2005 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and left-wing military historian. His novels include Hex-Rated, the first installment of the Brimstone Files series for Night Shade Books; Rise of the Luchador; and Death Match. He’s also published over sixty stories and numerous academic publications. FXXK WRITING! A Guide for Frustrated Artists collects the best of his column of the same name, and his next historical work, Mavericks of War, is forthcoming from Stackpole Books. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is a Teaching Fellow for Johns Hopkins University.
Part 1 of this interview, posted last Sunday, is available here.
Your latest novel, Hex-Rated, is about a PI investigating supernatural happenings in the 1970s Hollywood porn industry. As a historian, what drew you to writing about the 1970s and the porn industry? How did you handle mashing multiple genres together?
The 1970s, especially the early 70s, are about dreams and hopes dying and being reborn (a theme in my own work and life). It’s the end of the Love Generation and the birth of the Manson murders, of peace movements helping end Vietnam and the return of soldiers with PTSD, of drugs eating through the hearts and minds of people as much as expanding their consciousness. Heavy metal and proto-punk is screaming at the sincerity of the folk-rock and Woodstock crew. It’s the shifting sands of violence in the civil rights movement as desegregation takes hold and black nationalism refuses to bow to white power and privilege and searches for alternatives to the power structures that abide. And it’s the emergence of the modern adult film industry. The Brimstone Files are set in the cultural zeitgeist of the era. And as I’m writing a salacious and fun series (though with some deeper themes, I swear), I thought a supernatural mystery in the early days of pornography would be sexy, sad, and evocative. And thus I began the boring research on the history of pornography (film making, distribution, location, what cars the directors drove, etc.), but found it fascinating and grimy and awful and compelling and knew this had to be where Brimstone would have his first supernatural case. I beat David Simon and his show The Deuce by almost a year!
In terms of mashing genres, I’ve always loved it because, as Jeanne Cavelos wrote in “Innovation in Horror,” it’s by combining genres that we produce innovative work. Genres are also loaded with expectations that you get to play with (though some people HATE to have their expectations challenged). I took a crime story and added a very, very small bit of magic that spoke to dark forces hiding in plain sight against the backdrop of real-life decadence and depravity in LA during this era. In the novel, Brimstone was trained in the real arcane arts but hates them. Despises actual magic. It leaves a bad taste in his mouth (literally). So he does whatever he can to avoid using magic and stay away from it because it’s so foul. So it’s fun to toss him headfirst back in that direction! But his attitude and “level of power” is so low that he is the DIRECT OPPOSITE of what many urban fantasy readers expect. They often want people of great power and ability like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I find powerful people sickening most days. They tend not to be heroes but maintainers of unfair conditions that keep them in power. I wanted Brimstone to be a champ of the underdogs, not the oligarchs of magic. So I was tickled when one reader made that comparison themselves. “James Brimstone is sort of like a grittier, low-rent version of Harry Dresden. I mean that in the best possible way – James Brimstone is like the Mike Hammer to Harry Dresden’s Philip Marlowe.”
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2005. What are the lessons you learned at Odyssey that still influence your work?
That plot is difficult and we all do it poorly! Also, that you can’t please everyone. If you try, you’re on the road to mediocrity. While at Odyssey, I was only writing short stories. Jeanne’s view of my work was that I was a good short storiest who could become a great one and even a great novelist because I had a good command of character and dialogue and I had the capacity to keep learning. High praise indeed.
Most writers stop learning, especially if they get successful and readers just want the same damn book but with a different villain. I’ve been writing professionally for eighteen years now. There is a degree of competency under which I generally don’t drop because I’ve been putting in the time for almost two decades to get better. But when I feel myself getting lazy, I can still hear Jeanne’s voice and realize I need to keep getting better. I’m a good novelist of a particular kind of novel (action/adventure). But if I don’t change it up and challenge myself, I’ll never be great. I know what I can do. I know my abilities. And I want to be better than I am (I’ll leave being great for someone else’s judgement!).
What’s an outstanding short story or novel you’ve read recently, and what made it work for you? What were you able to take away from it to help in your own writing?
Steve Tem’s Ubo … holy f***balls. A psychological tour of evil through fiction and history. Just stunning details on how evil justifies itself and the cost of human suffering. Steve was one of my mentors, along with his wife Melanie (who died a few years back and was an amazing writer and person), at Odyssey. Steve cares about all elements of storytelling as a craft: sentence, theme, impact, character, etc. So when I read his work I’m also getting a lesson on considered and well-crafted prose that creates richness as it builds over time.
Also Victor LaValle’s Big Machine is just so smart, sharp, and deep. I love how he uses just enough exposition with first-person to keep you in the protagonist’s head but won’t reveal the whole mystery of their life as they set out on their dark adventure. Instructional and goddamn gripping. Proving smart writing is just as dramatic and compelling as bombast (which is the school in which I usually abide).
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
Yes! The sequel to Hex-Rated will be out this year. Mavericks of War, a work of military history about eccentrics and oddballs in military affairs, will be out in April. I still write my monthly column, FXXK WRITING (October was on my early experiences writing terrible novels!), and I have some media tie-in work forthcoming (details later!). My agent is shopping around another novel, and I’m currently in the research stages for a novel in the crime genre that I’m doing my damnedest to make my best one yet.