Jim Ruland will be headlining our show this Saturday, September 20th, at the Glyph Café and Arts Space in downtown Portland, Oregon. Ruland is the author of Forest of Fortune, a novel, a short story collection titled Big Lonesome, and he co-authored Giving the Finger with Scott Campbell, Jr. of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. Forest of Fortune is his debut novel, and was released by Tyrus Books in August, 2014.
Ruland is a busy man. Not only is he currently on tour for Forest of Fortune, but he is the books columnist for San Diego CityBeat, and writes for the Los Angeles Times and Razorcake, America’s only non-profit independent music zine. He also runs the Southern California-based reading series Vermin on the Mount.
I first became aware of Jim Ruland’s work while living in San Diego a few years ago. I saw him at a show where he read a story from Big Lonesome, and I was hooked. His use of the familiar blended with the fantastic reeled me in.
Ruland lives and works in Southern California, but we are lucky enough to have him in Portland this weekend. I asked him a few questions so our readers could get to know him, and his work, a little better.
BSP: Forest of Fortune is your debut novel from Tyrus Books. Is Forest of Fortune a new project for you, or is it one of those novels that’s been sitting around a while, waiting to be finished or to find a home?
JR: It’s a combination of both. I wrote the first draft before I went into recovery and then I revised it after I got sober. I got the first draft done in about 10 weeks and then spent the next four years revising it. It’s not a method I recommend.
BSP: Addiction is a theme in the novel, and I would imagine a dying casino would be the perfect backdrop to embody the slow decay compulsive behavior can create. How much of a character is the casino itself in your book?
JR: Thunderclap Casino, the fictional casino I created for the book, is more of a backdrop than a character. Though some of the slot machines have distinct personalities. Some are playful while others are deeply symbolic, maybe even evil.
BSP: The book is based on your time working at an Indian casino. Where were you at in your life when you worked at the casino? Was it simply fodder for great stories, or does the addiction theme of the book connect to your personal life while working at the casino?
JR: I’d been working at the casino for about two years when the wheels came off in my personal life and I had to seek treatment for substance abuse. I didn’t go to rehab; I went to outpatient treatment and a shitload of meetings, but I didn’t tell anyone at work. That experience really opened my eyes and I felt like I could see what was on the “other side of the curtain.” Pro tip: casinos are awful places for people with addictive personalities and poor impulse control.
BSP: There is also a hint of a surreal or absurdist aspect to the novel. Can you expound a little on that without giving too much away? I got that ghosts from the past for your characters were running around, quite possibly literally, is that close?
JR: The symbolism in Forest of Fortune is really rich, perhaps even over the top. But that’s how casinos work. When you’re playing a slot machine, everything is a symbol. There’s nothing subtle about a casino. When those cherries line up on the pay line, good things happen, and then the shit really hits the fan….
BSP: I like that you blend a no-holds-barred approach to writing with humor and the absurd. Is this a cathartic blend for you at all?
JR: It really was, especially with Pemberton, the most autobiographical of the characters. It was such a miserable job that telling his story through a comedic filter was very cathartic.
JR: Writer. 2014 has been an incredible year that’s given me the courage to step away from the 9-5 for a bit and finish some other projects. So that’s where my head is right now.
BSP: What made you first pick up the pen and write? Was it a specific event, need, or is it just something you’ve always done? Do you remember a specific catalyst?
JR: I had a vague, romantic notion of being a writer when I was a kid, but my failure at school and subsequent enlistment in the Navy beat that notion out of me. When I got to college I had a remarkable instructor for English Composition – Tim Poland – and he gave me extraordinary feedback on my essays, which were all about my experiences in the Navy. That’s what got me thinking that maybe I had something to say.
BSP: I saw you at AWP at the Razorcake booth. I love the magazine, and the column you write for it. How did you become involved with Razorcake?
JR: I used to be roommates with the publisher. Back in mid-‘90s I got a Master’s degree in English from Northern Arizona University. Todd Taylor was also in the program and we became friends and then roommates. After he graduated he went to work for Flipside, a punk zine that started in L.A. in 1977, and Todd brought me on as a writer. I didn’t take the gig very seriously. When Flipside went under, Todd started Razorcake with Sean Carswell, another NAU alum. It was a fresh start for all of us. That was almost 15 years ago and I’ve been a columnist since day one.
BSP: Best all-time punk act, hands-down is:
JR: I can’t answer that. It changes for me every few months. My first punk rock show was the Ramones, so I’ll go with that.
BSP: You recently co-wrote Giving The Finger with Captain Scott Campbell, Jr. of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. How was that process for you as a writer? How did working with someone else’s story affect your writing voice? How did the process work?
JR: The process was pretty straightforward. I’d talk to Junior and learn about who he is and what he does and then I’d transcribe the tape, study it, develop some questions, and do it again until we had something like a story. Junior is an open and engaging guy. I found him to be disarmingly honest, which isn’t how he’s presented on Deadliest Catch. The key for me was to get more than I could use. After talking and listening to my subject for hours and hours, I got Junior’s voice down. My job was to listen and stay out of the way.
JR: I learned that I don’t want to be a crab fisherman! Being a Navy veteran, there’s something about the show that made me wonder if I could hack it up there on the Bering Sea. I went up to Dutch Harbor. I went out on the boat. I didn’t go fishing with the Seabrooke. I wasn’t up there long enough. I just putted around the harbor and hung out at the bar for seven hours, but I can tell you that those people are tough and they work their asses off. I’ll stay behind the keyboard.
BSP: What obstacles have you faced in your writing career? Any advice to writers out there on how to jump those hurdles?
JR: The world owes you nothing, but it’s not out to get you either. You are your own worst enemy. The sooner you figure out the ways you sabotage your work, the better.
BSP: What is your favorite part of the process? What lights you up inside- inspiration, writing, editing, pitching the product, marketing, networking, readings, something else?
JR: I like the idea phase the best. When you have an idea for a story or a book or an essay and it can be absolutely anything because you haven’t started writing it yet.
BSP: Any chance of a Jim Ruland autobiography or memoir at some point?
JR: One of the projects I’m planning of getting back to is a memoir of my deck seaman days in the U.S. Navy.
BSP: I thoroughly enjoyed Big Lonesome, do you still write short stories? Any plans for another collection? Any journal or zine publications floating around out there?
JR: For the last two years I’ve been shuttling back and forth between Los Angeles and San Diego. San Diego on weekends and Los Angeles during the week. To make this work I did a lot of pet, plant and house sitting. Since so many of my “clients” are writers, it was fascinating to hang out in their spaces, check our their book shelves, walk around their neighborhoods, go to their coffee shops, etc. I found this temporary habitation weirdly inspiring and wrote a number of stories involving the care of pets, real and imagined. Once I realized what I was doing, I went with it, and wrote a whole collections of them. Short version: I’ve written a book of cat stories.
BSP: How is Vermin on the Mount doing?
JR: I’m happy to report that my irreverent, irregular reading series is still going strong. Vermin on the Mount just celebrated its ten-year anniversary. We’ve got a spiffy new website at verminononthemount.com and will be having our first event in Brooklyn on October 4.
BSP: What book or project (art, music, book, movie, circus act) has most recently impressed you?
JR: I did a reading at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park in Northeast Los Angeles and the gallery was showing the work of painter Sergio Teran, and I thought his work was really impressive. Bright and colorful yet vivid and real. (Here’s a link to that reading with some of Sergio’s work on display in the background.)
BSP: Do you express yourself in ways other than through writing? Do you play music, or make art?
JR: I dabble in the visual arts. I’ve done a little printmaking and t-shirt design. I love letterpress and block printing. I’d like to do more. If anyone has a proof press they don’t need anymore I’d be happy to take it off your hands.
BSP: What do you have in the works?
JR: I’m working on a dystopian novel set in Los Angeles that deals with the collapse of the health care system as we know it. It’s called Make It Stop and I’m about 75% done.
BSP: What do you hope your last words will be?
JR: Another taco please…