Thursday 27 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: RYAN DAVID JAHN interviews RYAN DAVID JAHN

Q: You’re an American, but your novels are published first in the U.K. What gives?

RDJ: It’s true. My first novel came out in the U.K. in November 2009, but won’t hit shelves in the U.S. till May 2011. My third novel, The Dispatcher, will come out two months later in the U.K. and has no scheduled release date in the U.S. And there’s a second one in there somewhere. It comes down to who said yes first.

I was working in reality TV when I lost my job in April 2008. Between 2004 and 2008, I’d gotten a few work-for-hire screenplay gigs, but nothing had come around for a while, and I’d already blown the money from the last one on a European vacation. I was broke. Between April and August I played a lot of internet backgammon and collected unemployment checks and looked for day-labor gigs, whatever I could find. I thought about going back to writing novels. I’d written four or five unpublishable books some years earlier and missed it. I missed writing books, that is, not being unable to publish them. I thought maybe I’d bang out a few Western novels and try to sell them to one of those publishing companies that breaks even with the library market. I wrote about 25,000 words of one when my hard drive took a shit and I lost everything I’d written. I figured it was a sign. So in August, I started writing a different novel, a novel I wanted to write, without much thought as to whether there was a market for it. It happened to be a crime novel. I finished in September. I rewrote it a few times. In November, I submitted it to half a dozen agents and two publishers. One agent wanted to look at it, but the publishers weren’t interested. I sent it off to the agent. In December, I submitted to another half dozen agents and a publisher in the U.K. The publisher offered a contract on January 8. I signed it. Now Macmillan U.K. is my primary publisher. Penguin bought U.S. rights to my first novel from them, and is releasing it in May.

A couple months ago, as I was going over the page proofs for my third novel, the agent who asked to look at my first book two years ago finally got around to telling me she wasn’t interested representing my work.

Q: Your first novel has two different titles; it’s Acts of Violence in the U.K. and Good Neighbors in the U.S. Why?

RDJ: I called it Acts Of Violence. Macmillan went along with that. My editor at Penguin didn’t like the title much. We did some brainstorming. Good Neighbors is what we ended up with. I honestly don’t have a preference. I care about the text itself. Titles are peripheral from where I stand -- unless someone suggests something just blindingly awful. But I don’t think Good Neighbors is that. It’s a different kind of title, ironic rather than straight forward, that’s all. I think it works.

Q: Why did you choose to write crime novels?

RDJ: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I certainly don’t care much about police procedure, or any of that. I’ve become more concerned with that stuff with each book, as readers are smarter than I am and demand verisimilitude, rightly, but I only care about it because I don’t want my fuck ups to pull readers from the story I’m telling. The emotional truths are what matter to me. I’m interested in characters in extreme situations, characters pushed to their breaking point. Crime fiction tends to put characters there in a hurry. So I use it to do that, and then see what happens. If I knew a genre that did it better, I’d play in that sandbox instead. I don’t. Horror fiction equals it, but I can’t write a vampire or a werewolf or even a ghost without smirking. I simply don’t believe it. But I believe a man with a crowbar who’s got blood in his eyes.

Q: Who do you admire, then?

RDJ: Paul Auster, J.G. Ballard, Lawrence Block, James M. Cain, Raymond Carver, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Jim Thompson.

Q: You said you don’t believe vampires or werewolves or ghosts in fiction but mentioned Stephen King as someone you admire.

RDJ: I can’t create a world in which those things exist. If I get thrown into such a world, that’s a different matter. Write anything convincingly enough and I’m happy to believe for the duration of the story. Such things are only hurdles when I’m writing.

Q: What’s your favorite drink?

RDJ: Depends on the weather. Scotch, red wine, or beer.

Q: Do you ever drink when you write?

RDJ: Every once in a while I’ll hit a scene I don’t want to write for whatever reason -- maybe it’s got a character doing something I wish he wouldn’t do, or it’s got a character going through something I wish she didn’t have to go through -- and I’ll avoid sitting at the computer for days. I’ll wash dishes. I’ll alphabetize books. I’ll watch an entire season of Bizarre Foods in two days. Finally, I pour a glass of whiskey and sit down, drink half of it, and write. Once I’m past that scene, I’m back to writing sober. It’s just that sometimes a scene is like Christmas with the in-laws. You can’t make it through unless you’re slightly toasted. That said, I don’t really drink much. I like a buzz, not a blackout.

Q: Why would you write a scene you didn’t want to write?

RDJ: Because it’s the truth. You can’t lie about what happens in a story just because it makes you uncomfortable. Once the world of the story exists, once the characters have come to life, your job is to be honest about what they say and do and what happens to them, whether you like it or not.

Q: Have you been drinking tonight?

RDJ: I had two margaritas and a beer at a Mexican restaurant while eating tacos and listening to a Johnny Cash cover band. I should be in bed with my wife right now.

Q: Blended or on the rocks?

RDJ: No thanks, I’m finished.


  1. Solid stuff. I don't drink anymore, so when the character seems to want to do something that I don't think I want to, I just wander daze-fashion. Sometimes wind up three blocks away wondering how the hell I got there. Which, come to think of it, is what I used to do when I drank, so . . .. Usually the character winds up doing whatever the fuck he was going to do anyhow. Common threads here. Thanks, Nigel for bringing Ryan around.

  2. Thanks for inviting Ryan to SEA MINOR, Nigel.
    I enjoyed Ryan's interview very much. I can't wait for GOOD NEIGHBORS to be released so I can get my own copy. I was always fascinated with the tragic Kitty Genovese story, and the lack of empathy from the witnesses, so I am interested in what Ryan does in GOOD NEIGHBORS.
    I have to laugh about the agent who is just getting back to you now, Ryan, declining to rep you. You should ask her if she knows you won the 2010 CWA New Blood Dagger Award by the British Crime Writers Association? Oh, and that previous recipients have included Louise Penny, Denise Mina, Janet Evanovich, Walter Mosley and Patricia Cornwell, to name a few? (Congratulations, by the way!).
    What a terrific list of authors you've admired, Ryan. They'd all be proud of you!
    Wishing you much continued success in your writing career, Ryan :-)