Ryan David Jahn Interview, Debut Author of “Acts of Violence”
Ryan’s first novel, Acts of Violence is a brilliant opening salvo in what I’m sure will be a very successful writing career.
Here’s what his novel, Acts of Violence is about, and I can’t recommend it highly enough:
This is Katrina’s story, and the story of her killer. It is also the story of Katrina’s neighbors, those who witness her murder and do nothing: the terrified Vietnam draftee; the woman who thinks she’s killed a child, and her husband who will risk everything for her; the former soldier planning suicide and the man who saves him. And others whose lives are touched by the crime: the elderly teacher whose past is catching up with him; the amateur blackmailer who’s about to find out just what sort of people he’s been threatening; the corrupt cop who believes he is God’s “red right hand.” Shocking and compassionate, angry and gripping, Acts of Violence is a sprawling, cinematic tour-de-force, a terrifying crime novel unlike any other.
And now, the interview.
— Robert Lewis
Robert Lewis: Why this story? What was it about this story that fascinated you enough that you wanted to spend an extended period of time with it?
Ryan David Jahn: I wish I had a good answer for this, but I don’t, mostly because I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing my own motives for doing things. I’m not a careful planner, or even remotely methodical in my decision making. I joined the army when I was nineteen because I’d lost my job and was behind on rent, I asked my wife to marry me after knowing her for two months, and I decided this was the story I wanted to write because it was the story I was most interested in when I sat down to try my hand at a novel (for the fifth or sixth time: I’d written others which remain, rightly, unpublished). I’d been aware of the Kitty Genovese case for fourteen or fifteen years and had turned it over in my head many times. I’ve always found it fascinating. But why this story now? Who knows? Certainly I don’t.
RL: How long did it take you write this? From 1st draft to the point you could send it out to publishers.
RDJ: It depends. As I said, I’d been aware of the event which inspired Acts of Violence for fourteen or fifteen years, so in a very real sense, that’s how long it took. But if we mean “writing” literally — I started the first week of July, 2008, and was submitting the sixth or seventh draft by the last week of November. I don’t usually write that quickly — though I’m not a person who enjoys spending years on a project — but the first draft came very quickly (I wrote the first 60 pages on day one), so even though it was written in less than six months, four months of that was rewrites.
RL: Where do you think your style comes from? What books would you point to that heavily influenced your writing?
RDJ: When I first started writing seriously fifteen or so years ago, I thought writing should be dense and complex and one should display one’s expansive vocabulary at every opportunity. This was my conclusion after reading several classic works, as well as many recent novels that were considered literature: Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tunnel. That kind of writing didn’t suit me, so I stripped down to short sentences and simple words that anyone could understand. It was more natural to me. Hemingway, Carver, Hammett, and Vonnegut all informed this process to some degree. Once I found my natural mode, it was — and is — a process of getting better at it, refining it.
RL: Do you have a favorite part of a book you like to write (such as the opening, or the climax, dialog)?
RDJ: On first drafts, I enjoy the puzzle aspect of putting a story together so that all the parts fit. This includes putting the right characters into the story and finding out what they’ll do. In later drafts, I work more on sentences and paragraphs and imagery and — I reluctantly admit — theme. I enjoy all of it. I think I enjoy rewriting most, as it’s in rewrites that you really have a chance to sharpen the blade of the story and really make it cut. The first draft is the sweat work of forging the thing, really hammering it out, and that’s where most of the frustration lies. At least for me.
RL: Writers are fascinated with other writer’s processes. I know I am. What’s your process like?
RDJ: It’s an insult to other writers to call what I do a process. I pace around a lot, go for walks, write fifty pages and throw those pages out. Rewrite those fifty pages from scratch, but better, and then add another twenty. Throw those pages out. Rewrite again and manage to add another thirty pages of story. I print out the hundred or pages and retype them, now with some idea of where the story is going. I plant seeds that I hope will grow into something more, I clean up the writing a bit as I go through it, and I combine or split or drop characters as I think will suit the story later. With the setup done as well as I know how, I write the rest of the novel as quickly as possible, preferably in less than three months. First draft done, I read through it at least half a dozen times and make changes and notes. I print out the first draft and retype the entire thing. I go over it another three or four times. When I get to the point where I can’t even stand to know that the document is open on my computer, when I absolutely hate the thing so much I can’t stand to think of it anymore and want to start a new project just to get the thought of this one out of my mind, I know I’m finished. It’s not a process I think I could promote in workshops.
RL: Which author would you most like to drink with?
RDJ: Mark Twain.
RL: Why Mark Twain?
RDJ: I admire his work. And I have the sense that he’d be an entertaining drunk and not one to quit halfway through the night. If I’m going to drink with someone, I’d like it to be someone who doesn’t check his watch to calculate how many hours of sleep he can still get in before his alarm sounds when you ask if you can buy another round.
RL: What was the revision process like with your editor?
RDJ: Excellent. He gave me a hundred and twenty-two notes. I read through them and the novel simultaneously. Then I made changes. I agreed with over a hundred of the notes. Those I disagreed with, I argued against, trying to explain why I disagreed. My editor, Will Atkins, was convinced by my arguments, so we only went through one round of edits. I turned the revised manuscript in, much better than it was before Will’s notes, and that was that.
RL: You’ve written screenplays for quite awhile. Did you find the switch from writing screenplays to fiction difficult?
RDJ: No, I found it liberating. All that space and depth. It was like moving from a bachelor apartment to a four-bedroom house. There was finally room for all that furniture I’d been keeping in storage.
RL: How did you hook up with Macmillan?
RDJ: Macmillan UK has an imprint called Macmillan New Writing that accepts emailed manuscripts. While I am a dedicated writer and care very much about the art and craft of the novel, I am very lazy about the submission process. I just don’t like it. It’s slow and frustrating. My novels aren’t particularly synopsis friendly, so writing query letters is a pain in the ass. Then, after managing an okay synopsis for an okay query letter, maybe twenty percent of the agents you contact are interested in reading any of the work, but instead of just asking for the manuscript and letting you know they’ll only read up to twenty-five or fifty pages unless they love it, they ask you to email them twenty-five or fifty pages, and if they like those, then they ask you to send them the whole manuscript. (I know they have their reasons, and I’m not anti-agent. I have a film agent and the process of getting him was about the same, but with a screenplay instead. And they’re handy to have. I’m simply trying to describe my frame of mind at the time.) I’d been sending query letters off to agents for several weeks when I decided to email the manuscript to Macmillan New Writing and see what happened. Macmillan is a major publisher, and though MNW doesn’t offer advances, I thought getting in with them would be better for my career than getting in with a small publisher that might offer a $2,000 – $5,000 advance. (This is debatable in general, of course, but in my case I think it worked out: I signed a longer-term contract with them after submitting a second novel, and got an advance that allows me to work on the third novel full-time; they also just licensed German rights to the first two novels to Heyne Verlag, part of the Random House group, which will also throw a little extra money my way, and, of course, put me in print in Germany.) A month to the day after I submitted Acts of Violence, they offered a contract. The editing was great, my publicist, Sophie Portas, works her ass off despite my being less than cooperative about certain parts of the publicity process, and so far the relationship has been a good one.
RL: What’s the next book about?
RDJ: t’s called Low Life and it’s about a payroll account who lives a lonely, friendless life. One night while he’s asleep in bed someone breaks into his apartment and tries to murder him. During the altercation he ends up killing his assailant, and rather than calling the police, he puts the body on ice in his bathtub and tries to find out who wanted him dead and why. He can’t think of anything he’s done that might warrant death, but he must have done something: someone tried to kill him. But the more he discovers, the less he seems to comprehend, and the deeper he finds himself buried in contradictions and dangerous situations. It’s scheduled to come out 2 July 2010.
RL: You went to London for the book’s launch, didn’t you? How’d that go? What did you do while there?
RDJ: Yeah, it went well. Met my editor and publicist and publisher and the rights people and the marketing people and the man who designed my book all for the first time. Recorded a podcast with my editor, recorded a reading of the first chapter of the novel, went to lunch with some people and dinner with some other people, went to a few bookstores and signed some books, met David Headley who, with Macmillan, put out the numbered edition of Acts of Violence, and managed somehow to pre-sell all 250 copies of it, and generally was thrust into new situations to which I responded poorly. Everybody but me was a joy, though, and I was very glad to be there.
RL: Do you write to music? If so, what’s your favorite music to write to?
RDJ: I write to music and rewrite in silence. I write to music because I think music can help set the right tone and also it’s good for drowning out other sounds, and I rewrite in silence because it’s on rewrites that I really try to get the rhythm of the sentences right, and music is a distraction at that point. I create playlists to write to. For Acts of Violence, it was Buddy Holly and early Stones and the Beach Boys and acoustic blues. For the second novel, Low Life, it was Pere Ubu, the Pixies, Talking Heads, and that kind of stuff.
RL: What else is going on with your career? What’s coming down the pike?
RDJ: The first novel just came out and the second comes out 2 July 2010. I’m working on the third, which will be released, if all goes well, summer or fall of 2011. Beyond that, it’s a mystery. Which is fine. I know the freelance writing life and its unknowns makes a lot of people very nervous, but I am blessed with a combination of shortsightedness and obsessiveness that ensures I don’t see beyond whatever I am doing at the moment.
RL: What good books have you read recently?
RDJ: A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory, Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito, and The Incendiary’s Trail by James McCreet are some of the books I’ve read recently and enjoyed. I try to read new books as well as classics I haven’t yet gotten to, as it’s kind of a thrill to “discover” a writer before everyone is talking about him or her. James McCreet, for instance, is, I suspect, going places. But enough about other writers.