If getting on a train can turn your life around. If you have a twin brother and his train goes the other direction. Always the other direction. If your mom told both brothers, You’re the oldest.
If humans descended from sparrows. If you know this because your friend had a palm reading, though she has no hand.
If it’s not about wrong, but the possibility of being wrong.
If you didn’t marry a girl named Florence, and then she won the lottery.
Possibilities and realities dance and collide in Ryan Werner’s impressionistic second collection, If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, in which he writes:
Trust, faith. Whatever it’s called. Everything is up for revision. If there’s a God in the sky, if all men are truly brothers, if there’s any truth in a northbound train.
If the language evokes rock and roll, consider: Werner doubles as guitar hero. He juggles rock acts and literary ventures with similar zeal. Songwriter for “three or four bands,” publisher of Passenger Side Books (Justin Lawrence Daugherty, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise; Matthew Burnside, Infinity’s Jukebox), wrestling fanatic, graphic novel enthusiast, and minted member of the Krokus fan club hall of fame.
Like the author himself, If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train follows his first collection, Murmuration, in providing comic relief for the moment while inciting lingering themes. Breezy fart jokes yield narrator-protagonists longing for meaning and goodness. Satirical transcendentalism might sum it up, though it is more a desire than attainment.
If the questions outweigh the answers, we have at least begun the journey.
T.C.: When did you start writing? Why do you write? Like I remember a screenplay I wrote when I was about five. Do you have something like that?
Ryan: I really don’t have anything like that, the screenplay as a youth sort of thing. I got started really late, or at least it felt that way. I always wanted to write songs and do music, so maybe the closest thing I can think of is writing song lyrics when I was maybe eight or nine and then planning out a full-blown concept album when I was ten, which is less impressive than it sounds. It was called Torqued and it was just about getting bullied at recess and stuff.
Remember that band Old Skull, with the ten year old kids who sang about pizza and how rad it was to get out of school early? It was like that except really bad and only an idea. I didn’t even play guitar yet. I hadn’t even heard rock & roll yet.
I started writing when I was nineteen because it was either that or drop out of college. I took a creative writing workshop on a whim and wasn’t bad at it so I kept going. I don’t really feel a need to write. I don’t know how much I buy into that idea, people who say they feel it in them to write and that they have to. That sounds terrible, like something that’d be misdiagnosed as tuberculosis a couple hundred years ago.
I write and keep writing because I like it. It’s one of the things that I do that makes me feel like I’m being the best version of myself that I can be. It’s the most effective way of screaming into the ether, I guess.
T.C.: And so from there then did you write songs or did you get into fiction? How did that begin?
Ryan: I started my first band and my first serious writing around the same time. Neither was great.
The first thing I tried to write was a novel. Bad Nick Hornby styled stuff. I’d read High Fidelity a few times and that was it.
T.C.: You have two story collections and poetry, is that correct? And then how many other short stories are out there? any songs or recordings?
Ryan: I have the full length collection, Shake Away These Constant Days, which is from a project I did called Our Band Could Be Your Lit, where I wrote a story under one thousand words every week, each one based on a song suggested to me by musicians and writers from around the world. I have the two short story chapbooks, too, Murmuration and now this newest one, If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train. The poetry you’re talking about is probably the heroic crown of sonnets about Neko Case I put out. I send those out randomly to folks, but they’re pretty much only available at readings and when I’m on tour.
I have a handful of records out with a handful of bands. I was in a weird doom band called Bull Dyke Rodeo that has two albums. I played bass on this bad punk record that doesn’t need to be named. I’m in a sleazy rock band called Legal Fingers that has an EP and two albums. An EP with this instrumental rock band, Young Indian. An upcoming EP from my band Split Pricks, as confusing a sound as the name is to stomach, maybe.
T.C.: As an observer it seems like all of this is part of one in the same? Expression through various art forms as well as publishing.
Ryan: Yeah, I think it’s all a part of the same idea. Just staying busy. Trying to feel like I’m understood by or understanding the big dumb world.
T.C. (Texting a picture of his Hurricane Deck IIPA from Figueroa Mountain in Northern California): You drink beer? That might be a silly question to a Wisconsinite
Ryan: I was actually going to ask you if it was good, but just as an observer. I’ve never had a beer, actually. They smell gross.
I’ve only ever drank twice, both times back in 2003. I was seventeen and at a house party and had half a cup of Apple Pie Schnapps. Cops showed up. I blew a .03 and got taken to the station. Next time was in the summer when I was 18. Had a glass of vodka and Kool-Aid at my buddy’s house. Laid down to sleep and woke up in the same position 13 hours later. Went right to the bathroom and threw up. Haven’t touched it since.
T.C.: I could say I drink because otherwise I’d be a pious ass. This way I’m just an ass.
It looks like your tours are a riot. I think I recall Justin Daugherty posting a video of you shredding on guitar while some guy malled you. I could see where sobriety helps.
Ryan: Oh fuck, that was at some backwoods bar by Dena Rash Guzman’s house outside of Portland. We ended up there when they had an open mic. Just a bunch of townies all fucked up on either booze or oxies, playing the worst two-chord jam stuff and covers ever. Their version of “Breakdown” was bad enough to make Tom Petty kill himself just so he could roll in his own grave. We had woken up at four that morning to drive from Salt Lake City to Boise to do an eleven a.m. event at a bookstore there. Left at one and drove straight to Dena’s place. Got there around eight and went straight to that bar. We were fucking knackered. I ate a bunch of chicken strips and just said fuck it, I’m going to play with these dudes. And it was a blast.
T.C.: Beer to me forces community or intimacy or some such thing. Writing is similar, particularly if one engages in the fellowship of the writers, as you and I seem to do. Does that make sense?
Ryan: I think that makes sense, yeah. I think we all see ourselves as some version of Cheers. Or like to, at least.
T.C.: And we swim upstream, in that our community has degenerated? Or is that too cliché? I just feel isolated. What do you think about being an American in that regard?
Ryan: I don’t know how to speak to that. I’ve only ever been to one other country and it was the part of Mexico that looks like a flea market out in Durango, Iowa.
I couldn’t put it any better than William Matthews does in his poem, “Why We Are Truly A Nation.”
Because we rage inside
the old boundaries,
like a young girl leaving the Church,
scared of her parents.
Because we all dream of saving
the shaggy, dung-caked buffalo,
shielding the herd with our bodies.
Because grief unites us,
like the locked antlers of moose
who die on their knees in pairs.
T.C.: Wow. “Grief unites us.” Do you see that in your life? Do you feel united in grief to certain people? Is that about literature in a way? Are literary people grieving people? Or does it transcend literature? Or what? But you said you “couldn’t put it any better than William Matthews.” Try.
I agree by the way. “Grief unites us.” I feel blessed in weakness, and find the people worth connecting with are people who are okay with lament, not too proud and happy to feel negative emotion.
Ryan: I think “okay with lament” is the best way to put it. I don’t necessarily think that depression or sadness are right, but grief is perfect. It’s loss, it’s the reaction to loss. And if you do it right, it’s gain, it’s the reaction to gain.
My buddy was asking about the new book and he said, “Let me guess, all the stories are really short and really sad?”
And other people have said similar things. I guess I get it, but I’m not sad as a human. Grief is just a really interesting thing to me. What’s gone? What’s taking its place?
T.C.: When people say writing is sad, or characters are unlikeable, I usually see that as more about the reader than the writer, and it’s a common affliction, an aversion to the reality of decay. But enduring literature always seems to buck this aversion.
Ryan: I think the sad stuff is just the most reaffirming, but really none of it is sad stuff. Someone has to survive to tell the story. Every song is a victory song.
T.C.: There you go. Your work has a buoyancy to it. For example, what’s with the presence of “light”? In various pieces from this collection, written ostensibly separately, published originally in various journals, over time:
– “the light was coming down from just one bulb” (“Banzai”) …
– “the sun to eventually chase away the moon” (“Atavism”)
– or on another but similar analogue, “the pendulum swinging one way and another” (“Origin Story”)
– “There’s a record book somewhere detailing livers stuck to a wall and intestines hanging from light fixtures.” (“Atavism”)
– … not to mention the paragraph we must discuss, “Trust, faith … if there’s any truth in a northbound train.”
“-I walked around to the front of the grandfather clock and stood under the light by myself.” (”Origin Story”)
Ryan: Hands show up a lot in my stories. Amputees, too. People who inexplicably have lots of money. As for light, I’m not sure. You know one of the things I love the most about the movie Total Recall? It fades to white at the end. That’s what I want my stories to do.
That line about the northbound train was the line I had in mind before I started writing any of the stories in the book.
I couldn’t figure it out, though, so I wrote “Atavism” first. Then I went back and wrote “Northbound Train.”
T.C.: Speaking of “Atavism,” one of my favorites in the collection, are we in some way reverting to an ancestral type?
Ryan: Scientifically, I have no idea if we’re reverting back to an earlier state. All I know is that recessive genes are a motherfucker. I actually learned about atavism in the dumbest way possible, like a true high school metalhead, from looking it up after hearing the album Atavism by the power metal band Slough Feg. Leave it to power metal to teach you about nerdy shit. I think Helloween taught me more about dystopian society than Huxley.
T.C.: You chose to title the book after the first story. It makes me think of your musical influences, and how this lays out like a flash collection. It’s the title track! And you named the collection super late, right? I saw you ask your Facebook followers what title they liked?
Ryan: I didn’t want to name it after a story in the collection, but it just sort of happened. It was the same way with Murmuration, too. I love that word. It just sounds like exactly what I wanted the book to be.
I did name it super late, actually. I polled the Facebook hive mind and a lot of people liked that one. I think Wooden Teeth was the other one that was the front-runner, and they were my two favorites, too.
I don’t know if it means anything, but I sometimes think about how weird it is that Murmuration was named after the last story in the collection and Northbound Train was named after the first story in the collection. I have no idea what that means, other than maybe I need to back away for a bit and watch more TV.
T.C.: Earlier, when I asked about writing purpose, you said you were “trying to feel like I’m understood by or understanding the big dumb world.” What’s at the crux of the whole deal for you right now. If you were going to write a thesis, or ask a question. What are you “understanding” or trying to understand?
Ryan: I got back from tour last year and said, “Gee, you never realize how big the country is until you drive across it.” And you never realize how many people are in the world until you start meeting them, hordes of them—if you’re lucky—in every town. I think about the sun burning out every day. I won’t live to see it and nobody I’ll ever love or even know or will ever see it. The line from me to anyone who sees the end of the world is so thin you couldn’t see it if it was scratched into your eye. But, just knowing that it’ll happen someday is so bizarre to me. And then there’s dying! It’s like a timed test inside a timed test. I try to keep my head down and work and crack some jokes, but it’s just trying to thicken up that line from me to the end of the world. I think that’s what understanding does, helps me forgive the world for being bigger than I am.
T.C.: You publish—self publish, and publish others. Why? What’s that about? How did you get involved in that? Do you consider agenting your work, publish it elsewhere, etc?
Ryan: I like self-publishing. I tell people all the time that I come from rock & roll, from DIY. If you made something, fucking cool. I think writers get worried about whether or not their shit’s going to get picked up or put out and who’s going to put it out and if it’s going to be promoted. Those are legitimate concerns, and I’m not shitting on that. But it’s not the end if it doesn’t happen. It’s just the end of the game. If you want a book, write one.
I send stuff off, but once a manuscript is done, I want it out. The production end of things just takes too long. If I do it myself it takes like a month from last edit to looking at a stack of books.
T.C.: I’m doing agent queries now. Insanity! So yeah, I hear you. The gatekeepers.
Ryan: Touring is great. I wrote an essay about that and starting a micro press over at Passages North, but it’s changed since then. I got a new/another job, I’m in more bands, I have less time in general. The worst part about tour has nothing to do with tour. There’s a lot of Facebook messaging, a million emails, follow up emails, getting completely ignored, more follow up emails, incompetent dickholes who have never been on the other side of booking a show, sweating the clock of getting things booked in time, saving money to get from town to town in case nobody wants to buy my shit or let me crash on their floor, and a ton of other preparatory things. Once I’m in the car, it’s the best time ever. I’m not saying a bad day on tour is better than a good day at work, because I love my job. (I work at a preschool and I’m super popular.) But it’s just cruising around the country and telling stories to people. On a base level, the idea of making a bunch of shit up and then standing in front of people while they listen to you talk about blows my mind.
T.C.: Who’s your favorite writer or something you’ve read that got you pumped up, if anything?
Ryan: I read Amy Hempel’s “The Harvest” once a month. I want to be her brain.
T.C.: I love the name Passenger Side Books. And the logo. For a music business analogue, lit fiction is in the eighties, and you’re Nirvana. Or something.
Ryan: [laughs]. It’s cool you like it. I hope other people do, too.
T.C.: With your new book and tour, is publishing on the back burner?
Ryan: Actually, the publishing is the burner, right now. I haven’t written anything since I finished the last story of the book—“Origin Story”—a month or so ago. I’ve been formatting and printing and stapling and etc since then. I’m working with my friend Jeff Moody on a book about his record-review-in-comic-strip Stripwax and I’m on the lookout for the next PSB manuscript after that. I want something by a woman. Not that I wouldn’t publish another man’s book if it came my way, but it’s important to show that PSB is a safe and welcome place for the ladies.
T.C.: Who are you looking for in terms of the next Burnside? Passenger Side Books published Matthew Burnside’s Infinity’s Jukebox.
Ryan: I don’t know if I’m looking for the next Burnside, though the world would certainly be better if there were a million more of him. That man is a freak. I say this a lot but not enough: Matthew Burnside is one of the most caring, honest, and legitimately humble dudes I’ve ever met. As for his writing, he does his thing and it’s great. I hope other people do their things.
Ryan Werner works at a pre-school in the Midwest. He is the author of the short short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days and the story cycle chapbook Murmuration. He runs the micro-press Passenger Side Books, is on Twitter @YeahWerner, and has a website named www.RyanWernerWritesStuff.com.
T.C. Porter delivers flowers and novelizes. His less-creatively titled website is tcporter.com, and favorite Krokus song, “Our Love.”