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Josh Ritter: The Interview

Josh RitterJosh Ritter is best known for his music — in 2006, he was named one of the "100 Greatest Living Songwriters" by Paste magazine, and his 2010 album, So Runs the World Away, was chosen as one of the top 10 albums of the year by NPR's Bob Boilen. Now, his first novel, Bright's Passage, is gathering great reviews, as well. Wesley Stace raved:

A perfect marriage of the miraculous and the mundane, Bright's Passage is itself something of a miracle. Combining the pull of a big ballad and the intimacy of a whispered monologue, it satisfies on every level: from its deceptively casual style and unexpected coinages to its astute psychology and emotional power.

Bright's Passage is the story of Henry Bright, a young World War I veteran who has returned to his home in Applalachia, gotten married, and soon has a newborn son to take care of alone. He's also attracted the attention of an angel, who frequently speaks to him through his horse (I know how that sounds — but it works). The angel saved his life in the war and now is giving him directions for his future, because Henry and his baby are being pursued by a formidable colonel and his sociopathic sons. This unusual debut novel is poetic, darkly funny, and altogether unique. As Dennis Lehane notes, "Josh Ritter is already one of the country's most accomplished songwriters. Based on the heartbreaking, luminous Bright's Passage, he may become one of our most accomplished novelists as well."

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Jill Owens: How did Bright's Passage begin? It's such an unusual story, but it feels very seamlessly executed.

Josh Ritter: It came about at the end of writing the songs for my last record, So Runs the World Away. It was something I told myself I was going to try when the time was right. I've been saying blithely for years that a good song could be unfolded or fleshed out into a novel. But I truly believe that.I've been saying blithely for years that a good song could be unfolded or fleshed out into a novel. But I truly believe that. There's something about the feeling of the song or what's being said — there's so much there that can be expanded. You could look at a song as an envelope, and the letter inside being the story. I think that's what we do when we write a song or when we listen to a song. Especially when I'm listening to a song of someone else's, I find that I'm adding in the details that aren't specifically there. The stuff that's implied is really important to me.

So Bright's Passage was the idea of taking a song, which was the bones of a story, and fleshing it out, really trying to unfold the bigger story from the inside of the song.

Jill: Have you always written fiction?

Ritter: No. In its longer form, I haven't, but I've always been attracted to stories, jokes, or anything with some kind of narrative in it. And I've always thought of narrative with my songs, as well. Whether they deal with a single incident or a longer sort of narrative arc, there's always a way of telling the story that's in there. When you think of Cole Porter or Macy Gray, for example, they're creating stories, songs as stories.

Jill: How did you think about the structure of this book? There are alternating chapters between the past and the present, and then also alternating perspectives between the Colonel and Bright.

Ritter: It was really important for me to feel that the narrative was moving forward in a way that causes a little bit of unease and a little bit of mystery. I wanted the appearance of the angel as a character to come in here and there, over time, almost like annunciations. The angel is the one who decides to communicate. Bright never can summon the angel. It just kind of comes and goes. Like almost every other confusing situation in his life, you never know whether he creates it or he's being created by it.

I also wasn't satisfied with it as a straightforward narrative, because I don't feel like my life works like that. Most lives don't seem to work like that. They don't seem to be adding up to something big.I also wasn't satisfied with it as a straightforward narrative, because I don't feel like my life works like that. Most lives don't seem to work like that. They don't seem to be adding up to something big. There are a number of decisions that you make over time, and you base them on your own memories and your own experiences and your own fears. I wanted it to be unsettling in that way.

With the Colonel, I was almost trying to make him as much of a potential figment of Bright's imagination as the angel. I wouldn't say that the angel was a figment, necessarily, but...

Jill: It's ambiguous.

Ritter: Right. Maybe these scenes involving the Colonel were Bright's imagination of how he must be. Who knows if the Colonel was really, truly as evil as he seemed?

I also felt like I wanted there to be some humor.

Jill: Yes. You described the novel as a comedy, but it is a very dark one. I was wondering how you thought about that humor, and tone in general.

Ritter: It was very important to me that Bright should never seem stupid. I wanted him to seem genuinely confused, but not dumb. I feel like a lot of writing about rural characters makes them out to be stupid, which is something I am really strongly against. I wanted Bright to be up against the wall of his understanding. His capacity for figuring things out might be different than other people's, but he was genuinely just trying to figure out life and what was going on. What happened to him in the war? What was he going to do with this baby? All these things.

Jill: Having had no experience with those things beforehand.

Ritter: Yes. But that didn't make him dumb. I wanted the narration to be as clear as I could, so that when Bright talks to the angel or when the other characters come in, there isn't an extra narrative commenting on all this stuff.

Jill: The rural aspects of life and the farming parts were particularly vivid. I know you grew up in Idaho; did you have a rural background growing up at all?

Ritter: Yes, definitely. We lived quite a ways out of town, in the woods, basically. My dad was trained as a veterinarian. My folks are both researchers at a veterinary hospital. One of my very first memories was seeing the chickens that the coyotes had gotten into one day. That was the first real violence I'd seen, when I was maybe four, and it's one of my first memories. I've often thought about that moment.

The rural action in the book was very close to me. The time period, World War I, was important, too. It's this moment in American and world history which feels a little bit like the rural setting itself. Especially because we came into the war late, I don't think anybody had any idea of how absolutely absurd the war was. Technologically, it had totally escaped human control. And Bright was living in this rural area in West Virginia, but also getting close to the kind of encroaching cities of the east coast. He was geographically on the edge of modern life, just as the war was historically on the edge of modern life.

Jill: Why did you want to write about war, and World War I in particular?

Ritter: That war just kept drawing me to it. I didn't know anything about it. I knew that there was a war that happened before the Second World War, but it's so downplayed and really not discussed very much in U.S. history because we came into it quite late. We didn't really want to be there. Wilson had to convince people that going to war was necessary. Then there were the ideas that led up to that time, including the Victorian era and all these great ideas of advancing through technology and human science and psychology. There was decay of the monarchies of all of Europe. All these different things were happening, and it seemed like this incredible moment before the cataract, before everything was washed over the edge.

There was a book that especially got me interested. Sometimes if I'm traveling and I see books in hotels, where they have them down in the lobby against the fake fireplace, I will take them. I'll just steal them. [Laughter]

I picked up one called The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman. That book has been so, so important to me. So has her second book about the war, The Guns of August. They're really beautiful books about that time period.

And, you know, Frank Buckles just died. He was our last veteran of the First World War. It's an amazing period to learn about, because everything from the Israel/Palestinian conflict now to Iraq, to Iran, to the war in Afghanistan, all comes back to the First World War. It's an amazing period.

Jill: What kind of research did you have to do for the book?

Ritter: I thought about something that Neal Stephenson said, which I think is great and helped me feel a little bit better about diving into something without knowing it necessarily all the way through. He said that he does research that is good for a novelist. You wouldn't necessarily be satisfied with it if you were a PhD candidate. But I like that idea. Sometimes reading widely is better than reading deeply when it comes to fiction, whether it's songs or novels.

One of the great things about researching the First World War is that there were so many soldiers that came back and wrote autobiographies. There are hundreds of autobiographies. It was almost like suddenly people were aware of themselves. People were aware that even if they were from a little tiny town in Cornwall, they could write about it, and it was important, and that people needed to hear about what they were going to say. So, there were lots of these books that were great fun to pore through.

Jill: The level of detail in the imagery is gorgeous.

Ritter: The details that I was trying to pick up mostly were ones that I felt like Bright would notice. I always wanted to start with Bright looking at blankness, like looking at a blank wall, or being drawn to these patches of emptiness. I didn't really know why, but I thought it was important for him, as this very self-contained person. He's potentially the type of guy that was lonely but would never have thought about himself as lonely.

I wanted everything he saw to be something that kind of popped out at him. There were more things that he would see in an instant than the scope of his own life, leading forward or backward. I guess, mostly, I just wanted things that would pop out. He would be attracted to the whiteness of the church or a patch of white wall or a patch of empty sky. That was so that the details would always sing out a little bit more.

Jill: The relationship that Bright has with the angel is fascinating. As you mentioned, there's the suggestion that it could be his imagination. But the angel as a character is unusual because he saved Bright's life, but also he can be petty and taunting and mocking and lustful.

Ritter: Exactly. His character was my favorite part to write about. First of all, I think the biggest tension in the book is about whether the angel is even an angel at all. If he's not an angel, is he a devil or is he a complete figment of Bright's imagination? He seems so completely fickle in every way. He's very human and a real trickster. All those things were so much fun and so entertaining to write, I got to be less and less concerned with whether the book ever explained what he was.

I guess, to me, that feels like it's always true with religion. In whatever religion, there are always angels like that. No matter how hard we try to clean it up, there are always these beings that come in and tell somebody to do something crazy and then go away. Angels sometimes come in dreams, sometimes they're up in the sky, or sometimes they're just a voice in the dark. I like all those ideas. To me, it seems like they're the only real constant in religion. If we try to nail it down to say, "Well, this is actually an angel talking to Bright," for me it takes away some of the mystery. Maybe Bright's just trying to figure out things. Maybe that's Bright's stress, like a form of PTSD, and that's the only way that he's learning how to deal with this new life.

Jill: And navigate through the world.

Ritter: Yes.

Jill: I like the idea of beings that just don't fit into any particular role in religion, that come in and act like chaotic agents.

Ritter: The annunciation, for example. That's hardly a good thing for a young girl to hear. Or angels with burning swords, or angels killing the firstborn of everybody in an entire country. I never think of those things as good.The annunciation, for example. That's hardly a good thing for a young girl to hear. Or angels with burning swords, or angels killing the firstborn of everybody in an entire country. I never think of those things as good. But we also generally don't see them as humorous in any way. They never seem like a character like Mercury, with winged heels, who does have a relationship with humor.

Jill: Or Loki. Trickster gods.

Ritter: Yes.

Jill: You've mentioned Flannery O'Connor as an author who you really love. I can see that in what we're talking about, that intersection of religion and craziness and humor.

Who are some of your other influences?

Ritter: Especially with Flannery O'Connor, what I really like and look up to is her ability to write certain characters with this look in their eye. It's a look like they're trying to figure out a jigsaw puzzle on their own, and no one's there to help them. They're just trying to figure it out. I like that. I also really love the way she makes characters very obviously fictional — they are people that still do stuff that we would do, but they just do it in larger ways. I really like that. Her writing seems so grounded in actually human things but is also so interesting and strange. Her characters seem touched with something strange.

For that same reason, I really love the Scottish writer Muriel Spark. She's one of my all time favorites. She can write these characters that have so much meanness in them, and so much funny, bitter acid. You just get the feeling of both of those authors sitting up in their rooms and just laughing. The joy of burning stuff down is so exciting. And they work in very short forms. There are these very short novels of Muriel Spark, and O'Connor's Wise Blood is also quite short. I love the bits of unreality that seep into each one of them even though they're fairly simple things.

Jill: How do you think about your actual prose? A couple reviews called it "lyrical," which makes sense given your music.

Ritter: When I first started this book, I had this intense feeling of relief. Partially, it was because I was done with a record that I'd been taking a really long time to work on. And suddenly here was this thing that I could write, and I didn't have to rhyme anything. That was amazing. I already had the story in my head, at least I thought I did; it did change. But I had this chance to basically turn on a fire hose, and I blazed through writing it in two months.

Then I took some time and came back and realized that it was actually going to be exactly like song writing after all. [Laughter] You have to say what you want to say in as few words as possible, and every single word has the capacity from day to day to either make you feel like you just went to the beach or make you feel like you squandered everything that anyone has ever given you.

It all happens on its own in your head. So, I started off with the initial idea that it was a different kind of writing, and then I realized it's about every single word being right. That's how I had to come back to it, to be happy with it again, was to narrow things down and whittle away stuff. I was always trying to say things in a way that people can relate to, but maybe they hadn't thought about it in that exact same way before.

With songs, I think your job is to be an engine that creates new aphorisms that maybe one day will become clichés, if you're lucky. You're creating single phrases or ways to think about things that people can use in their own lives. That's why I love music and literature. Somebody has given me new ways to think about things. That's the most fun part about writing for me.

Jill: How was working with your editor, Noah Eaker, who's getting a bit of fame now for being Téa Obreht's editor?

Ritter: I love Noah. I met a bunch of different people early on and Noah, to me, was the most like somebody I would work with in music. I really think that a lot of what an editor does is how a producer works with music. That is, at least in my conception, they read what you do or they listen to what you do and they pose problems for you to solve. That's what Noah did. He was young; he was my age, and he was ambitious and eagle-eyed. It was amazing. Right up until the very last minute, we were working together on bits and pieces of stuff. He's tremendous. He's just a tremendous guy to work with.

Jill: It sounds like an excellent match.

When we had dinner at Book Expo this spring, you mentioned Bruce Springsteen came to one of your shows, and then you hung out with him afterwards, and that was a highlight for you in your musical career.

Ritter: Yes.

Jill: What would be a similar high point on the book tour? Who would be in the audience at one of your readings?

Ritter: Wow. Well, right now I'll be excited if anybody comes! [Laughter] I'd be thrilled if they do. I'll also be terrified if they do. I really have begun to believe that the difference between singing and reading is that when I sing, I have a guitar covering up most of my vital organs. [Laughter]

But with this whole project, and the book tour, I started the book for the newness of the experience and for the nerves that I knew that it would give me and to be less than assured. I'm hoping that anybody that comes to a reading will know that it's a brand new thing that I'm really excited about.

I'm excited to be able to read, too, because so much of what I do is about performing and it gets its fuel from performing. I always thought that the best part about music for me, my very favorite moment, is the chance to play a new song for somebody. I get that feeling of whipping the sheet off the statue.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Bright's Passage
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. The Proud Tower: A Protrait of the...
    Used Trade Paper $10.00
  3. Wise Blood
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. The Guns of August
    Used Trade Paper $9.50

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