A Conversation with Nick Ripatrazone
Interview originally published on 2/10/15
Nick Ripatrazone is a writer and critic. His newest books of fiction include Good People, a book of stories (Foxhead Books), and We Will Listen for You, a novella (CCM Press). Ember Days, his second collection of stories, will be published in March 2015 by Braddock Avenue Books. Nick’s other books include a novella, This Darksome Burn (Queen’s Ferry Press), a book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (Cascade Books), and two books of poetry, This Is Not about Birds (Gold Wake Press) and Oblations (Gold Wake Press). He is a staff writer for The Millions, and has also written for Esquire, The Sewanee Review, The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Commonweal, and National Public Radio.
KEVIN CATALANO: Nick Ripatrazone has to be the hardest working, most prolific and talented writer in the indie-lit community (and probably beyond). To me, he is peerless, and not just because he is widely published in every form — he’s the author of two books of poetry, two novellas, two collections of short stories, and a book of literary criticism — but because he has an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual point of view. If you don’t know Nick, then I’m excited for you to get a sense of his rare wisdom.
So, Nick, let’s just get some of the typical questions out of the way, first. Do you believe in ghosts?
NICK RIPATRAZONE: Absolutely.
How much food have you consumed in one sitting?
Based on my Italian surname — and the fact that my mom still packs a large Igloo container full of gravy and meatballs whenever I visit — the answer is improbable amounts, whenever possible.
Do you still have a beard? You look good with a beard.
Nope. But thank you. I waited until winter to shave it, which doesn’t make much sense.
Okay, you answered those questions correctly, so the interview can continue …
You’re one of the most fascinating writers in the indie-lit community because of your unapologetic devotion to Catholicism. In this community, it is definitely rare, and some could say unpopular, to admit religiosity, since this generation of writers often boasts cynicism, sarcasm, and either agnosticism or atheism. Therefore, I find your point of view, your very ethos, unique and brave. You must be aware of this. Did you ever feel you had to hide or downplay your Catholicism in order to be accepted or taken seriously as a literary writer?
Love, wonder, mystery, confusion, complexity, doubt, humility, strangeness, devotion: those are the words that first come to mind when I think of Catholicism. Such a list might surprise people, but that’s how I’ve always experienced faith.
Italian Catholicism is heavy on devotion to ritual and strangeness, as well as marked by a curious, concurrent skepticism for many people and institutions. It’s a mix that has proven healthy for me. The intellectual element of my Catholicism (and it is a large part of it) has been heavily influenced by the Jesuit scholastic tradition — thinkers like the paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard deChardin. Since I was raised to equate Catholicism with intellectual rigor, I never thought of religion as trite, or of religious people as caricatures. I actually didn’t know many people who weren’t Catholic until I went to college.
There’s definitely a Catholic literary subculture in both mainstream and indie lit. In the latter, writers like John Dermot Woods, Edward Mullany, and Joyelle McSweeney are excellent writers who are very Catholic. The Believer is going to run a conversation Joyelle and I had about Catholicism. I’ve also always thought that Catholicism is strange, and that such an identification is not pejorative. I think being intellectually open-minded and writing quirky fiction and poetry has led to me not being out of place in the secular literary world.
And yet, when I read your poetry and fiction, I rarely detect Catholic themes. (There are exceptions, of course.) Very often, in fact, like in, Good People, there seems to be a lot of ambiguity in terms of whether the main character will make the right decision. Am I reading this correctly? Do you feel it necessary, as a Catholic, to imbue your writing with morality?
Alice Elliott Dark taught me it was better to write about faith than dogma. Alice is Episcopalian, but both of our cultures identify as “Catholic” in idiomatic speech. Often the perception of religious people as being intellectually closed-minded is based on a misunderstanding of the concept of belief (both on the part of the religious person, and the part of someone on the outside). Certainty flattens God, and flattens art. Catholicism has always produced writers who flip between heresy and ecstasy, so I’m entering an artistic tradition where messiness is valued. Flannery O’Connor and Andy Warhol figured this out years ago, and I’m just following their lead.
Do you ever feel your devotion to Catholicism competes with your devotion to writing? I’m sure you’d agree that both require a similar kind of loyalty.
This is a really interesting question. I don’t see them as separate. When I say that writing is prayer, I’m not being pastoral. Prayer can happen in the dark, alone, in silence, or it can happen in line at a store. Prayer is less about location and more about divorcing the self from the programmed or expected action of the moment. In this way, I think Catholicism is countercultural. William Gass once wrote that writers have it more difficult than composers or painters, because our materials are the mundane words of daily existence. Prayer is an action that requires a belief in words as a method of transcendence, which is a rather optimistic action. Writers might be a cynical bunch, but every cynic I know is sentimental when it comes to something he or she loves. Writing fiction requires an almost religious appreciation of language; it is certainly a different mode than the language of hymns or traditional prayer, but the method is the same.
I want to make it clear at this point, for those few people who’ve never read your work, that your writing is as varied and eclectic in form and subject matter as almost anyone else’s. I don’t want to pigeonhole you as a Catholic writer.
If there does exist someone who hasn’t read your work, which single piece would you point her to, that which you feel best represents your writing? (I’ll allow you to choose one poem, story, and essay each if you want. Aren’t I nice?)
If they’re willing to check out a few genres, here’s what I’d recommend (after thanking them for doing so): “Advent,” a story that appears in Good People and was originally published in Blue Mesa Review. “Saturday Night at the Air Traffic Control,” a poem that appeared online at Virginia Quarterly Review. And here’s an essay about one of my favorite writers, Andre Dubus, at The Millions.
Let’s talk a little about me for a second. I have this rash-type thing that has been slowly eating away at my fingertips for the past three months. What do you think I should do about it?
You should have told me after three minutes. I’ve already called the doctor for you. Continue screaming until she arrives.
I mentioned Good People earlier. I absolutely love that collection. What I noticed as a pattern in those stories is that nearly all of them end during a climactic moment for the main character, leaving off the typical resolution. All of the main characters seem on the cusp of an epiphany about themselves or the world, but the reader is at a distance from what that is. I’m fascinated with this, and I think you do it expertly. How do you know when/where to end a story?
Thanks for your kind words about the book. I labor over endings, particularly final paragraphs. I re-read the final paragraphs of stories I love again and again. One particular story, the very weird “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas, ends with an overzealous boy about to crucify a transient man to a tree on a hill in Wales. The story ends with the boy holding silver nails that he found in a shed. I like that sense of thinking that I know what will happen next, but having that moment of emotional pause. I believe the Greek roots of the word “epiphany” speak to both revelation and fantasy, so there’s more a sense of clarifying confusion than certainty. That’s what I’m going for in a story.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that one of the major problems I have with indie-lit is that writers seem only to be writing for other writers (rather than for non-writers). I get this, because another major problem is that in many cases, only other writers know about what’s being published in the indie-lit community. Still, much of the writing feels the same for this very reason, which is ironic because many of the small presses were established to break the monotony of what the big publishers were putting out. What do you think about this, and do you have an imagined audience when you write?
The death of HTMLGIANT seemed inevitable, but the great elements of the site, particularly the reviews, are missed. I think Enclave and Real Pants are beginning to fill that broad space for the indie-lit community, but there is the worry that those conversations are particular to the conversants, and less essential to those not in this publishing world.
I see what you mean about the potential for monotony in a community that is in active or perceived contrast to more mainstream publishing. Small presses tend to be more open to experimentation of language or thought, as well as to work that transcends traditional forms. Those are wide descriptions, but they can become expected, and therefore, less interesting. I’m looking forward to reading more small press fiction that wrestles with God, social justice, culture and tradition, literary history, etc. I’d love for the small press world to become a more active reviewing location — not reviews as extended blurbs, but reviews that have wider scopes.
Do you consider yourself a competitive writer? That is, when you see on Facebook that a peer’s novel has just been accepted by a biggish publisher, does that fuel you to work even harder?
I’ve always thought of writing as closer to running the 800 meters than playing basketball. I was a point guard, foul-mouthed enough to make it almost the focus of my weekly confession. In that sport I was always playing against people: shadowing the other team’s best player within a box-and-one, or calling plays at the top of the key while shielding the ball from an overzealous defender. In contrast, though there were other runners on the track, I was always racing against myself. The same goes for writing. If I am competitive as a writer, it is always against myself. That frees up my mental energy to appreciate the writing of others rather than to see them as competitors.
In my experience, there are two types of people in the world: those who picked out and ate all the marshmallows from the Lucky Charms, and those who were repulsed by all cereal marshmallows because of how stale and un-marshmallow-like they were. Which were you? (There is a right answer.)
I have never been so afraid to answer a question. So …
We’ll come back to that later.
I often suspect that you’ve invented a contraption that allows you to slow down time so that you can do more work than the rest of us. How else to explain that you’re a staff-writer for The Millions, you have six books published, with another on the way, you’re obviously an avid reader, you’re a full-time teacher, a husband, and the father of the cutest little girls whose cheeks must require constant kissing? Could you either share this time-slowing contraption with me, or take us through an average day (or week) to show how you fit everything in?
I’ve been teaching public school English for a decade, so I’ve mastered the art of time management in that world. I grade a set number of essays each day (say, 10), and then stop there. That allows me to get back work to students within a reasonable time, but also to get other things done (planning, adjustments to schedule, independent student work, etc.). I try to get most of my schoolwork done at school, so that when I come home I can spend time with my family until my wife and I put our daughters to bed. Then we can hang out and get ready for the next day, and later at night I can write a little. I’m really writing in my head all day: walking between classes, while students are examining poems, while I’m driving (I have a two-hour round-trip commute). Being a schoolteacher has actually helped me be able to think intently on one thing in the present while maintaining a current, longer view of more abstract plans (like creative work). Schoolteachers have to plan our school days down to the second, and being in a regimented environment actually helps me juggle a ton (during these past weeks I’ve been revising an essay on atheism in literature for Image, working on that interview for The Believer, writing essays on teaching and literary interviews for The Millions, drafting an essay on Charles D’Ambrosio for Commonweal, preparing edits on my forthcoming book of stories, etc.) There’s a bit more time on the weekends, but most of that is spent (happily) making my daughters laugh or chasing them while making frog noises. I don’t sleep much, but I fall asleep quickly. Sleep is beautiful. I save big projects (initial drafts of books, for example) for the summer, or during breaks. The school year is good for revising fiction, writing essays, and drafting poems. I do all of this while listening to the very good advice of my wife, who (thank God) happens to be a counselor: she says art can’t be rushed, and I believe her.
Have you already written the book that you’ve always wanted to write?
I have this weird idea that’s been nagging me for years. I want to write something that takes place in the early 80s, almost a Videodrome vibe. Local access television, late nights, paranoia, prophecies, that type of stuff. I’m not sure if it is a book or a story, but it will happen sooner or later.
Tell us a bit about Ember Days, your forthcoming collection from Braddock Avenue Press.
Ember Days is my second collection of fiction, and comes out in late March. Braddock Avenue is a great publisher, and the perfect match for these stories. The stories range from bad blood between brothers to stories about revenge to appreciations of VHS and apples to a man’s guilt over working on an atomic bomb tested in the New Mexico desert. Some of the stories appeared in Shenandoah, storySouth, and Used Furniture Review. It’s a collection of some flash work and longer stories, and I like the rhythm of that juxtaposition. Some people who have taken an early look at the book have called it stark and unrelenting, which is a very welcome description.
Thanks very much, Nick, for coming all the way out to my houseboat at 2 a.m. to answer my questions.