Musician Josh Ritter has a talent for storytelling. His songs are mini-narratives, weaving prose, melodic diction and folkish accompaniment to create music that can only be labeled "literary." It seems only natural for him to set down his guitar and pick up his laptop to pen Bright’s Passage, his first novel.
The book reads like a classic tale entwined with poetry, lyricism and powerful imagery. It's the story of Henry Bright, a war hero recently returned to his quiet hometown in rural West Virginia. Bright loses his young wife in the first page of the novel and is left to take care of their newborn son alone; unsure and frightened, he is lead on a quest by an angel with an agenda of its own. The angel guides him from the trenches of World War I to the destruction of his home and beyond, persuading him to undertake a perilous journey he does not want to be on. Followed closely by his father-in-law and his two brutish brothers-in-law, all bent on killing Bright and taking his boy away, our hero struggles with pleasing the angel while trying to keep his son alive.
We spoke with Ritter briefly about his novel and upcoming visit to Austin.
How easy was it for you to transition from Songwriter to Novelist?
I was initially surprised by the freedom that prose gave to me. Here I was, writing and writing, and I didn’t have to rhyme a damn thing. Also, the story could be longer and I could have more pleasure in my characters. What I found as I went on and edited, however, was that each form—songwriting and prose—rely on two qualities, accuracy and concision. Both qualities are worth the fighting for, and both are very satisfying and fun to work for. So really, songwriting and novelizing are just the same word for working hard.
Bright’s Passage was developed from a song your wrote; was this the first time a song planted a seed like that in your head? Have there been any others that you feel like could develop into something more?
When the song that was to become Bright’s Passage came about, I had a surplus of material for my new record. I didn’t use it because there was just no room left on the record. That being said, I don’t really believe in songs doing double duty. I don’t want comparison from one to the other, it forces the song to do a novel’s work and vice versa. So, while I love a song like Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, I’m happy that it is a towering song and not having to support a novel as well.
The story is filled with contrasts between suffering and beauty. Did you find it necessary to combine the two into the story?
I think a lot of people have trouble distinguishing between comedy and tragedy. I’ve always thought that what is tragic is always laced with comedy, and that good comedy always has a touch of tragedy. The same goes with beauty. I don’t trust music that is unrelentingly dark and I don’t really trust literature that finds its whole value in darkness, either. I think its really hard work sometimes to find the golden lining, but if you work you can always bring a touch of it to whatever brutality there is. That said, beware the rose tinted glasses. Stuff always looks bad through a perfume bottle.
How much did music influence your writing? (Not your own, but playlists if you listened while you wrote.)
I found it really, really useful to listen to just a few things while I was writing. It put me in the mood immediately and helped me separate myself from whatever chaos was going on around me so that I could settle in and just write. Radiohead’s Kid A was the major influence. Lately there’s been a lot of Aphex Twin and Chopin. I need music that has a scrubbed, bleach-y feeling. Writing, much of the time feels like washing a hardwood floor, and something about Kid A felt incredibly right to me, for whatever reason!
Angels are commonly seen as kind and helpful, how did your bad-natured angel come to be?
Angels, from everything I’ve seen in the Bible or other stories, are usually employed doing two things: shaking it up and telling you not to be nervous as they shake things up. For reasons quite mysterious to me, we most often paint them as beneficent beings with white robes and great hair. To the contrary, when angels show up, speaking with complete conviction, things are about to get real messy. Perhaps we love angels like we love our leaders, for their conviction.
You’ve played quite a few times all around Austin, now you are coming to read from and sign your novel, how does that feel?
I’m trying to think past the barbecue, but really I can’t think past the barbecue!
You can catch Josh Ritter at BookPeople tonight, reading from and signing Bright’s Passage at 7 pm.