“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.
Paste: You teach a class called “High Risk Fiction—A Writing Workshop,” and in your class description, you say, “Workshop is not confession. But in the privacy of their writing rooms, students might begin to tell personal stories that perhaps they’ve only told about other people.” How do you direct your students—and even yourself in your own writing—away from confessional writing while still encouraging them to write authentically about their own experiences?
Blacketter: That’s a really good question but a difficult one, too. A lot of people want to place themselves in a position as a protagonist, to show the world, “This is what I’m like. This is my experience, I’m the exemplar and everybody else is stupid.” There’s The Dad, The Cop, The Racist Next-door Neighbor—whatever it is, it is like “everybody is bad except me.”
But I think the stories that are truly successful are the ones where the protagonist is the bad, dirty one. The human story is a fairly dark one with painful and dangerous impulses that we all have. And that’s coupled with a fortress-like psychology that most people have, protecting them from the awareness of the fact that they are part of this ugly human experience—partly ugly and partly beautiful. But the psychology protects the individual from the knowledge that he also shares in the bad part of human experience.
When you inhabit a persona in a piece of fiction, you are stepping away from your own experience. But you’re also embracing the bad experience in your life by inhabiting this other persona in the story, and then you have movement—you have somewhere to go. If the character, the protagonist, is a healthy, decent citizen, what kind of movements does he have in his life? How can he change or transform?
There is a lot of fiction these days that is about people who are trying to be tolerant members of their communities or recycle more or something. Maybe part of the reason is the MFA phenomenon. A lot of people who would normally sell real estate are thinking, “Well, should I sell real estate or do an MFA?” Sadly, there is a lot more bland, uninteresting writing because of that.
Paste: How do you encourage your students to step away from that temptation to be the all-knowing protagonist?
Blacketter: I think it is just being a bastard. Laughing at terrible writing [laughs]. But also, by telling them that I produce that stuff, too. It is just a first draft—the awful first draft—but then there is the next draft.
It is always a good idea to make good people worse and bad people a little bit better in your fiction. Frequently, there is the young, attractive, interesting protagonist giving a speech to the dad or the mom, who are blinking and squinting a lot to demonstrate that they have problems with their vision, which corresponds to their moral vision and stuff like that. So it’s, “Put an X through this. Just don’t even refer to this. Start over.”
Paste: I wanted to ask you about conversation happening between Gregory Wolfe, Paul Elie and a few others regarding the successful depiction of faith in modern fiction. Wolfe actually points to your novel as “an example of modern fiction that is dealing with the issue of belief successfully.”
Blacketter: I tend to write about things that are in my experience—the way that I see the world, as anybody does—and that includes faith and all of my other experiences. So I don’t feel like I’m exploring faith more than other things.
When I grew up in that community, I had a great example with my mother, who was a very good Catholic and a good person. In that community, what was really important was to be correct—not to be good. But I also think that is true in any other culture. In liberal culture, hipster Buddhist culture in Portland?you’re supposed to be correct. You’re supposed to follow the rules. You’re supposed to observe the surfaces. And if you don’t, you’ll get cut off.
I think that Christians do get a bad rap for being “the worst,” and they certainly are not. But they certainly do have a problem with superiority, and I’m very touchy with that. I have—especially living in Boise—more of a negative experience with it. Nevertheless, I am a believer, but my belief is separate from my participation in it. So I write about it.
A good writer has to be able to get inside anybody’s head, whether it is a born again republican or an atheistic hippy. You have to respect that person and find something that makes them compelling and human. That is what I did with Lyle, and I put a lot of my own ideas and feelings about there being something beyond the concrete that you can touch and see in the world into him.
But it’s also changeable with Lyle, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. He doesn’t know what to make of his belief. He could change his religion in a day, and it would still be more or less the same. And I understand that.
In Western Oregon, anybody who is a Christian … well, you might as well be a child molester. It is probably better to be a child molester, because “you could probably get some treatment for that. And go through some program.” [laughs]
If you’re a Christian, you’re like the worst devil. So it was more fun for me to be more vocal about being a Catholic in Western Oregon, because I liked the looks of hate that I would get from people.
Paste: [laughs] It’s actually rebellious.
Paste: Do you have daily writing habits?
Blacketter: It is definitely different now than it used to be. Now I work about two or three hours a day, and I go back and forth between the mornings and the evenings. I’m not as disciplined and intense as I was for my first two books. I think I just got tired, and I was maybe a little overkill on the discipline.
When I first started, I would write about five or six hours most days for a few years. Then in my graduate program, I was writing frequently as much as eight to ten hours a day. I cultivated this combination of poor confidence and self-contempt. I would tell myself I was a terrible writer, it was never going to happen, I was a fake. Somehow that made me really angry and inspired to work. But I would go into this “you motherfucker” attitude all the time. That was my state of mind. Frequently, I would slip into this trance of making art that was gentler. That probably contributed a bit toward my kind of breakdown. Things are better now.
It is a common story to hear?John Gardner used to write for 16 hours a day. But in the beginning. Then you slow down and you can accomplish in three hours what you used to accomplish in 10 hours.
Paste: You have said that you have a daily commitment to reading as well as writing. How do you foster both, and do they mix?
Blacketter: That’s the nice thing about being an adjunct instructor. It’s right on par with having a paper route in terms of “I’m a loser. I have no money.” But in terms of time, it’s great.
I have two classes a week right now, so that’s four or five hours a week with minimal preparation. It’s a pretty good life if you’re willing to be poor. So I can write a little bit and read a little bit.
There are some people that can read so fast, and some people have amazing retentive memories. But I can read maybe 15 to 20 pages an hour, and I’m really holding on.
But I’m looking to learn some things about human experience and to learn about craft. I figure that’s all that is needed. When you do that every day, it adds up to a lot of books and a lot of knowledge. So I commit to a little bit of careful reading every day and to try to learn something about people and about writing, and that is good enough for me.
Paste: In one of your course descriptions you promise to answer the question: “Why is the writing life always worth the effort?” At risk of giving away a course secret, I am asking, why, for you, is the writing life always worth the effort?
Blacketter: Because of what you learn—what you learn about yourself, what you learn about other people. There is a great satisfaction in that—in learning and understanding and then putting that understanding into your own books and stories.
For most of our lives, we have things that we want to do and people we love. But in the life of the writer or the artist, when you get to the end of it, all you have are the things that you have done and the things that you have done well. You were a good mother or father, a civic person, this or that. But I would imagine that there is a deep satisfaction in learning about things and finding words for that learning. Better than getting a job [laughs].