THE THINGS WE ARE USING: Ryan Ridge and American Homes

Editor Staff, Interview, December 9th, 2010

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Post 2 From Vouched Contributor Tyler Gobble, on Author Ryan Ridge

One of my fellow Vouchers and I noticed that “everyday things” are a popular subject in indie lit, writers taking a t-shirt or the American Home to the extreme of characterization. These subjects create pieces that are playful, energetic, insightful meditations on the things I see everyday. This forces me to think about and notice them better. Ryan Ridge’s American Homes series comes to mind thinking of this situation. All over the web, he is writing about stairs, about doors, about porches. I get so stoked about these pieces because at once they are both familiar and fresh, calm and excited.

Ryan Ridge on American Homes, for SmalldoggiesThe other day, Ryan and I sat down on the Internet and talked about this idea of objects as characters and his take on American Homes. Here is what we came up with:

Can you explain your initial decision to tackle “The Anatomy of American Homes”?

I started the project by mistake. I was in graduate school for fiction-writing and my method for  making stories was I’d sit down and say: “Okay, what can I take out?” Sometimes I’d take out things like setting (just have a couple characters speaking in the void). Other times I’d eliminate something like, say, dialogue, and quietly move on. Then one day I said to a friend: “I’d like to write something without characters in it.” And that’s when I wrote an early-version of Doorigraphical Divisions. But it sat for awhile, a long while, at least a couple years before I did anything with it. I just viewed it as a failed experiment.

Well, with that publication in Diagram, as well the additional ones in places like The Collagist and Lamination Colony, it certainly seems that these pieces are successes. What made you decide that they might not be a failed experiment after all, encouraging you to dust the project/idea off?

Thanks for the kind words, Tyler. Something happened in terms of my affinity for traditional narrative fiction. It shifted. I got really into Richard Brautigan, Italo Calvino, Michael Martone, and also photography, still photographs. Photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Folks who photograph the banal and ordinary in interesting ways. Long story short I couldn’t stomach the idea anymore of sitting down and trying to tell a story. I wanted to do something else, so I dusted off the doors and began working on them, but it wasn’t until I wrote the Porch Platitudes that I realized I was working on a larger project.

Trout Fishing in America, Richard BrautiganExcellent. That Brautigan influence makes sense now to me, how he really pushed the boundaries of using characters, but also in action and interaction on the page in Trout Fishing in America. You, however, have seemed to take it one step further, pushing aside the traditional character and making a common setting, the American home, act as the character of sorts. Ultimately, this method seems to allow you to do things that narrative/character-driven fiction might not, because the lack of traditional characters coupled with the American home-parts as the focus allows you to focus on other aspects of the story-telling rather than exposition or character background. How has this process been, as far as the development of the pieces, writing with a different set of needs?

The danger for me is I’ve had to beat back my impulse to bring in characters other than the specific objects under scrutiny (doors, windows, stairs, porches, etc.) The sort of creepy thing about American Homes (what I’m calling the project these days) is its lack of characters, human characters. However, I think American Homes is also the main character in the book. The idea has become the character.

For some reason, my first impulse for my December post was to do a post about the use of “everyday” “familiar” items/objects in indie lit, perhaps because of the holiday season or being stuck inside in the cold Indiana weather staring at all these objects. Your series was the first to come to mind as an example. Another was T-Shirt by Michael Kimball over at Blip. While very different pieces, they seem to have a focus, familiarity, and intrigue that writing about something perhaps like outer space or Ancient Rome does not have. From a writer’s perspective, how does that transition of using the objects as characters affect your writing, maybe in terms of difficulty or focus?

I love Michael Kimball’s work, but I haven’t had the chance to read T-Shirt yet. I’ll  check it out. In terms of how using everyday objects as characters affects my writing, it’s certainly made me a much more patient writer, because when you’re writing about the familiar your task then becomes to somehow make it new, to defamiliarize. I wish brilliance just leaked from my pen, but it mostly doesn’t. I take my time with it, often fail. In fact, I’ve only written 10 chapters (many short) of AH in three years.

Certainly, that would seem like a difficult task, going against what you’ve been taught likely throughout your entire writing life. Definitely, what I like most about these pieces is how they are at once familiar, but also stretch themselves with experimentation and variation. This conversation reminds me of the often-overused EB White quote, “Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.” With objects it would be like, don’t write about consumerism or modern living, write about a t-shirt or the American home. This also seems to relate to the highly debatable adage “write about what you know.” What are your thoughts on those phrases, specifically how they play into writing with these familiar objects as your characters, while still being fresh and engaging?

Benjamin FranklinI’m not familiar with the White quote, but I think it sounds like sound advice to me. The smaller the focus, the easier it is to get at the bigger things. That “write what you know” adage I’ve heard it a bunch, but I’ve never really understood it. I like what William S. Burroughs said about the aim of art (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have it handy). Burroughs said that art makes you aware of the things that you weren’t aware that you were aware of. So maybe “write what you know” is also good advice as long as you factor in the countless leagues of the subconscious. I don’t know. Adages are cool. Someone besides Ben Franklin should do a book of them.

Yes, following such advice would make for more detailed and possibly familiar/accessible writing on some levels, but as a reader, how do you view these alternative objects-as-characters situations? Moreover, can you think of examples that work well/interest you?

Ben Marcus. I reread “The Age of Wire String” recently and it reads like an instruction manual for a lost civilization. Moreover, Marcus uses objects as characters, setting as characters, etc. to create a new mythology. Ambitious to say the least, but he pulls it off. He’s a hero of mine.

Very cool. Now back to your project. So you’ve talked about how you have 10 parts of the American Homes project. We’ve seen them pop up at The Collagist, Diagram, Lamination Colony and elsewhere. Where are you in terms of matter of importance with this project? Where do you see/hope it is going?

There used to be a section of American Homes in The Mississippi Review Online before the archive died. There’s going to be a long section (Window Types) in Artifice in the spring, but many of the other sections I’ve written I haven’t sent out because I’m not sure they stand alone. They need context. At this point, the American Homes project is my number one priority. I’d like to get a draft of it by summer. That’s the goal. It’s about halfway done. Lots of drywall dust and rusty screws littering the page. I’m not sure what to call it, so I’ll probably call it a “novel.” I think that’s what you call things when you’re unsure.

Now, I would like to hear about your reading interest, not just related to this topic of objects as focal point. On Vouched Online, we do blog posts about recent writing that we really dig, usually accompanied by some brief commentary. Are there any writers that pop up online that get you really stoked?

Two that come to mind right away are Michael Bible and Andrew Borgstrom. Every time I run across one of their pieces I get excited. They always light me up. Then there’s Blake Butler and Matt Bell. Those guys are killer, too. I guess I just really like writers whose last names begin with the letter B: Brautigan, Burroughs, Bible, Butler, Borgstrom, Bell, Bukowski, Barthelme, etc.

Ryan was kind enough to give us further insight, with a piece from the project titled “An Introduction II.” Talk about the use of object as subject!:

______________
An Introduction II

Can you introduce yourself?

Ryan Ridge.
Apartment dweller.
Long Beach, California.
Part-time Writing Instructor.
Cataloguer of American Homes.

Can you tell us more about American Homes?

American Homes is an idea.
American Homes is just beginning.
American Homes is about to end.
American Homes is the foundation of all unions.
American Homes is the soundtrack to our American lives.
American Homes is the disinclination of individual states to yield power to the federal government.
American Homes is powerlessness.
American Homes is slow evolution.
American Homes is not just black and white.
American Homes is great for families.
American Homes is better for business.
American Homes is targeted at affluent women with a flair for the unconventional.
American Homes is an obstacle course.
American Homes is shopping malls and honky-tonks.
American Homes is distinctly American.
American Homes is illegal in Iran.
American Homes is taking narcotics.
American Homes is living in Tucson.
American Homes is home appliances.
American Homes is a technical fact.
American Homes is saving the environment.
American Homes is very lucky to have you.
American Homes is easy to forget.

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Staff

More than one editor and/or contributor was responsible for the completion of this piece on NAILED.