Ryan Masters is a writer and poet from Santa Cruz, CA. He spent a decade on staff at the Santa Cruz Sentinel and The Monterey County Weekly. He is a frequent contributor to The Surfer’s Journal and former poet-in-residence for the City of Pacific Grove, CA. The author of a chapbook, below the low-water mark, his work has also appeared in publications such as The Iowa Review, Catamaran Literary Reader and Unlikely Stories. Above an Abyss: Two Novellas (Radial Books, 2018) is his first collection of fiction. It was reviewed here.
Ryan, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today. It’s a great pleasure to find out more about you after reading your wonderful book Above an Abyss.
It’s tempting to wonder if stories like ‘Irredeemable, Now and Forever’ and ‘Trampoline Games’ are inspired by experience. How much do you draw on your own autobiography for your fiction?
Absolutely. I lived in Sandy, Utah [‘Trampoline Games’] from sixth grade to eighth grade. I went to graduate school in Fairbanks, Alaska [‘Moth Orchid’] in the late 1990s. I also worked archaeology in the Great Basin [‘Irredeemable, Now and Forever’] for a number of years as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon.
It seems to me that your fiction inhabits the rather lonely meeting point of geography, history and identity, both personal and cultural. Would you agree?
That’s a fair assessment. The characters in Above an Abyss and some of my other fiction are lost in very large, stark Western landscapes. They feel isolated or actually exist in some state of seclusion or isolation. Consequently these characters inhabit very insular physical and emotional places that also happen to be limitless and huge. This is a very American state of being. The enormous expanses of land swallow us. Maybe it is also because we routinely project our own fears and dreams on others rather than going through the trouble of getting to know them and discovering who they truly are.
There is much more of a mythic/symbolic dimension to territory in the United States than there is in the United Kingdom, certainly. Probably, that has a lot to do with the difference in scale and history of the two countries. Do you investigate the history and formation of a place before writing about it?
This question makes me think of the William Burroughs line from Naked Lunch: ‘America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.’ America is awash in so much myth because we’ve only had a couple hundred years to invent it. It’s generally a dark mythos, too. Some form of the devil or another lives in Hawthorne’s woods, in Melville’s whale, even in Steinbeck’s fields. And yes, I research places extensively before I write them. I studied under a writer named Frank Soos (Unified Field Theory, Unpleasantries) for a few years. He was adamant about the need to understand the landscape your characters inhabit to understand the characters. Usually, I have lived in a location for some period of time before I choose to write about it. That said, I have also written ‘imagined’ versions of places, but these stories tend to swerve into magic realism.
You certainly like to reveal how abnormal the normal can be. Something strange can lurk beneath the surface of appearances. In ‘Trampoline Games,’ for instance, I was struck by Jacob’s thought that normality is really odd, and how the reader is enabled to share that feeling of oddness. Is this something you cultivate or have experienced yourself?
My life has been remarkably odd. I assume I’ve cultivated that to some degree. I am attracted to weird people and strange places. Yet it doesn’t take much investigation to discover that everybody on this planet is odd in their own way. The human experience is utterly trippy and baffling. If we were always conscious of the fact that we are stumbling blindly around this planet in bags of blood and bones with no discernible purpose, we’d probably all just sit down and freak out. But our brains normalize this experience. As a result, human beings repress all the terror and uncertainty of being alive and it resurfaces in this incredibly rich tapestry of idiosyncrasies and bizarre behaviors.
What are the challenges of writing shorter forms such as the short story and the novella?
Nearly all of my short stories and novellas were originally much longer works. My process of revision is always one of reduction. Editing consists primarily of finding ways to powerfully suggest rather than say. Can I defend each paragraph as either (a) driving story; or (b) maintaining the integrity of the piece’s overarching themes? The challenge of the shorter form is maintaining discipline of efficiency.
As a writer myself, I am often surprised how characters and situations are apt to exert themselves in the process of composition, taking me to places I had no intention of visiting. How would you describe your own writing process?
That’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? I grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. While it wasn’t a wildly remote upbringing, it was far enough from town that I spent a lot of time entertaining myself, creating stories, wandering through the woods. Writing continues to be like that for me. It’s a great gift to retain that wonder and amazement in the world.
Perhaps the strangeness of the everyday is linked to its precarity. In ‘Moth Orchid,’ maintaining the hot and humid environment in which orchids can flourish is totally at odds with the outside world of extreme cold and snow. It can all collapse in a moment, and yet we persevere. Perhaps it’s rather like writing itself. What do you reckon?
Exactly. Alasa maintains the orchids in subzero Alaska to avoid facing a brutal reality. Words, as you’ve suggested, are my orchids, in one way. In another way, words are also my Dr. Funes [from ‘Moth Orchid’]. They force me to recognize and accept that reality.
Humanity faces climatic catastrophe. We have two years to prevent our own extinction. If someone says to you we don’t need made-up stories when the world is in such desperate trouble, how will you reply?
A vast number of human beings on this planet don’t believe in science, dismiss facts, and lack the ability to analyse a problem critically and objectively. In other words, they operate purely from emotion – usually, some form of fear or another. Perhaps fiction is the key to reaching these people and instilling a sense of responsibility, connectedness and urgency. Or not. To be honest, I sort of hate humans and would not be totally opposed to the idea of a massive die off. But no one wants to hear that. The fact is the Earth is a self-regulating organism and will wipe us out soon enough. And if we really only have two years, it’s far too late already. Humans will never stop being human … in other words, insanely selfish.
What should we expect from you next?
I’m working on a collection of short stories, a novel and a collection of poetry. It’s hard for me to tell which one will be finished first at this point. Even after all this time, the process of writing is still kind of a mystery to me. I just keep sitting down and working. What happens, happens. Inshallah.
Well, whatever you finish first, make sure you send it to me for a review.