Ryan W. Bradley‘s fiction can be as intense and haunting as the stark Alaskan landscapes that frequently serve as its backdrop. Many of the stories in Nothing But the Dead and Dying feature characters pushed to their limit, facing insurmountable conflicts or the collapse of something they’ve held dear. At the heart of his earlier novel Winterswim was a massively screwed-up father-son dynamic, running alongside a narrative of obsession and murder. I talked with Bradley about the role of place in his work, the process of putting his new collection together, and more.
Alaska looms large in a lot of your fiction. When did you begin focusing on it as a setting? Do you feel like you write about it differently from outside of it?
Faulkner said, “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi” and I think that might go doubly for Alaska. It’s such a different place and it makes for a different breed of person, too. I didn’t really know how to write about Alaska, but I wanted to. When I was in my MFA I spent a semester working with Craig Lesley who encouraged me to focus on the people. That really localized what I was going for. It became obvious that to write about Alaska is to write about the men and women who live there. I thought about the people I grew up around and the people I worked with during my brief time in the Arctic. The stories started unlocking from there. And while I didn’t write while I lived or worked in Alaska, I know that my writing is different for all those experiences, just as they made me a different person.
Do you find yourself striving for accuracy in the settings that you describe, or are you looking to create a more stylized sense of place?
I think there’s a compromise. Ron Carlson talks about how when you write you can’t let yourself get hung up on being accurate, that you can deal with that later. There are times where I will pull up Google maps and look at locations or find distances between locations, that sort of thing. But a lot of the locales are places I lived or spent time, so there are times where I’m content with the mental images I’ve retained. I think little details are what make the difference. Did I use the correct neighborhood to correspond to the school in the story, or the name of a real restaurant, that sort of thing. Including those buys a little leeway in other creative liberties, I think. Though, there’s definitely a pressure to represent the place correctly, to do the locations justice for anyone who might be familiar with them.
As you were putting together Nothing But the Dead and Dying, how did you go about selecting the stories and organizing them?
I’m a tinkerer. And that’s on top of being obsessive compulsive and just generally neurotic as hell. So, it wasn’t easy. The book was years in the making, with several different versions of the manuscript over that time. Every time the manuscript disappeared into the grand ether of writerly disillusionment I’d end up adding a couple more stories. Originally I think there were sixteen stories. The final product is twenty-four. And I cut a few out. There were even a couple stories that had been published in journals, but that every time I thought about them I felt like I hadn’t gotten them as right as I wanted them to be, so I left them out.
The hardest thing to do was decide which story would open the collection. The story I wanted to kick off the book with was deemed by a few trusted folks to be too brutal of an introduction to the book. I ended up going with a story that I felt encapsulated the themes of the book, like the protein pill version of the collection.
In the last six months before it went to print I changed the order four times. Finally I sat down, spread out the first and last page of each story on the floor, and tried to come up with a flow. I like to think of a story or poetry collection like an album, trying to make one track fit with the next one. It becomes a complicated dance when you have twenty-four stories.
Throughout the collection, many of the characters are caught between their lives and their jobs–whether the latter is hazardous seasonal work or playing baseball. What attracts you to this theme?
Work is what I know. I’ve busted my ass my whole adult life at a strange array of jobs. But I also find jobs to be a philosophical conundrum. I have an existential qualm with the very concept. We spend a significant portion of our waking hours at our jobs, so naturally they reach into everything else we do. Especially our relationships with other people, friends and significant others. The way we relate to the world around us is shaped, whether we like it or not, by the work we do and the effect it has on us. If you have a hard day at work, you’re going to be a different version of yourself when you get home than if you’d had a great day.
I don’t know how to reconcile these things for myself, in the real world, in my every day life. So, whether it’s wholly intentional or not, I create scenarios to explore them through fiction. Maybe one day I’ll unlock some truth or understanding. Or maybe I’ll just keep searching.
Were most of the stories in Nothing But the Dead and Dying written after Winterswim? Would you say that these two works have affected one another at all?
Actually the bulk of the stories were written before Winterswim. I think of the twenty-four stories in the book only two or three were written after Winterswim. I get fuzzy on timelines, so it could be a few more than that. And I’m not sure I can know how they might have fed off one another. In some ways Winterswim feels like an anomaly to me, like a weird fever dream, which is probably fitting given the content of that book. It was written during an intense period of my life and the bulk of it was written in a short period of time. Meanwhile, the stories of Nothing But the Dead and Dying are like a child. The earliest of them pre-date my younger son, and I worked with the manuscript for so many years that they exist in a different way. The process made me a better writer, but I also believe there’s no way I could write them again. I left a part of myself in those stories.
In the midst of a number of stories of disasters, crime, and violence, you make way for a story set in the world of baseball. What attracted you to that particular world?
Baseball was my first love. So, writing a baseball story was something I always wanted to do, I just had to find the right angle for it. The reality of baseball in Alaska is definitely more refined than in the story, so it’s one place where I let the creative license reign. Team USA used to come up and play exhibition games and one of Nolan Ryan’s sons pitched for a team in Anchorage. I think I still have a card of him from when I was a kid. I struggled with whether I should be more accurate, but I think the rustic nature that I portray is a necessary counterbalance to the story. The process behind the story is also a sort of microcosm for the collection as a whole. It went through numerous iterations. At one point it was actually the size of Winterswim and could have been its own little book. But I kept chopping it down. Ultimately it’s in the collection because it’s a continuation of themes explored in a few other stories. There’s a balance (I hope) between stories about the brutalities of life and stories about the melancholy of human desires.
You’ve spent time in a punk band–would you say that that’s had any effect on your writing?
I’m sure it has, but maybe not always in obvious ways. Writing punk songs is a pithy process and I think I write that way naturally, so maybe it played to my strengths. But when you write lyrics you sing them to yourself, trying to get a feel for them, for how the words work together, and I think I use that in revising my writing, too. I read sentences out loud, even if just under my breath, to hear how they work. I think even writing short, blunt sentences in a sort of Hemingway-esque manner, there’s still a music to the language. If you do it right.
In addition to your work as a writer, you also do an extensive amount of art and design work. Do you find that there’s any connection between the two?
They definitely have similar origin points. Most of what I write comes from initial impressions, an opening sentence or even a title. Where it goes from there is a process of discovery, which is maybe why writing takes me longer as I get older, my brain isn’t as rapid fire as it was when I was a cocky twenty-something. Art is the same. I have an idea and I set out to move that idea from my brain into a visual, but there’s a process of discovery. My artistic abilities and the concepts I see in my head don’t always align, so then I am left to play with the idea, to move it around, mold it or break it, until I find something satisfying. But the motivation is very different. If I am drawing or designing something for myself, I am doing it out of a base desire to create imagery. If I am writing something there’s a specific purpose. There’s a story I want to tell, or more importantly, there’s something I’m trying to explore and understand. That’s what makes writing a more painful pursuit for me.
The last year and a half, you’ve had a novel and a collection come out. What’s next for you?
This is the first time in years that I don’t have something concrete on the horizon. I have no clue when my next book will be out. I have several finished manuscripts, including a novel that pre-dates Winterswim, and there may be some sort of movement on that for the first time in years, but in general there’s a sort of writer’s abyss standing in front of me. I haven’t written nearly as much in the last few years, but there are a ton of projects I want to undertake, that I hope will come to fruition.