WEBEXCLUSIVE INCONVERSATION

UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS’S 21st CENTURY PROSE SERIES AUTHORS
LAUREN FOSS GOODMAN in conversation with RYAN RIDGE

Ryan Ridge
American Homes
(University of Michigan, 2015)

Lauren Foss Goodman
 A Heart Beating Hard
(University of Michigan, 2015)

Lauren Foss Goodman is the author of A Heart Beating Hard, which is a “story about the passed-along People, about how we are the same and how we are different, about how we become who we are and how we protect our most private places from the cold glare of all that we cannot control.” Ryan Ridge is the author of American Homes, a book that “incorporates poetry, prose, and various schematic devices, including dozens of illustrations by the artist Jacob Heustis, to create a cracked narrative of the domestic spaces we inhabit.” Both books were published this year by University of Michigan Press’ 21st Century Prose, a series that “celebrates varieties of forms—of prose that breaks the rules, bends conventions, and reconfigures genre.” The authors interviewed each other recently via email.

Ryan Ridge: Can you discuss the origins of A Heart Beating Hard? What was the process of writing it? Where and when did you compose? How long did it take all told?

Lauren Foss Goodman: This book began with a short story that began just before I started the MFA program at UMass, when I was living in my (very small, very boring, very white) hometown in Western Massachusetts. I had just come back from living in Japan for three years, and everything in the U.S. felt huge and bright and overwhelming. The only place to go in my hometown is Walmart, so I spent a lot of time just kind of walking around the store, looking at all the colors and shapes of all the stuff on the shelves.

I really dug in and started writing the book—which was also my MFA thesis—in the winter of 2011, and I put myself on a strict writing schedule. I would write for three hours every morning, six days a week. It was by far the most productive—and sort of weird—period of my life. I had a complete draft of the book by the end of summer, and then I rewrote from that draft. I defended my thesis in the winter of 2012, and then continued to work on the book—well, to be honest, sometimes I’m still working on the book. It’s amazing that even seeing your words in print isn’t quite enough to make the thing feel finished.

I wrote A Heart Beating Hard all over Massachusetts, in the Wilmington, Delaware public library, in Penns Grove, New Jersey (which is like no other place on earth), in Irvine, California, in Taiwan, in notebooks and laptops and desktops, on note-cards and post-it notes, and with a spooky, monk-like quality that I hope will some day come back to me.

Ridge: The book features a truly innovative structure, pinballing between three characters (Marjorie, Margie, and Marge, respectively), but the entire book is moored by evocative, omniscient narration. How important is voice to you as a writer?

Goodman: Voice is everything, to me. It is structure, and plot, and conflict, and characterization, and pacing, and setting, and all of those other “fiction-y” type words. Voice is how we show others the world as we see it, and I think that one of the great powers we yield as writers is the ability to give voice to those who might otherwise not be heard.  

I like the way you phrased this question—that Marjorie, Margie, and Marge are three different characters who are also, of course, the same person. It’s the voice each thread is told in that makes these characters distinct, and it was largely voice that guided me as I wrote each of them. I also saw each of the M’s as having varying degrees of access to her voice. Marge’s voice is entirely hidden behind this other, overpowering voice. Margie’s voice is more present, but she is also up against this “we” voice, this voice of the ubiquitous everybody else who is out there, watching, listening, caring or not caring about what happens to us. And Marjorie’s voice is strong, is one of the important parts of her self that she holds dear and uses to make her way through the world.

Ridge: Follow up: how important is poetry to your work? I notice a ton of poetic devices (repetition, assonance, alliteration, slant rhyme, staccato phrasing, as well as an expanse of salient images) and I wonder if you privilege language or character? Or are they the same thing?

Goodman: I’ve never been into poetry, but I’ve always been in love with the sound of words placed next to words. I love Lolita, and Flannery O’Connor. I will have to Google what slant rhyme and staccato phrasing is. Yes, I absolutely think language and character are one and the same. A character on the page is constructed entirely through the language of who she is, and the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer have been when the language of a character has made its way into me, into my bones and my head, so that I’ll be riding my bike or getting out of bed in the morning and I’ll have a thought that’s not my own, a thought that has come directly and immediately from that character, you know?

Ridge: In many ways the book pushes back against common creative writing orthodoxies—whether it’s the lack of quotation marks in the dialogue or the fact that the main characters have similar sounding names. As a quote unquote experimental writer myself, I’m curious as to if your experimentation is a conscious choice or an organic manifestation? In my case, I don’t tell it straight because I can’t tell it straight and I have to approach it from an angle. My question: why not tell it straight? Aren’t straight stories the path to fame and fortune? Why the hard road?

Goodman: Straight stories have never made sense to me. Or, a better way of saying that might be, I don’t know how to write them because I’ve never lived them. I’ve always admired—and feared—people who seem to understand the world in a relatively organized way. I used to try and do this, to try and tell myself stories about my day that made some sort of linear sense, and I realized that I was avoiding being in a state of unknowing because, for so many reasons, not knowing terrified me. It’s that terror of sitting down and looking at a blank Google Doc. What am I going to write about? Do I have any stories in here to tell? That terror. The only way I know how to deal with this anxiety is to write my way through it, and the only way I know how to write is in circles. I never considered finding a more linear way of telling this story because this is a story of going backward to go forward. I never thought that this book would bring me fame and fortune. I just wanted to tell the story I had inside me to tell.   

Ridge: Could you talk a bit about influences? Which writers were you reading when you were writing AHBH?

Goodman: Flannery O’Connor for her wit, her weirdness, her convictions, and her wisdom. I love Joy Williams and John Irving and Nabokov and Tim O’Brien. I remember making a very conscious choice to not read much fiction while I was writing A Heart Beating Hard. I have a bad habit of imitating whoever I’m reading, so I pull away from other writers when I’m really immersed in a project. I think the only fiction I read around that time was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and I loved it so much—the structure, the lyricism, the feel of that book—that as soon as I finished it, I read it again.

Ridge: Your work is so lyrical and musical and intricately composed. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, who?

Goodman: No, never. Years ago, when I was much younger, I used to listen to music while I wrote. I thought it helped me set some sort of mood in my stories. It took an awful lot of melodramatic, bad writing for me to finally figure out that I can’t listen to music or watch videos or be around other people when I’m writing. I’m just too susceptible to letting these outside influences in, to letting them overtake the work.

Ridge: Do you place yourself in a certain lineage of writers?

Goodman: I’ve never thought about this, which probably means, no. I just want to tell the stories I have to tell.

Ridge: What are you reading right now?

Goodman: I just finished The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which was awesome. I admire the pace and rhythms of that book, the way she fills her pages with action without sacrificing language.

Ridge: What do you hope readers take away from the experience of AHBH?

Goodman: I hope that they think about the book, and about Marjorie, when they walk into a familiar place. That it makes someone more aware of the way the light reflects off of the linoleum floor in Walmart and how packed these public places are, full of things we need and don’t need. And how little we know about the people who pass by us.

Ridge: What’s next?

Goodman: I have a toddler, I teach, and I’m working on an M.Ed. in Learning, Media, and Technology, so right now my main project in life is just holding it all together. I’ve been playing around with scenes from a new book for about a year now, but I never know what I’ve got until I’ve got it. When I do, I’ll let you know!

***

Lauren Foss Goodman: I’m curious about how this book came to be. Were you looking at a lot of “American Homes?” Visiting them? Looking in their windows? Cleaning them? Can you remember the first sentence or section you wrote?

Ryan Ridge: I began the book in Louisville, Kentucky in 2006. I originally wrote the “Doors” chapter, but then I forgot about it and started writing stories. I wrote most of the stories in my first collection, Hunters & Gamblers, before I got back to American Homes and by then I was living in an apartment in Irvine, California.

Irvine is an idyllic suburb, a pristine place where everything is meticulous, manicured, and clean. An Edward Scissorhands meets Stepford Wives kind of deal. This was around the time of the ’08 housing crisis and all over America folks were losing their homes, but in Irvine it was business as usual.

Back then I was a graduate student living on loans and a TA stipend. I had no real money, yet there I was breathing and shopping in proximity to some of the wealthiest people in the world. It was an odd sort of outsider/insider status. At night, my wife and I would walk around and admire the genius of William Pereira’s planning. His original strategy for the city of Irvine was so masterful that it landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1963, and now fifty-odd years later, the town looks just like the American Dream realized. It’s a great place to be if you can afford it: sunshine and no crime. (And you lived in Irvine, too, for a while. That’s interesting. I wonder if we overlapped?)   

By the time I was writing the second half of the book we’d moved to downtown Long Beach. For four years my wife and I lived in a termite-infested slum a stone’s throw from the Pacific. An episode of Cops was shot on location across the street where they arrested a neighbor for methamphetamines; an episode of CSI Miami was filmed in our courtyard due to the building’s resemblance to a South Florida bordello. At nights we didn’t walk much anymore—we ran. Then one night I got jumped on our front steps in what the police said was most likely a gang initiation. The next month we packed up my pickup truck and headed back to Kentucky.

The book was subsequently edited in Louisville in my childhood home, which we’re currently renting from my parents. I worked on American Homes eight years total, off and on, and things have come full circle. The book ends with these words: “Welcome home!”

Goodman: Something I enjoyed about American Homes was this feeling that I could open up to any page and start reading from there. The book seems to welcome us to read in any order or way we want. I wonder whether your writing process felt this way—were you ordering and tidying up as you wrote or did the book’s structure come later?

Ridge: I wrote the book in constellations. The first section, “Part III”, is a mock instruction manual which considers various aspects of houses (doors, windows, stairs, etc.), and once I felt like I’d exhausted my possibilities within this faux guidebook-esque construction I moved on to the next part. The second section, “Different Voices/Different Rooms,” is a series of lyric essays about numerous rooms. While writing this part of the book I was reading and rereading David Markson’s later novels and also Evan Lavender-Smith’s masterpiece From Old Notebooks. The second section of American Homes owes a great deal to both writers in terms of its circular interior structure, and by some small grace Evan ended up blurbing the book, which was beyond cool because he’s an inspiration. The final section of the novel is called “Ideas” and it’s comprised of one-liners and jokes about houses. I put these at the end because I liked the idea of a book that falls apart and forecloses on itself. For sale!

And you’re right about the way in which the book can be read: you can pick it up and peruse a page or two, or you can read it straight through. In that sense, the project is very much influenced by the Internet and the ways we take in information in small chunks these days. Some writers aspire for timelessness, but I’ll settle for timeliness. If folks are still reading this thing fifty years on when I’m dead and gone, well, I’d call that a surprise ending.

Goodman: What did you read as a child?

Ridge: As a kid growing up in the ’80s, I’d go to my elementary school’s book fair and return with a backpack full of joke books. Gag books were the only things I read up until I was thirteen. Those books were full of bad puns and idiotic poems. I can’t remember any of the book titles, but I remember that Scholastic published them, and I can still dial up some of the lines, like these:

I have you in my heart,

I have you in my liver,

And if I had you in my arms,

I’d throw you in the river.

It was formative stuff.

Goodman: We really only get to know two human characters in American Homes:  Clarence and “I.”  Is “I” you? Is Clarence you? Where do people fit in to American Homes?

Ridge: I wrote the first chapter of American Homes about doors and the narrator’s name was Jim Morrison. Soon enough that seemed stupid to me and I figured, why charade? I’m the narrator here, and I think that this is the closest thing to a memoir that I’ll ever write. Clarence? No, he’s not me, at least I hope not, and I’ll do my best not to turn into that guy either. He’s a salty old dog with a passion for Tom Clancy novels and buckshot diplomacy. I don’t own any guns, which may be unpatriotic of me.

In terms of where people fit into the book, they’re all off screen, indoors with the doors locked, enjoying their “American Homes” while watching network news.  

Goodman: I really enjoyed Jacob Heustis’s illustrations throughout the book. As you wrote, what was your relationship to his drawings? Did he read sections of the book and then draw? Or did you look at a drawing and then write?

Ridge: Thanks, I like those drawings a lot, too. Jake is a genuine visual artist. He paints large canvases, builds commissioned sculptures, and recently he did art direction on an indie film that cleaned up at the Tribeca Film Festival. We’re old friends, he and I, childhood comrades, and now he’s kind enough to make drawings for me as a favor.

As I wrote the book, I’d put in parentheticals where I thought drawings should go, things like: insert illustration of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins scattering yard seed here—and then Jake would go and draw that. Sometimes, he’d just do it on the fly and other times he’d do a Google image search first. In the case of the Screamin’ Jay drawing, Jake loosely based that one off Brian Smith’s iconic 1965 photo from Screamin’ Jay’s first European tour. Right after the book came out, Brian Smith wrote to me and said that he saw the Screamin’ Jay illustration online and that he loved it and he also said that he read part of my book on the Digital Culture site and asked would I send him a hardcopy. Later this summer Jake is going to make silkscreens of certain images from the book and so I’ll have those for sale at readings at some point in the future.

Goodman: What other art do you love?

Ridge: I love the photographs of William Eggleston (who I wrote about here). I love the drawings of David Shrigley (who I wrote about here). I also love Kara Walker, Eleanor Antin, and Chris Burden. But my favorite artist of all time is C. M. Coolidge. He’s the guy who painted the dogs playing poker, etc. To me, that’s transcendent art. Powerful. Hilarious. Absurd.

Goodman: In your estimation, what is the difference between “American Homes” and “American Houses”?

Ridge: Houses are homes but not all homes are houses.

Goodman: You invent many facts in American Homes. I really love this in your work, and in the work of writers like Ander Monson, but have always been too chicken to try it myself. How does it make you feel to put these made-up facts out into the world? Sneaky? Powerful? I find them very convincing (e.g. page 38: “According to NACSA, 33% of what we think we know is wrong.”), and I wonder if you get a little thrill out of the thought that lots of people will be reading your facts and sort-of knowing that they aren’t real and also sort-of believing that there might just be some truth to them.

Ridge: It’s neat that you mention Ander Monson because he was the first person to publish any of American Homes; if he hadn’t, I doubt the book would even exist. He ran the “Doors” chapter in its infancy in DIAGRAM and that gave me the encouragement I needed to push ahead. So I did.

As far as fake facts, yes there is a bunch of invented statistics in the book and it also features bogus weather patterns, things like cloud quakes, prison wind, and purple rain. I also made up a few people, too, like Antonio Lysol, inventor of Lysol (Lysol, the product, was actually invented by a dude named Dr. Gustav Raupenstrauch in the late 19th century and originally marketed as a feminine hygiene spray). Yes, it was fun to make stuff up and I hope that folks don’t mistake me for any sort of historian. I’m not one at all—I’m full of it. To be honest, part of the joy of writing fiction is lying on the page when you’re mostly honest everywhere else.  

Goodman: Japanese homes have separate shower and toilet rooms, so that you’re never taking a shower in the same space where you use the toilet. What do you think American Homes would think of that?

Ridge: I think American Homes would think it’s time to remodel itself sometime in the very near future.

Goodman: List some important things we will find in your “American Home”.

Ridge:

•       Books and books and books in most rooms

•       A large collection of Kentucky Derby glasses in the kitchen

•       A painting by Jacob Heustis

•       Two C. M. Coolidge prints in the bathroom

•       A bust of Thomas Jefferson in the foyer

•       Records and a record player in the living room

•      And I used to keep a lot of fine bourbon in the dining room, but not now. I’m a coffee man these days, tea, an occasional craft beer. My wild years are over. I’m pushing 40, halfway home.  

Goodman: What do you feel when you hold a book you wrote in your hands?

Ridge: A strange nostalgia. It’s also a thrilling feeling.

Contributors

Ryan Ridge

Ryan Ridge is the author of American Homes.

Lauren Foss Goodman

Lauren Foss Goodman is the author of A Heart Beating Hard.

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