Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Chris Irvin on RAGGED

Chris Irvin has a new book out, and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. I have to say, though: it's not what I expected from him after his first three books. With Federales, Burn Cards, and the short story collection Safe Inside the Violence, Chris primarily stuck to crime-centered narratives, with the emphasis on character more than action.  Still, if my memory hasn't deceived me, all the characters in his two novellas and the collection were human. Now, with Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All, Chris suddenly is writing about animals, living in a dense and vibrant woodland.  Huh?  And yet, without question, Ragged is vintage Irvin, with all his wonderfully modulated storytelling skills intact, and the characters - dogs, badgers, toads, raccoons, bears - are just as compelling as the people in his fictional universe.

But enough. Let's get to the talk Chris and I had.

SCOTT ADLERBERG: By pretty much any stretch, Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All represents something new for you. Your two novellas, Federales and Burn Cards, and most of the stories in your collection, Safe Inside the Violence, work within the tradition of literary realism. Crime of course often plays a part, but the emphasis is on character and motivation and the social conditions surrounding the characters. The novellas and the stories are meticulously crafted and full of precise detail. What I found fascinating, or one thing I found fascinating, about Ragged is how you take all these things and develop them fully in an anthropomorphic animal story. This story is as “realistic” as any you’ve written, but it’s within a fantasy context. Very simply, what prompted you to write this kind of story, which springs from a tradition entirely different than the one you’ve been following so far?

CHRIS IRVIN: Thank you for having me. I think it’s due to a few factors. Over the course of running the crowdfunding campaign for Wrestletown (an illustrated novel) last spring/summer 2016, I bought a cover from Matthew Revert. The cover—which is the cover for Ragged, however it had a placeholder title of “Cork Warrior”—had gone unused from one of Revert’s previous projects that went in a totally different direction. I’m a huge fan of Revert’s work, and when I first saw it I was totally taken by each element – the (to me) anthropomorphic dog, the light blue of the falling snow, the worn cover style, etc. I had no idea what I’d use it for, but I messaged him right away about purchasing it. The idea of an anthropomorphic dog (who would turn out to be Cal) ice fishing on a lake (a setting which would morph to a river) blossomed immediately, but I tried to bury it in the back of my head and focus on Wrestletown.

As things sometimes go, the situation with Wrestletown fell apart in August of 2016 after the publisher revamped their structure and terms, making the book unviable. The failure of the project hit pretty hard and I took a couple months off from writing. During that time Katie Eelman reached out regarding her plans with Kate Layte to form Cutlass Press. I’d gotten to know Katie and Kate through Papercuts J.P., my local book store. They were interested in reading Wrestletown, but I wasn’t ready to jump back into the book after the mess of the summer. Instead I offered up the idea that came to me from Revert’s cover – what about “Fargo meets Wind in the Willows?” They were hooked, but I had nothing aside from a rough outline in my head. I think I cranked out an outline in the following week or so, which led to a conversation around ‘how fast can I write this?’ and working back from an October 2017 release date, we made it happen.

I love crime fiction. When I started writing I was reading a lot of Lovecraft, which lead to reading and writing horror. It was a great way to meet a lot of fantastic writers around New England, but pretty soon I realized my “horror” was more “depressing” for lack of a better word, and noir/crime was where my heart was. This lead to becoming more involved with the crime/mystery community, and eventually reading/editing for Shotgun Honey. I loved my time with Shotgun Honey. The best part about it was it forced me to learn what was important to me as a reader/writer, and to push myself to write better. I wrote/spoke about this a lot with Safe Inside the Violence – because the word count is so short with Shotgun Honey (700) often violence took center stage from the first sentence or two. This pushed me to look elsewhere, to more of the effect violence has, or the threat of violence, more so than violence itself.

I once asked a friend of mine, who is a fantastic editor, why he didn’t write more himself. To paraphrase, he said he wasn’t sure what his voice had to add. I very much disagreed with him, but his answer has always stuck with me. With Richard Lange, Megan Abbott, William Boyle, Benjamin Whitmer, Frank Bill, Brian Panowich, etc., etc., etc. – what do I have to add? Hell, if I knew of Don Winslow at the time, I doubt I’d have written Federales. It’s intimidating in both a professional and personal sense. I think most writers/creatives block it out and try not to think about it. I’m not sure if it was a wholly conscious motivator with Ragged, but everything lined up at exactly the right moment. Right now, today, if I were to only write books set in this anthropomorphic world for the foreseeable future, I’d be perfectly happy.

You mentioned The Wind in the Willows.  That's a novel that comes to mind, no question, when reading Ragged.  Are there any other books of this type, anthropomorphic world books, that played a part in influencing your novel?

Yes, definitely. Beatrix Potter's stories and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows were some of my favorite books growing up. I still have a huge collection of Potter's stories and an abridged version of The Wind in the Willows from when I was young. My parents recently moved from the house where I spent the majority of my childhood, and as part of the move gave me all of my books that they still had. I reread most of Potter's stories and a more recent (and beautifully illustrated) version of The Wind in the Willows prior to writing Ragged to get in the mindset and establish the tone of the novel. I was surprised how well both stood the test of time (the UK had a big celebration last year for 150 years of Beatrix Potter).

Fantastic Mr. Fox, the film, was also a big inspiration. Roald Dahl's book is good as well, but it is very...plain, for lack of a better word. The book is much more focused, and Wes Anderson's development/expansion of these characters is what makes it an absolute favorite of mine.

There are many more bouncing around my head. Brian Jacques' Redwall series (which I wish I had gotten into more as a kid...I think I read the first two, and I plan to go back and read more of them soon). Blacksad, a great series of noir comics written by Juan Díaz Canales and illustrated by Juanjo Guarnido. Another more recent comic is Dan Abnett's Wild's End, illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard. I just read Watership Down for the first time, which I really enjoyed - though the anthropomorphism is very different from everything I've previously mentioned, including Ragged. The rabbits really are rabbits - it's stunning the amount of work Richard Adams put into researching the species and getting it right, while also developing their own language.

In terms of style, how did you approach this book? Your crime works to date have had, in my view, an understated, nuanced tone that I've found quite compelling.  Nothing whatsoever against pulp fiction and hard boiled fiction, but your stories and novellas don't read in these ways at all. Still, creating a woodland world of talking animals with human traits is something entirely different than portraying the menace of Mexican cartels or the life of a desperate hair salon worker pursued by thugs in Reno, Nevada. Did you approach language any differently for this book than you have for previous stories? 

I had so much fun writing Ragged. Okay, much of getting up early every day to write with a deadline looming made for a brutal slog at times, but, the characters made it a joy to return. Dialogue has always been a point of struggle for me. Perhaps this is why my writing tends to be more understated? I admire authors who can write wonderful conversations and long monologues. When I'd make an attempt, it always felt unnecessary, or wrong in someway.

But with Ragged, I found it incredibly freeing to write dialogue. These are anthropomorphic animals! If you, dear reader, have bought into a curmudgeon of a badger in a wrinkled suit who puts dirt in his coffee, and a valiant toad who wears layers of winter clothing in the fall and carries around a spear gun, you're along for the ride. I had a blast developing the characters' personalities - they are what make this book so special to me. I really took the aforementioned favorites to heart as inspiration to push me and really stretch as a writer - Mr. Toad drives cars! (albeit terribly) Foxes steal chickens with socks over their heads for masks and have a dance party in a super market! Once I had my head around the 'rules' and world of Ragged - the Woods, the Fells - almost anything felt possible.

Aside from dialogue, I tried to strike a balance of whimsy and darkness. There is a lot of melancholy, like my previous work, but I didn't want it to overwhelm, and my hope is the dry humor keeps things even throughout.

As you say, you pitched it as The Wind in the Willows meets Fargo, but the crime part to me felt a bit more classic style mystery than noir influenced. Which I liked actually and found refreshing. There's a killing committed in a crowded, indoor, self-contained place with a lot of potential suspects there, and for a bit the book becomes a whodunnit with Cal, your lead character, in the role of detective.  It's a sequence perfectly integrated into the plot as a whole and leads directly to the novel's denouement. Just wondering if that sequence was planned from the start or you came to it through the writing. It seemed like you were having fun and perhaps giving a nod to that type of classic mystery story?

I wish! Well, I was at least having fun. Let me walk you through some of my thought process. I love your examination of that part of the novel. I knew from the beginning that a large part of the book would be a mystery (which became plural) though the reader was in on a couple. Cal was going to fill that role of detective. Without getting into spoilers - he's a flawed hero whose goal(s) clash in some ways with those of the community. The more I wrote and the more I developed characters around him, the story became larger than Cal. Yes, it is Cal and his family's story, and he is an active protagonist propelling the narrative forward, but I think it's even moreso the community's story. You see these mysteries and their effects through all of them. The sequence you mention - I was very conscious of Cal's role, what he was attempting to do on his own, and the confrontations that would ensue (apologies for being terribly vague and non-spoilery.) I do have a lot of nods in the book, but I'm not sure this is intentionally one of them.

Not sure, you say? Well, Scott, since you asked...since a few years ago when I really started reading authors' individual short story collections, I've become really interested in style/theme/etc. writers produce subconsciously. It wasn't until I pulled stories together for Safe Inside the Violence that I recognized the undertones of melancholy and anxiety through a lot of my work. That I often wrote about relationships between close family members (mother/son, sisters, brothers, father/son). I've heard similar tales from other authors.

I think a lot about writing, what I'm going to write, etc. before I write. When I'm actually writing, it's very early in the morning with a lot of coffee, and I'm trying to think as little as possible - just let the story out and get words down. If I think too much I get tripped up around sentence structure, or this, or that. Then when I'm editing I try and wrap my head around everything again - ask all the questions, where was I going and why. I learn a lot while editing - and to be honest, from readers and their take-aways. You never know what a reader will see in a work.

I recently read Watership Down for the first time, and I was struck by Richard Adams' introduction. I'm not sure which edition it was first included in (the introduction is not dated) but the final paragraph reads:

"I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story of rabbits made up and told in the car."

This may have been his conscious intention, but no way, with all his research and time spent with the book, is the book that simple. I think (and hope) that holds true for most art.

As far as conscious intention or not: This certainly is a book that deals with fatherhood, parenthood in general in fact, and I was wondering how much you were thinking about that when you started the story. Cal has two boys, both young, and everything in Ragged having to do with the boys, their interactions with each other and with Cal, struck me as dead on. This is spoken from someone who's had experience raising two boys.  I've felt as a parent that now's the time to write a book with kids in it because after all they're right there with you every day, in all their complexity, and you don't have to strain to write kids realistically and with depth.  It's not just your own kids you see a lot of either. You see their friends and rivals and everybody else from whatever school they go to. If you're paying attention, you're fairly immersed in kids world, and there's so much material there that won't be there some years from now.

Yes, very much so. In fact, Gus and Franklin are named after my own sons, George (5) and Fred (2) - though I reversed it for the book, with Franklin being the older of the two. I totally agree with your assessment on writing and parenting - I'm entirely immersed in their world, their joys and sorrows. My wife and I just put them both down for the night and Fred's kicking around in his crib as I type. "It goes by so fast" has to hold more truth than any other cliché. It's been told to me countless times by other parents, and now I find myself telling people because it is so true. My experience as a father, my relationships with my boys (and my wife) inform a lot of the book. I'm happy that I was able to write Ragged in the moment.

So you said you'd be happy to keep exploring this anthropomorphic world for awhile. Are you working on a follow up to Ragged now, or something else?

I have a novella outlined featuring GW's cousin, Figg. He's a mustachioed toad - former bare knuckled boxer turned cranberry bog farmer and distillery owner. He gets into a bit of a pickle and...well, I'll save the rest for now, but it's a fun little adventure. I'm hoping to finish it by the end of the year. After that, I want to write a follow-up to Ragged that takes one of the characters and puts them in a sort of Edwardian London-esque city...with cults and all that dark jazz. I'm really excited about it, and I hope I can pull it together next year.

Any story about a mustachioed toad who's a former bare knuckled boxer sounds irresistable to me.  I'll be looking forward to both books.

You can get Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All right here.

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