JC: I met Eric Rickstad a few weeks back, when he started following me on Twitter, believe it or not. I read his fantastically brutal book Reap something like a decade ago and, if you are into stories in the Tom Franklin – Poachers – Donald Pollack – Knockemstiff – Russell Banks – Affliction mode you ought to go ought and find a copy. When you read the County Fair scene you’ll be happy you did.

Here’s what Eric had to say about what turned him into a reader and writer.

When We Fell In Love – Eric Rickstad

I could make a good long list of crushes that come close to the real thing, but in the end rise only to the equivalent of steamy backseat makeout sessions. Writers who moved me in one way or another, that made me want to do what they did: stir readers with images conjured with words. It was magic. Mystery. The writers who strike me most don’t make me want to just keep reading them, they make me want to put their book down and write.

I could go back to Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World or Stephen King’s Night Shift, Poe or O’Connor’s collections. If you’d asked me in third grade, I suppose I would have said I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. The Great Brain. There were the serious affairs with Hemingway and Faulkner and Welty and the experimentations with Kesey and Vonneguet and Philip Dick, JG Ballard… the list is long. I’ve since fallen for Proulx and McCarthy and Deb Eisenberg. But, as Robert Hayden wrote in his poem “Those Winter Sundays”:What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?

When I truly fell in love with a writer I was in a beat up convertible 1970 VW Bug, primer gray, my sister’s boyfriend’s prize possession. It was the summer of 1978 and the writer was not a novelist, or a short story writer, or a poet. Not technically. Though his words resonated with more life and romance and tragedy and pain and moodiness than anything I’d ever read. His stories were the best I’d found, told with a conviction that reached me even at the age of 12. I fell in love with storytelling, and the urge to tell my own stories the second my sister’s boyfriend popped in the 8 track of Born to Run and I heard the first few notes of “Thunder Road” and then the lyrics

The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

I saw Mary. I saw her dress. I felt her aloneness. The narrator’s aloneness and desperation and sincerity. As the album continued, I felt the earnestness and vulnerability and fleetingness of youth and love and promises. I felt the hot sun and the dark nights. The complete freedom simply of driving with no place to go. The windows rolled down. I’d never yet even lived any of this myself. But the words, more than the music, reached me. The pain in them. The lust and sadness. The struggle. The triumph. The loss. I did not know then but I see now that album connected with me because of a sense of loss in myself, but also the need to search. My father had left my mom and three sisters and me when I was eight and that void was filled by Springsteen’s words somehow. I bought the album and I played it over and over and over again. And I’d crack it open, the jacket was one that opened, with the lyrics on the inside of the cover, and I’d read as I listened. Each song was a short story unto itself. They conjured vividly and concretely images that haunted me. I did not know who Springsteen was. I was too young to know about his stint on TIME and Newsweek  in the same week or of his carrying the mantle of Dylan. Hell I didn’t even know who Dylan was. But imagery like

Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain

Or

The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be

Or from the song “Backstreets”:

Remember all the movies, Terry we’d go see / Trying in vain to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be / When after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest…

they cut to the quick with the spare beauty and lyricism and simple truths.

For my money, no short story, not Joyce’s “Araby” or Updike’s “A&P” or Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”, or Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish“, sums up the moment of lost youth as succinctly, poignantly, or heartbreakingly.

No matter what other words a writer may use, how he or she may put it, the loss of youth comes at the moment of realizing we’re just like all the rest. It’s crushing. Staggeringly so. It makes one feel weak and small and disillusioned. To look around and recognize that all the ways you’ve tried to walk or talk or dress differently are in part what make you the same. You’re the same in the ways you try so hard to be someone you are not. And it is in vain.

I went on to get every album up till then. And I found in them all gems. In the following years, I’d go to sleep listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Nebraska” and “The River”.

Songs such as “Stolen Car”, “Atlantic City” and “Meeting Across the River” had all the economy of Hemingway, the American Gothicism of Flannery O’Connor, and the poignancy of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Much later, I learned in an interview Springsteen did with Walker Percy’s nephew in the magazine DoubleTake, that Springsteen was more influenced by novels and books than by other music. “Films and novels and books, more so than music, are what have really been driving me since then.” He’d steeped himself in the work of Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Steinbeck. These were all writers I’ve come to love. I guess I am predisposed to a certain kind of storyteller who is able to tell stories of violent and desperate and lonely people with a certain quiet lyricism. I try to do that in my own writing, my novels and short stories. When I am writing at my best, I don’t have to try. Springsteen’s stories were the first that made me want to do it, to write. To reach out that way. I’m sure there are many others who can say the same thing. The lyrics hold up today for me as much if not more than they did then.

Eric Rickstad Springsteen said in that DoubleTake interview, “Songwriting allows you to suggest the passage of time in just a couple of quiet beats. Years can go by in a few bars, whereas a writer will have to come up with a clever way of saying, ‘And then years went by. . . .’ Songwriting allows you to cheat tremendously. You can present an entire life in a few minutes.”

And that’s what he does best, as well as any novelist. He presents entire lives in a few minutes.

I think he has it wrong though. He never cheated anyone with his storytelling.

Bio: Eric Rickstad is the author of the novel Reap, a New York Times Notable Book first published by Viking/Penguin. His short stories and articles appear in many magazines. His latest novel Found is forthcoming in 2011.

DH: Derek, thanks for answering my questions about your collection, New World Order, published by Autumn Press. I wondered if you realize how rare it is to find a writer who is interested in what his characters do for a living.

Most of your characters either work for big global corporations or are freelancers living abroad. The nature of their work is often critical to the story.

Why did you choose a focus on corporate types abroad? What about such characters do you find interesting? I’m asking because so many writers find business executives uninteresting. So I am wondering what you see in them.

DG: Thanks for the questions, Dennis.  I agree with your point that not too many fiction writers seem interested in what people do for a living.  This is curious, to me at least, because what people do for a living is so integral to their concept of self and the place they hold in the world.  This isn’t superficial either—who we are is deeply influenced by what we do.  So I think it’s an important facet in telling stories, especially character-based ones.

There were two main reasons I decided to focus on corporate expats.  The first is sort of mundane: I had spend several years as a consultant on the international circuit.  So it was a world I kind of knew.

More interestingly, though, I think the use of these characters allowed for a certain kind of dramatic contrast:  business executive as a group are generally confident—often to a fault.  Placing them in unfamiliar territory where they don’t fully understand (or misunderstand) the rules of the road creates what I like to think of as story conditions.  To link these characters and stories, I invented an only-in-America company called Mason Worldwide.  It’s sort of Halliburton, if Halliburton is as evil as a lot of people think it is.

Thematically, New World Order is partly about how we as Americans thought the new century would unfold and how it actually has, since 9/11.  So much of what we as a people are all about has to do with commerce and trade and economic might.  It sort of defines our place in the world.  But suddenly it all looks a lot more shaky than we had believed.  So the company and the people it touches provided a world for these types of stories to take place.

DH: One of the most admirable features of your stories is that you are always thrusting your characters out of their comfort zones. Sometimes the discomfort is subtle, like in ‘Cultural Awareness’ where a hot shot, young male executive has his complacency overturned by a female corporate trainer. Or it can involve life-threatening  risk like in the aptly named ‘Blood Money’ where a lark by some friends into the desert results in an unexpected horror show of cultural differences. You’re a very “physical” writer. Something that JE would endorse. You throw your characters bodily into the soup and you have the writer’s toolbox to do so convincingly.

It gives your writing a very distinctive character. What accounts for this, I wonder? Are you a big sports fan? Are you stimulated by physical risk? I was thinking in this connection that your stories would make a great recommendation for a “guys” read…maybe even the sort of adventure stories that teenage boys would love.

DG: Thanks for the compliments!  To take your points in order: breaking point…

For me the point of fiction is revelation of character.  One good way to really see what people are made of is to see how they respond to situations of unrelenting, escalating stress—which is what a story is at its base.

Travel provides a perfect pressure cooker for character.  Sometimes the character learns he’s not what as tough as he though—as in Cultural Awareness.  Or in Blood Money, where a miscalculation by hardened expats leads to disastrous results.

The stories are physical—stuff happens.  This is partly just the way I write.  I believe stories are about character and it’s through action that character is best understood.  We are what we do not what we say….

But there’s another level to this.   I think the stories reflect a sort of physicality that is particularly American.  Americans do things.   This can sometimes be unfortunate—a shoot first and ask questions later issue.  But Americans are doers.  And so this for me needed to be a major part of the book.  In the novel I’m writing, this physical dimension will be even more important.

DH: Several of your stories feature encounters with uncanny or supernatural elements. In one story of corporate revenge, voodoo plays a role. In another  story, there’s a strange native character whose drawings appear to foretell the future. I had several takes on your sometime affinity for the weird.

Your characters are coping with life abroad, with cultures where their understanding of what’s going on is fragmentary. So it’s not surprising that they would react to the impact of myth and folklore in such alien surroundings. Your characters are uprooted and grasping at straws.

But these folkloric elements also remind me of the colonial literature of several generations back. I appreciated the links to older writers on the exotic like Kipling and W. H. Hudson. Does the older literature about Americans abroad interest you? Why the occasional spookiness in your stories? What do you like about it?

DG: I definitely wanted to have at least a whiff of the supernatural in these stories and I think that’s partly because I just find those stories a little more interesting than straight realist stories.  It’s just too tempting when you’re placing a character in another culture—especially one like Latin America, which has a powerful tradition of the supernatural.

You’re very perceptive, by the way, to point toward slightly older writers, too.  In my case, the immediate influences were H.H. Munro, aka “Saki,” and Roald Dahl. Paul Bowels, too, though he’s not so much a writer of the supernatural as the simply plain horrific!  All, by the way, wrote about strangers in strange lands quite a bit….

DH: Derek, when I was thinking about what I liked about New World Order, I came up with two vital basics. First, having started one of your stories, the reader wants to read it to the end. I never for a second wanted to lay one of your tales aside and not find out what happens.

The second basic is virtually uncanny. It is that you have a knack for presenting your characters to the reader swiftly, so that they immediately have a sense of who the character is, as if they had just met them. That’s real writing magic.

As far as I can tell, it’s not done so much with description, which can be static, but by presenting your characters situationally…so we grasp who the person is by visualizing their setting and by what they are doing.

Where does this writer’s magic come from? Silly question, right? It seems to me that writers are born with the talent to tell a story. You can train for it but you have to be built to do it in the first place. I know you’ve taught a writing course or two. So what is your take on what makes a writer and also…would you like to tell us what you are working on now? And thanks, Derek, for some great storytelling with such memorable characters.

DG: Well, thanks again, Dennis.  I do believe there’s a certain magic to stories but not much magic to writing them.  You just have to work at learning the basics of what a story is—and there are a surprisingly large number of writers, even very good ones— who really don’t seem to understand story-telling.  Or they understand it and are simply interested in something else—language or some other important aspect of writing that isn’t story telling.

In other words, story-writing is a craft.  I’m  not saying I am a master craftsman myself—just that stories have certain features and if you understand them, writing stories is something that is within reach.

I think you hit the nail on the head for what I am trying to do anyway—which is to place a certain type of character into a certain type of situation.  When this person acts, you get an immediate sense of what she is made of—and you enter the land of story.  Of course the, character then encounters more difficulty—the situation escalates, the stakes rise.  And the reader wants to know what happens next.

There’s a lot of discussion about character- or plot-driven fiction  but I think that’s mostly nonsense.  Character is plot, in dramatic fiction. So, you get a character capable of action a bad situation, and there’s a certain logic that unfolds and the logic result in a story.  And it really is magic once it’s done!

Thanks again Dennis and look forward to more conversations about writing!