Interview with Ryan Engle, author of “Caleb’s Discontent”

A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?

I disagree with the idea that authors are socially inept. To write in a manner that attracts attention, especially when dealing with non-fantasy fiction, is to write in a way that evokes recognition within others. I do find that my thought processes are different than the average person but it hasn’t ostracized me. To be able to write relatable material you must be relatable. The only difference between me and a non-writer is the time I invest in detailed observation. I love creating vivid scenarios in people’s minds by describing every detail in a succinct and recognizable way. Consequently, if an author can’t relate to other people than he or she will struggle with writing a relatable piece of work.

An author can also struggle with relatable writing if he or she hasn’t experienced life in many different ways, especially in visceral ways. An angry outcast sitting in the shadows can easily blog judgements on a society and may even get some readers and followers. But to judge isn’t to understand. In fact, most times it’s the opposite. Art isn’t art if it doesn’t evoke emotion. I always want to make other people feel good about themselves. I want them to be wrapped in that comforting blanket of recalled emotion. To do this, I sometimes have to take people to places in which they may not want to be. But I hold their hand as we exit those places and I remind people why life is gorgeous. In Caleb’s Discontent I kind of go in a different direction. I take people to a place of depression and self-destruction and barely resurrect them. I do this to foster an understanding of the workings of a depressed mind. I couldn’t have written the things I did without experiencing life, and that is done by being a social butterfly.

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

I have no set schedule for writing. It doesn’t work like that for me. Sometimes I’m lucky and I’m near my laptop or desktop when I’m struck with inspiration. If that happens to be the case, I can write for hours and end up with pages upon pages of work. Other times I go days without having the itch. Today I have the luxury of always having notes on my phone or voice memos that I can use to retain ideas. There was a time (and I’m only 32 years old) when I would have to always have a journal on me if something struck me and I would vigorously jot down ideas before the essence of their importance was lost (which regrettably happens to me more times than I would like to admit). I still carry my journal but not as much as I used to.

If I force writing I end up with vapid nonsense that I struggle to read. I’ve mass-deleted tens of thousands of words due to this disrespectful attempt at writing and I no longer even try. If I want to try to get myself into the mood, I may re-read what I had been writing which offers me some guidance and inspiration. The reason I do this is because, when juggling a job and a year and a half old son, I don’t have much time allocated for writing. So I try to force inspiration, but I’ve given up on forced writing. I also don’t think that anything is worth writing if the idea doesn’t make you drop all other thoughts in your mind and make you claw your way to a computer like a journalist with a hot headline. If you’re bored with it, the reader is definitely going to be bored with it. Don’t waste your own time.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

In a word: both. I have a general idea of where the story is going but I like the plot to develop organically. That’s the beauty of writing. You get to lord over the world you’ve created while letting the characters do as they will based on their personalities. The coolest part of creating a book is watching the characters come to life. You suddenly see how complex your own mind is. Hell, you just briefly turned into another person! You’ve become someone else. To avoid getting too psychoanalytical about writing, I’ll simply say it’s refreshing to play with character development.

As I gently guide my characters to where I’d like them to be I start to get push-back. And that’s when things begin to get interesting. My characters will suddenly be thrust into conflict by my nudging and then the story gains complexity and starts to play out on multiple dimensions. I never limit myself to my own ideas. I allow the characters to call the shots more often than I manipulate the plot (I realize this is beginning to get warped in its revealing nature of my frantic mind). Have fun with it. It’s your world, don’t limit yourself.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

I read as much as I write. It’s important to keep exposing yourself to new material. I think of writing the same as a musician thinks of music. I need to hear what other people are doing. I try my best not to let it have an overwhelming influence on me but I allow it to shape my way of writing and how I see the world around me. Right now I’m stuck in Beat-Era literature. I’ve recently read Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, I’m currently reading Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan.

I have a degree in English Literature, so narrowing down my favorite authors is like asking me who my favorite bands are. I can do it, but it’s going to take some thought. Geoffrey Chaucer has always been a favorite of mine. I took a Geoffrey Chaucer class in college and we had to read every piece of work in Middle English. I found it to be pleasurable once I cracked the code but the girl sitting next to me in class did not find the magic as she broke down and began silently yet violently sobbing during the final exam. I know this will sound cliché but I’ve also been on a Hemingway kick lately and I intermittently read his biography that I keep on my nightstand.

I hate Shakespeare (I write this as I look at my leather bound copy of his complete works sitting on my desk).

Then there are the Romantics and poets of the industrial age. T. S. Eliot always depresses me so I suppose he’s doing something right. In terms of writing style, I’d have to say my favorite author is Joseph Heller though. I say this simply because of my inability to tear myself away from CATCH 22. I have read and re-read that book more times than I can remember. His writing is what I aspire to. He’s direct and sincere and funny and thorough. He wasn’t well-received at first either. I appreciate his tenacity.

It is often believed that almost all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time, does that remain true for you as well?

If you haven’t had your heart broken, you should never even touch a pen to paper. Having your heart broken is the betrayal of something you’ve created. Not only should you have your heart broken, you should break a few as well. I know it sounds mean and selfish but one of the very first things we create as young adults is love. That, ideally, should be our entry into the adult world. And when we disappoint or are disappointed, we are given our first taste of reality. Writers need to go to some very dark places to create certain imagery. The only thing I can equate having your heart broken to is chemical dependence withdrawal, both physically and emotionally. It’s the absolute worst. You become unable to taste and smell. Your feelings are so raw that everything makes you want to end it.

And everything hurts.

From all that we have been hearing and seeing in the movies, most writers are alcoholics. Your views on that?

I’d like to start by saying that I do not condone any kind of addiction. That is to say, the following answer is not a suggestion to take up the use of drugs or alcohol. But let me explain something about the link between writing and chemical dependence. The tendency stems from the way the writer sees the world. Artists enjoy reliving emotions, good or bad, because they are such strong sensations. Drugs, and especially alcohol, allow us to feel emotions that are dulled by everyday life. They can also be used to play down realities. I struggle with alcoholism and I’ve struggled with drug addiction. I willingly seek out misery. In fact, while not directly an autobiography, my book, Caleb’s Discontent, is derived from many of my life experiences. And the book shows over and over again how Caleb seeks out the absolute worst in life.

I’ve seen some crazy shit. I’ve been on the brink of death a dozen times, and not once due to natural causes. I’m a lunatic with a knack for clever diction. It turns out that being a risk-taker is simply in my blood. A person who is self-loathing with a tendency toward being reckless all coupled with depression can lead to an addict. It can also lead to great writing.

How did it feel when your first book got published?

When I submitted my book to Page Publishing, I was essentially looking for feedback. I figured they would look it over and then pay me a phone call to tell that they passed and why. I would then use that information to determine the changes I would need to make to my current draft. I was working with a man there named Matt Johnson. Matt was the front line. He fielded the calls of the hopeful poets. His job was to either break hearts or make dreams come true all based on the approval of a faceless senate. He initially told me that it would take about three days before I would hear back. After the fourth day I decided to bother him. He then told me something that sent a surge of encouragement and excitement pulsing through my veins. He said, “Ryan, they haven’t come back with a decision yet. And that’s a good thing. It means that there’s a discussion open about your book. A quick response is usually a rejection.”

I thanked Matt endlessly and I sat in restless impatience for another three days. At this point, I had saved Page’s phone number in my cell. When my phone began to ring and Page Publishing came up on my screen I sort of stared at my phone for a few seconds. I let it ring about three or four times before I swallowed hard and accepted. Matt was on the other end in all sorts of joviality (I feel like he enjoys making these types of calls). He said they want to publish and that a contract was being sent to me so I can look it over and sign on with them. It was euphoric. I had held out no hope whatsoever for this manuscript and was simply looking for some idea of what the industry expects out of a modern novel.  It made me feel like I was capable of the task of being an actual author. And that kind of confidence just beams through in your second book. I began writing with more purpose and courage. It really makes all the difference. And if it doesn’t happen on your first try, there is an endless list of publishing companies that are willing to look over your work. Keep trying and most importantly, keep listening. Take the feedback and the criticism as assistance and not judgement. But remember that one company’s opinion doesn’t necessarily spill out to all other companies and you may just need to find your fit.

Are you working on something new at the moment?

I’m actually currently toggling between writing this interview and my newest work. I won’t reveal the title but I can say that I love the direction its taking. It’s a look at four friends, two of whom come from substantial wealth, that are all pursuing a career in the arts. They are enrolled in a fictitious art institute in Vermont and their bohemian lifestyles often take them out into the woods to engage in a deluge of sex and drugs. The reason I took on two sets of drastically polarized socioeconomic backgrounds is to show the difference between the terrifying reality of following a dream as opposed to someone who is doing the same but has a nice, fluffy cushion to fall back on. They all are equally dedicated to their passions but they still come across situations that one set simply can’t identify with.

I have many friends who’ve taken this path. And I will tell you now that my friends and I are definitely not from the higher socioeconomic pedigree. Thankfully, all of them have found success in their fields. One is an actor living in New York City who hasn’t stopped getting work since the day he left the Boston Conservatory. He currently is shooting a TV show called, “Ravi Around the World,” and I constantly see social media posts of him in Africa and Europe and become flush with envy.

Another close friend of mine is a glassblower with an unmatched will. He graduated from Temple’s Tyler School of Art in Philly. I was never really too concerned about him. I knew he would find a way to get by no matter what and he’s doing great and has unparalleled talent. Nearly all my friends, myself included, are musicians and many have found success in that field. And finally, one of my best friends is an organic farmer that began his career horse-plowing fields. And if you don’t think that is an art, you’ve clearly never seen it done. He’s also one of the best bassist I’ve ever met.

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

As I mentioned earlier in the interview, I gave up on trying to force myself to write. Instead I try to force inspiration. One of the best ways I can do that is through music. I either sit at the keys or pick up my guitar and start playing. If that doesn’t ignite the spark, I usually turn to the professionals. I’ll listen to Ryan Adams, Neil Young, The Decemberists, Jeff Buckley, The Meat Puppets, The Avett Brothers, David Gray, Wilco, this list can go on for quite some time.

Music takes you to a place that I’ve only found matched in literature. I can’t listen to music when I write. In fact, I can’t listen to anything while I write. Sounds are a distraction to me and I need all my senses to accurately recreate the world. I often think about the quote from The Shining when Wendy interrupts Jack from his writing, “When you come in here and you hear me typing or whether you don’t hear me typing, or whatever the fuck you hear me doing in here, it means that I’m working.” While I would never use those words to anyone let alone a loved one, I do feel it. Music can get me there, but it’s up to me to maintain it. It’s quite a dance.

Did you have a lot of differences with your editors in the beginning while you were still becoming used to getting your work edited?

Actually, no I didn’t. The editors at Page Publishing were phenomenal with the creative aspect of my writing. They made it very clear to me before they even began digging through my book that they would not change anything that would compromise the story. They would email me after each read-through and simply tell me the grammatical changes they were making or ask me for a better understanding of what I was saying. They would never make any changes without my approval and brought up a lot of good points in terms of clarification within certain descriptions. They were very professional in their approach and the only thing the editing department did at this company was make my book better.

Do you wish your first novel hadn’t been the first to introduce you to the world?

I do wish my first novel was not the first to introduce me to the world. It’s painful for me to read. I know that, after years of writing, if I struggle to read it then it must be honest. But my first novel was brutally honest. I left nothing to the imagination and I didn’t mince words. Although it was published as fiction it is very revealing and I sometimes wonder if I’ve made a mistake by having this book be my debut. Of course, it was the only thing I had been working on at the time and it took me over two years to write it. I suppose I was just proud to have finished it.

Do you prefer being intoxicated to write? Or would you rather write sober?

This is a solid question. And the answer depends on what I’m writing. For some reason, I have clarity in terms of getting in touch with the sublime after a few drinks. Many of my ideas come to me after a glass of brandy or under the influence of other substances. If I’m writing about someone who is entering some sort of binge I tend to get myself there as well. But there’s a limit. I can’t overdo it because then I have trouble keeping my typing in pace with my mind.

I also have indulged in opium varieties to fire up my muse. There was a time in the early 20th century when taking laudanum was so prominent that many authors considered it to be cheating to write within an opium dream. For instance, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” is often thought of as drivel due to this fact. I don’t believe that. Our ideas are within us and if we tap into them under certain circumstances, I simply consider it a mechanism of art. I stay away from the harder stuff though, because I’m fully aware of my silky romance with them.

Ultimately, to answer this question is to say that I will do what I need to do to get to the words I need. When I want to put down a few thousand words into a story I will do it stone sober because it’s required to keep my pace and to keep the story coherent. Sometimes I will return to a quick passage I jotted down while drinking and I realize I’ve completely missed the mark. I’ll either rewrite it while sober or I get rid of it. Other times I will re-read my work and fall in love with the words that I found—words that I may not have necessarily found otherwise. I’ve struck a balance with which I’m finally happy.

Do you enjoy theatre? Would you ever like one of your stories to be turned into a play?

I love the theatre. That is to say, I love being on stage. I’ve been pretty active in the local acting scene although that has slowed since having a son. I wouldn’t mind getting back into it but currently I am consumed with my new life. I find little moments of time to write and I try to get out into the woods to hike and mountain bike as much as possible. But acting has been put on the back-burner in my current life.

I wouldn’t want to see anything I’ve written turned into a play but I would like to write a few plays. I began working on a musical where I outlined a plot and began writing the music first. I’ve never done this sort of work before and I may be doing it completely backwards but I found it to be easier this way. In this acting community, as I’m sure it is in many others, the stage designers, directors, choreographers, and musical directors are often also on stage once the show opens. Therefore, most of my acting friends have a background in other major components of the stage. I’ve worked with a close friend of mine who is an amazing actor and equally talented as a director. We’ve worked on a couple projects and we have a good relationship because I am able to put a story together and he is able to determine what it will look and sound like on stage (a skill that I lack devastatingly). What we end up with is usually a feasible production but we haven’t staged anything yet. He recently contacted me about writing a screenplay. We’ll probably start work on that within the next couple months.

Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts?

No, I haven’t. If I hate it, I’ll leave it. Maybe I’ll return to it and make changes but often I will just keep them saved to leave the option open to return to them. Most of the ideas are horrible but it may be fun to look back on them far in the future if even only to make fun of myself. Or more importantly, in case I want to return to work on them after gaining a better understanding of the world. I would suggest to anyone who wants to begin writing to never destroy your work. If you cared enough to start writing it then it must be something that is important to you. Keep going after it. It may just be your wording that you aren’t satisfied with. Or maybe you jumped into the story at the wrong time either in your life or in plot’s timeline. Everything you write won’t be gold. In fact, you will probably hate a lot of your writing. But bounce it off people. And make sure those people are your friends. Family will always tell you that the ideas and the writing are amazing. You need honest feedback. Better still, send it to an ex-lover. You can always get agonizing honesty from an ex.

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

No, not at all. When my first draft was sent back to me from my editors, almost all of the changes were punctuation errors. But even if you struggle with subject/verb agreement or you speak with a local dialect that isn’t grammatically correct, it will be caught by the editors and corrected. When my characters spoke, they spoke in the manner that a bunch of kids would speak. As long as there are quotations around the sentence, the editors will leave it alone. They know that the words were chosen for a specific reason and it usually is because that’s how the characters speak. If the idea and the story are compelling enough, a publishing company will take it on and correct the errors. That’s what the editors are paid to do.

Do you think writers have a normal life like others?

I suppose it depends on the genre. I can say that one of the reasons I decided to start writing is, as I progressed in life, I realized I did not live the way that “normal” people live. I would hear someone say that they went to a party and drank six shots or that they jumped into a pool from a high dive or they almost rear-ended another vehicle and that it was one of the most exhilarating things they have ever done. And while I don’t say it out loud, I’m thinking to myself, I do six shots before I leave for a party, I’ve cliff dived from 75 feet into five foot wide by five foot long pools surrounded by a number of things that could kill me and I’ve wrecked 4 cars. As I mentioned earlier, I have a risk-taking gene that I hope I didn’t pass on to my son. I also mentioned that I’ve almost died on several occasions. I’ve run from cops, I’ve been shot at multiple times, I kayak through dangerous waters, and all four wheels of my car have been off the ground at the same time on several occasions. While a younger reader may take this as bragging, I’m declaring it as idiocy. Responsibility definitely followed fatherhood but from 15 years old to my late 20s I was looking for death—not because I wanted to die but rather I wanted to see what it felt like to truly live.

I was stupid. My own mother had told me that she was pretty sure she was going to have to bury me and it would have been the hardest thing she’s ever done. Not even that slowed me down. Having a son is what turned me around and I now cringe at my life and the things I’ve done. I’ve stood up, untethered, on a 200 foot high railroad viaduct ledge and screamed at the world on many different occasions. And these things aren’t isolated to me. All my friends were like this. And we lost a few on the way. That’s why I decided to get into writing. I knew I could tell stories that few could tell. On some level, I hope that I never stop taking risks. But I don’t want to be at death’s door as frequently anymore.

Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

Unfortunately, it does. Page Publishing came up with a great cover design for my book but if I could rewrite the synopsis I would. It was a deadline project that I had put off and when I did get around to it I was writing off the cuff. I hate what I ended up with. I suppose if I bothered my publication coordinator enough I could get it changed. I know there will be a financial toll but I think the reward of my book sales would cover it. In fact, I think I just talked myself into doing it. That synopsis was the exact wording used in my press release. I sabotaged myself out of impetuosity. The first thing a reader does before buying a book is read the back cover. My back cover is just horrendous. It’s a very broad description that comes off as vague and, to be quite honest, sinfully boring. It probably won’t inspire confidence or intrigue and I may lose readers because of it. I always try to get the people who have read my book to post reviews on the outlet sites like Amazon so I can get some interest stirred up. I made a hasty mistake and it may cost me.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

I would tell anyone who wants to write to just start doing it. Go out and experience something that makes you feel uneasy at least once a day. Get out of your comfort zone. Go audition for a play. Sing in public. Do something that scares the shit out of you. And write it all down! Remember every detail of your adventures. Document every sensation and define every smell and taste and sound in a deliberate and precise manner. Describe an experience completely, cut your wording in half without sacrificing any details, and then cut it in half again.  Sit down and type and don’t stop typing until you’ve exhausted your mind. You’ll be surprised how far your imagination will take you. Even if it isn’t a part of a story you’re currently working on but rather an experience you’ve had, there is a good possibility that you can insert it into a manuscript at some point.

I tend to write in a linear fashion. But sometimes I will have an urge to describe something that’s having an overwhelming effect on me. I write with the essence of my current project in mind and nearly every passage I’ve written in this manner ends up being useful somewhere in my books. And remember, when you begin a project, don’t ever worry about your word count. The story ends when the story ends. Don’t force words because you feel like your story is too short. And don’t cut yourself off because you feel like you’ve gone on for too long. Write it all down and make that determination upon a re-read. It’s all about pace. And never forget that if you’re bored while writing it then the reader will be bored while reading it. There will be times when you have to write a descriptive narrative that may not engage in the most compelling language but it simply needs to be done. Take those times to perhaps interject some humor or openly address the drab nature of the scene. Acknowledge its dullness but search for excitement.

Does your day job ever get in the way of your writing?

Currently it does not—but it used to. When I first started writing I was working at a counseling center as a case manager for children. I worked with kids and their families, setting them up with services assisting in mental and behavioral health issues. I did the job and I did the job well. But the work was stressful and the agency was understaffed. My caseload was around 30 kids which meant 30 families to deal with on a daily basis. I eventually succumbed to the stress of the work and ultimately the job and I had to go our separate ways. In that time I was unable to write anything that I was proud to put my name on. I don’t know if it was because I couldn’t turn my mind off from the chaos or because I spent 90% of everyday writing progress notes. I dedicated so much of my time to word selection and accuracy that I simply couldn’t sit down and write more even if I had an idea worth writing. I got nothing done as a novelist during that time and I became discouraged. I stopped contributing to my book and let it sit for almost a year.

I worked a variety of other jobs while looking for something that I enjoyed doing. I wrote briefly as a freelance journalist for a few local newspapers but to be completely blunt, I loathed it. One day I was approached by an acquaintance who worked as a contractor. He had recently landed a contract installing high-end shower enclosures that were custom designed. I began helping him out and fell in love with the work. I’ve worked as a laborer many times in my life growing up in rural Pennsylvania but this was different. This was an art. And when I engage in an art form I intend to master that art. Working with my hands completely freed up my mind as well. I launched right back into writing and finished my first novel. The dance between making money with the analytical side of my brain and making art with the creative side has really brought me to a good place. I’ve found peace with the balance I’ve struck.

I had always thought that I would need to be using my college degree in order to be happy with my career-choice but really, I only needed to appreciate the work I was doing to be happy with it. It’s a simple concept, I know. But we were told that we should go to college and get a degree so we can get a “good job.” Language like that inherently suggests to an entire generation that a job that doesn’t require a degree isn’t a good job. That’s a major misconception that needs to be righted in the minds of all Millennials. Any job is a good job and there is honor in blue-collared work. We need to stop thinking that certain jobs are “below” us. I make great money doing what I do. More than I made working with my degree. And it’s offered me a whole new realm in my life in the form of being a novelist. I still use my degree. But now I use it in a way that I’m passionate about rather than being forced into a slot I don’t fit into.

Are you satisfied with your success?

So far, all that has happened to me is I’ve completed a novel and it’s been published. It became available online a few months ago and since its release I’ve only sold copies virtually to friends and family. Luckily, those friends and family members have been suggesting my book to other people and I’ve gained momentum in that respect. On Amazon.com I can view my sales by region and I found that I sold a couple books in the Colorado area (I live in Pennsylvania). I’ve also sold a few on the west coast. I’m assuming these sales are organic because I’m unable to come up with any friends in those areas that would have bought my book. The last time I looked into it, a hard copy of my book was not yet available in stores but a paperback version can be purchased online. I’m hoping that once the tangible object is in bookstores my sales will increase.

Page Publishing handles my publicity but the level of publicity I receive is based on what I chose to invest in when I signed my contract. I opted only for minimal publicity since I wasn’t in a financial place to invest in more. But my publication coordinator, Kali Hammond, was kind enough to offer me a radio interview that aired on a New York City radio station last month. I started both a community and a private Facebook page for the book and it can be found by searching “Caleb’s Discontent.” The community page has a Shop Now option and its URL has been followed several times so I believe creating the page was a good call and I would suggest all published writers to do the same. It’s a great way to promote your book on a global stage. One of the best marketing tools I can use on Facebook is to take quotes from my book and turn them into memes like this one:

meme

The cool thing about using Facebook as a tool is that I can give the reader an unmatched experience in understanding my book. For instance, this is a shot of an actual location in the book. It’s a picture of Baylor’s Lake and it is where Caleb and his friends grew up. It’s a symbol of innocence and hope. In the book the lake is called Ash Lake which refers both to the Ash trees that surround the lake and a resurrection of sorts.

But in the past four months, this is all that has happened. So I wouldn’t say that I am satisfied with my success. I’d say that I’m just getting started. I am simply enthralled with all that has happened for me and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I’m also not going to stop. Writing is something I will be able to do for the rest of my life. I’ll be able writing right up until the day I die. And I hope others do too. We need rejuvenate an interest in literature. We need to start reading more. Even if you are reading something to your child, at least you are reading. Kids today need to find that magic in books because if they don’t, reading will only seem like a menial task and it won’t outweigh the allure of technology. Maybe it won’t happen at first or maybe it will, but some day my son will put down a book and shudder in a mystical contentment. And once that seed is planted, I hope he proceeds to pass it on to his kids. Thank you so much for reading my interview—And Keep On Writing!