Patrick Ryan Meets C.B. James

Patrick Ryan is the author of a terrific first novel called Send Me. He also writes young adult fiction under the name P.E. Ryan. His first YA novel is Saints of Augustine. I’ll be listing it as one of my favorite reads for 2008 later this month.  Both novels deal with families in crisis and take place in Florida. I can highly recommend each one. I’m very pleased to say that Mr. Ryan agreed to an interview with me.

I was very pleased to get an email from you. I did not have much luck tracking your email down via Google or the Harper websites. How did you find out that I wanted to do an interview with you?

A good friend of mine who keeps up with many great websites saw that you’d liked Saints of Augustine, and that you were interested in getting in touch with me. Being a fiction writer, I jumped at the chance for any kind of attention; we so seldom get any!

I see by the Send Me book jacket that we are basically contemporaries. When I was in high school there was a YA book, Trying Hard to Hear You that ‘went around’ for a year or so. It’s about two boys who fall in love. I remember stealing it from the school library so no one would know I was reading it. I later returned it, secretly of course. Can you list any YA books that inspired you to write Saints of Augustine or any that you read as a teenager that are near-and-dear to you?

I read junk in high school. Pure junk. I read, for example, the novelization of Cannonball Run (no joke). The book that had the most profound impact on me isn’t a YA novel but is about a teenager: Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. The only other book I’d read about a gay person was The Front Runner. I discovered A Boy’s Own Story in the library when I was a freshman at Florida State. Like you, I was afraid to check it out. I was also afraid to be seen reading it, so I read the entire novel in a stall in the men’s room. That same year, I performed my one and only act of censorship by dropping The Anita Bryant Story through the gap between the elevator and the shaft. It’s probably still down there.

S.E. Hinton, M.E. Kerr, P.E. Ryan. Any connection? Why did you decide to publish you young adult novel Saints of Augustine under a pen-name?

No connection, just coincidence. My middle name is Eugene. And it wasn’t an attempt at secrecy; the jacket of Saints says “also writes under the name Patrick Ryan.” I used a variation of my name because just to distinguish the different genres I was writing in. (Send Me being a book for “grown ups”). To me, the two different names also convey that I haven’t switched tracks but have two tracks going.

I found both Saints of Augustine and Send Me hit very close to home for me emotionally. Which one hits closest to home for you?

Send Me. In part because some of the scaffolding of that book is autobiographical (not the events, but the setting and some of the dynamics). The great amount of miscommunication that goes on in most families fascinates me. So much sadness among the humor, and vice-versa. There are several moments in Send Me that still completely hit me in the gut. Interestingly, they’re all moments of pure invention and not an echo of anything that ever happened to me.

I’m interested in the structure of Send Me. It’s written almost as a series of stand alone short stories and arranged in a non-chronological order. Why did you choose this structure? What advantages and challenges did it present?

I had the idea of that family, and I knew I wanted to cover roughly forty years in their lives. From the start, I didn’t see the end product as a conventional novel but, as you say, a series of stand-alone stories that interweave. Put the overall story in chronological order and it becomes far less interesting to me (there’s not much of an “arc”). Tell it out of order and it becomes a kind of mystery: the information begins to feel like clues to a puzzle.

I thought that if I were ever fortunate enough to have someone want to publish it, my editor would immediately tell me to put the chapters back in chronological order, but my editor got what I was going for right away. We tried out many different structures, and each time it felt like a different book. That was the fun part: moving the pieces around and seeing the results.

Both of your novels have shifting points of view so the reader comes to know several characters intimately. I list this as a strength for each, but it also makes it difficult to locate the author. Are you present in either book? Is there a character that is based on you more than the others are?

In Send Me, Joe is pretty much me (although I don’t have a younger brother and I never stalked a trapeze artist). As for the teenagers in Saints—and in my upcoming, second YA—I just try to get as intimate as possible. Whether writing in the first-person or third-, I try to get inside the head of the character as much as I can.

I’m revising a new novel right now, and the entire thing is told in the third-person from one character’s point of view. Everything she says, sees, registers, and contemplates is the product of her quirks and mannerisms. So I don’t feel like I’m there at all! In fact, it almost feels to me as if there isn’t a narrator; there’s just the rendering of her experience through the filter that is her, while it’s happening.

You’ve said elsewhere that you wrote Saints of Augustine as a break from more serious work after finishing Send Me. This surprised me, because I think Saints of Augustine is terrific, one of the better young adult novels to come along in a while, certainly one of the best gay themed young adult novels in some time. Can we expect more YA lit from you?

Thank you! When I wrote Saints, I was thinking that, at that moment, I didn’t want to write about divorce and adult drama and parenting—even though all those things ended up being in of the novel. I wanted to write about being a teen and being fraught with insecurity (Sam), and I wanted to write about a pothead jock who is screwing up his life in the wake of a heavy burden (Charlie). So it didn’t end up the “light” fare I had at first envisioned. What I concluded is that life is tough for everyone, all the time. And the good moments almost never come when you’re expecting them, but out of the blue.

I have new YA novel coming out in February. It’s called In Mike We Trust, and it’s about a teen and the twin brother of his deceased dad. He and his uncle form a fragile bond and embark on a series of fake charity scams, while the uncle helps him come to terms with his sexuality. It’s set in Richmond, VA, where I lived for eight years, and it has—I hope—some pretty funny stuff in it.

I re-read Saints of Augustine to prepare these questions and couldn’t help noticing several parallels with Send Me. The two books share a setting, true, but I found a few deeper parallels. For instance, Charlie, in Saints, takes care of his father much like Matt does in Send Me. Sam, in Saints, has to come out after his father does like Joe comes out after his brother Frankie in Send Me. Both characters are a little miffed that someone else in their family got there first. Both books feature a brother and sister living with their mother and her new “boyfriend.” Both end with a reconciliation through creation. In Send Me, Frankie draws a portrait of his mother that she finds beautiful, while in Saints, Sam writes an email to Justin that he hopes will win back Justin’s heart. I also noticed that the last word in Saints of Augustine is Send with an upper case S. I felt that you might be trying to give some of the character s in Send Me a happier ending. Were you consciously reworking characters or themes of Send Me in Saints of Augustine? What connections do you see between the two novels?

I’m flattered by such a close reading. And this sort of thing is fascinating to me. You’re talking about themes, and I’ve always felt that theme, in a work of fiction, is something the reader should bring to the author, and not the other way around. As in, I once had a reader friend say to me, “You’re always writing about people suffering mild financial hardship; there’s a recurring theme of economic struggle?” And I responded, “I had no idea I did that. Maybe its because I’ve never had much money?” The themes regarding parenting, coming out, abandonment and the like happen organically. I think a writer tends to gravitate toward subject matter they’ve always found important on a deeply personal level.

I’ve never consciously reworked a character in a different incarnation, though I believe that happens. The ending of Saints echoing the title of Send Me is purely coincidental. But my partner, Fred, after rereading the galley of In Mike We Trust, pointed out similarities in all three books. And I think you could argue that my new novel—which I haven’t even handed in to my editor yet—grows from several seeds planted in Send Me.

Author Sherman Alexie, who published a young adult novel this year, has commented on how well he is doing as a YA author, getting awards, significant sales, and that friends of his have told him how sorry they are about this as though it’s a comment on his “real work”. How is P.E. Ryan doing when compared to Patrick Ryan?

Are you kidding? I have no idea! When you’ve gotten your first book accepted and it hasn’t come out yet, everyone you know asks, “How’s the book coming along?” After it comes out, they ask, “How is it selling?” I’ve never received a single sales report from either of my publishers and I think that’s a blessing. Basically, if Oprah or some national award hasn’t touched a novel, and if it doesn’t have a fantastical element, forget about making a splash (it happens, but it’s nothing to count on). And I don’t mean that in a cynical or disparaging way; I mean, it’s about nothing but the writing. It’s about enjoying the creation of the work, the revision of the work, the editing process, and the interest of the occasional reader. Patrick Ryan and P.E. Ryan can’t be in competition with each other. I’d never survive the battle!

I have a Basset Hound named Dakota who is regularly featured on my blog because she likes to eat books. So, I like to end each interview by asking if you have any pets and have any of them ever gone after your personal library?

Years ago, I had a dachshund who went berserk when the plumber came by, so I locked him in my study. Imprisoned, he devoured the spines of the bottom row of first-editions on my bookcase—including a James Baldwin. Now I have a hypnotically beautiful Abyssinian cat who isn’t interested in books but who likes to sit on manuscripts and kick her back legs until the pages are scattered and completely out of order. She can do this to 15 pages or 300. I watch her in awe. I used to think, if she scatters the pages, they’re junk; if she doesn’t, they’re worth keeping. But I had to give that measuring system up because she doesn’t discriminate—either that, or it’s all junk.
I’d like to thank Mr. Ryan for agreeing to this interview. I will be reviewing his new book, In Mike We Trust, just as soon as I can get a copy of it.
I first ran this interview on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008.