review + interview /// Hunters & Gamblers by Ryan Ridge

Posted By jatyler - 26th July 2011

Hunters & Gamblers is a collection of stories and a novella, but it is also more than that. It is the mixture of suburban life with urban trappings, of writing about relationships and writing about coke, of war scenes and sex with centaurs. The craft here is high-quality and wicked smart, but this mixing makes Hunters & Gamblers feel like so much more than just a collection of stories. So let’s begin with that big question: what exactly is this book, and what does it mean to you?

Hunters & Gamblers is a collection of 24 fictions I wrote over a five-year period (from the spring of 2005 to the spring of 2010). I’d amassed a decent amount of material during this time, about 300 pages worth of finished pieces, but the first thing I did when I decided to arrange the pieces into a manuscript was to trim the thing down to a couple hundred pages (which Brian Allen Carr and I later pared down to 125 pages). Originally, I cut anything that didn’t work thematically and as I started to assemble the manuscript I noticed several strands running through the works: bankruptcy; war; the idea of masculinity and the relationships between men (fathers and sons, brothers, soldiers); and place (more specifically geography). Much of the book’s sensibility is derived from those dark days of the second Bush administration. When I was writing book then I woke up most days expecting an apocalypse by the afternoon. That sense of dread and paranoia worked its way into much of the collection, but I tried to counter that fear and loathing with humor and love. When I look at the book now I realize I’m a bit of a dark fuck, but I’m ultimately optimistic about our endeavor and I think that’s reflected in the stories. The book is about America––all of the various Americas (real and imagined, historical and hysterical) overlapping. It’s also about human hearts burning for a connection to something significant.

As it varies its thematic points, Hunters & Gamblers also varies lengths, opening with micro-fiction, moving into short stories, hitting its mid-line with the novella Holiest of Holies, and then moving back to short stories and vignettes. How typical is this varied length in your overall writing life, and did it make this book easier or more difficult to assemble, in terms of creating the right flow and pacing?

The length variety is typical in my overall writing experience. My comfort zone is in the vicinity of micro-fiction. The inclination is to go short. Get in. Get out. Try not to waste words. Going long is painful for me and it also increases my Suckage Potential exponentially, but I’ve found when I actually give myself permission to go long the results are surprising and rewarding, so I like to push myself to write longer stories too. If I didn’t push myself most of my stories would be one sentence long. I have mad respect for maximalist writers like David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Joshua Cohen. I’d be that kind of writer if I could choose, but alas I cannot so I’m making due with what I’ve got and playing to my own edge. I think maybe I write short(ish) because I never learned to type. I’m a two finger man. Tap, tap. Just the other day a friend was saying: “Ryan, you better learn how to type before you write your masterpiece. Either that or your masterpiece is going to be like 60 pages long!”

In terms of assembling the pieces it was real easy. Brian Allen Carr did it. I just sat back and said: “Yessir! Looks good. Works.” He broke the book into three sections, what he called my “darker works” he put first. He put the novella as the centerpiece of the collection (originally I had it at the end) and after the novella he put what he referred to as my “geography pieces.” Pieces about place. He thought the collection needed to end with ‘The Plagiarist Checks Out’ and I agreed. It was the right note to end on. My main contribution to the assembling process was to put the piece ‘Chapter 11’ as the 11th piece in the collection, but BAC is the man responsible for the  rhythm and the flow. He’s an all-around badass! Badass writer. Badass editor.

Hunters & Gamblers also dovetails several modes into a single book. For instance, we get pieces like ‘Heavy-Handed’:

“That’s heavy-handed,” said the mustache.

“I’ll show you heavy-handed,” said the beard. Then he hauled back and pistol-whipped his brother until he was still. He walked away feeling strangely relieved.

It continued to snow.

Two days later, a couple of neighbor children were making angels in the snow, near the mound, when they discovered the body. Above it they found seven arrowheads, which formed a perfect halo around its head, and above the arrowheads they found an empty pistol.

and pieces like ‘Tomahawk Cuts Rain’:

As a consideration, let us consider what people considered before the American Revolution. Where are we exactly? – he may have considered, crouching in an undisclosed Vermont General’s secret tax shelter as the autumn wind whispered soft annuities in Narragansett.

and then pieces like ‘Sunshine State’:

Wife?

Gone.

Child?

Missing.

Most likely Child Missing with Wife Gone.

Also missing: keys.

Also gone: Ford Explorer.

Figure: Missing Keys with Gone Explorer.

Figure: Child Missing with Wife Gone with Missing Keys with Gone Explorer at Mother-in-Law’s in Tallahassee.

How intentional is this blending of modes and how did you go about creating it?

Yes, the mixing of modes was very intentional. I wanted the collection to be just that: a collection of disparate forms and styles and since the book was written over a period of years, I had a lot of different types of stories from which to choose. I tried to choose stories that wouldn’t ordinarily hang out together in a book.

Dark Sky Books and Kevin Murphy and Brian Allen Carr are consistently putting out beautiful books, both in their physical production as well as the content they select to publish. Most of us though probably don’t know much about the process / paces that Dark Sky puts its authors through. Can you give us an evolutionary snapshot of Hunters & Gamblers from acceptance to first printing?

I sent Kevin Murphy the manuscript in July of 2010. He wrote back a few weeks later and said: “Damn straight I’d like to publish this!” I signed the contract the next week. Throughout the fall we worked out small logistical stuff: figured out who was going to blurb the book, talked about doing a book trailer or two, and we also started kicking around ideas for the cover. In November we decided on the original Thomas Allen image for the cover. Flash forward to February and BAC and I started trimming things down. The manuscript I originally sent was closer to 200 pages. We cut 75 pages. In March and April, we edited the manuscript. BAC did an amazing job on it and so did Kevin. That’s the thing about Dark Sky; they have not one, but two awesome editors. Kevin is a fantastic editor too. In June, we launched the book site. Then on July 14th the book released. All told the process took a year: lots of emails, texts, and phone calls in between. All in all, it was a blast. I loved working with Kevin and Brian.

And there was a bit of a hiccup on the cover art for this book, where another piece by Thomas Allen was originally intended as the cover until it was discovered that this particular photograph had already been used as album artwork. A new piece from the same Allen genius was moved in, and the cover is newly gorgeous now, but were there any other bumps or glitches along the way that you can share with our readers? We all love to know that not everything with making a book is smooth sailing and flawless execution.

Aside from the cover incident (which was quickly rectified), it was an easy process. Dark Sky takes good care of their writers. Kevin and BAC are pros in every way. They make beautiful books and I’m just happy they took a chance on my collection.

For those who don’t know, Mud Luscious Press will be releasing your novel(la) American Homes in 2013. Can you give us a sneak-peak of what readers can expect from this forthcoming book?

American Homes is where the party’s at. American Homes is hoping against hope against the wind. American Homes is afraid of foreclosing. American Homes is writing essays after the death of the essay. American Homes is dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, twirling a sign for a furniture store on the side of the road. American Homes is networking with homeowners. American Homes is drifting on a raft reading an unedited version of Huckleberry Finn. American Homes is American Literature. American Homes is thawed by the past. American Homes is traveling on a Greyhound bus in search of a perfect neighborhood. American Homes is putting a flower in the mouth of a police rifle at a housing riot. American Homes is living in a tent behind William Vollman’s American Home. American Homes is looking forward to your eyes. They’re such beautiful eyes. 

You also have a previously published book that I haven’t read but that looks absolutely stunning. Can you share with us a bit about OX, how it came to be and what it is?

OX is a collection of tiny poems I wrote under constraint. All of the poems are comprised of o’s and x’s and they form a loose narrative of a character named Ox. Early on I wrote a few of the Ox poems and sent them to Cooper Renner over at elimae. He was kind and encouraging to the project in its infancy and it’s because of him that the project became. BatCat Press ran it. They make gorgeous handmade books in small editions.

I wrote the bulk of the Ox poems as I was assembling H & G in the spring of 2010. They were a fun way to escape writing stories. Stories take a lot out of me as I’m an incredibly slow writer, but OX was fast. I wrote the collection in two weeks. I like to have multiple projects going or else I can’t get anything going.

Hunters & Gamblers really is a book unlike any I’ve read before. The way that it is composed, carefully (and artfully) crafted to blend length and mode and thematic pull, is fantastic. I would never have expected to love a book that includes a novella about a Centaur who does coke, so the surprise here was lovely. Thanks for writing this book, thanks to Kevin Murphy and Dark Sky for publishing it, and thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

My pleasure. Thank  you, J.A.. These were great questions. This was fun.

Buy this book here. Read more about / from Ryan Ridge here.