Interview with Joseph Riippi

As we mentioned in our January Editorial, we have a special treat for you this month. Two interviews in a row!

November’s most read story was “Views” by Joseph Riippi, but due to a hungry spam filter our interview questions never arrived in his inbox. After a few emails back and forth, we finally connected and the following interview is the result. Enjoy!

Interview with Joseph Riippi

JR: First of all, let me just say what an honor it is to have “Views” be the most-read piece for November. It’s awfully humbling, and I’m very grateful.

EDF: What should people expect when they see a story with your byline under it?

JR: I suppose a reader’s expectation is based on whatever differentiates that author’s writing from the rest. Thomas Mann said that “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” and that difficulty, I think, comes from that exact necessity to be different, to “make it new,” like Ezra Pound said. I’m a young writer; I’m only 24; there’s no way I’ve “made it new.” But about a year ago I wrote a story called “Bloodstone (or, The Good Lord),” which was different than the stories I was reading, and different than what I had been writing. Quite purposefully different. The method behind it was based on threads of image-rich, shallow streams of consciousness, followed by very direct rhetorical questions to challenge the reader. I guess you could call it something like ‘Dirty Realism.’

To me, the writer’s job is to provide insight to the reader. Be it fiction or non-fiction, it is the writer’s job–and the Dirty Realists like Richard Ford, Bukowski, and Raymond Carver especially (I’d even include Charles D’Ambrosio here) do this and know this well–to provide a vehicle through which readers can learn something about themselves and how they relate to the world they perceive. This, I’ve always thought, is the “realism” part of the term. The “dirty” was added because in order to do this, to provide readers that moment of clarity, writers have to “fight dirty” and basically confront readers with their own existentialism. I guess you could say every reader is searching for their own place in the world, be it socially, professionally, lovingly””but ultimately we’re all going to the dirt. If that’s where the term actually came from, I have no idea.

To use “Views” as an example: it is simply a young boy’s first experience of death. By using simple descriptive language and making the story almost a pastoral, it encourages the reader to suture into the narrative more deeply, to get comfortable. As a commenter wrote in response to the story, the reader “had that dead robin in [their] hand, so fascinated with it.” This is the point of what I try to do: to lift the reader up with vibrant imagery, so that the fall into thematics is that much harder, that much of a jar into contemplation.

The title itself will be where I make the initial push into the themes. For instance some have asked me why “Views” is not called, I don’t know, “Bird” or “The Little Boy and the Bird” or something”””Views” calls out not just the last line, but forces the reader to ask themselves about perceptions and views on death. The first experience of death is a mystery. Does that change? Do we really understand it any better over time?

EDF: Your Myspace page lists you as being 24 years old. Do you consider yourself to be a young author? Has your age affected your writing?

JR: I definitely think of myself as a young writer. I consider just about everything I wrote a year ago trash. No reason that in a year I shouldn’t feel the same about what I’m writing now. Considering myself “young” keeps me hopeful and optimistic about what I still haven’t written, and I guess that optimism has given me more ambition and confidence in my writing. It also helps with the inevitable depression that complements mailboxes full of rejection letters. But then again it makes every acceptance letter seem like a step closer to some more successful, writerly life as a geriatric.

EDF: Your story “Catherine“, which appeared in EDF in December, feels very much like a play. Have you previously written for the stage? Considered it?

Martin, the protagonist in “Catherine” and in many of my stories, is a playwright. Eventually I decided I might as well try to write a play, and I just finished “In The Cathedral With The Glass Stained Black,” in which a protagonist is confronted with a number of dualisms and juxtapositions. He experiments with Christian evangelism, the independent music community, philosophy, and homosexuality. Much of the play is aligned with the music of Elliott Smith, and the protagonist’s struggle culminates in the suicide of that musician, and a final confrontation with the Christian evangelists who represent the God he feels isolated him at the start.

EDF: What has been your best moment as a writer so far? Your worst?

JR: Finishing “Bloodstone (or, The Good Lord)” was huge. It was very personal, the first reread of the 8000 word draft. It felt like I finally found the “way” I was supposed to write.

The worst moment I guess is a collective series: the five stories I’ve written since “Bloodstone (or, The Good Lord),” all of which I wrote in the same “˜Dirty Realism’ mindset, have been published in print journals. “Bloodstone (or, The Good Lord)” has 26 rejections to its credit. So it goes.

EDF: How do you feel that Myspace has helped your career as a writer? Would you recommend it to other aspring writers?

JR: I wrote music journalism for a long time as a means of supplementary income when I first moved to New York. At the time, MySpace was an excellent way to stay in touch with bands directly””as publicists are often as bad at replying to email as I am””but now I use MySpace basically as a portfolio page. Someone asks to read something I’ve written and I say to either Google me or look me up on MySpace. Ultimately I’d like to get a real portfolio page, MY NAME dot COM or something, but that requires some money and me spending eight hours of writing time with a graphic designer telling her or him what I want out of a website. But should writers use MySpace? Sure. It gets your name on the web, and your name is basically a brand you’re going to have to sell eventually.

EDF: Where and when do you write? What music or other background noise do you prefer, or silence? And does the physical / background influence or affect your writing?

JR: I write copy for an advertising agency as a day job. Two nights a week I’m a graduate student at the City College of New York, doing the MFA thing. I write at night, and on weekends. First drafts generally get done on the weekends, when I have the longest spans of time to work. Edits and rewrites get done after work (usually around 7 or 8 ) and after class (9 or 10).

I’m pretty much convinced that anyone can be an excellent, if not great, writer, that it’s more about effort and discipline (mostly discipline) than innate talent. As such I don’t own a TV, and don’t have internet access in my apartment. That leaves little to do beyond listen to music, read, and write””all three of which I believe contribute to making me a better, more intelligent writer.

I always listen to music while I write, and that does have a great influence, particularly in the first draft, conception stage of a story. For most of my stories I can reference a particular piece of music I identified as appropriate for the tone or themes or whatever. For “Views” it was a song by Chicago band Califone called “Wingbone.” For “Catherine” it was a recent recording of Philip Glass’ opera L’Enfants Terrible. For editing and rewrites, I listen almost exclusively to old vinyl copies of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and John Coltrane’s A Love Surpreme. For the novel I’m working on, I only listen to Elliott Smith.

EDF: What is next for you as a writer?

JR: The “plan” now is to finish the MFA at City College and hopefully find a teaching position somewhere. As far as the actual writing goes, I have a collection of Dirty Realism stories I’m trying to gradually get published in journals and quarterlies across the country, and once they’re all out there, submit the full manuscript to agents and hope for the best. Beyond “Bloodstone (or, The Good Lord),” four of the fifteen stories are still unpublished. I’m about halfway into a novel right now, too. The story collection is called Home-Alki, and deals with themes of isolation, religion, sexuality, existentialism, and most of all, the concept of “home” in terms of a place where your parents live, and a place in this world. The novel is titled West, and is simply a very long Dirty Realist, Martin-the-playwright story, in which Martin drives west to Seattle (where both he and I were born and raised) from New York, exploring the country and contemplating his and his country’s role in the world. The 2008 election will play a major role in finishing this book. I made the drive myself (albeit in the opposite direction) a few years ago. I hope my memory holds up.

Thanks so much… this is a great project. I hope to submit some more work soon.

EDF: Thank you for your time, Mr. Riippi.

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