before I saw him again. He was into this book—I think it was called Apocalypse Culture—and it was just interviews with individuals who had gone over some crazy cliff. There was this young woman who worked in a morgue so she could sleep with dead bodies, and then there was this guy who liked to hang upside down by meat hooks. I think he cultivated this idea of himself, of being this wild hellion who was just on the very far reaches of obscure culture. He just wanted to do something like that?be one of these characters.
By then, he was in his early twenties. The early twenties is a time when a lot of young men become sociopathic for a time [laughs]. I don’t want to depict him as some monster forever, and I really don’t think that is accurate. But for a period, anyway, he drifted into a fairly crazy realm.
When I found out about the mausoleum, I felt that I, too, could have wavered on the edge of that world myself. But something had brought me back from that edge—some instinct. It stayed with me, and it gave me the chills and planted something in my psyche that grew. Later, I knew that I wanted to write about it. Not from a perspective of “look at this horrible monster,” but to sympathize with this cracked, sad kid.
Paste: How long did it take you to write this book? You had written several short stories about this area before. Do you see those stories as part of the process for this novel? Or was this novel something that—once the mausoleum story came into the picture —just took on a life of it’s own?
Blacketter: My first book took about 10 years; I spent my first five years just learning how to write and then the second five years writing that. It was what I was building up to and thought was going to be the book that I wanted to write. And then, when it got passed over, I was like, “Ugh, I guess there goes my trip to Europe in celebration. I guess I’ll just start this hateful project…”
Then I wrote a novel that was about a religious family where the father has some kind of mid-life crisis and returns to his hippy youth by taking his family to a commune in Oregon. I spent a year writing about this horrible commune—I even spent some time hanging out with hippy friends in a commune—but I had no interest in writing about a commune. So I deleted the whole two hundred-some pages, and I started over.
I started with [Down in the River], and I found that I really enjoyed it and enjoyed being inside of it. Personally, at the same time, I needed some place to get lost in. Virginia Woolf talks about how, when she would write, it was like sinking to the bottom of the ocean. And this book took about five years to write—not including the commune book. [laughs]
Paste: Well, the story in this book is a pretty dark and crazy place to want to escape to [laughs].
Blacketter: I kind of had a breakdown in my graduate program. I had always had manic symptoms, but when I was in my graduate program, I started hallucinating and having crazy experiences. I have since started taking medication, but at that time I hadn’t.
I was a little bit cracked, so my life then was pretty awful. And this was like a place to go to. There was already something that was a little bit dark and crazy inside of me, and I wanted to find an expression for that and to create a world that reflected the sensations and experiences I had that other people didn’t seem to have or didn’t seem to like—understandably [laughs]. So I think that the book was my world to go inside of—that I could understand.
Paste: You have a pretty incredible and fantastic biography as a writer—you had a fairly rebellious youth, dropped out of high school, travelled around the U.S., went back to get your GED, ended up at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. If you left school at 17, how did you discover reading, writing, the Western Canon?
Blacketter: There was no real literary experience when I was a kid. My mom had read some good books when she was younger but started reading religious books later on.
It was all John Wayne and bad American TV. And I think I had some kind of a problem concentrating. When teachers would talk—and I had this all the way back to elementary school—I couldn’t hear them. They would speak and I would realize that I just couldn’t hear them, but I could hear other people talk. And this persisted, so really there was no point to continue [school].
Also, I was pretty wild. Everybody’s favorite book back then was The Catcher in the Rye, and I loved Holden a lot. But I had trouble concentrating … I had difficulty reading. With anything academic, I just couldn’t see the words. It was like the words were pouring into the middle of the page, somehow, and escaping.
Paste: I know that you are an avid reader now. How and when did that change for you?
Blacketter: When I was 17, I moved to Boston with a friend of mine. I worked briefly waiting tables there and then went to work at a grocery store. And I met some interesting friends—one guy was a cartoonist, another guy was a photographer, somebody else was a reader. Instead of just meeting kids who liked to do drugs, these were people who were interested in the arts. So I read the obvious things, On The Road...
Paste: And you were able to concentrate better then?
Blacketter: I was getting better. Then I moved to San Francisco to move in with a friend of mine, and it was there that I started to read seriously.
I really had no academic training. When I was 16, I told my mom that I was going to drive to Europe and she said, “Well, good luck sweetheart.” [laughs] I didn’t know stuff that I needed to know.
It still crops up. I was just telling my students the other day that I was going “up” to California—and I know where California is. There are basic things that I just don’t know. My wife is pregnant and telling me things, basic things, that I should have learned in sex-ed but missed.
Paste: Well, that’s most of us.
Blacketter: [laughs] Right. But the literary thing stuck. I decided, “Well, I could learn about this one thing”—human experience, psychological experience with people as expressed in books. I decided to stick with that one thing.
I was also extremely shy. When I finally did go back—got my GED, went through community college—later, at the University of Oregon, I couldn’t deal with a group. I couldn’t talk. One idea was to go to law school, but I felt I was too shy. I would have terrible panic attacks about that.
I thought, “Well, I can be a writer and escape into that identity.” It’s a common story. Writers often say, “I couldn’t do anything else.” I couldn’t imagine being able to function or succeed in any other job.
There is this dreadful sense that people in their twenties have, where they think, “What am I going to do? I’m going to be a loser. I’m going to be a lost and bad person who won’t be allowed in.” As a writer, you can escape into that [writer’s] identity. At the time, it was important to wear that hat and be part of this procession of writers through the centuries who have gone along and found inspiration from others who came before—who didn’t necessarily “succeed” in financial terms. Well, certainly most of them didn’t, but nevertheless, they were pretty happy about their accomplishments.
Paste: Right. Same for musicians. I get it [laughs].
Blacketter: [laughs] Right.