It’s been a busy year for Jim Ruland. His novel Forest of Fortune, about three lives caught in a possibly supernatural spiral at a casino, was recently released; earlier in the year, Giving the Finger, his collaboration with Scott Campbell, Jr., also hit shelves. (Ruland also spoke about both during his appearance earlier this summer on Almost Live at Mellow Pages.) Ruland also runs the Vermin on the Mount reading series and writes regularly for Razorcake, and all of these factored into this interview, conducted via email over the course of a week and change.
The three central characters in Forest of Fortune have wildly disparate histories, though each has their own set of addictions and compulsions. When you were writing the novel, how did you see the three of them in comparison to one another? And how did you find the right level of balance between their stories?
In some ways the book is a response to novels with single protagonists who are either orphans or outcasts, misfits with few connections to society. They move around the world the author has created for them with little difficulty and think their precocious thoughts. Where’s the challenge in that? I wanted to write a book with characters whose lives were messy and complicated, people with problematic relationships in their love life, with their families and in the workplace. I wanted drama to come from co-workers, siblings, exes – just like life. So at first I didn’t see these characters as having much in common but once their storylines started to converge I saw how similar they were.
There’s a supernatural element in this novel; did you have that in mind from the outset, or did you realize after a while that you wanted to incorporate those elements and go beyond realism?
One of the obstacles that people with addiction issues face is the popular notion that it can be treated with will power, determination and effort, i.e. reducing alcoholism, gambling addiction, etc. to a problem of motivation. This carries over to the page. Writers are obsessed with motive. Readers who don’t understand addiction demand to know why characters keep doing things that aren’t in their best interest. So I created a slot machine that may or may not be imbued with supernatural powers to “explain” its hold over some of the characters in the casino. I’m not sure what the plausibility of this device says about the times we live in but there you go.
You delve into some of the Southwest’s history in the novel; how did you go about doing research for that?
I grew up in Virginia across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., a place lousy with history. So it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I was the kid who sought out battlefield markers and old houses and things like that. American history is the history of occupation. That became eminently clear once I went to work for a sovereign nation. I don’t want to say too much about the book’s historical framework, but I was very conscious of the reader’s expectations from a story with Native American elements, especially one that presumably has one foot in the supernatural.
In your interview with Justin Maurer, you mentioned that you began work on this novel in 2008. Have you been working on other fiction–either longer or shorter pieces–since then?
Yes, Forest of Fortune was on submission for a long time and I kept busy with some other projects. I’m in the home stretch of a high concept, near future, dystopian novel that deals with the collapse of the health care system into a something crude and anarchic. Think hospital as debtor’s prison, which perhaps isn’t such a stretch. The protagonist works for an underground organization who busts people out of these prison hospitals. And we meet her on a really shitty day. It’s called Make It Stop.
For the last two years I’ve been shuttling back and forth between San Diego and Los Angeles. To make it work I’ve been doing a lot of pet sitting, plant watering and house watching for friends in LA. This has been incredibly inspiring and I’ve written a number of stories in which pet-sitters find themselves in worst-case scenarios (disappearing dogs, carnivorous plants, telepathic felines). When it occurred to me that I’d written a linked collection of short stories about cats, I doubled down and wrote a novella that exposes a global conspiracy to take over the human race. That one is called Cat Sitting in Hollywood.
Did your work on Giving the Finger change the way that you write?
Not at all. The collaboration I did with Scott Campbell, Jr. of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch is a kind of literary ventriloquism. Junior has an amazing story and has been through an incredible number of hardships in his 20+ years fishing the Bering Sea. It was an egoless enterprise in that there’s only room for one voice, and it’s not mine. After it came out, I read a short passage aloud at a party and it felt so strange. They weren’t my words and I wasn’t prepared for that since I’d become intimate with the story after working on it for about a year. I think the experience made a better interviewer. I’m working on the proposal for another nonfiction project that I’m very excited about it, and I feel like it’s been an easier process.
Has running Vermin on the Mount had any effect on your own writing?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t see how it wouldn’t, though probably in a more oblique way in that it’s had a profound impact on my reading. Vermin has given me a front row seat to a lot of indie and emerging writers on the West Coast. Even after 10 years I find it very inspiring. It’s certainly changed how I feel about readings. I really respond to writers who own their words, engage the audience, and leave me wanting more. I think that’s also a pretty good description of the kind of short essays I aspire to write for my bi-monthly column in Razorcake, so maybe the performative aspect has influenced my writing.
As someone who’s written for the likes of Flipside and Razorcake, I’m curious: what have you been listening to lately that’s gotten your attention?
In L.A. I really like The Bots, OFF!, Spokenest and White Murder. I’m still grooving on Mind Spiders out of Texas (especially “Haunted Casino” the song they wrote for my book trailer). In San Diego, my go to label is Volar Records. And I guess I should mention that I’m currently obsessed with Baby Metal from Japan so much so that my wife bought me tickets to go see them when they came to L.A. My favorite record has always been the one I just got my hands on last week.
You recently decided to move to San Diego full-time. Do you anticipate this having any effect on your writing?
I hope so. Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve worked as a copywriter all my life and I’m taking a break from advertising for a bit. How long? I don’t know. I’m really looking forward to committing my time and energy to the things I’m most passionate about, which includes a new storytelling project with veteran writers called Famous Sailors. Maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe I’ll end up back at the casino. Maybe I’ll walk down to the Pacific and from there I’ll improvise. Who knows? San Diego has always been a great place for old sailors.