MATTHEW BURNSIDE: For the readers out there, Ryan Werner is a writer, rock star, and wrestling aficionado. He is author of the chapbooks Shake Away These Constant Days, Murmuration, and If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train. I had seen his writing around online before I got a chance to know him a little better when he published one of my own chapbooks through Passenger Side Books. His kindness knows no bounds. Find out more about him by presently reading this interview, in which we discuss indie lit, music, and ice cream.
Ryan, thanks for letting me interview you. Let’s start with the most pressing question: if you could only have one flavor of ice cream for the rest of your life, which flavor would it be? Also, what flavor of ice cream best describes your personality? (I’d like to hear your girlfriend’s answer on this one as well.)
Mint chocolate chip is the perfect ice cream. The mint is light enough to be refreshing, so I could eat it after a big meal and not have to have some shitty sorbet, but the chocolate gives it a sort of dense sweetness. I think I could get a lifetime of mileage out of it if I had to.
I say I’m a lot like Vanilla Bean. On the surface it’s very plain, but upon closer inspection there’s an affable dedication to a few basic moralities that make it ring true over and over. Gwen says I’m Bubblegum because it’s absolute bullshit.
If you had to live in a world without books or music, which world would you choose to live in and why?
When I was 14 I saw this really weird softcore movie on Cinemax called Andromina: The Pleasure Planet. Three dudes go out recruiting space women for their space club and end up on a planet full of women. One of them gets named king pretty much immediately. Tess Broussard—whose face looks like something someone would make if they were learning how to use Photoshop—was in some other softcore movies I saw around that time and in this one she gets into a catfight with some random girl over a recipe for cupcakes or something. Shannan Leigh has, in retrospect, a really poorly choreographed dance/sex scene with some guy in a cheap cross necklace standing in front of a fire. That all said, I’d live there.
There’s something quiet and simultaneously rambunctious about all the voices in your writing, as if something is always bubbling, ready to explode through the surface. It’s almost threatening in a way, sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes not. Do you think all good writing should be ‘threatening’?
All good writing takes risks. It can be in terms of form, like your fascination with interactive books, or in terms of style like Matt Bell’s verbose explorations. It can be in terms of content, like Chloe Caldwell’s self-aware confessionals or Aaron Teel’s cast of harrowing Gummo rejects. It can be in terms of limitations, like when Sarah Rose Etter dangles her toe over the edge of city made of graveyards or when Jon Konrath says “fuck it” and just rambles about Mountain Dew-fueled diarrhea for a hundred pages.
Those voices you talk about are me being a spaz, trying to say as much as possible at all times. It gives the prose tension, but have you noticed that it never adds up? That the most my characters can hope for is to be hopeful? The climactic action is always there—a woman jumps off a roof, a man tries to punch his girlfriend’s pregnant belly—but it’s always beside the point. All good writing has a victim. That’s why writing needs risk, to show you who the gun’s pointed at. If I risk anything, it’s the pulling of the trigger. That threat you talk about is always real. It’s everything else that’s suspect.
If you had to pin down a theme that is most evident in your writing, what would it be?
Satisfaction, probably. I think my characters spend almost all of their time trying to figure out what satisfaction is and whether they deserve it.
At the end of the day, what is the pay-off of being a writer?
I want to say that when I do it, it makes me feel like the best possible version of myself that I can be, but really it’s all about the houseboats and handwritten letters from Jay-Z.
I used to unload trucks at 3 in the morning and write during the day. You were a janitor for a while. I found that doing manual labor really made me appreciate and prioritize my writing time. Was that your experience as well?
The job I had at the meat processing plant was even worse. That’s when writing became this little bit of luck I made sure to give to myself over and over again. Writers seem to want a job that will allow them to use their skills or have the time and space to write or stay in the right mindset to create. I get that nobody wants to hang drywall or drive a forklift or break their damn back doing any number of terrible things robots haven’t been invented for yet, but just pay your fucking bills and carry on. Fill up a dozen fifty-five gallon drums of cow guts a week for six years and then tell me about the burden of being a writer. We’re in the perspective game, people.
What is your writing routine like? Does it involve ritual sacrifice of any kind?
Every year in the early throes of spring, I get a big glass of iced tea, put on some ambient music, open up a Word document, don’t write anything for six months, panic, and then write a whole book over the course of the next couple of seasons.
You run Passenger Side Books out of your basement, right? What I dig most about the chapbooks you make is the degree of nuance that every work receives. It smacks of love. In fact, it’s something I love about chapbooks versus books. They (chapbooks) all feel a little more intimate somehow. They’re things you long to hold in your hand. If Passenger Side Books had a mission statement, what would it be?
My basement was actually the basement of my buddy’s house I was paying a scant $200 a month to live in at the time. He was the responsible one who went to college for Economics and had a son and a house and was generally on his way to being a perfectly wonderful model of a thoughtful, forward-thinking American. I was more at the stage of my life where I was like “Maybe I’ll buy a printer.” These days I run it from a tiny desk and table in my apartment, at least until the poly-fiber-brushed elephant-tusk floors are done being laid in my mansion.
I feel the same way about chapbooks. Every single one of them has to be touched, at least the way I do it. I’m lining up the pages (or trying, as there are some seriously fucked copies of PSB titles floating around), stapling them, putting a little something special inside each page—your PSB book had a goddamn nickel glued in each one. If PSB were to have a mission statement, it’d be From me to you, because that’s the only important thing in this sweet old world.
Do you see yourself still writing at 73?
That’s not really how the future works for me. Everything is gradual. It would be like if you asked me on the first day of band practice what I think our first album’s going to sound like. I imagine that 73 is a lot like any other age in that if I make it there, I’ll just be happy to be doing anything.
I know I used to believe the thought of getting a degree in creative writing was ridiculous…then I went and got an MFA. Many of the writers I admire most have no degree in writing, though. What are your thoughts on MFAs?
A face-to-face community of writers trying to make each other better writers, along with the leadership of a skilled mentor, is something that absolutely cannot be duplicated. An MFA is going to offer all that in addition to classroom experience teaching the fundamental mechanics of writing and a network of potential friends, publishers, and general supporters. None of that can be duplicated, either, and I never did any of it. So I don’t really have an opinion on MFAs other than they seem nice.
I sat in my room and read a bunch of books and wrote a bunch of stories and figured out what I thought was good and why and figured out what I thought was bad and why, and for awhile that was the only thing I was doing, the complete, uninterrupted immersion in craft and critical thought that provided me with an extremely wrought personal canon. This can also not be duplicated.
What do you hate most about today’s literary culture?
There’s too much of it.
I personally think the most interesting writing these days is coming out of independent and small presses. What are some of your favorite small presses?
They’re all like small record labels in that it’s usually hit or miss, but that’s part of the fun. I don’t dive too deep into the pool, really. I could tell you more about indie wrestling promotions.
Future Tense is the archetypal chapbook press for me, and I go back to the Gary Lutz book they put out frequently, in addition to their awesome new Scout imprint. Short Flight/Long Drive put out that amazing stuff by Mary Miller, Chelsea Martin, and Dylan Nice. Magic Helicopter is another great chapbook press I have a lot of stuff from. Curbside has so many imprints now I bet I’ve dug a bunch from them and didn’t even know it. Caketrain’s books always look amazing and about half the time put out the best stuff I’ve ever read (Tongue Party, Short Dark Oracles, Nevers). I’ve been out of things for the past six months or so while I work on some music projects. There are probably a hundred more killer presses out there that are all new and exciting.
What kind of influence do you think the internet is having on writing? Do you think Facebook is making us all assholes?
I don’t know what impact the internet and social media in general have had on publishing, but as far as disposition goes, I think we’re all getting more and more impatient. That goes for the way we write, the way we promote writing, and the way we receive writing. “Retweets” and “shares” are things a lot of people put a lot of stock in. There’s so much outrage. If a day is terrible for the world, there will be a Roxane Gay article with a hundred comments on it before that day is over. It’s not What have you done for me lately? as much as it’s What are you doing for me right now? People check their Submittable accounts too much. We’re so attached to preserving the moment that we’re essentially planning out our own highlight reels and missing the ephemeral shove of what it is we’re trying to document.
Those are all the shitty things, though. I think the internet and social media have made us smarter, at least in theory. There’s no excuse for being a dipshit. You want to learn guitar? There’s a thousand videos on YouTube that’ll teach you how to play “Highway To Hell.” You want to write? Google “How do I write a poem?” and you’ll get, if not a lot of advice of varying degrees of accuracy, at least a lot of advice. Are we assholes? Sure, but it’s only because we expect so much more.
What projects do you currently have kicking around?
I’m working on what I’m calling a “shattered novella” called Soft that’s essentially a story longer than I normally tell, as told in sections even shorter than I normally use. The one-line for it is boring—a guy tries to get his band and life back together—but I’m hoping there’s something of risk in there, a threat, as you might put it. Right now it’s just a bad Mary Robison impression.
I’m also working on a collection of wrestling-based stories. I hope it makes people like wrestling, at least in theory. I also hope it makes wrestling fans stop being dickheads most of the time.
Other than that I’m working on some random stories here and there, just little short shorts to kick the rust off. Outside of writing, and the reason I haven’t been writing, I released two EPs with two different bands this year and wrote a whole other album to be recorded with one of them, not to mention regular practice and shows with a third band that hammered out a few songs here and there. In terms of kicking around, I think I’m more on the receiving end.
Would you mind completing some sentences for me?
The soundtrack to my life is ____________________.
The soundtrack to my death will be ___________________________.
someone saying, a bit too loudly above a group of people just a little too small to be considered a crowd, “Crazy weather we’ve been having lately.”
If I were a wrestler my professional wrestling name would be ________.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty.
A movie I’ve seen too many times to admit in an interview is _______.
In the next life, if I could choose, I would like to be a ___________.
God is ___________.
a decent idea.