The Penmen Profile: Short Story Writer Jean Ryan

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Jean Ryan Photo

Author Jean Ryan writes short stories and essays, many of which have appeared in journals like Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review and The Blue Lake Review.

“Survival Skills” (2013), a collection of Ryan’s short stories, garnered praise from Publishers Weekly, Los Angeles Review and the Colorado Review, among others.

Ryan has published one novel, “Lost Sister” (2005), and has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. For more information on Ryan, visit her website.

Have you always written?
Yes. As a child, I composed poems and stories and read them to my mother. At some point I stopped writing poetry, perhaps sensing it wasn’t my strong suit, and focused on short stories and essays. There have been lulls, of course — crises of confidence, times when living demanded my full attention — but writing has always beckoned me back.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
My writing process varies, depending on the subject matter. I never know when an idea will become insistent enough to develop. Most of the stories in “Survival Skills” were inspired by something I had read or a show I had seen. “Migration” issued from the real story of a Toulouse goose that lived in a park in Los Angeles and became smitten with one of the visitors. “Looks for Life” also came from real events — a co-worker told me about a friend of his whose life changed after a plastic surgeon rebuilt his face. “Waiting for Annie” followed a special I had seen on coma, prompting me to ponder the mind’s ability to make connections by itself, to persist without the complement of consciousness. “Paradise” came from a program I had watched about intelligence in birds, parrots in particular. One bird had acquired a prodigious vocabulary. I thought it would be fun to work this creature into a story, to use him in fact as a main character. In order to create conflict, the parrot in this tale is malicious as well as brilliant. The extravagance of Palm Springs, its artificial overlay, seemed an apt parallel to the various indulgences Max enjoyed in his man-made abode.

Once an idea takes hold, I begin the research involved, if any, searching for salient points, nuggets that gleam. Eventually, brimming over with facts and notions, I begin, never with an outline and always with apprehension. The first paragraph comes hard as everything else depends on it. I will spend hours nudging the words into place, listening for the right voice and syntax — rhythm is crucial. Writers are instructed to ignore the inner editor until the story is finished, but I’ve never been able to do this. I edit as I go, working much like a stone mason: the underlying stratum must be solid and true before I can layer on another. As the story emerges, I go back and correct any inconsistencies that inevitably emerge in the characters, timeline or setting. Endings are as difficult as beginnings; I strive to make mine worth the reader’s investment. Sometimes I know how a story will end before I begin; other times the story finds its own finish.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
My greatest challenge as a writer is accepting the fact that my talent will never be equal to my vision. The other challenge is knowing that the piece may never be published, or that its publication may not garner attention. I write anyway, in silent defiance.

What has the road to publication been like for you?Survival Skills cover in 300 dpi
The road to publication has been a humbling journey, partly because I write literary short fiction, a genre shunned by most book publishers. (I wrote a novel, “Lost Sister,” many years ago but have not been tempted to write another.) My stories and essays have been published in many journals over the years, not alas in the most prestigious ones. I am deeply grateful to Midge and John, the editors of Ashland Creek Press, for taking a chance on me and publishing “Survival Skills.”

Many people don’t read short stories, preferring the lengthy immersions offered by novels. I am baffled by this unwillingness to invest in low-risk, short-term investments, particularly given our paltry attention spans. Essentially readers are basing the value of a story on how long it keeps them company. You don’t see this more-is-better mentality applied to other art forms. Just let me say: If you want to make new friends, fall in love, laugh out loud, solve a mystery, take a vacation or just learn a few jaw-dropping things about this world, you don’t always need 300 pages. Some of the most accomplished and elegant writing is found in short works.

How do you market your work?
Most of my marketing is accomplished on my website. Here I publish blog posts, mainly about nature and the writing life, as well as announcements of recent publications. I also have a Facebook author page, on which I post this news, and I am heartened by the responses I receive, the people who read my latest stories and then purchase my collection. I employ Twitter as well, though I’ll admit this service baffles me. Twitter seems like a vast ocean, choked with bobbing bottles of notes, useless in their multitude. I also attend open mics and any other reading opportunities that present themselves.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I had known as a young writer that the judgments of editors are largely subjective and thus no reflection on a story’s merit. Rejections never stopped me, but I did give them more credence than they warranted.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
My favorite authors include Jean Thompson, Antonya Nelson, Annie Proulx, Rick Bass, Margaret Atwood, Russell Hoban, Annie Dillard, T.C. Boyle, Joan Didion, Mary Oliver, Janet Hobhouse, Edna O’Brien, Marisa Silver, Tim O’Brien and John Updike — there are many more, but I have to stop somewhere! These authors take my breath away: Boyle with his free-wheeling confidence, Proulx with her perfect ear and command of the language, Didion with her authority and stunning precision.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Which three books would I choose? That’s a tough question. I must cheat on this and cite two books that don’t exist now but surely will. The first would be “The Collected Poems of Mary Oliver,” and the second would be “The Collected Essays of Rick Bass.” The third book would be “Do Not Deny Me” by Jean Thompson, 12 stories as perfect as any author could hope for.