A Conversation with Jeffrey Ricker by Gavin Atlas

Jeffrey Ricker is a
writer, editor, and graphic designer in St. Louis and a graduate of the
University of Missouri School of Journalism. 
He is the author of short stories such as “New Normal” and his brand new
novel, Detours, from Bold Strokes
Books.  

Hi, Jeffrey!   This is your first novel, I think.  How does it feel to have it published?   Tell us what you’d like the readers to know
about Detours.  

Hi,
Gavin! Yes, Detours is my first
novel. When people ask me what it’s about, I tell them it’s a road trip with a
love story surrounded by a ghost story. It’s about how things never turn out
the way you planned them, and yet somehow they manage to turn out the way they
should. Several characters in Detours,
especially Joel, the narrator, deal with varying concepts of what home is, and
I don’t think for any of them that it turns out to be what they expected.

It’s
kind of funny, the feelings I’ve had around this book getting published. The
process is such a long one, it’s variously felt real and unreal as time’s gone
on. Last week, though, I got a box of advance copies in the mail, and that’s
when I thought, “Wow, this is really happening, isn’t it?”

What in your background do you think led
you to have an interest in writing fiction? 

You’d
have to ask my therapist. (Kidding!) Actually, that’s an easy one: stories.
I’ve always loved hearing stories, reading stories, and making up stories. I
guess the choice was either write stories or grow up to be a pathological liar.

I was
a fairly quiet kid and didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I read a lot. I
also watched a lot of TV, but I remember going through a lot of books. I went
through an Agatha Christie phase where I read as many of her books as possible.
I also read a lot of science fiction series, that sort of thing. Writing
stories was an extension of that and a way of populating the stage in my head.

The main character’s mother (who is a
ghost in the story) in Detours is
fascinating, and not really like anyone I’ve met in fiction before.  Do you draw a lot from people in your life
or, if it’s okay to ask, what process do you use when it comes to developing
characters?

I
can’t say that I have a definitive process for coming up with characters. Often
it starts as a voice, or a line of dialogue. I follow that initial hunch until
I start getting a feel for them, and then I’ll usually pause and write a
character sketch, some important biographical information for them, and any
other details.

With
Rachel, the narrator’s mother, she took on a whole new life (or afterlife, as
the case may be) in the third revision of the book. I moved her death from the
end of the novel to the beginning, and suddenly I saw the form of the story as
it should have been, and how it actually ended up.

I
don’t know where she came from, really. I’m just glad she did.

When
it comes to creating characters, I don’t draw a lot from people in my life
directly; Rachel is not like my own mother, for example, who doesn’t smoke and
would never be caught dead in peach, I don’t think. I think character is often
an unconscious distillation of various traits we observe in different people
that take on a certain form in one particular individual on the page.

Wow,
that sounded pretentious. Okay! Let’s dial that back a notch. Characters are
like spaghetti: you throw bits of personality at the page and see what sticks.
At least, that’s what I do.

Travel is a great device for
storytelling, especially cross-country adventures.  What kind of research (on the road or on the
internet, etc.) did you have to do for the travel aspects?  What kind of role does travel play in your
own life? 

This
was one case where I went with “write what you know.” First, I love to travel.
Second, I grew up in a military family (my dad was a Marine), so we moved a
lot. I wanted to get setting right, which is why almost all of the locations in
Detours are places I’ve visited or
lived. Portland, Maine is where my family is originally from, but I haven’t
been back there in about ten years. While I would have loved to go and visit
for purposes of getting the details just right, time and finances just wouldn’t
allow it. (Hello, I work for a not-for-profit.) Sometimes, Google Earth can
come in handy if you’re trying to remember what’s on a particular street corner
near the Western Promenade in Portland.

I saw your story “The Trouble with Billy”
in the LGBT YA anthology, Speaking Out, got a great
review in Kirkus, and both “The New
Normal” and “At the End of the Leash” in the romance anthology Fool For Love were
awesome.  What do you feel is the
difference in the skill set one needs to write an effective short story compared
with what’s needed to write an effective novel?   

You
could have knocked me over with a feather when I read the review for Speaking Out, but I think that’s a
credit to the fantastic job Steve Berman did in collecting those stories
together.

As
for the difference between short fiction and novels, it’s kind of like the
difference between a sprint and distance running. A short story is a
concentrated distillation of all the things that go into any kind of
storytelling—character, setting, plot, you name it—all the things that you can
explore in a novel in greater depth. Or to put it as a travel metaphor, a short
story is a weekend out of town and a novel is a two-week vacation.

Since
Detours was my first novel (well, the
first one I completed that I thought was worthy of public consumption), it felt
a bit like on-the-job training, learning by doing: I was learning how to write
a novel by writing a novel. It was a long education. It took me eight years,
off and on, to finish it.

Which writers or books can you list as
some of your favorites or as some that have had the biggest influence on you?

Every
time I think about this question, I feel the urge to get up and look at my
bookshelves to remind me of what I’ve read and what I own. Writers I love? F.
Scott Fitzgerald (I know it’s practically a cliché, but The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel bar none), Jane Austen, Virginia
Woolf, Michael Cunningham, C.J. Cherryh, Robert Heinlein, Charles Baxter,
Haruki Murakami (“The Elephant Vanishes” is one of my favorite short stories
ever). I love J.K. Rowling; I think she’s amazingly creative.

The
writers who inspire or influence me more directly are the ones with whom I’m
friends or am acquainted: Greg Herren (my editor), Rob Byrnes, ‘Nathan
Burgoine, Timothy Lambert, Becky Cochrane, Alex Chee, the people in my writing
group. They and a lot of others are the people who have provided encouragement
along the way or are people I talk to about what I’m writing, what they’re
writing, and get and give feedback. Writing is often a very solitary practice,
and these are the people who make it less so for me.

A mutual friend of ours I won’t identify
said jokingly I needed to ask you, “Why are you so in-your-face about
dogs?”  To be a bit more serious, Neil Plakcy recently said that
getting a dog has had a big impact on what and how he writes.  What effect, if any, do animals have on your
writing? 

Gee,
I can’t imagine which friend that might be (*cough* ‘Nathan
*cough*).

Here’s
the thing: everything I know about love I’ve learned from dogs and cats. At the
same time, they’ve broken my heart more completely and painfully than any human
ever could. They come into your life and spend a joy-filled decade—two, if
you’re lucky—and then they go away. They’ve had an effect on my writing because
they’ve had an effect on my life. I don’t really think that I trust people who
don’t have pets or don’t like animals.

A question out of nowhere:  A genie appears and grants you one wish.  What would you choose (and, of course, why)? 

Oh
gods, that’s easy: more time. I’d wish for that, definitely. There’s never
enough.

Can you tell us about what you’re working
on or what you’d like to work on the future?

Oh,
absolutely. I’m working on my second novel, which is going to be a young-adult
book with elements of fantasy. For people who read “The Trouble with Billy,”
you’ll meet Jamie, Sarah, and Billy again in this book, although under some
very different circumstances. I’m also working on several stories (a couple of
which have to be finished and submitted, like, yesterday), and then there’s a
third novel waiting in the drawer for revisions….

Thanks so much, Jeffrey!

My
pleasure!

To
learn more about Jeffrey Ricker and his fiction, please visit www.jeffrey-ricker.com

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