Article published on January 4, 2018.
After reviewing The Zero and the One, Gill Chedgey had a number of questions for debut author Ryan Ruby:
Gill Chedgey: Congratulations on The Zero and the One; I found it to be an impressive debut. Could you tell us a little about your initial motivation for the novel and how you came to write it?
Ryan Ruby: That’s very kind of you to say. I’d be happy to. Some writers begin with a character, a plot, or even an image, but because of the way my mind works, I begin with a form. The idea for a way to tell a story comes to me before I know what story I want to tell and what I end up doing is trying to find the story that can be retrofitted into the formal structure I’ve come up with.
In the case of the manuscript that would become The Zero and the One, I was trying to find a story that I felt could be told as a “four-handed novel” with my friend and fellow writer JW McCormack. As the name implies, a four-handed novel is a novel written by two people rather than one: one writer writes a chapter, passes it on to the second writer, who elaborates on what has been written, returns it to the first writer, and so on. The idea I hit upon was a story in which a ghost seeks revenge on someone who had wronged him in life, with one writer writing from the perspective of the vengeful ghost and the other writing from the perspective of the person who has wronged him. “Two characters, let’s call them A and B, have engaged in a suicide pact,” I said, thinking aloud while JW listened patiently over coffee. “But A backs out at the last second. The ghost of B haunts A in an attempt to drive him to suicide, in order to finish what they had started.” JW took a sip from his mug and told me he thought it was a terrible idea.
The reason I remember this is because we had this conversation on Christmas morning, 2011. I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, celebrating the holiday for the first time with JW, his partner Claudia, and his family. In the hour before dinner, when last minute preparations were increasing the stress levels in the house, JW suggested we take a walk. A block away was a muddy ditch about ten feet deep and a quarter of a mile long that intersected the street and made up the lower boundary of a field that lay behind the houses on JW’s street. At the midpoint of the ditch, JW told us, was a tree house where local kids stole away to have their first kisses and smoke their first cigarettes. We walked slowly through the ditch, which was lined with kudzu and filled with old washing machines and discarded car parts, careful not to get mud on our clothes. By the time we reached the tree house, dusk had fallen and we had to get back for dinner. I observed that it would be quicker and cleaner if we climbed out of the ditch and walked diagonally across the adjacent field, instead of going back the way we had come. Leading the way, I hopped the fence at the other end of the field and found myself in the driveway of one of JW’s neighbors’ houses, where a young boy, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, was standing on his porch, pointing a rifle at me. “You there,” he said, in a high-pitched voice. “Don’t you move.” I lifted my hands above my head and tried to make a panicked gesture to JW, who was now helping Claudia over the fence, to tell them they should stay where they were. “Pardon me sir,” I said with a shaking voice and exaggerated servility. “I’m a guest of your neighbors, the McCormacks. You’re doing a great job protecting your house, sir. I was wondering if you’d let me and my friends JW and Claudia,” who had not understood until they were standing next to me why I had been waving my upraised hands at them, “pass safely through your driveway, sir.” The boy looked at me skeptically. “And what’s yer name?” I told him. “Nah, Ah’m Ryan,” he said. I couldn’t tell whether he was amused by this happy coincidence or wanted me to know which of us our name really belonged to. He pointed the rifle at the end of the driveway and back at us. “Now, git.”
Several months later, I was in Oxford, visiting my partner, who had recently gotten a job there, and I was looking for a way to join her permanently. A magazine based in Europe had recently announced a novella competition, with a sizable check and paid travel for the winner. I decided that I would try out the idea I had shared with JW and submit the story of the failed suicide pact, starting with the chapters narrated by A, now Owen, the one who had backed out at the last second. But by the time the deadline for the competition had arrived, I was way above the allotted word count and hadn’t even begun writing the chapters from the ghost’s—now called Zach—perspective. The ghost’s chapters would never end up being written, but the final form of The Zero and the One would mirror the original conception as a four-handed novel, alternating not between the perspectives of a living person and a ghost, but between Oxford and New York, the two principle settings. And many of the elements from that Christmas—a stranger far from home, a gun, a muddy field, accented English, class differences, first love and first cigarettes, a dangerous double—would ultimately find their way into the fabric of the finished book.
Gill Chedgey: I found your writing style quite refreshing and it struck me that there was something classic about it. Was that a conscious effort on your part or is it representative of your natural writing style?
Ryan Ruby: Refreshing is kind of you, but I’ll admit that I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘classic.’ I actually think of the novel as having two, maybe three, different styles. The book’s chapters alternate between different temporalities—present, past—that correspond to different locations—New York, Oxford. Although the narrator—Owen Whiting— remains the same, it seemed important to me to give the odd chapters a different style and mood than the even ones.
For the New York chapters, set in real time, I drew upon the fragmentary first person present you’ll find in the French nouveau roman, where the point is to convey the immediacy of action and to confront the reader with a sense of the limitations of the narrator’s knowledge. The resulting mood is one of disorientation and dread, of Owen’s being blown about by forces beyond his understanding and control. In the Oxford chapters, the prose style is drawn from the tradition of lyrical realism more characteristic of, well, the ancien roman, which allows Owen the time to analyze and reflect in a mood of elegiac nostalgia.
Zadie Smith’s essay “Two Paths for the Novel” was often on my mind as I wrote The Zero and the One. In it, Smith plays Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (the representative of the tradition of what I’ve here called the nouveau roman) off against Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (the representative of what I’ve here called the ancien roman). One of the things that I was hoping to show with this split-style approach is that these two “paths” don’t necessarily have to diverge, but can be brought together in the same novel.
Gill Chedgey: A review I read online somewhere described your book as a ‘philosophical thriller’. Does such a description please you?
Ryan Ruby: It doesn’t please me or displease me. It’s not inaccurate, but nor is it really a description: it’s a label. To be honest, outside of “work of genius,” for a description of my book to please me, it’s going to have to be at least a full sentence long. I didn’t write 75,000 words for it to be summed up in two.
Gill Chedgey: Possibly following on from that, are you bothered by genres? Do you have a genre that you see The Zero and the One comfortably fitting into?
Ryan Ruby: Yeah, after that, I think you can probably guess what I’ll have to say about this. Readers shouldn’t forget that these days “genre” is a term that is meaningful only to publishers, publicity departments, and booksellers: that is, people who are trying to make money off of you. On the one hand, I get it. If you’re one of these people, you’ve got to find some way to get the book you’ve sunk cash into into the hands of people who have probably never heard of the author in order to recoup your investment. So you, Publishing Professional, simplify, reduce, categorise, try to generate expectations for the new commodity on the basis of its similarities to other, already-existing commodities on the market.
But no writer—at least no writer worth reading—thinks of his or her book as a commodity. A good book is supposed to violate, defy, or at the very least play around with the so-called reader-expectations publishing professionals use to define genre. (I mean, do you really want to read a book that merely meets your expectations? Wouldn’t it be better if it were to exceed them?) It follows from this that a good book by definition cannot “comfortably” fit into a genre, or any other a priori category for that matter.
Now I’m not so conceited or poorly read as to believe that my book is entirely without precedent or totally different from every other book out there. It’s recognisably a novel with sociologically and psychologically plausible (which is not to say mentally healthy) characters, who operate in existing geographical spaces during an actual historical moment. It has a sensibility it would not be unfair to characterise as gothic. It shares plot elements and literary tropes with other books, some of whose authors may be content to consider themselves crime writers, or mystery writers, or thriller writers, or philosophical thriller writers, or whatever. Maybe The Zero and the One fits into one or more of these genre categories, but if it does, it fits uncomfortably into them. I’ve already read enough reviews of the book to know that people who don’t read between the lines written by the publishing professionals on the back cover are going to be made very very uncomfortable by it.
Gill Chedgey: Suicide can be an emotive term. I think it’s quite a brave move to use it so openly in your book. I thought the reference to Sarah Kane was very clever in almost subliminally sustaining the concept. Many people have fixed opinions about suicide. Do you think it might divide readers?
Ryan Ruby: I expect it will. That’s just a natural consequence of the fact that readers are not “the reader,” plural not singular, a disaggregated multiplicity not an aggregated singularity. If you get a large enough group together, you’re going to have strong disagreement, especially where a serious matter like suicide, which touches the very philosophical and emotional core of human life, is concerned. But that’s not something that worries me at all; in fact, I welcome it. I mean, the book itself is divided on the question of suicide. And for me, every good book should be divided in this way, and therefore divide its readership, because good books transform their writers and their readers. If you, the author, have fixed opinions about a matter and you write for people who share those fixed opinions, neither you nor they will have any chance of having a transformative experience, so the whole point of the exercise gets lost. Yeats says that rhetoric is made out of the quarrel with others and poetry is made out of the quarrel with ourselves. In this sense, The Zero and the One was written as poetry, not rhetoric. But it’s still a quarrel. The arguments about suicide that I put into Zach’s mouth are ones I’ll admit to finding appealing, but am by no means convinced of, and when readers eavesdrop on this quarrel with myself, I hope they’ll be both seduced and repelled by them, just like I was when I wrote them.
You’re the first reader I’ve talked to who seems to have noticed the place of Blasted in the novel, and I want to thank you for bringing up Sarah Kane, because she’s an author I deeply admire, for her absolute aesthetic and philosophical bravery, bravery in the face of her audience I might add. I would just tell other readers that she’s not alone as a reference point in the novel. The Zero and the One is a hall of mirrors. Every word in the book was put there deliberately to reflect the concerns of the book, of which suicide is one, and that includes every allusion to other writers, thinkers, artists, and musicians from Socrates and Sophocles and Seneca to Ian Curtis and Chris Burden and Sarah Kane.
Gill Chedgey: Are Owen and Zach pure creations of your imagination? Or are they based on people you know?
Ryan Ruby: Well, Owen and Zach are both based on me, actually. Except they’ve undergone the following imaginative procedure: I cut myself in two, gave each character some of my better qualities and some of my worse ones; then I pushed each of those qualities to their logical extremes and imagined how they would interact if they were separated into two different bodies. This is why Owen and Zach may strike some people as polar opposites who are also necessary complements, and if I was able to pull this off, it was because I’ve had the experience of being an Owen-like person in relation to a Zach-like person, and vice versa. But recently a friend of mine told me that the character she thinks I resemble most is Vera, which I thought was rather astute, because Vera is the middle point who is being pulled apart by both these extremes.
Gill Chedgey: I know that all writers are also avid readers and I always like to ask authors about the first book they read that moved them to tears (if any have)?
Ryan Ruby: You know, I can’t recall ever having done so. I mean, I’m pretty frequently moved to tears by music, so I’m not a total monster. But literature, never. I often find books funny: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities are two books that come to mind that have made me lose it recently. I think this has something to do with the distancing effect of a text, relative to other kinds of media. And as a writer I’m always reading with one eye to technical analysis (that is, I’m always trying to figure out how the machine has been put together and what makes it run) which can dampen a certain emotional involvement in, say, the fate of the characters, though books as different as The House of Mirth and A Naked Singularity have gotten me pretty close. This is not to say that I don’t find reading to be a moving experience at all, only that the affects generated by the books I cherish don’t generally follow the “I laughed, I cried” model of reader response. First and foremost, I delight in the virtuosic use of language. But wonder—the illusion, verging on hallucination, that all things are meaningfully interconnected—and sublime devastation—the brutalizing reality that nothing truly is—are the affects I’m drawn to most. I suppose I could list the authors that come to mind who are capable of producing these experiences, which, if you have the taste for such extremity, can be pretty powerful, but the book that includes them all, and most other things besides, is In Search of Lost Time.
Gill Chedgey: Finally, this is a debut work and, I hope, the first of many. Are you at liberty to divulge what you are working on currently?
Ryan Ruby: I hope so too! From the first word to the publication date, this one took about five years to finish, and what I’m working on now promises to be more than twice as long and less than half as publishable, especially as, without some miracle intervention, I’ll be spending a lot of time scrounging up resources from somewhere else to do the research for it, which is going to involve lots of library time and travel time, so who knows when it will actually be ready for the public to read. The idea is this: I’m writing parallel histories of the development of the self and of communications media, especially writing technology, from its pre-history in the Oral Age of Homeric Greece to its post-history in the Information Age of Trump’s America. The argument is that, far from being outliers to their culture, poets have always been the early adopters of new communications technologies, which have in turn been essential in constructing our very conceptions of what it means to be a self. But rather than write a standard academic or even pop-scholarly treatment of this argument, I’m going to tell it as a story, and for that matter tell it slant, mostly through short fictional vignettes or episodes about the very real poets, inventors, archaeologists, explorers, monarchs, revolutionaries, businesspeople, shamans, occultists, and media theorists whose life and work is germane to the theme. I’m calling it Into the Middle of Things, and whatever else happens, I really feel that’s exactly where the writing is taking me.
Our thanks to both Ryan and Gill for this informative Q&A.
The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby
Legend Press 9781787198876 pbk Mar 2018
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Gill Chedgey’s Ten Books I Acquired Because I Watched the Films
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