Backward From Where We're Coming From

A Q&A With Ryan Bartelmay
Photo by Brad Causey

Witzig’s. Stafford’s. Ray’s Hairport. And Dairy Queen… you can’t forget the DQ. Growing up in Morton in the '80s, these were some key destinations of childhood, firmly embedded in my psyche. So as I started digging into Ryan Bartelmay’s first novel, the newly published Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward, I felt those early flickers of memory come rushing back.

Bartelmay, who graduated Morton High School a year ahead of me in 1993, is now dean of general education at Kendall College in Chicago, and his long-form debut is jam-packed with the names and places of our shared formative years. The town of Middleville is the setting for this sprawling account of life in the last half of the 20th century, a tragicomic reflection of small-town America that’s being likened to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—another book that borrowed generously from the author’s boyhood memories. Along the way, Bartelmay slips some weighty and profound themes into his narrative, which, for all its musings over life’s tragedies, is a joy to read.

We caught up with the author on the eve of his 20th high school reunion. Here, he talks about the long road to becoming a writer; muses over the Coen Brothers, Bob Dylan and Flannery O’Connor; and reflects on his intentions with Onward. —Jonathan Wright

What inspired you to become a writer?
As a kid, I used to read the Hardy Boys and Madeleine L’Engle and Stephen King, and in college, I started reading Hemingway and Carver and Faulkner. I think I read The Old Man and the Sea in high school, but I wasn’t ready for it. I remember reading all of Hemingway’s novels one winter when I was a sophomore at the University of Iowa. There was a bar, the Deadwood, that served bottomless coffee for something like a buck or fifty cents, and after my morning classes, I’d go there and spend the day reading Hemingway and watching it snow out the window. Across the street was Prairie Lights, Iowa City’s bookstore, and after I finished a novel, I’d cross the street and buy another one. Somewhere around this time, I took a creative writing class and wrote my first short story. It was a total Hemingway rip-off, complete with his stripped-down prose. But I was hooked.

Tell us about your experiences at the University of Iowa and Columbia University.
I took a few creative writing and fiction workshop classes at Iowa, including the Undergraduate Workshop class. The teacher had everyone select an author out of a hat and read a book by that author. I selected Lydia Davis, who, at the time, I’d never read. I remember being quite taken with her stylistic prose and approach to storytelling. The whole experience solidified for me that I wanted to try to write. I hesitate to say “be a writer” because at the time, I really had no idea how much work was involved in “being a writer”—I was still pretty much romanticizing it. After undergrad, I moved to Austin, Texas and lived there for a couple years, then I moved to Boston, and the whole time, I was reading people like George Saunders, Donald Barthelme and Barry Hannah, and trying to write my own stories. When I was in Boston, in 1999, the McSweeney’s literary journal and website launched, which introduced me to a host of contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace, Ben Marcus and Dave Eggers. I applied to Columbia because Ben Marcus taught there. Columbia was great. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a bunch of people who cared about reading and writing. Of course, I was challenged and pushed to be a better writer while I was there. I remember Ben Marcus telling me, after reading a story I submitted to his workshop, that the story felt too easy, that I wasn’t trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I, of course, was crushed, but this little piece of criticism is pretty much on a loop in my head each time I sit down to write.

What writers have influenced you the most?
I love the language, the turns of phrases, in Southern writing, especially Southerners like Barry Hannah and Padgett Powell—those two guys can turn a phrase. What first attracted me to Hannah’s work, and to all Southern writers who concern themselves with language, is how colorful and spoken it sounds in my imagination. When I first read his story “Testimony Of Pilot,” I remember loving it because it sounded like how my father and grandfather spoke. When they work themselves into a storytelling frenzy, the language transforms into a performance. So on one hand, I’m attracted to Southern writers for the performance of language. On the other hand—this is especially the case for Flannery O’Connor—I’m attracted to the disfigurement of the characters. In O’Connor’s stories, her characters are spiritually and physically disfigured, and I admire how she is able to take elements that are so unsightly and twist them so they transcend their grotesqueness and become meaningful and beautiful. It doesn’t matter what region of the country a writer is from, if a writer can do that, I want to read that writer’s stuff.

Tell us about your publisher. How can traditional publishers still help the author in this day and age?
Ig is an indie publishing company run by a husband-and-wife team, Robert Lasner and Elizabeth Clementson. I met Elizabeth at a literary conference in Chicago in 2009. My friend, Dave Reidy, had just sold his book Captive Audience to Ig, and he introduced us. I sent them my novel when I finished it a couple years later, and they bought it. I consider myself lucky. I didn’t really have to go through the whole “business” part of selling a book. Elizabeth and Robert were amazing. First, I was blown away at how much they loved the book.

I’d spent ten years writing it—and during those ten years, I’d considered taking the damn thing in the backyard and burning it—so hearing them tell me how much they liked it made those ten years of struggle worth it. Since Ig is an indie press that publishes only ten or so books a year, they need it to do well, so they were very invested in me and the book. I have friends who’ve published with big publishing companies, and some have had very different experiences. We spent a little over a year making the book better. Elizabeth gave me high-level notes about the arc of the story and character development, and after I addressed those issues, Robert did the finer details, like the line editing. It was a collaborative process, something I desired from a publisher.

The book features many references to businesses, streets, etc. from your hometown. Describe the process of developing the characters and town of Middleville.
I grew up in central Illinois, and many of the landmarks mentioned in the book actually exist. The Par-A-Dice riverboat casino is really there, docked in East Peoria, and of course, Bradley University exists, and Peoria is an actual town, etc. etc. That being said, I didn’t intend for someone to read this novel and think that these characters and their actions are representative of the people who live in central Illinois. Flannery O’Connor said that all writers are essentially trying to pin down something real. Other writers substitute the word truth for “real.” So, in that sense, my intentions were to get things (emotions, desires, etc.) that were “real” and “true.” I realize that the book portrays an odd world with offbeat characters, but I think the characters’ views of the world are honest. All of them have a one-track, singular view, and they seize to this view with very tight hands, but the characters—almost all of them—also have a desire to do the right thing, to be good people. This dichotomy is real to me. I know a few people who live out this dichotomy. Perhaps, maybe, a few people in central Illinois are like this. Maybe I’m like this.

There is a sense of sadness and regret, perhaps desperation—of “making do”—in many of the book’s characters. What did you intend to say about small-town life in the 20th century, or about the American Dream?
I didn’t set out to write a depressing book with lonely characters. I wanted it to be funny, but in the end, I see there’s an undercurrent of sadness, regret and desperation. It’s hard not to have an undercurrent of sadness with a suicide and a child’s death. I’m interested in the grotesque—not physical, but emotional disfigurement. All the characters in the book are flawed because of their emotional disfigurements, which may be the result of something that can be pointed to, like a child’s death, or something that can’t be pointed to. In fact, the characters may not even be aware of their flaws. These flaws cause the characters to make decisions that shape the course of their lives. All of us are emotionally grotesque, and a piece of fiction is an attempt to show how we try to live with our handicaps.

In regards to small-town life in the 20th century or the American Dream, all I can say is that I wasn’t intentionally setting out to comment on either of those things. I have no idea what I’m writing “about” when I start writing a story; it takes numerous drafts, and in this case, many years to figure out what I’m trying to “say” or the “theme” of the story. To be honest, I don’t think I can succinctly spell out the theme. I’m trying to get at loneliness, fear, sacrifice, denial, grieving, acceptance, etc.—words that, to me, make up the human condition, but I hate to say I’m writing about the capital H human capital C condition because what writing isn’t? I really like the line in Bob Dylan’s song, “Visions of Johanna”: “We sit here stranded, but we’re all doing our best to deny it.” In the book, the main characters are lying to themselves in some profound ways, but these lies help them get through the day; at the same time, the lies and denials hurt the people who are relying on them. I think it took me six or seven years (and countless drafts) to figure out that this was going on in the book.

Describe the role that “redemption” plays in the book.
I have a hard time with “redemption.” I think that’s because “redemption,” in my narrow mind, implies that a character has a realization about their life. For some reason, when I think of realization (capital R), I think of characters having life-changing epiphanies, the kind that cause people to sell their house and car and move to some hippie compound in Colorado. This has always felt false to me because I don’t see a lot of people doing this. Not that they don’t—they do, surely. But for the most part, people aren’t throwing up their hands and stomping out of their jobs because they suddenly realize working eight hours a day in some cubicle isn’t actually a rewarding way to spend the majority of their life. In this book, I allowed the characters to think about what was happening to them, because that’s what people do—all of us—every single day. The person who’s working at some cubicle job probably thinks, “This sucks. This is no way to spend a life.” Furthermore, that person probably complains about their lack of fulfillment to their friends, like when they meet at the bowling alley for a couple games and a few beers on Thursday night. Connecting with others over a shared struggle is redemptive. This is why the book, to me, is tragic and sad. It’s not that Chic and Diane’s son dies. Sure, that’s sad, but what’s more sad is that they don’t suffer together. They don’t connect with each other. Rather, they suffer in isolation, so there’s no redemption from their suffering. That’s brutal.

What’s in the future for your writing career?
I plan to write another book, although I haven’t started doing that, yet. Right now, I’m concentrating on being a good father. I have a two-and-a-half year-old daughter, and my wife is pregnant with our second. At one time, I thought I’d do anything to be a “full-time” writer, and to the younger-me, the perfect life looked like sitting in a room with a desk and a computer and writing novels. Now, after writing a book, I realize I had it a little backwards. Writing this book was more about me learning things about myself so that I could be a better person—a better husband, father and friend. So, even if I don’t publish another book, I want to work on one. a&s

Bartelmay will make two local appearances in September. A wine and cheese reception will be held for the author on September 14th at Blessed Sacrament Parish, 225 E. Greenwood in Morton, at 6pm. On September 28th at 2pm, I Know You Like A Book will host a book signing at 4700 N. Prospect in Peoria Heights. For more information, visit ryanbartelmay.com.

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