Patrick Earl Ryan on Seeing Yourself Not Only as a Victim, but as a Perpetrator of Harm and Hurt, Too
An interview with Patrick Earl Ryan from The Write Stuff series:
Patrick Earl Ryan was born and raised in New Orleans and lives in San Francisco. He is the winner of the 2019 Flannery O’Connor Award for his debut short story collection, If We Were Electric. His fiction has appeared in Ontario Review, Best New American Voices, Men on Men, James White Review, and Pleiades, among others.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I’m a writer. That might seem like a straightforward answer, but for years I avoided answering that question truthfully until my first book was accepted for publication. To answer I’m a writer inevitably provoked another question, something like, Oh, have you published a book? or Can I find your book in a bookstore? So until last year, I told people my other profession—martial arts teacher—which at least sounded badass.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Probably confidence. I grew up queer in a poor, Catholic family in New Orleans. I lived through an eight-year abusive relationship in my twenties. I counted on literary success that didn’t materialize for many years. These things really beat me down. The real struggle is what the Buddhist writer Tara Brach calls a trance of worthlessness. That’s such a perfect description for how I spent most of my life. That twisty, tied-up feeling of not being good enough to deserve something better.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Write every day, even when the muse isn’t playing nicely… and be prepared to be poor.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
The real world, by far, just by living it, enduring its pains, everything there to teach me, even when I haven’t wanted to be taught. My education exposed me to some really beautiful books, introduced me to fantastic mentors, allotted me an incredible amount of free time to write, but the world around me taught me about love, death, and desire.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
There’s nothing wrong with you.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I do. I do now. I could be more successful as a writer, but I’m successful at living. I probably define success differently than most other people. I don’t make money. But I’ve had a wonderful man for twenty years who loves me and takes good care of me. For a long time I equated my self-worth with my literary success. That left me depressed and resentful of other people’s successes. I backed out of the literary and publishing scene for more than ten years before my debut was accepted and published. But I saw a therapist and really put a lot of heart and effort into the healing process. Three years paid off. So I’m successful most because I changed the way I look at the world.
Why do you get up every morning?
For morning’s solitude. I get up at 4 a.m. every day for a few hours of solitude. I’ll meditate, practice tai chi, make coffee, and listen to what the world has to say to me. It seems important to me to be able to be in the world by yourself and be quiet without feeling lonely, abandoned, crowded, without explaining. It’s very energizing.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
My great-great-grandmother, Maria Cortez, who was from indigenous Chilean and colonial Spanish blood, born in the 1820s somewhere near Valparaiso, Chile, which at that time was an international port of colonial trade, like New Orleans, to where she immigrated in the 1850s. I’ve yet to find her trail into North America and Louisiana from South America. She could’ve buggied through Mexican Texas or sailed up the Mississippi Delta. She settled in Saint Bernard Parish, just to the east of New Orleans, in a community of Filipino fishermen out in the sticks. She married one or possibly two Filipino men and mothered five children, one of whom was my great-grandmother, Lucy Victoriana. My dad always described his Nan Lucy as an “Indian” with long, thick, black hair who would chase her husband down the street with a battle ax whenever they got into fights.
What’s wrong with society today?
Let’s see… putting individual gain over societal well-being. Not taking responsibility for our failings and mistakes.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
The bathroom. The backyard. In books. In music. Around things made of wood. I discovered that my Chinese astrological chart has no elemental wood, so I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to it in my environment.
What is your fondest memory?
1986 or so… It must’ve been late spring, and I’m sure it was 10 or 11 at night. I was in my best friend Dean’s swimming pool with just him. His parents and his little sister were out of town. I’d had a massive crush on him for at least two years. He was tall, lean, a basketball player, the drum major in the marching band. I’d never told him that I was in love with him. I just helped him cheat on English tests. I couldn’t swim, and he thought he could teach me. We’d stripped down to swim trunks, and somehow he convinced me to lay back and float across his arms. My feet always sank and my head dunked whenever I tried to float. He kept saying, “I’ve got you…just breathe,” to soothe me into unclenching my muscles. My teeth must’ve been chattering I was so nervous. But I was like… okay, he really does seem to have me, and he’s not obviously playing some cruel joke, so I guess I can lean my head back. The boombox had pumped club classics like Stevie B and Lisa Lisa all night, but now it melted into Richard Marx’s ballad “Hold On to the Nights.” I was a very pop kid. I listened to Debbie Gibson and Martika. I’d listened to “Hold On to the Nights” at least… a hundred times. I was singing the lyrics in my head. The lights over the pool looked so golden against the brilliant blue pool. Nothing else happened. Nothing else had to happen. It was perfect and ridiculous at once. I never did learn to swim.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Something that could happen on a world-changing level… like peace everywhere, or the dismantling of systemic racism, or worldwide free distribution of those food replicators from Star Trek that would end hunger globally.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is personal, personal to make, personal to see, it mirrors our intuitions, our shadows, our fears. I think it follows that art is necessary as a way of making peace with our conflicting parts.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
I’ve asked myself that before—particularly those desires that I take for granted as being naturally me. It’s a close relationship. Growing up a queer outsider, disincluded and mocked, this affected my erotic brain, so now there’s something rampantly voyeuristic in my desires, to watch but to be separate from… I hardly ever appear in my own fantasies. I’m always witnessing someone else’s orgasm. Sex and a healthy erotic life are important… but also to seek to understand the complexities of my erotic story.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
I feel most comfortable in jogging pants and a t-shirt, whereas I always feel a bit like an imposter when I wear a suit. I’m wearing a pair of black, slip-on Onitsuka Tigers. I tend to wear shoes like this often. It seems smart to be prepared to run for my life. In a logical, utilitarian way, they work for me because I do my martial arts every day, and they’re comfortable, light, and flat.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
Most times, I’m working on more than one project at a time. I could be writing Tobias and the Gentleman Vampire, which is my first vampire novel, or The Jade Fish of Perpetuity, which is the novel version of my martial-arts-in-the-Louisiana-swamps short story, “The Tempest,” or The Shotgun on Marigny Street, a somewhat autobiographical novel in memorable episodes about my family history, our colorful and complicated ethnicity, our traumas and unlucky poverty, through seven generations in New Orleans.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I’d lower the rent prices.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
It doesn’t mean quite the same as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it means enjoying cocktails with a couple of good friends on Zoom, ordering in from one of the fancier restaurants, renting a new release on iTunes instead of waiting for it to come on Netflix, and eating a pint of the fancy ice cream.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I might have. When I was about eight years old, I caught a bad fever and saw a face in the back door window that overlooked my bed. It was too ghoulish to be anyone real—slime green and deformed, its snotty nose pressed to the glass, gray tongue lapping out. I always figured it was a hallucination, but it could easily have been a ghost.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
The natural reciprocity of the world. Seeing myself not only as a victim, but as a perpetrator of harm and hurt, too.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
50 words, I can just about describe myself… 50 dollars, I can cook a seafood and andouille gumbo for 12 friends.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Chocolate cake, roasted pecans, stuffed mirlitons baking for their last five minutes. Mostly food.
What are you unable to live without?
My alone time.
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
It has to be travel. I’d visit all of the places in the world where my ancestors lived: Ireland, France again, England, Sitges in Spain, Großfischlingen in Germany, Chile, the Philippines, West Africa. Basically a trip around the world. If we’re splurging, then I’d eat my way from Cork to Manila in the best restaurants, sleeping in really comfortable places—with bars on the rooftops, deep bathtubs, and good pillows.
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
I would still wake at 4 a.m., exercise a bit, eat some oatmeal for breakfast, then write for about half the day, take lunch and a walk out into the streets for fresh air, then write or read through the afternoon until I get the urge to cook dinner, have a cocktail, visit a friend, see a performance, sink into a deep bubble bath, all within my financial means in a slightly altered world that fully subsidized writers and artists for their indispensable contributions.