- Can I start with a personal question, Ryan? What was your family like, growing up?
I grew up on a family farm outside of Coaldale, Alberta, Canada. Tiny one-stoplight town. Everyone knew everyone. I was a 4-H member. But I was also an only child and my mom loved movies. So, I think watching classics with her and having a lot of alone time on my hands turned me into a creative storyteller. My parents were very kind and loving people. They are unfortunately no longer with us, but their lust for life, interest in travel, and big hearts made a huge impact on me.
- So how do you think you became who you are – a writer? When did you first know that you wanted to write? Do you think it was innate? And do you remember what some of the early books you loved were?
I was always creating and coming up with ideas. When I was about six or seven, I started jotting them down. Being a child of the nineties, they were mostly episode ideas for the TV show Friends, sequels to Jurassic Park, and novelizations of Star Wars. I even wanted to open my own bookstore at that time called Pages and Pages and sell only my books. Growing up in a rural place, there really wasn’t much opportunity or knowledge on how one could be a writer, so I didn’t really consider it until after college. I was 19, studied Broadcast Journalism, and took a job at a radio station because the job title was “Creative Writer.” It struck me that those were the two greatest words in the English language and there’s nothing I would rather be. It all sort of clicked after that and I began to get serious about novels, non-fiction, and screenplays.
- What do you enjoy writing more: fiction or nonfiction? Your first novel, Tractor, was a coming-of-age adventure – the story about a boy called John who travels across Arkansas to Oklahoma in an old tractor. Why did you choose that form?
All of my fiction is inspired by a specific time and place. At that moment, I was very into Jack Kerouac and Paul Newman movies like The Hustler and The Long, Hot Summer. I wanted to do something set in the early 1960s in the southern USA. Writing Tractor was a way to visit that time and place as well as try to capture a certain feeling those movies and books made me experience. But everything I have written, fiction or non-fiction, is treated the same because I am a huge history buff and mainly write to explore history.
- Tell us about your new book. Why did you write it? How did you come up with the plot?
He’s No Angel is a bit of an anomaly. It’s my first project set in modern times and based around an idea rather than a time or location. It’s about a talent agent whose dead father returns to earth with a heavenly message. Some people think he never really died. Some say he is an angel. The talent agent son mostly sees dollar signs. But ultimately, it gives the two a chance to reconnect – even if the father character remembers nothing about his previous life or who he is.
The idea came from me wondering what would happen if my own father, who has passed away, was standing on a street corner. Then I wondered what I would say to him and got to thinking “what if he didn’t remember me?” Deep questions, but it formed the story for sure.
- What was the writing process like? Did you do lots of research? Do you start with a character, an event, or maybe circumstances?
For this story, it was all about circumstance and character. The characters here are all over the top and unique and fun. I had a blast coloring the world with movie producers, actors, and pundits as it takes place in Hollywood. The writing of it was fairly breezy because, by far, this is my most off-the-rails idea filled with humor. I couldn’t not follow through with the idea or bypass a chance to satirize social media and modern pop culture. Not much research. Moreso letting my imagination run free.
- What theme/genre is central to your work?
While my first instinct is to say history, I think everything I have written, particularly He’s No Angel, has to do with loss. Tractor is about loss of innocence. Akela, my second novel, is about loss of a partner and love. This book is about the loss of a parent. Obviously, the death of my parents had a significant impact on me, but even looking at non-fiction projects like Killing John Wayne, which was about the death of the iconic cowboy actor, it’s evidently all about loss. I hope to write more cheery things for my next projects, though I swear, my stuff is all fairly light-hearted.
- It seems you have a very conversational, naturally entertaining way of writing. Do you edit a lot?
I don’t edit too terribly much. My non-fiction is typically more conversational and easier to read in a straight-forward tone. My fiction is often humorous and takes unpredictable turns. I do like to know where I’m going, though. So, while I may come across as natural, I do a lot of prep work for knowing where the story is going to go before I write.
- Tell our readers about your central hero/es (choose any novel) and how you create the character. Do you see (imagine) yourself in each role as you write?
Akela is about a talking sea turtle. A sea turtle that lives 100 years and experiences all of these true life events. While I don’t imagine myself in every role (some are complete opposites or based on other folks I know), this little turtle was very representative of who I am. A bit shy and nervous. From a small, idyllic place. After getting out and seeing the world and having different experiences, both myself and the talking turtle grow. I hope others see themselves in Akela too. Moral of the story; get out into the bright blue world, because you never know what could happen.
- When you write a new story and jot down the first scene, do you already know what the last scene will be?
Oh yes! Being a big planner, often the biggest inspiration for writing something is knowing how that last scene will unfold. I have no idea how some writers can go in blindly or write in non-chronological order. I’m very particular there!
- Who was your first critic/listener?
My parents, of course! I remember transcribing to my dad my interpretations of The Empire Strikes Back and he would type it out for me, though I clearly remember him playfully laughing at my ideas. And then my mom would later read stories I wrote and would tell me they seemed to close to Lord of the Rings or whatever it was inspired by and encouraged me to stick to a truer vision.
- Have your nonfiction books and novels usually been drawn from situations you’ve been in? Do you take real people you know and put them in your stories?
Well, I’ve not driven a tractor cross-country, met an angel, or been a sea turtle. But I think the central themes of my novels are all things I can relate to or wish to share with the world. For non-fiction, I wrote about my hometown and about classic film, which are two very imperative pieces of who I am. I haven’t really stretched myself to write something unfamiliar like seventeenth century France or the inside of a rocket ship. Everything I write comes from a keen interest that’s been stewing for a long time.
- Let’s talk about procrastination… What is the most absurd thing you’ve been doing when you should be writing? Do you suffer from writer’s block?
There is no such thing as writer’s block. No way! Uh-uh! You just have to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. It’s never failed me. And I hate to disappoint, but I’m not one to avoid writing. From the scheduled life and deadlines involved with being on a farm, working in broadcasting, that creative writing job for a radio station – that all hammered a hearty work ethic inside of me. If anything, I tend to write too quickly and make tons of grammatical errors.
I’m also not a late-night writer. Mornings and early-evenings are my most productive time. I think that schedule does help keep procrastination away.
- What advice would you give new writers on how to delve into creative fiction?
Know what you are writing about. Pick a passionate subject – in fact, the innermost subject that makes you who you are and drives why you get up in the morning and why you toss and turn at night. Maybe it’s an experience or a fascination. Write for you and you only and dare to be vulnerable and different. And, of course, make time to write, accept rejection, and never stop trying!
- What’s next for you? Tell us about your plans.
My first children’s picture book will release at the end of this year called This is Not My Story. It’s through KidsCan Press and introduces young readers to the concept of genres. I also have a few projects on the go to introduce middle-grade readers to the history of film and classic movies. Between all that, I have a lot of reading to catch up on and classic movies to watch!
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Next post – 9 insights from the book “Build for Tomorrow: An Action Plan for Embracing Change, Adapting Fast, and Future-Proofing Your Career” by Jason Feifer (Tuesday, 27/9)