Through the Viewfinder: Pamela Ryder with Peter Markusby Peter Markus
Pamela Ryder writes sentences like no other writer I know. I remember my first encounter with her fiction, a story called “Hovenweep” as it appeared as the opening story in Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly #29, a story that begins, “We are too much in the open here: sky, sky, slick rock, heat, and high above us the circling birds.” What is this word Hovenweep? I remember asking myself. Might it be a made-up word to go along with the world of a made-up fiction? It was a dizzying reading experience right out of the gate, one filled with the sensations that I go out seeking when I pick up any work of fiction, any work of art: to be bewitched by what I see and hear, by what I hold. I was immediately held. And was not let go, and did not want to let go, for all the sentences that then followed. “We are left too much unshadowed by the shape of them,” the second sentence then went on to say, “escaping past the canyon walls, winging down the stone, unshaded by the deer-stripped juniper that juts above the river.” I knew I was in a place. I was placed inside this place: a place of shadow and light, stone and bird. I was sold, not so much by what was being said, but by how the sentences were being delivered and slung, fasted as they were to the page, and to my eye. I could not, I dared not, I did not want to look away. The magic of fiction was taking place here in this moment: the given being displaced by the made. I remember, too, soon after I read this story, taking it in with me to a fiction class I was teaching and reading the story aloud to my students, and trying not to stop at the end of each sentence to marvel at the joys to be found at the stoppage of every period: the shapes of the sounds, the rivers that Ryder was able to carve out of stone, the images of blood squeezed from ink. That story, “Hovenweep,” a word I still to this day don’t know what it means or if it is a made up word or if it, perhaps, makes reference to a kind of flower, or weed, a thing of the actual world, later appeared in Ryder’s second book, the collection of stories A Tendency to Be Gone. Open this book to any page and read at random any one of the sentences you’ll find there and expect to be immediately transported to worlds made of dirt and stone and heart. Yes, more than anything else, Ryder is a writer of ferocity and the bravest of hearts. Her new book, Paradise Field, digs even deeper than ever before into the fertile ground of family and fathers and daughterhood and tells us what it is to live and die with strength and grace and indignity and meaning, what it means and what it feels to be, in the end, left alone to our own devices. What it means, in the end of all endings, to tend to those emotionally loamy gardens, to give due passage and a ritualized bidding adieu to those we call our own—in this case the father of this book, a WWII fighter pilot, a man who most often, in Ryder’s own words, was a man “gone, flying to parts far-flung.” I had the pleasure of asking Ryder some questions by email about this latest book and her life as a writer and what it is that keeps driving her sentences.
Peter Markus (Rail): I don't know where to begin. I have so much I want to say. Let's begin at the beginning, then. What gave rise to the writing of this book? And before even this book: what gave rise to you reaching for a pencil? As a writer of such lush, lyrical fictions—a writer, I often say, unlike any other—what is it that keeps you coming back?
Pamela Ryder: Peter, these are complex questions, so I need to break it down a bit. So to begin with, “What keeps me writing?” It’s the singleness of it—the separateness of writing—that is a reflection of how I see myself in the world: somehow not fitting in very well, and now, finally, getting older, not wishing it were any other way. Writing is a solitary business, as is all of this life—of this everything, and in the end, no matter what comfort one attempts to cultivate to convince ourselves that we are loved, or that we will never be abandoned, or that we will be remembered—it is all rubbish, you see. Standing alone: that is what remains. Separateness is what endures. That being said, writing is a form of preparation for me—a humbling practice for that final aloneness. A trial of sorts, for what is coming: a journey unaccompanied, unattended. Traveling light.
As to: Why did I start to write? I was an utterly dismissible child: awkward, unattractive. Little was expected of me. My childhood—essentially one of self-loathing, was interrupted—no: redeemed—by my solitary rambles outdoors, not in deep and lovely woods, but in shabby, empty tracts of land in our neighborhood where whole blocks of suburban houses had once stood, having been smashed flat and hauled off to make way for an interstate highway coming through. The old yards and gardens went to weeds, the driveways cracked. As a kind of wilderness grew in that ruined landscape, so did a peculiar pantheism grow within me. I collected stones and seeds and leaves and feathers—took them to my room—cherished objects—a solace. And when, at some point during my adolescence, I was required—commanded—as perhaps we all had been in school, to “go home and write a poem,” I wrote “The Highway.” The poem was quite long. Rhyming. I mourned my scrubby little Eden coming to an end as the surveyors made their marks for road-cuts and as the asphalt rolled in. But I knew that, now no matter what happened to those beloved and blighted yards which had been a sanctuary, they were there on the page—and would endure, would remain there, safe on the page. When I turned it in—this poem—I was told (teachers, principal), “Oh, come on, you didn’t write this yourself—not you.” Not someone like me. But it was me. It was more me than me. I had written something so wonderful it couldn’t have been me. Dismissible me. And I felt something akin to joy.
I did not continue writing after that, however. The old patterns of self-doubt and insecurity, of fear of failure, kept me from writing for decades. But the objects stayed with me. I pick up stones to this day. Pebbles in the gutter. Leaves. Twigs. Anything. They fill my stories.
I came to write Paradise Field—the stories about the final years of a WWII bomber pilot and the adult daughter who cares for the old man—because of my father’s death. The book is my father and I. His flight from the family. His final years, final indignities. My ineptitude, resentments, recollections. The unfathomable notion of approaching death, and the decrepit attempts to keep it at bay. Paradise Field was a way to preserve him, preserve us. He was gone, the years he was my father had vanished, and it was too late to do anything about it except to write it. Too late to make amends for the words never spoken, the regrets. I knew I had to write it because it so pained me to do so. I remember Gordon Lish speaking on “what to write about.” He advised that we recognize those objects that we find so engaging, so beguiling, that we cannot look away from them. Write that, he said. But he also advised that we attend to those objects from which we want to turn away. From which we want to avert our gaze. Those, too. Write that.
Rail: There are these sentences which make me think of you, your way as a writer: “There is grit in her nails, a twig in her hair, a found piece of bone in her pocket. She is a child who peeks under rocks, who likes the millipede that rolls into a perfect sphere when touched.” Though likely not intended, these words serve as a kind of metaphor to the kind of writer I believe you to be: the dirt beneath the nails, the world you are so attuned with in your hair—twig, flower, sky—the found objects you carry in your pockets and pull out and pull sentences and stories that are rooted and then chiseled to such things: bone, stone, rock, father. Would you say that I am onto something here in terms of your approach to writing fiction?
Ryder: The writing is indeed rooted in the objects that draw me to them. I almost said “the objects that fascinate me,” but that isn’t it at all—no, no. I believe—I know—that the artifacts I hold dear have lives of their own and, therefore, stories of their own. You dig a hole for whatever reason (to find water, or plant a rosebush, or bury a father) and you find there in the dirt: a shard, a rusty buckle, a bone—and now in your hand are the artifacts that make the story. And it needn’t be many objects to make the story. (In fact, if there are too many objects in the story, the objects won’t cling to each other, but will run away from the writer—scamper off the page, setting the story adrift.) And you take those artifacts—the buckle, the bone, the shard—and place them in the mindset of a magic pouch, and spill them onto the table, and as conjurer, you present those now sacred pieces in what only appears to be a chanced arrangement, then toss again, place them this way and that, here and there, now you see them, now you don’t and now you do again.
Rail: The word “daughter” is such a charged word in this book. Some words, I often say, in the hands of one writer, mean so much more than they do in the hands of every other writer. “Daughter,” I’d go so far as to say, is a word that now belongs to you. You have claimed all authority over this word, have made it entirely your own. You also place the name, Pamela, in the few places where and when “the daughter” is given a name. In choosing to do so, are you making it a point to say that this fiction is truth? Not that a fiction that is made up is any less true, yes? But I’m curious to hear you speak to that sometimes fine line that this book in particular seems to be straddling and maybe even going so far as to call it into question?
Ryder: This is a startling question. But, yes. The word, “daughter” is charged. I hadn’t accepted this notion until you asked. Charged. “Daughter”—the sound and meaning of it seems peculiar to me, almost alien. Daughter as outsider. And yes, again: that giving the daughter my name is a way of saying that the stories are true. And, where “the daughter” needs to be named, what better name could I give her? What other name would do?
But back to what is true and what is not: when it comes to writing, what is truth outdoes what is true. What is true must be shaped into a greater, more powerful truth—in the telling of it. At the end of “As Those Who Know the Dead Will Do”, the daughter and father go looking for an old B-17. So sure the father is of the location of an old airfield, that they hike—the father: heart-sore, the daughter: dubious—at night, in the desert, towards the shape of what seems to be a junked plane up ahead. But it is not a plane at all. Just a boulder looming in the desert dark.
What was true was that we actually did find the plane—he and I—rusting to pieces at the end of an overgrown runway. We climbed up into the ruined, crumbling cockpit, and he sat in what was left of the pilot’s seat. But I was afraid we were trespassing, that we might be caught. Let’s get out of here, I said. Hell, my father said, I flew this thing. But I made us go. I made him leave—us leave—too, too quickly. His story—and mine—cut short by my foolishness, my faintness of heart. So, when I made it into a story, I wrote that we never found a plane at all, which was the same as running away from it, leaving it too soon. What we had lost.
Rail: You speak about the writer’s solitude, the fact that we “stand alone,” and your fiction certainly is singular, and perhaps through its “separateness” it will, I hope, endure. Of course it’s also true that those books and writers who seek out their own singularity, or can't help but be because such separateness is the source and nature of their song, are also those books already on “a trial of sorts, for what is coming: a journey unaccompanied, unattended.” I love that. Here's the question I am trying to ask: Is it possible, though, that language itself might connect us, or make us at least a little less alone? Or doesn’t it quite work like that, in the end of ends, especially?
Ryder: No. Never less alone. If anything: more alone.
Listen: Here’s how it goes. I have terrible-looking hands. I was always ashamed of my hands. I remember Gordon Lish advising the writer to acknowledge his “otherness”—because that’s where the story is. Easier said than done, confessing one’s otherness, and then finding a way to turn it into prose fiction.
The day I faced up to my hands was this: I was about to be married. A wedding band was required. The ring salesman (I say salesman, because there is a crassness to the word, instead of “jeweler”) had me put my hands right up there on the counter, on a velvet pillow, on display. A spectacle of the grotesque. The ring man had a hard time pushing the ring over my big knuckle. And the ring—a simple band—when finally forced onto me—was an absurdity on my hands. An excrescence. I went home and wrote it, and freed myself: “My hands are not hands you would like to have. Hard, you might say, if you saw my hands, homely, big-knuckled hard and unpretty.” And then there it was—an admission of my peculiarity which would be the story, confirmed by the language, the delivery, the diction.
Rail: The anecdote about your first poem and the “something akin to joy” that it delivered to you as a child—even if your teachers rejected it and didn't believe that such a thing could come from the Pam that they believed they knew you to be—does the fiction that you deliver to the page now—and specifically in this new and, dare I say it, your strongest, most tenderly dangerous book, though I relish every sentence you've ever delivered to the pages of all of your three books—is there in them that sensation that is “something akin to joy”?
Ryder: Yes. Akin. When it comes out right on the page.
Rail: I’d like to hear more about Lish’s dare. Look away but say. Or look closer at what you might not want your gaze to see. To say what otherwise might not be—said, seen, otherwise not seen. And what you do say—the act of its saying—is an act of, what? Would the word “love” suffice? The solitude of such a moment—that wish to turn away, to avert, but in the end being able to stay: the making that might come of that! Paradise Field, it’s really spectacular. How I wish I had a better word. But a spectacle, a marvel, no doubt! Thank you!
Ryder: No. Not love. Not at all. You say you wish you had a better way of saying it. Me too. But I have often thought that “banana fever”—Seymour Glass’s affliction—would certainly do.
Rail: Twice now you’ve mentioned the advice, the teachings, the influence of Gordon Lish—a writer, editor, a man famous, Delillo once said, for all the wrong reasons—on you and your work. What else might you have to say about how Lish’s words and his approach to being a writer have shaped you and your fiction?
Ryder: He told me: One day you’ll thank me for all the times I said, “No.” And I do. Simply put: If not for Gordon Lish, I would not be a writer.
Rail: Talk to me some more about the delivery of your fiction, its diction, how a story is, in your words, “confirmed by the language.” How often does the language fall short and fail to offer up its blessings?
Ryder: If the language falls short, I have only myself to blame. And if the language fails, so does the story. Language always prevails over content. You’ve got to let the language win out, even if it changes what you think you want to say. When it appeared my father wasn’t getting better, I asked him what song he’d like sung at his funeral, “just in case” was how I put it. He actually said, “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder”—the Air Corps song. But the language of that title didn’t fit the story and didn’t sound right. So the story—the retelling, became this (the father speaking first):
No flowers. A song might be nice. One of my favorites.
Which one?—just in case, the daughter said.
You pick, he said.
Rail: My own father is in a similar landscape as the father here in your book: a mind in its own flight, a body that knows only the space that is his bed and the few tangible things still in view for him to latch hold of and see with his eyes—luckily a river he always loved and taught me how to love. Your book really hits home. It is a hammer-song to the heart, and I know that others of our aging generation who are now caretakers of our parents will be moved by the story that you’ve delivered to us. Not that a work of fiction has to do or be anything, not that a story must instruct us in any way, and yet I find myself better prepared, more firmly footed, for what I know is ultimately coming, that "final aloneness.” So here again, Pam, from the core of me my thanks.
Ryder: No, I thank you, for this interview. And for telling me the circumstances of you and your father, and that outside his window runs a river—the tangible element of passage. What more suitable a view?
PETER MARKUS is the author of the novel Bob, or Man on Boat, as well as five other books of fiction, among them The Fish and the Not Fish, We Make Mud, and Good, Brother. His new book is Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools.