Five years ago, the short story collection The Littlest Hitler hit bookshelves, announcing Ryan Boudinot as one of our funniest and most exciting new writers. Littlest Hitler was named a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. Boudinot followed up that collection with two novels: the “page-turning” humorous thriller Misconception, which was a finalist for the PEN/USA Literary Award, and his latest effort, the “page-turner/page-hugger” Blueprints of the Afterlife, which was released in January.
Boudinot’s website for Blueprints is a great example of an author expanding his universe beyond the page. The site contains amazing artwork, blueprints of places and objects from the novel, and a contest in which readers who mention Blueprints online will receive a page from the Blueprints of the Afterlife manuscript.
McSweeney’s, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Monkeybicycle, Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Opium, and Hobart are just some of the places where Boudinot’s writing has appeared. He is also on the faculty of Goddard College’s MFA program in Port Townsend, Washington, which is how I met him, as he was my adviser during my first semester of graduate school. I recently interviewed Ryan via email about his new novel, speaking at a TED conference, and how one masters the “judicious reveal.”
Ryan Sartor: You went to the MFA program at Bennington College. Did you study creative writing in undergrad as well?
Ryan Boudinot: I did, yeah. I went to The Evergreen State College, which has a non-traditional curriculum (i.e., no grades or tests). I took a couple writing workshops and designed three quarters of independent study around writing a novel. You don’t really declare a major at Evergreen, but at the end I looked at all my credits and figured out I’d been a creative writing major.
RS: How long were you writing before you had work published? What kept you going before that first piece was published?
RB: It depends on what you mean by published. My first publication happened when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was a sports story that ran in my hometown newspaper, the Skagit Valley Herald. When I was in high school I worked for three years as a sports reporter and photographer for my hometown weekly newspaper, the Skagit Argus. So I was used to seeing my byline and was getting paid for my writing before I could drive. But if you’re talking about fiction, apart from some zines, my first journal publication happened in 2001, in Mississippi Review. Interestingly enough, it was an issue where Miranda July had her first story published, too. I guess what kept me going was that I like writing. Publishing isn’t some sort of reward that, if you don’t achieve it, you pack up and go home. Publication is a method that helps you achieve the real reward, which is to write more.
RS: At Woo-jin’s job, where he is a Restaurant and Hotel Management Olympics gold medal-winning dishwasher, his boss has a comedic authority reminiscent of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Sea Oak. Both you and George Saunders spent time in other jobs before becoming professional writers. Has that experience with authority given you time to develop a specific view of boss/employee relationships? How would you characterize your viewpoint on that topic?
RB: I’ve had my share of asshole bosses, but I’ve also been a boss. What I appreciate about Saunders is how his authority figures often come across as basically nice guys who are uncomfortable being tyrants. Like they’re just a higher order of schlub and are themselves shat upon by higher-ups. When I was a boss (for a few years I ran a customer support team at a tech start-up), I aimed to treat my employees like actual human beings with more important aspects of their lives besides their jobs. But I also came to see just how flaky certain people could be.
RS: Did your time working for websites like Amazon help shape your view of technology?
RB: Of course it did. I guess if there’s an overarching theme I took away from my ten-year tech career, it’s that technology is a fucking mess. It constantly wants to fall apart. On the other hand, this is how it gets better. Things break, get patched up with code, fall apart again, and slowly, haphazardly, technology improves. And I was always impressed by the ways in which technology companies operated according to the same human emotions and motivations that are present in other spheres. Technology doesn’t seem cold to me at all. It feels rife with human drama.
RS: In Blueprints of the Afterlife, you take great care to reveal hard-to-believe aspects of the story in pieces, so that they feel utterly convincing by the time they are fleshed out. A great example of this in the beginning of the novel. You mention the “New York Alki staging area” and attach it to an already established place, Il Italian Joint. Four pages later, the reader gets his first view of the full-scale New York City being built in Puget Sound: “From the parking lot they witnessed the erratically lit-up skyline of New York Alki peeking over some nearby houses and businesses.” Does it take a while to find the right way to convey this sort of information to the reader or does it pour out in a natural progression?
RB: I think what you’re getting at is what a former colleague of mine, a screenwriter, calls “the judicious reveal.” Ideas are necessarily underdeveloped when they first appear, and then you have to figure out what you’re going to do with them. For New York Alki, I had this idea that there would be a replica of Manhattan under construction in Puget Sound. And in the beginning, that was about all I knew. Then I started asking myself questions about it. Who would build it? How would they deal with the existing buildings on Bainbridge Island? How would they reshape the coastline? Who would live there? And the process of answering these questions became elements of plot. One thing I did know, though, was that I would have to get my characters there. You can’t just toss up something cool like a replica of a city and not give readers a way to play around inside of it.
RS: You once said that there are two kinds of books: “Page-turners and page-huggers.” While I think that your first novel, Misconception, was definitely a page-turner, Blueprints feels like a combination of those two types of novels. How did you decide on the pacing of Blueprints?
RB: I want to make sure you properly attribute the quote. It’s from Gary Lutz, in his essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” (A fantastic essay everyone who cares about writing should read.) When I was writing Misconception my mantra was “the story is the unit of measurement.” Meaning that I wanted a sort of unadorned prose, with my attention paid to plot and pacing. Of course it’s not as clear-cut as that, and of course I tinkered with sentences, but I tried to stay focused on arcs. With Blueprints I wanted to luxuriate in the language a bit, and I started thinking in terms of “the sentence is the unit of measurement.” I still kept a sort of stripped-down approach in the Luke Piper sections, but the post-FUS sections I indulged myself in seeing how far I could take individual sentences.
RS: Back to Blueprints: Woo-jin’s ennui attacks are fascinating. Is that idea based in real science?
RB: No. I was more just thinking about what a character with an abnormal capacity for emotional intelligence and very little of any other kind of intelligence would be like.
RS: You recently gave a talk at a TED conference on “Nature, Humanity and Technology,” themes that are quite present in Blueprints. What was that experience like? Are you officially in the Genius Club now?
RB: I was terrified to give that talk, and it resulted in a good three months of stress. I enjoy reading to an audience, but I had to memorize my TEDx talk. I came away from that experience with a lot more respect for actors. Standing in the wings before they called me onto the stage I could literally hear my heart. But yes, I intended the talk to be a nonfiction exploration of some of the themes from the novel. I was so relieved when that was through.
RS: There are many moments in the Blueprints that felt cinematic (for lack of a better term), such as when a character is lifted off in a helicopter and descriptions of New York Alki at the end of the novel. Would you ever be interested in adapting ‘Blueprints’ for film or do you think such adaptations can only harm the original work?
RB: I’m not really interested in adapting the novel myself, because I’m done with it and onto the next thing. Did the film adaptation of Ulysses hurt that book? No, I don’t think film adaptations hurt books. It’s not like they retroactively alter the text.
RS: The introduction of Abby Fogg is quite profound: “Ever since childhood, Abby Fogg had wondered why she was herself instead of somebody else.” This detail takes on many meanings throughout the novel, but I initially thought of it in the context of depression. Was that the jumping off point for you in developing Abby?
RB: I think it’s a pretty common thought, when we’re kids, to suddenly realize how bizarre it is that we were born ourselves instead of other people. I remember weirding myself out with this concept and talking to my dad about it. And now I have a son, who a couple years ago started weirding out about it, too.
RS: The “Holy Shit! Telepathy! For Real!” billboard felt like an upgraded version of the sort of humor found in the movie Idiocracy. What were some of the influences you drew upon in the writing of Blueprints?
RB: I haven’t seen that movie. But the movie I kept going back to when writing Blueprints was The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky. There’s no real thematic connection, but I love the audacity of that film, the weirdness and scale of it.
RS: Is there a distinction between predictions for the future that you think will actually happen and what felt true to these characters in this world? Or do the characters always guide these decisions?
RB: I think the breakdown between the categories of natural and artificial is well underway. We are coming to realize that “natural” is the most artificial idea human beings have ever devised, that technology is human, and humans are natural. And I believe the organizing principle of human civilization in the next thousand years is going to evolve away from beating the shit out of each other for worshiping slightly different versions of gods and toward spreading life itself to other planets. I don’t think this is a science fiction project for nerds who dig NASA. I think it’s a spiritual task that will justify human existence and make up for some of the baroque ways we’re shitty to our planet and each other. So that’s what I came to believe after writing this book. At the same time, I’m very wary of going off the deep end with predictions about the future, into the realm of what I call “head shop wisdom.” I think a lot of why we’re seduced by grand, paradigm-shifting ideas is that it makes us feel important to think them. It alleviates some of the crappiness of our lives, all the ways we fall short. This, to me, would explain the existence of Newt Gingrich.
RS: Without being too specific, certain characters meet and interact at different segments of the novel. Do you always have an idea of when story lines will intersect in that way of do characters let you know when they want to meet one another?
RB: I’m more guided by what feels right, I guess. I don’t set out with a plan. But when I get a complete draft down, I orbit around it and make certain connections that you just can’t see as a reader when you’re experiencing the novel linearly.
RS: Do you write full drafts of your novels before you re-write or do you revise as you go?
RB: I try to make a purposeful mess in the first draft, then go back over it. Over time my revisions get to be smaller and smaller. At first the revisions involve lots of machete work, hacking out chunks, adding new chunks. Later, I use a lice comb, picking commas out of sentences.
RS: Was the Luke Piper Q&A more or less difficult to write than other sections of the novel? How did you decide the Luke Piper sections would be told in that format?
RB: I was inspired to render those sections in Q&A format by Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. He interspersed these technical-sounding sections with his primary narrative, and I appreciated what that achieved in terms of tone. I looked at the Luke Piper sections as being the spine of the novel. And I wanted there to be a narrative that happens before the age of Fucked Up Shit, and one that happened after, with the actual age of Fucked Up Shit being something of a black box open to interpretation.
RS: You’ve interviewed quite a few filmmakers. Who have been some of your favorite interview subjects?
RB: I’ve only interviewed a couple. Gus Van Sant, John Cameron Mitchell... who else? The couple who made Little Miss Sunshine. I guess Mitchell was the most fun to interview. This was after his film Short Bus came out. I interviewed these folks as part of my job as an editor at Amazon, between 2004 and 2007. A real high point for me was getting to have lunch with David Lynch. I have never felt so star struck. I sat across from him for an hour, listening to him talk about the unified field and transcendental meditation. At one point I asked him how his chicken was. He replied, “Fantastic! How’s your pasta?” I’ll treasure that small interaction for the rest of my life.
RS: What will be your next writing endeavor? A novel? Short story collection? Non-fiction?
RB: All of the above.