Josh Ritter has been writing novels for the last decade—he just didn’t meet the word count. A vivid songwriter, the Moscow, Idaho-based folkie specializes in three-minute masterpieces, the kind that establish plot, character and motive before the first chorus. It’s what got him named one of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters by Paste magazine. It’s also what makes his leap from songwriter to novelist seem more natural than, say, Ke$ha suddenly deciding to write children’s books.
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Ritter’s debut, Bright’s Passage, is as dense and magical as one of his tracks, the book recounting three separate moments in Henry Bright’s life and how they all culminate during a West Virginia forest fire right after the end of World War I. Not surprisingly, the book sprang from a song Ritter was writing. It took over his life from there.
Most musicians can answer a few basic questions about their music while still actually sleeping. But are you a practiced author-interview yet?
No way, not in the slightest. I’m having flashbacks to the first time I was interviewed. A writer asked me about my music, I was just tongue-tied. But the reason I got into writing this book was that I wanted a change and had other things I wanted try.
Is it a big change for you?
It’s huge. The writing itself is very different in some ways, but in others it’s like music. Both come down to putting yourself forward and believing that what you have to say is at least interesting to people other than yourself. All of us as writers are in the job of being comfortable with our own preoccupations. Whether in the form of a song or a novel, you can obfuscate all you want, but you have to deal with what is on your mind. For some people, letting everyone see your preoccupations is more uncomfortable than standing up in front of people naked.
You don’t really have that problem.
No, not really.
Bright’s Passage sprang from a song you were writing for your last album, So Runs the World Away. Did the song survive?
No, it didn’t. It was one that I finished, and when I stepped away from it there was much more back there in the song than I could get to in three minutes. There was more to the character there…It was like Dumbo’s feather. The song was the start of this, a path for the story. But when I started going it became it’s own thing. I didn’t want to stop writing. I had a difficult time writing the record, so when Bright’s Passage took off I just continued writing. It was really exciting how this expanded.
I love it when piece takes on a life of it’s own.
Yeah, it’s magic. When I heard writers talk about that it there was always this hint of fawning in that, but it’s so true. I think—well, when I started off the only thing I had in my head was a character, Henry Bright, and this period of time, the first World War. From there it was one foot in front of the other. I was just writing and then, on page three, there came the angel. From that point I started to realize I wanted a character that was really trying to make sense of what was happening to him, and with the angel, whether it was real or not, and whether it was there to help him through everything.
But the angel doesn’t help him at all.
Not at all [laughs]. But I found that in stories from the Bible or other texts, when an angel shows up, it’s not a good thing. Feathers are about to fly and the shit is about it hit the fan. Those moments are full of tension. Angels don’t explain anything. They just do.
You don’t explain a lot in the book either. You don’t explain whether Henry is crazy, whether the angel is real, or what the Colonel and his sons, who are hunting Henry, did that made everyone so frightened of them. You really strive to let the reader connect the dots.
Certainly with the angel. I feel the same way with songs. I don’t believe that songs should preach in any way. And when the angel becomes real or a figment of Henry’s imagination, then we loose the freedom to believe in him or not. And with the pain and violence in Henry’s mother’s past that may involve the Colonel, it’s much better left hinted at than spelled out. I often feel that with music you can record a harmony, you can add some instruments, but if you fill out the song completely there’s nothing for the listening to add in his car. I think it’s the same way with a book.
So what are the differences between writing a song and writing a story—other than several thousand words, of course?
When I first started writing fiction, or prose, I should say, I felt that this was so liberating. I was working on the first draft of Bright’s Passage. I kept thinking, I can write and I can write. I was just having fun seeing where the story could go. Every line wasn’t labored over with such intensity. And that was all well and good until I got to the second draft. That was a terrible moment—how hard that was, how terrible it was. And so was the next draft. And the next draft. Then I met Bruce Springsteen one night. I told him I was writing a book and how long and hard it was. He said to me, “It’s exactly like writing a song. Every word counts.” He was right.