Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler calls Ryan Ireland’s second book, “An intensely compelling read full of muscular prose and characters who are, at once, cinematically vivid and entirely, scarily authentic.” Ireland will introduce that book, Ghosts of the Desert, next week at Books & Co. He graciously agreed to an email Q&A in the run-up to his book’s launch party:
Question: How long did it take Ghosts of the Desert to go from conception to publication?
I thought about Ghosts a lot before I actually sat down to write it. I had the idea for the story for a good long while. Typically, I wait until these things build up to critical mass and I can make myself sit down day after day and get the whole thing out. Once I got to that point, I had the rough draft written out in a couple months.
Ghosts was a distraction from my first manuscript, Beyond the Horizon. My agent spent a year shopping Beyond around to no avail. I would receive the nicest rejections from editors who I thought were just legends. It was encouraging and disappointing at the same time. Finally, my agent called and said Beyond the Horizon was dead; it would never sell. She asked if I had anything else. And I did; Ghosts was all wrapped up. I had written it in the meantime. I sent it to her and she called back a couple weeks later to tell me my book sold.
“Ghosts of the Desert sold that fast?” I asked.
No, she said, Beyond the Horizon had sold.
“I thought it was dead,” I said.
“Well,” she replied, “it’s alive again.”
We ended up selling both of the manuscripts to Oneworld as a two-book deal. That was about two-and-a-half years ago. So if we add it all up, going from the moment I began to write it until now, it’s probably right around four years.
Q: Ohio is a long way from the West. Any idea where your fascination with the desert comes from and what it means to you?
The west is my favorite place! As a kid, my parents used to take us on long camping trips all around the West. We’d pack up our conversion van and haul around a pop-up camper. We did this every summer from the time I was about four until I was ten. As I grew up, I kept heading back out West – with the Boy Scouts, to visit my older sister in Salt Lake, on my honeymoon, to run a marathon. I keep finding reasons to go back.
The West is this land of mystery where there’s still a sort of unscripted wildness, a lurking danger to everyday life. Some authors have recurring characters; I guess the thing I return to is the West.
Deserts especially fascinate me because they are so dangerous and barren and dead. At the same time, there are these miracles of life – animals that survive, stray flora, shallow ponds of water teeming with gnats. Nothing makes you appreciate life quite like the desert.
Q: After crossing the hurdle of actually getting a book published, was your second book easier to write than your first?
I think the hardest novel to write is the first one. For me, that was the book I wrote before Beyond the Horizon. No one will ever see a copy of that book because it is absolutely dreadful. I think every novelist has one of these – the book they wrote so they could learn how to write a book.
I equate it to distance running. The first distance race is usually a rolling series of mishaps, and you’re just happy to reach the finish line. But you rest and you think about what you’ve done. You know how it feels at each stage, and you’re more prepared the next time around. This isn’t to say it gets easier. I don’t know of any marathoners who think racing is easy; but you get used to it. On some level, you enjoy the challenge and all the aches and pains that go with it.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception people have about writers?
You are what you write. I’ve even run into this in the publishing industry. People seem relieved after they speak to me and realize I am not like the characters in my novels. This is a great relief to me as well since my characters tend to be idiots or depraved – or in some cases, depraved idiots. My work is violent and dark and brooding. But that’s my work, not me. I write about ugly things and terrible people because I want to confront the things that tear down humanity. I write so I can process some of the inexplicable things I encounter.
Years ago, Tim O’Brien won the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize committee. (If you haven’t read his work, you must; he’s an amazing writer.) Despite the violence in O’Brien’s work, many now recognize him as a peace writer. He takes the ugliness of war, the inhumanity of violence, and illustrates it in a way that strips it of glory and exposes it as a brutal and trite thing.
Writers often use foils for their characters – an antagonist who acts in contrast the main character in order to highlight some quality. I see this happen with writers. Our stories become foils for ourselves. We write about the things that most scare us, that make us reconsider the world, that bump up against our beliefs. I would like to believe my stories are my antagonists.
No stranger to the book world, Ryan Ireland is the Publicity and Marketing Officer at Greene County Public Library in Xenia, Ohio. He’s also author of Beyond the Horizon. He’ll introduce his second book, Ghosts of the Desert, at Books & Co. on Thursday, June 16, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Learn more about him on his website, www.ryangireland.com. Like this story? Subscribe to our email newsletter so you can get writing advice and stay on top of Dayton’s literary happenings.