Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Iain Ryan on The Student

In less than 2 years, Australian writer Iain Ryan has put out 5 novels.  He started with Four Days, a fierce novel set in Queensland state in the 1980's, when police corruption was endemic there, and he went on from that impressive debut to his pitch-black Tunnel Island trilogy: Drainland, Harsh Recovery, and Civil Twilight - books in which he continued to explore the intersection between nasty criminals and corrupt cops, with the cops often being more flawed and violent than the criminals. Now he's turned in a different direction, a college campus set novel, though that doesn't mean he's brightened his material. His new novel, The Student, goes to the same dark places his Ellroyesque procedurals did, this time from the point of a view of a university student.  I asked Iain whether he wanted to talk a little about the book, and he said sure.

Here we go.

SCOTT ADLERBERG: After Four Days and then your Tunnel Island trio, four novels centered around the doings of criminals and morally compromised cops, and where those two groups often intersect, what prompted you to write a college campus novel, albeit a very dark one?

IAIN RYAN: In the 2015/16 Australian summer I needed to sit down and write a textbook for my job at a university. This was not a task I was particularly looking forward to and as I started, I soon found that I needed to write a bit of fiction to get the gears turning and warm-up. Of course, I didn't want the book to require more research than I was already neck deep in so I opted for a period setting from my own biography: a rural campus town in the mid-90s. I really love campus novels, especially The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, but I can't really remember the exact motivations for writing a crime novel set on campus. Which is all to say, I made decisions about this book very quickly, thinking the manuscript would amount to very little.

So this was a wing it as you go sort of novel, or did you plot much out beforehand? Sounds like it grew as a book pretty naturally

I always outline but it definitely evolved past the outline more than anything else I've ever worked on. And as my first book for a traditional publisher, there was a full structural edit too and I took a lot of that on board. It's one of the things that's most sold me on traditional versus self-pub/small press. I think 5 or six people ended up working on The Student in one guise or another and I welcome all the help I can get. They definitely improved the book. Definitely.

You envisioned this book from the start as a book for a traditional publisher? How did you settle on Echo Press? And having worked with a traditional publisher, do you see yourself going back in the future to self-publishing or are you going to try to stick with the traditional publishing route?

Oh no, I thought I'd self-publish the book. I came so close to self-publishing it that I had it edited and I had the cover for it. But then I got cold feet. One thing I've learned from the trenches of self-publishing is that standalone books are a tough sell. 

Self-publishing is a commercial marketplace. If you want to succeed there, you generally need to write a series and you need to hit the genre tropes square on. You need a likeable protagonist. You need a clearly resolved ending. You need the book to move quickly forward and for the style to be nonintrusive. The Student didn't really tick these boxes. 

Around this time, Angela Meyer from Echo Publishing read my first book Four Days and despite rejecting it for a local release, she asked me to send her whatever I wrote next. Figuring I had literally nothing to lose, I sent across the manuscript for The Student and that was that. I didn't formally submit anything. My entire pitch was 200 words long -- no cover letter -- and I sent the entire manuscript as an attachment. It was very informal. 

I don't think there's any real lesson for anyone in all this except that this could stand as a gentle reminder that we're not always the best critic of our own work. And that it's foolish to get to indebted to one mode of publishing. The idea that I nearly self-published the book because 'It's what I do' is something that keeps me up at night. It would have been a disaster. 

As for whether I'd go back to small press or self-publishing? I'm sure I'll be back at some point. I love writing. And putting your work out there -- however you can -- is part of writing.

I read Four Days, your first book, and really liked that, in part because you took your clear love of James Ellroy's books and used it to craft a book entirely your own, with your own feel and sound. With The Student I can see some Bret Easton Ellis influence, especially The Rules of Attraction, which you mentioned. But do you think your crime fiction influences came into play at all with this book? It sort of blends campus debauchery novel with a violent grimy crime novel sensibility and it makes for something tough but refreshing.

I still see a lot of Ellroy still popping up in this book. It's more White Jazz than LA Confidential this time round, is all. I'm not sure I'm ever going to outrun his influence. That said, I'm a bit Ellis fan too and I definitely reached for Rules of Attraction when I was planning the novel. I really like how he wrote the teenagers in that book, especially their lack of empathy -- or more generously, their underdeveloped empathy. Which is something I see all the time working with teenagers. Even as a late teen, you're not really set up to process the full spectrum of adult situations yet. In fact, that's kinda what becoming an adult is all about. The links between the two -- between Ellis and Ellroy -- are also not as far apart as you'd imagine. They're both deeply invested in how various elites perpetuate and profit from their sociopathy, be it the nameless bad men of American Tabloid or the despondent rich kids of Less Than Zero.

I never thought of them as linked, not even thematically, but that's a really good point. 

It's a awhile since you've been in college, so in portraying teens and college students, did you draw upon memories primarily or what you observe in college age students now or a combination of the two? And how much of yourself, if anything, did you throw in the mix? I assume you had your share of fun and excess in college.

I think that's it exactly. Nate is a combination of what I remember from that period of my own life combined with the young people I teach. The naivety about the world comes from me. The almost-Stoic self-determination of Nate is more from my students. No one ever really comments on this but late-teens are pretty hard-boiled. I've taught lots of young men and women who view the world as one giant bureaucratic system obstructing them (ala the 'mean streets' of crime fiction). And they don't ask for help. In the novel I put together a fairly detailed subplot as to why Nate doesn't just call the cops but I'm not sure I needed to go to that effort. Anyone who teaches has met that kid that won't ever ask for help, no matter the situation. Nate's one of those. 

As to my own hedonism, all I can say is that when you *really* think back to that moment in your life, you realize it just is a more hedonistic moment. Maybe not you, specifically, but your friends and such. University students don't behave like adults. They just don't. Most 40 year olds don't experiment with new drugs, sleep with strangers and forego any responsibility at whim but this is not overly excessive behavior for a young university student.

What do you have in the works next? Will you be going back to straight crime and dirty cops, or do you have plans to branch out, as with The Student, in yet another direction?

I'm working on another novel. I'm not going back to straight-up crime/detective fiction yet but I'm still firmly working within the genre. Part of me desperately wants to return to the warm confines of straight-up police procedural / detective fiction but my current publisher is really supportive and while I have that support, I want to turn in work that is slightly more adventurous. That said, the crime fiction scene -- even at the trade/commercial level -- is really opening up. I mean, I'm writing this stuff and looking to Megan Abbott's hard-boiled gymnasts and Sarah Gran's Clare Dewitt and Gillian Flynn's multiple POVs and such. I'm not sure I'm capable of a cop novel that can cut it with these people in the mix.

Ha, yeah.  It's always good to be pushed though, right?  Anyway, I'll be looking forward to whatever you have coming next.  

You can pick up The Student on Amazon right here.

1 comment:

Kristopher said...

Thanks for the heads-up on this novel, Scott. I just ordered it.