Josh Ritter is a songwriter and novelist from Moscow, Idaho. His albums include Fever Breaks, and So Runs the World Away. Bright’s Passage was his first novel. Ritter is known for his distinctive Americana style and narrative lyrics. In 2006, he was named one of the "100 Greatest Living Songwriters" by Paste magazine. He lives in New York. Josh's new novel is The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All, and he recently talked about with Tina Lernø for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All?
Simply put, the landscape of northern Idaho. I began my life as a novelist with wanting to capture the beauty of that place, and I knew I wasn’t ready with my first novel. It took the confidence boost of that experience to make me feel as if it might be time to try. I grew up with the timberlands to the east of me and a notion that something behemoth had gone on there before I was born. It’s as if, in a way, the world of myth had ended with my own birth, and the modern world had subsumed the woods. I wanted to go back to a time when the woods were full of magic and Nature was a main character.
Are Weldon, Linden, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
No, although I leaned on lumberjack lore some for my characters. Joe Mouffreau is a villain in some of the tales I read in researching. And Otto and Antti Walta are folk heroes of a kind, as well. In general, though, these characters just jumped out of my head. Who they were and what they did, though, their hopes and dreams and their final ends, all seemed to flow naturally from the pen. I used to be nervous about the store of characters in my head. After Weldon and Linden, I’m not so worried anymore. I know that there are tons of voices muttering around up in my noggin, waiting to be listened to.
Is the town of Cordelia, Idaho based on a real place?
I grew up near a bunch of old timber towns. I was entranced by their faded kind of magic and mystery. Cordelia is an amalgam of them. Clarkia, Troy, St. Maries, Potlatch; there are so many beautiful places that I got the chance to go back into memory while I wrote this book. I gave the timber town that I imagined the name ‘Cordelia,’ because, like King Lear, the plot features a dispute over land.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I’m continuously impressed with the mutability of a story. The world of the St. Anne river valley was a place that I had to write a huge amount about before it took on the solidity that I needed in order to write about it concisely and with purpose. A whole lot of other ‘stuff’ happened in earlier drafts. An ear got bitten off, for instance, and there was a mystery kid called ‘the stomper.’ In the end, these details were only necessary for me to know about. So much of the writing of the book was building the Jenga tower up. Removing details was where the writing really took place.
The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All reads like a modern Tall Tale. What do you think continues to draw people to that form of storytelling? Do you have a favorite tall tale?
I do love a tall tale. In my mind, a tall tale is like a cocktail of narrative and memory, in proportions that are just a little more intoxicating than the usual. There is a beautiful suspension of disbelief that is required by a tall tale, and for that reason, they require a certain amount of imagination on the part of the reader. Many of my songs are tall tales, in a way, so I guess that I am naturally drawn to them.
I think my favorite form of the tall tale are the strung-together hype-names of riverboat workers like Mike Fink. Like Yosemite Sam, these guys gave themselves monikers meant to strike fear (and perhaps laughter) into the hearts of all who heard them spoken. Here’s just a portion of what he has to say about himself:
I’m a Salt River Roarer! I’m a ring-tailed squealer! I'm a reg'lar screamer from the ol' Massassip'! WHOOP! I'm the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open and called out for a bottle of old Rye! I love the women an' I'm chockful o' fight! I'm half wild horse and half cockeyed-alligator…
Imagine the stories dripping off this guy. He’s giving his whole history, blown up into myth.
Did you already know about lumberjacking or was there a lot of research involved. Was there anything that surprised you about the skill?
We had a wood stove that heated my first house, and I have some early memories of fetching wood in the mountains with my parents when I was young. Other than that though, the process of learning about lumberjacking in Northern Idaho was all about reading local histories and lumberjacking lore. I won’t say that I learned any deep lumberjacking skills, or that I can now swing an axe with the best of them, but I will say that I learned that the woods were once filled with people from everywhere and that the work, far from doctors and common sense, was dangerous as hell and offered rewards that could only satisfy people who had nothing.
Josh, you are already an accomplished musician. Was there anything in the novel-writing process that feels familiar to crafting songs? Did one discipline inform the other?
I’ve learned that the words, the water, fill whatever receptacle you choose to pour them into. A sonnet is a glass of water, a song is another glass. A novel is a funny-shaped bucket. The water is the same, but the form it takes is changeable. As a songwriter, I will say that I grew used to applause at the end of my day, and that applause doesn’t seem to happen when I’m writing a paragraph alone in my kitchen. Becoming a novelist, for me, was about learning to create in an environment where the act and environment of the performance is thoroughly different than it is as a musician and songwriter. The hunger, though, is the same. The same urge to communicate with the world feeds both practices. I’m a shy guy. I don’t approach the world as easily as some do. It is easier when it approaches me. That’s why I started singing, and that’s why I write novels.
Have you ever got a song stuck in your head that drove you mad?
Every. Damn. Day.
You narrate the audiobook version yourself. (Quite well I may add). Was this something you wanted to do or got talked into along the way?
I was excited to narrate the book because I noted in my public readings of Bright’s Passage that there were some sections that I loved to read aloud and others that weren’t as conducive. I set about writing Great Glorious with the intention to give myself something fun to read aloud on every page of the book. It was really gratifying to be sitting in that recording booth, reading aloud a book that I was so proud of. It was a total pleasure.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I have Young Benjamin Franklin, by Nick Bunker and Peace Like A River, by Leif Enger. I’m really enjoying both so much.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors? Let’s throw in songwriters as well.
Philip Dexter. Just a master storyteller. What to choose of his books?
Haley is my biggest reader and editor and her book, and Vaclav and Lena is one of the reasons I fell in love with her.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I loved The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. There was so much mystery and adventure in those books. They were so respectful of a child’s intelligence and ability to understand and absorb myth. I devoured those books several times each.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
My parents never made me feel as if any book was off-limits to me. As a result, I read all kinds of stuff earlier than I may have. I remember reading the romance novels at the local library, something I wouldn’t have told my parents, but they would have probably just smiled and laughed to know.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I can tell you that I found Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins in a hotel lobby and fell in love instantly with its psychedelic cover and the promise of a baboon and a child named Thor.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon. I found this book in Bratislava while on tour early on in my career. It was one of the few in the shop in English and I loved it. About a man who circumnavigates the United States in a van, it set me up with a framework for how to approach the kind of travel that would become my life going forward. It was positive, strange, and sometimes melancholy, and it was full of places that I would one day see with my own eyes.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Loitering With Intent, by Muriel Spark. Spark is just a stone-cold genius. Her writing is concise yet full of possibility for a reader with imagination. She’s kind of mean, very tart-tongued, and acerbic, and her eye for human motivations is full of humor. I can’t believe how good she is.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
There’s such a wonderful feeling of chance discovery in finding a favorite book. Somehow Time and Place interlock and everything hinges on those moments you‘re reading. Either that, or it feels like Fate reaches down and just places the book in your hands. I remember reading Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier and being so floored by it that I needed to read parts of it again, right away. Same goes for A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I was amazed by the Watchmen series on HBO. Just thought it was brilliant. As it turns out, it was also prophetic. Likewise, I’m floored by Sophie Tucker, the jazz-age entertainer who sang “Life Begins at Forty.”
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I would love to hang out with my partner, Haley Tanner. We would go to the Morgan Library in NYC, then we would go to the Grand Central Oyster Bar and have oysters and martinis, just like our first date. Now there is a book I could read over and over again.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Are you happy? Yes. I am happy. I am constantly dissatisfied with my work, and constantly working to make it feel better to myself, but over time, this drive has also melded itself to my happiness, so that the two seem to live together. So, I am happy and dissatisfied at the same time; a perfect combination for creating more art.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new album and a new novel and I’m playing a bunch of shows because I’ve missed it so damn much.