Thriller writer Nathan Ripley on the highs and lows that came with writing his debut novel
In his debut thriller, Find You in the Dark, Toronto-based author Nathan Ripley — the pseudonym of writer and journalist Naben Ruthnum — tells the story of Martin Reese, a family man who has an obsession with digging up the bodies of serial killer victims. When a crooked cop goes missing, Reese, better known as the Finder to law enforcement, is wanted by the police and hunted by a real killer.
In the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A, Ripley answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
1. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"
I have had the experience of reading a story I wrote years ago and realizing how it was clearly about some unpleasant aspect of myself that I hadn't recognized at the time. It's frightening to have, at some level deeper than one's own waking consciousness, a recognition of your flaws and fears presented to you by your past self.
2. Anita Rau Badami asks, "What is your relationship with your characters: is it possible to separate yourself from them or do they always reflect some element of your own psyche?"
I think there is a lot of me split across different characters in my stories, but I haven't, since I was a very new writer, had a central character that had a lot of myself in him or her — good thing, too, or I'd have serious Unlikeable Narrator problems.
3. Ian Brown asks, "What was the lowest point in the writing of your latest project? And the highest?"
The lowest point came when I widely submitted an earlier draft of this novel and had it rejected quite a bit. My agents and I realized that the manuscript had some key problems, and I had to take it back to the desk to rework it. At the time, though, I was feeling old and hopeless and quite cornered by my choice of this crazy profession. I didn't know if I really could do the necessary work to make the draft into a good book, but I knew I didn't have any other choice, as I don't have any other real skills to make a living, and there's nothing else I've ever enjoyed as much as the act of writing.
And that answers the highest point question, too. Any time I'm actually putting words down, having a disciplined day that results in solid pages, I feel great. For a little while.
4. Andrew Pyper asks, "Have you ever been surprised — deeply and honestly shocked — by the violence of a reader's reaction to your work, whether positive or negative?"
I have a feeling that experience is coming up. I think in genre writing, readers are so passionate about what they love and so put out by what they dislike that it's inevitable that your book will end up in the hands of someone who really, really hates it.
5. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "What form of writing would you love to attempt even though you're secretly terrified by it?"
I've made multiple unsuccessful attempts to write a weird fiction story — the kind perfected by Robert Aickman and that continues to be one of my favourite genres. Not quite a ghost story, not quite magic realism, not quite Kafka nightmare. The best of these stories have a poetic and visionary quality that's rare in short fiction. And, of course, very hard to do well.
6. Russell Smith asks, "Have you ever been tempted to throw a murder into a story to make it sell better?"
Murder is intrinsic to many of my stories, thankfully. We'll see if it helps them sell!
7. Nicolas Dickner asks, "Which writing skill would you like to improve?"
I'd like to get better at being a truly ruthless editor of my own work at an earlier stage of drafting. My real clear-cutting tends to come in the final draft, when it really should come in the second draft.
8. Louise Bernice Halfe asks, "Do you use your dreams to create story?"
I don't have that Lovecraftian knack for dreaming whole words and stories. My dreams are often so banal they make me doubt that I'm a creative person at all. I think my subconscious is actually more active during the day, whether I'm writing a story or babbling nonsense at myself, the cat or whoever is unlucky enough to be in the room with me.