So I’m a sucker for reading too much into an author’s bio. Example A: “Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic’s shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and more.” Give me a bio that includes “worked construction in the Arctic Circle” and man oh man, sign me up for that book (in this case Nothing But the Dead and Dying from Civil Coping Mechanisms, which is easily one of the best short story collections I’ve read in years).
But here’s the thing. This assumption that one must experience this world firsthand to be able to write about it—it’s bullshit. “Write what you know” seems so easy. Sure, experience and the ability to write about it are not mutually exclusive, but they do not go hand in hand either.
“The stories, they write themselves,” we’re fond of saying. And sometimes they probably do, but in Bradley’s case, the person funneling these experiences to the page has a gift. On the other hand, we all know that one person who can fuck up any good story. It’s a skilled storyteller who can work the other way: to wring a meaningful human experience out of skull-numbing tedium of grunt work. It’s a skilled storyteller who can take those experiences and make them linger with us afterward.
These are the stories of Bradley’s brilliant and brutal Nothing But the Dead and Dying. They punch you in the face, but they don’t have easy punchlines. They’re brusk and heartbreaking and ugly and true. Bradley’s prose is also as authentic as you’ll find, but in some ways, “authentic” does his writing a disservice. Bradley doesn’t write to see himself all over the page. He gets out of the way and lets the rest of us forget for a moment that this is fiction at its highest. We’re all along for the ride as we watch these people thrash and struggle to live beyond the harsh narratives life has cast them into.
BD: I loved this social media post you wrote the other day: “My mother asked how my writing has been going. I told her I have this problem where I start thinking about how there’s no point to anything and then stop whatever I’m doing.”
On one hand, I recognize that same voice in my own head (as well as the fun conversations about it with Mom). On the other hand, I was also thinking about how seriously we take ourselves as writers or artists.
I think I’ve read stuff where you’ve talked about taking yourself less seriously as you get older. What’s the balance for you as a writer in terms of feeling “there’s no point (and I give up)” versus “there is no real point (so don’t take it so seriously)”?
RWB: It took me a bit to wrap my head around this dichotomy actually. This interview is going to get real. You made me question whether or not I take myself less seriously. And I think the answer is still yes. I am less pretentious, and thankfully so. What I have not gotten better at is the intense pressure I put on myself and the standards to which I hold myself, the things that I believe I should achieve. I take myself less seriously, but I never feel less failure.
A couple of years ago I decided that if I was going to survive writing I needed to have more fun. I bled myself dry with the stories I had been writing to that point. They were painful to write and edit and try to find homes for. That led to me trying a lot of different things, but none of those have been finished, which brings us back to the original impetus for this question.
I hold myself accountable for not talking about mental health issues more, not because I’m not open about them (if anything I may be too open), but because I doubt that I can do justice to what I want to say. Being bipolar, being obsessive compulsive, being anxious and neurotic… it’s easy to associate these things with creativity, but for me they make creativity harder. Paranoia is, for some, a big part of bipolar disorder and where paranoia takes hold is when you don’t have some kind of external voice countering the internal voice. And when do writers ever have external validation in the midst of writing? So, when I write and I start to doubt myself and I start to then put my small contribution to writing in perspective, that’s when I start to wonder if there’s any point in continuing to work at it.
That’s a circuitous route to saying that I have little-to-no balance between those two things. That it’s the balance I need. Though, I would say I never give up. I abandon. I drop one project and just as quickly start something else until that voice comes back and tells me that it’s no good.
BD: You’ve mentioned in other places that you tend to be naturally direct and pithy and that is where your minimalist inclinations in writing come from—in prose and poetry. I was wondering where you think that comes from in terms of your personality and upbringing? Is it a shy thing or more of a direct- and to-the-point thing? How much of it do you think comes from your time in Alaska and working blue-collar jobs?
I think maybe that’s what appeals to me so much about your writing, especially Nothing But the Dead and the Dying. There’s literally a coldness to the prose sometimes that’s so true to the men I’ve grown up with and so compelling from a psychological level (i.e. the Iceberg principle and all that). It’s, like, what’s being held back? What feelings are being repressed so deep down while we mutter and mumble and talk about the weather?
RWB: I tend to think of myself as just being simple. Not in a dimwitted way, but in that my brain naturally steers toward the quickest route. The first thing I look for in anything I do (especially in my various day jobs over the years) is how I can make something more efficient. There’s a quote that is attributed to Bill Gates (though there is apparently some dispute as to where it came from): “I will always choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” That may be my aesthetic. But you are right, it is a very blue collar aesthetic as well. My parents were not blue collar, but I grew up in a blue collar environment (Alaska) and my originally middle class family got increasingly poor as I got older. I had lofty dreams but have always been grounded enough in reality to know that I will take the jobs that come because that’s how you make a living. When people depend on you, when you are responsible for others, the compromise is making sure you live up to that and that often involves compromise.
And as you allude to, these things are reflected in my personality. I am by nature quiet and direct. It isn’t necessarily shyness, but definitely an interiority (see the issues in the answer to the first question). I have been called cold and lacking in emotion, neither of which would be inaccurate at least half the time. I don’t believe in masculine stereotypes and I am doing my best to help raise sons who are more in touch with human emotions, rather than robotically floating along as I am prone to doing.
BD: You’ve talked about how much you miss Alaska and how much this time and all your work there has influenced you. I often feel the same way with my roots in Minnesota and Wisconsin and farming and working odd jobs and all the characters I’ve meet along the way. As much as I love teaching, I often wonder if I’d be a better writer if I went back to my cold, nose-to-the-grindstone, keep-yourself-to-yourself roots.
Am I projecting too much here, or do you ever struggle with that? How much connection do you maintain with your roots from that time in your life? Do you find yourself trying to honor these people with your stories even if they may never read them?
RWB: Honestly I’m not sure if I would be a better writer. I rarely wrote in those days, because I was just so exhausted. When I worked in the arctic, I did so with a pinched nerve in my wrist so by the end of the day I could barely keep hold of a fork, let alone write. I know parenthood has made me a better writer, because it gave me a different sense of empathy, whereas my blue collar jobs gave me a different view of the people around me. So, I definitely wouldn’t be the same writer without those experiences. At the same time, I have often thought I would do my career path differently if I went back. I went through the whole MFA thing because I wanted to teach and that hasn’t happened and probably won’t. So I think if I could do it again knowing what I know, I would skip that. Probably even undergrad. I’d go and become a welder or something. Then again, with my health issues over the last year+ I couldn’t possibly do that kind of work. So maybe it’s best that I ended up in a non blue-collar field, doing marketing.
And I do miss Alaska, especially winter and snow and mountains. I know it’s not an ideal place to live, especially as a liberal, but it’s also a totally different world from living in the continental U.S. and so it remains firmly lodged in my psyche.
BD: As someone who’s monomaniacal, I am in awe of your ability to balance all your different artistic interests and talents. I have a hard enough time balancing writing with teaching writing.
What’s the process like for you with the art, the graphic design, the publishing, along with of course the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry? Are there different parts of your personality that pull you in different directions? Do these different artistic voices ever argue with each other?
RB: I’ll be entirely honest: it’s an illusion. I have four unfinished paintings in my garage. Some disassembled toy pieces I plan to turn into an art piece next to my bathroom sink. Several design projects languishing, and a number of stories, novels, essays, and manuscripts in various stages of incompletion.
To the second part of that question, though, these various things do require different parts of my brain, different types of motivation. If I am working on fiction, I have a hard time writing poetry. If I’m really enthused about a painting, in that moment it is hard for me to write. I am always having other ideas though, which is frustrating because there are a million things I want to do, with the time or means to do .0005% of them.
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. That didn’t work out, but it makes sense that I was drawn to that subconsciously because it combines all the artistic pursuits from writing to visuals to music. Films still swim in my head.
BD: Okay, so here’s the big one then: What is the point? What keeps you going with your art, writing, etc. these days? (Note that this is clearly me wanting you to make me feel better about my own existential writing bullshit).
RWB: I’m probably the wrong guy to inspire or motivate anyone. If I could shut that part of my brain off I would have by now. I feel like a masochist every time I do anything creative. Why do I keep doing this? I feel like Homer Simpson electrocuting himself repeatedly. For some reason I can’t stop myself. Then I wonder how many other writers and artists can relate to this sense of why do I have so many ideas and if I can’t stop them why do I have more than I could ever execute? Or why can’t I execute them the way I envision them?
How much of art is the ability to fly in the face of failure again and again?
Part of it is ego. If we were writing just to write we wouldn’t care that it doesn’t get published or that no one reads it. We would be content with letting it sit in a journal or on a hard drive. Whether we want to admit it or not we create because we want an audience, we want to be seen and acknowledged. We want to be remembered and know that our existence will not be forgotten as soon as our ashes hit the wind.
I’m not sure that motivates me at this point, at least not as much as I need to finish what I start. Artists are needy creatures and I loathe the idea of needing. What I try to focus on is what excites me about a project. If there is a concept for a book that I am passionate about I look for ways that I can use that to keep going. I have to tell myself “keep writing because this is a book you would want to read.” I can’t say it has worked especially well in recent years, but hell if I don’t keep trying. Maybe one of these days it will do the trick.