It’s been a while since I’ve posted an author interview, but get ready- the series is gearing back up and I’ve got quite a few waiting in the wings. Over the next month I’ll be posting interviews with some amazing authors and I’m so excited to kick it off with a conversation with Winterswim author Ryan Bradley.
Winterswim is a crooked, dark, strange little tale. I read the story of the meth-addicted Pastor Sheldon Long and his awkward, but well-meaning son Steven, in one sitting. Reading Winterswim is like taking a gulp of sharp air and then plunging underwater into a frozen sea, staying down as long as you can, and then emerging, gasping, sputtering, shivering, addled, and ultimately, changed by the experience. It’s not for the squeamish, not for the easily offended. This is a book for readers who want to be stricken, and for those daring enough to take the plunge, it will be worth every second.
Steph Post: As Winterswim pulls no punches, I’m going to follow suit and dive right on in with the hard questions. Winterswim takes place in a harsh Alaskan landscape, populated with shadowy, almost half-formed souls, so I wasn’t surprised about the violence present, or at least lurking, in almost every scene. I was surprised, and, honestly, shocked, by the amount of predatory sexual violence in the story. It becomes so prevalent as to reach a point of saturation, creating numbness in the reader, which echoes the numbness felt by the characters. Was this your reasoning for including so much disturbing sexual imagery, at the possible cost of alienating some readers? Were you using these scenes to convey an ulterior message?
Ryan Bradley: We’re all half-formed souls, right? I’m a very nonviolent person in real life, to the point that even accidentally hurting a person or an animal would make me sick to my stomach. I was driving a couple weeks ago and a bird hit my windshield and I haven’t stopped feeling a little queasy over it. Sometimes the stuff I write has the same effect, but what I’m interested in exploring is the lengths people will go to in life, the way they justify things to themselves, the way they interact with others.
So, to get more to the point, yes, a big part of the reason there is so much predatory violence is that numbness, another part of that is I think it’s a more realistic portrayal. If you’re going to write about a serial killer but hold back on the violence I don’t think you’re painting a very realistic portrait. If you’re going to write about someone who preys on a particular set of characteristics, then those are the people your story is going to end up revolving around.
I made a conscious decision years ago to not hold back with my writing, to write what I wanted to write and not worry about what some (or any) people might think. On one hand that limits my audience and probably the ability to sell my books to larger publishers, etc., but it’s the only way I know to honor what I want to get out of writing.
SP: Your style is clearly minimalist in a very distilled, honed sense, and this shines brightly in the development of your characters. What interested me most, though, is how I found your characters developing backwards as the novel moved forward. Many stories start with a complex character and throughout the course of the narrative, layers of the character are peeled back to eventually reveal an inner core to the reader. Your characters, especially the main characters of Pastor Sheldon Long, Steven and Kate, begin as simple characters, but build in layers as the story builds in tension. By the time the novel ended, I felt that I knew less about your characters than I did at the beginning, because they had been wrapped in these layers, which ultimately left them as more fascinating. Was this your intention? Do you normally write characters this way?RB: I’ve never thought about it in exactly those terms, but you are definitely right. Simplicity in writing is sort of my mission, though part of it is just naturally how I write, whether I’m trying to or not. But as far as how the characters unfold it is definitely what makes sense to me. We never really know everything about a person. When you first meet someone all you have is the basics. But you can know someone for years and still be learning about them. I think it should be the same for fictional characters.
There are two things people seem to think is necessary in fiction in regard to characters, one being that you have to establish their personalities/identitites early on, and two, that as a writer you have to know your characters inside and out. I resist both notions. As a reader I don’t feel the need to open a book and know exactly what a character looks like, what their background is, etc in the first third of the story. And as a writer I don’t feel the need to map out the entire histories of my characters, each scene they’ll tell me something about themselves. Just like getting to know someone in real life.
SB: Winterswim is rooted in its setting of Alaska. Even as I’m writing these questions, I’ve been tempted to make allusions to winter- diving into frozen waters, wrapped in woolen blankets, etc. Everything about this novel, from the setting to the style to the language seems to echo a barren state of winter. As someone from Florida, who, ahem, has barely even seen snow, I found the world and atmosphere you create to be as foreign as an alien planet. So, why Alaska? Why winter? In other words, why is everything so cold?
RB: Alaska is alien, especially in comparison to the rest of the country. I was born in Alaska, half-raised there, worked in the Arctic Circle briefly. I think about Alaska every day, look at the weather in Anchorage, look at pictures. I miss it intensely. There’s a quote in something (a movie, a book, hell maybe some class I took in college) about great writers having conflicted relationships with where they are from. I don’t have that (not to imply that I might be a great writer), despite the fact that I don’t align with the state that well in personality, politics, etc. I have a complicated relationship in being away from Alaska. As such, most of my fiction takes place there. Not only does it serve my stories in terms of setting, but also in the kinds of people I want to write about. Plus, it helps me feel close to home in some way.
SP: Yet, I must say, that while I can’t relate to the temperature of the world of Winterswim, I can certainly relate to the seediness. I, too, write about characters who are on the bottom, who are lost and often unlikeable. If you turned up the heat, your characters and mine could probably inhabit the same town. Do you think the setting of Winterswim isolates your story or allows readers to get closer to it?
RB: I’m reading A Tree Born Crooked right now (well, not this second, as I am at work)! I think there are definitely a lot of similarities between what we write. And I think the interesting thing about writing unlikeable characters is that you start to find things that make you realize how you can find something sympathetic in anyone. It’s easy to write a character who has good intentions, and doesn’t fuck up, and who people will find it easy to root for, but that’s not very interesting to me. People are flawed, so why not embrace that. If you have a cast of unlikeable characters people are still going to find someone to root for if it’s well written.
As for the isolation, I’m not sure. I don’t think people can necessarily always relate to that setting, but I think for those who can’t it’s a sort of curiosity. I’ve spent time in a lot of different places, and as a reader the setting of a story has never effected my engagement with it. I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone, but what are you gonna do?
SP: My favorite part of Winterswim was the inclusion of the Tlingit legend of GonaqAde’t, a sea monster. I love mythology and have been deep in the study of world tricksters for the book I’m currently working on. Can you tell me more about GonaqAde’t and why you included this tale in the novel?
RB: This was the missing piece as far as the writing of the book. Once I realized that the native mythology had to play a part in the story the writing started to flow so much easier, so much more quickly. I’ve always been fascinated by mythology as well, and growing up I was around the native cultures of Alaska a fair amount. We had a lot of family friends who were Tlingit, I spent time at pow-wows, etc.
It’s one of the myths I remember most vividly, because a friend of my stepfather’s wrote a play based on the legend and I remember watching that as a kid. Of course, I probably mangled the legend of GonaqAdêt quite a bit, but that’s what Pastor Long does throughout the story, he twists and twists these myths, these characters, until they suit his convictions and delusions. Pastor Long was born into a conflict between Christianity and native culture, so trying to make him one-sided just wasn’t going to work.
SP: Outside of being a writer, you are also a designer and you designed the amazing cover for Winterswim. How important was the visual image of Winterswim to you? What do you think the cover says to readers?
RB: Thank you. Attempting to put biases aside, it’s one of my favorite covers I’ve designed. I really wanted something almost cinematic and I think I accomplished that. At first I bristled at the idea of putting a cross on the cover, but it worked so well that my own feelings about that fell away. I hope it conveys a few things at once, that it’s going to be a cold, dark, grimy read.In the digital age, and especially with small presses where the books are more often than not being bought online, book covers have to be approached differently I think. What might make you pick up a book in person might not make you click on a product on Amazon, per se, and vice versa. I don’t know if the Winterswim cover necessarily would do either, but I’m quite fond of it anyway.
SP: Of the many things we have in common, we both have tattoos that relate to our books. Can you tell me about your Winterswim tattoo and why you felt the need to get it?RB: I always had the idea that when I had a book published I would get a tattoo for it. When my first novel, Code for Failure was about to come out I got John Dermot Woods’ awesome drawing for the cover tattooed on my forearm. I also have one for my poetry collection, TheWaiting Tide, and the Artistically Declined Press logo to represent both running the press as well as the books of mine that we have put out. The plan is to have something that will relate to every book I write. For Winterswim I picked an early alternate design I came up with while working on the cover. In one sense it’s kind of messed up because it’s basically an illustration of someone reaching out for a drowning girl. But in some ways that feels pretty representative of being a writer in general.
When I got the tattoo done the artist was asking about the book so I gave him a rough summary of it and he paused, asked what had given me the idea. I gave him a shrug and an “that’s just what came out” kind of answer and he took a longer pause. Then he said “does your wife ever worry about you.” To which I could only reply, “all the time.”SP: Finally, what’s next? In addition to writing novels and designing book covers, you are also an accomplished poet and short story writer. Is there anything you can’t do?
RB: I’m gonna try to keep breathing. Other than that, who knows. I have at least one thing on the horizon book-wise that I can’t quite talk about yet, but I really haven’t written much in the last two years. I’ve worked on revising some existing manuscripts. I have a billion ideas but not much time to get them down. I’m considering trying to write a TV script based on Winterswim. That seems like it might be fun. Mostly that’s what I want to try to do, find ways to be creative and have fun at the same time, which probably sounds easier than it is, at least for me.