Literary readers have loved Patrick Ryan since 2006. That February his first novel, Send Me, was published to wide acclaim and in October Ann Patchett selected its third chapter, "So Much For Artemis," which had appeared in One Story, for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2006. The next year Ryan published a marvelous YA book, Saints of Augustine, and now he has reached new heights with his second YA novel, In Mike We Trust, published last month. It's a terrific book. Fifteen-year-old, 5'2" Garth Rudd spends the summer coping with his father's drowning, his understandably stressed out mother, his all-seeing best friend Lisa, his potential boyfriend Adam, and his charismatic, scheming Uncle Mike who proves to be untrustworthy yet essential to Garth's development. In the spirit of William Trevor or Wendell Berry, Ryan's excellent writing has a purity of detail and imagination without any showing off. The book's quiet dignity may explain why the hoopla-driven media hasn't yet picked up on it. Do your part by buying it and talking it up among your friends who read.
Ryan generously agreed to answer some questions for Band of Thebes.
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You’ve said the idea for In Mike We Trust started, atypically, with the title. But fifteen year-old Garth Rudd is such a tremendous character it’s hard to imagine him not always existing in your head. How did he evolve?
I have to confess that, after I came up with the story, I cast a version of myself as the main character. To a degree, I probably do that with nearly all my main characters.
If Uncle Mike were arrested after his final scheme and you were on the jury, how would you judge him?
I like Mike—to an extent. But having suffered through jury duty a number of times, I know it would come down to the specifics of the law. Did he actually break a law by taking money under false pretenses? I don’t know, but a prosecutor certainly would. If the answer is yes, I don’t know if I’d waste too many hours in a conference room arguing with eleven other people.
Vampires, pirates, boy wizards, girls who discover they’re royalty – escapism seems to be thriving in books for young people. Can you discuss your preference for realism? Have you ever considered writing super-commercial YA fiction?
I love the idea of writing escapist fiction for teens; I read it myself as a teen. The reason I haven’t published any is because I’ve never been able to create a fantastical situation and then maintain/sustain it. I find it challenging enough to try to render this world convincingly. Plus I think one of the things I enjoy most about writing is trying to write about the seemingly dull and seemingly mundane in a captivating way.
Harper’s website says P.E. Ryan’s novels are for ages 12 and up. What age range do you intend them for, and how conscious of that are you as you’re writing? In your first drafts do find yourself over-explaining, or regretfully steering away from certain topics that Patrick Ryan would want to explore?
I think the ideal age I’m aiming for is around 15. I try to be conscious of what concerned me at that age, and I try to be conscious of the language I choose to use (meaning word choice, not profanity). Sometimes I use a word in dialogue that’s too “lofty,” that’s completely out of true; sometimes I underestimate my audience (which is worse). In terms of subject matter, I have, in fact, steered away from things I’d like to one day explore—darker, heavier stuff that I think runs through every teenager’s head, like vague or not-so-vague ideas about sex, about hatred, about death.
Your adult novel Send Me
has some brilliant moments of high school sex, including Joe’s music practice room oral encounters and his trying to become straight by cutting Farah Fawcett-Majors out of her poster, sweet-talking her, and “succeeding only in giving myself paper cuts in the last place you would ever want them.” Your YA characters are close to Joe’s age and they cope with complex issues like pot smoking, drug dealing, violence, alcoholism, and money scams. Why are they allowed to cuss but not even mention masturbating or have any physical intimacy beyond a couple kisses? Perhaps young readers anguished about their sexual activities – solo or otherwise -- would find it reassuring to know Garth does the same.
Wow. It’s like you just read my mind and you’re calling me on not saying what I really want to say. I was an affable nerd at fifteen with no sexual experience whatsoever, but I was obsessed with sex (aren’t we all). I’d like to write a YA novel where the main character carries out his days and masturbates excessively and thinks insane sexual thoughts at the most inappropriate moments—but I don’t want to write teen porn. Maybe I shy away from it because I think a publisher would. If that’s the case, I should be smacked.
Speaking of anxiety and reassurance, how was your coming out?
It was hot, hot, hot! Just kidding. It involved a lot of lying, of course, before I got around to being honest about who I was. I told a girl I knew that I was bi (not) when I was sixteen, and she “hooked me up,” as the kids these days say, with a guy my age who’d come out to her recently. We had a secret thing going on—which all took place in our parents’ cars. Then I went off to college, dated a drug dealer for a couple of months, and decided, to hell with this. I thought everything that was wrong with my life had to do with my being gay. So I climbed back into the closet and kept the door shut for two-and-a-half years. I had nothing but straight friends and pretended to have a girlfriend when I talked to my parents on the phone. How exhausting. Then I met the writer Michael Carroll (we were both twenty-one), and we became a couple. We were together for over four years—we’re still incredibly close, by the way—and by the time we split up, the door to my closet was wide open.
You make the important point that sometimes gay people, like Garth, are asked to lie and hide who they are even after they’re ready to be open. In a similar vein, the publishers’ dust jacket copy on Send Me
and Saints of Augustine
conceals any gay content. This is vexing for readers specifically seeking gay stories. What has your experience been working with a largely straight-centric book industry?
I definitely noticed the total lack of gay content on those two jackets. It’s frustrating because I want people who are looking for that kind of book to be able to find it, and they won’t unless it’s via websites like yours. So some element of the publishing industry wants to publish books like these two YA’s, but another, stronger element wants to stifle the end product. For Saints, the publicist hooked me up (there’s that phrase again) with a few gay newspapers and no straight ones. For Mike… crickets chirped and a tumbleweed rolled past.
Do you know if your books have ever prompted parental complaints or been banned? What kind of fan mail do you get? Are you considering a P.E. Ryan website?
I wish my books would cause an uproar! That’s why my next book for teens is going to be about five gay kids on steroids who travel to the Vatican, beat the pope to death with the burning carcasses of George Bush and Dick Cheney, and then masturbate lying on their backs until—splat!—they’ve contributed to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And don’t go stealing that plot.
I should have a website but don’t at the moment. Is there a reader of your blog who’s getting into web-design and would like to cut his or her teeth on developing mine? Anyone? Anyone? I’d like a site that combines both Patrick Ryan and P.E. Ryan, actually. As for fan mail, some has come in—all either from teenage girls or grown gay men. I’ve never heard from a gay male teenager, though I know they’re out there reading.
What percentage of your reading time is spent on adult fiction vs. YA books? If adults are interested in expanding their YA collection beyond your two novels, whose books are essential?
I read YA books upon recommendation, and of course I try to read the ones my friends publish. (I have a lot of writer friends.) Mostly I read adult fiction. In answer to which young adult novels I’d recommend, I’m going to blatantly plug my friends in alphabetical order (and they’re all great): anything by Dan Elish, Brian Katcher, David Levithan, Bennett Madison, Brian Sloan, and Martin Wilson. Oh—and keep your eye out for a young adult novel by a guy named Chris Shirley (he’s just started looking for an agent right now, and I know his work is going to be published).
When reading a book that doesn’t work for you, do you find it’s from one of a few common pitfalls, or does each book fail in its own way?
I find that, most often, I don’t believe the characters. Sometimes it’s just that I don’t have an interest in a particular story, and I should probably stick with a book, if that’s the case, because it might generate my interest as it unfolds, which would be a wonderful thing. That’s learning and expanding for me. But as you know more than anyone, there’s just so much to read that it can be a challenge to stick with something you either don’t believe or aren’t enjoying.
Are there any under-read adult novels you particularly like to champion?
Isherwood’s A Single Man. It may be my favorite novel from the 20th century that I’ve read. I want everyone both gay and straight to read it.
In terms of more recently-published novels, Keith McDermott’s Acqua Calda, about an American theater production going on in Sicily, deserves a very large audience. It’s funny and smart and compelling and moving. Also, David McConnell’s The Firebrat is a masterful voice piece and a startlingly sharp use of the first-person.
What can readers look forward to next from Patrick Ryan and P.E. Ryan?
I have another adult novel in the works and another YA novel finished (I just handed it to my agent yesterday, in fact). Cross your fingers they don’t run me out of town on a rail.
To copy your ending and conclude here with a bit of matchmaking, if it doesn’t work out with Adam, what fictional character would you suggest for a blind date with Garth?
Peter Pan. He’d balance out Garth’s melancholia, take him on adventures—and teach him to fly! How cool would that be?