I had never heard of singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, but I was moved to find out about him because his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, received very positive notices. Additionally, I was curious because of the diverse backgrounds of the people (Thomas Ricks, Jesse Kornbluth, Dennis Lehane, and Robert Pinsky) who were singing his praises.
Bright’s Passage tells the story of WWI veteran and widower Henry Bright taking flight from both a raging forest fire and his malevolent in-laws. His passage takes place in the company of his infant son and an unusual guardian angel in the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia as Bright’s recollections range from his childhood to his traumatic experiences in the killing fields of France. It’s a tale told with great assurance and skill as might be expected from so skillful a songwriter.
Josh Ritter and I spoke in late June 2011, when Bright’s Passage first came out and the discussion ranged across writing fiction and songs, books he loves, making music, growing up in Moscow, Idaho with a love of reading, and more. Bright’s Passage is out in paperback today.
RB: What was growing up in Moscow, Idaho like?
JR: It was good. I don’t have much to compare it to. We grew up pretty far out of town — my brother who is four years younger than me and my folks and kind of parade of psychopathic dogs.
RB: What distinguishes a psychopathic dog?
JR: I haven’t figured that out.
RB: I haven’t checked a map — is Moscow near a river, and thus its name?
JR: No. No one quite knows. It’s the same with Idaho as a name. No one really knows where the name came from. There are a lot of theories.
RB: The Indian word for “potato” (laughs).
JR: Somebody said it was based on real estate, like a sub-division, like “Hardwood Acres.” No one really knows.
RB: Not an Indian word.
JR: No, no. And Moscow was the same sort of thing. Some people said it was from Russian immigrants. It was originally called Hog Heaven.
JR: And then they decided they wanted to get some girls there and so they called it Paradise Valley. And then Moscow finally.
RB: You’d think they might have changed the name during the Cold War because of John Birchers.
JR: Yeah, yeah. There’s a big file out there somewhere.
RB: When did you leave Idaho? How old?
JR: Eighteen. And then I moved back after I lived here in Boston for a while. And then to New York.
RB: Why back to Idaho?
JR: I was on the road all the time and there was a moment when I realized that I was going to freak out unless I had something familiar. And it was, in a way. Coming back gave me a sense of familiarity I really needed at the time.
RB: No big airport that was conveniently located?
JR: There’s Boise but that’s eight and a half hours south.
RB: So Moscow is up north. Is there much evidence of Native American culture?
JR: Definitely. All around — there is Nez Perce to the south and Coeur d’Alene to the north. All kinds, Blackfoot, all kinds around.
RB: So you came east when you were 18.
JR: First to Oberlin, to college. And then from there to Boston. (Actually I lived a block down the street from here.)
RB: Oberlin has a fine music department, though little known on the East Coast.
JR: Amazing music department. I took some [courses]. I still play with Zack who I met there. He’s an amazing bass player. And then Darius, who is my manager, who I met there as well, were roommates. So it was great for music — lots of music-minded people went there.
RB: Somewhere in Ohio—
JR: The old Northwest.
RB: Did Oberlin have a football team?
JR: It actually did and it lost the entire time I was there. They did not win a single game.
JR: It became a point of pride.
RB: I read that you began writing Bright’s Passage, this, your first novel, at Oberlin, which reportedly was written because you felt you couldn’t express certain things in a song.
JR: I always felt that the songs — my favorite songs are usually stories. A lot of times I feel like a song can be an instant. Like a love song, but there is always a setting. Always a sentiment expressed. Always, you know, a moment. And in other songs there can be a whole story. So I think songs are really great, kind of, delivery vehicles for a story. They allow you to make your own conclusions. Good songs never give you everything. So I really believe a song is like an envelope. A novel, you can unfold from a song. Say like “Tennessee Stud” or “Isis” or “The River.” Or “Famous Blue Raincoat.” You could unfold stories from them. So I was finishing my last record and I had a bunch of long narrative songs on there. I was pretty much done and I had this song and I thought it might be too long. It might make the record — there would just be one too many of these longer songs. But I had nowhere else to put it. So, I figured that I had been talking about it for a while — how songs and novels were closely related. So I thought I would just do it, you know. Or try it. I had come out of a long spell of not really feeling excited about some of the writing. And suddenly I was writing all these songs and then I didn’t really turn off the tap. So I just started writing this [Bright's Passage] without thinking too much about it. It was exciting — it began as an experiment.
RB: So as you are writing this novel do you know how it’s going to end?
JR: No. No.
RB: That was a discovery made along the way.
RB: So why a novel and not a short story — it’s a big jump from songs.
JR: I have never been interested in short stories.
RB: You don’t read them?
JR: I mean, I read them. I read a lot of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett stuff. Mostly because I felt like I needed to relax in something.
RB: Reportedly people read short fiction less today — which I don’t understand given the demands on time that exist.
JR: Right, yeah.
RB: But many writers will say that short fiction is more difficult. Less forgiving.
JR: That’s true. I agree. I totally agree. The thing about good writing is concision and when it’s a song in which you tell a story, it has to be as tight as possible. You cannot have anything that’s going to obfuscate if you are telling a story in a song. You can do lots of missteps in a novel or go off on some tangents and still bring it back.
RB: I agree that songs are stories — what’s the difference in writing a song and writing fiction?
JR: Well, I guess there’s a time frame element. Which is that you can write a song — it may take an afternoon. It may take eight minutes or a week. But it’s a fairly short amount of time. And then when you are done you constantly play it for people and get that excitement of kind of pulling the sheet off of the statue and saying, “I did this.” That instant gratification — which is a great feeling. With a novel you sit and work on it, little bit by little bit, every day. People see you working with your headphones on and then you close the computer or you put down the pen and you have nothing that you are going to show for that day. That kind of thing was a big adjustment for me. I wrote the first draft in two months and then the subsequent 10 drafts over the next year.
RB: Ten drafts, wow.
JR: It was a big first experience for me.
RB: Ten drafts before it went to an editor at a publisher.
JR: I had several drafts before an editor came in and looked at it. And then that process — it was a lot like a song. You write a song first. The song is done in your mind. Then you work with a producer and they pose problems for you to solve. It was a great experience.
RB: Everyone needs an editor.
JR: Yeah, yeah. It’s like an extra set of ears. Yeah, yeah.
RB: How long have you been out touting Bright’s Passage?
JR: Basically since yesterday. (Laughs).
RB: So is the book tour integrated into the music tour?
JR: I’ll never read and do a show at the same time — luckily, I travel for the music and then I go and read at bookstores or something like that. Yeah, I love it. The experience of writing the novel was such a fantastic experience. I have read so much more since. And I have gotten a whole other appreciation for the books I love and reasons to understand books I might not like very much. And also to have a lot more sympathy for stuff I don’t like. Because I know how hard it was to do.
RB: Talking about books you love. What are some of those?
JR: The very first books I really remember loving was a series called The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. They’re the first books I ever read on my own. They are beautiful books — kind of Welsh mythology. And then all those fantasy books like J.R.R. Tolkien and then moving on to Carl Sagan and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke—and 2001. Lots of those. Moving forward, all sorts of history books. You know one of the great things about growing up where we grew up is that we had a TV, but we only got two stations. We lived out in the woods and we didn’t have a car to drive anywhere. Not that we would have had anywhere to go. So reading became a really important thing. We never thought about it as something different; it was just that it was all there was to do once you got home at the end of the day.
RB: So your so-called formative years were full of books.
RB: Did your reading level off when you entered a wider world? When on tour do you read a lot?
JR: Yeah. On tour you have to do stuff to stay busy. Luckily the band I’m in all the guys are all pretty big readers. That’s nice. You don’t come into a place and the TV is instantly on. I love watching TV, but feel like it fractures your brain before you go on stage. We pass books around — we were passing around Neal Stephenson. Neil Gaiman as well — American Gods, which everybody passed around. It’s fun — whatever is getting passed around is really good. I get all sorts of great stuff from Zack [bass player].
RB: Do the people who like your music know you like to read?
RB: Do people send you books?
JR: Yes, all the time. Or after shows, they give me books. I usually make little notes about what I am reading at the time. I’m reading William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways and Robert Penn Warren.
RB: The road book — a quintessentially American story.
JR: Yeah, I agree.
RB: Occasionally, someone revisits de Tocqueville’s itinerary.
JR: And Jonathan Raban travelling the full length of the Mississippi River [Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi]. Seems like British people like to do that…
RB: I always envisioned travelling the circumference of the U.S.
JR: That’s a great idea. That’d be amazing.
RB: With my dog, Rosie.
JR: Like Travels with Charley.
RB: So you are beginning to be interviewed for the book — are those interviews much different than for your music?
JR: I thought it would be roughly similar. In some ways it is. But I feel like with songs, there are so many other things to talk about. Production choices — all these sorts of things. With a book you are dealing with one kind of long extended idea. Also, you write something and you don’t necessarily know what it means until you’re done. Really, what you were actually thinking about. Or what you think you were thinking about. I like that about records as well, but it is interesting to suddenly be kind of holding myself to account about a longer piece of writing, really wondering what it is.
RB: There is so much that is subjective about it. You may read a book when you are 20 years old and then when you re read it later you have a different view. Which may happen with your own writing– being really pleased.
JR: Yeah, really. That’s magical. Or embarrassing. (Laughs).
RB: You seem very happy with what you do.
JR: Yeah, I am.
RB: So you are encouraged to do more?
JR: Absolutely. I understand song writing in some ways because I have been doing it for 10 or 12 years now. At this point I wanted something new — something that made me nervous or made me feel like I didn’t know what was going on. And I really felt sorta like I was a horse in a field and I look over and see a whole other field. And I want to be over there.
RB: Out of your comfort zone.
JR: Yeah, totally. In so many different ways. I feel with a song, people get a glimpse of a part of what you are thinking and a little bit of your brain. With a novel the vulnerability seems much larger. People can see you for all you might be or potentially how simple you actually are. Which is funny.
RB: I assume you want to get “better” as a novelist/writer?
RB: How would you go about that?
JR: You just gotta keep on doing it. I really do think that showing up is the biggest part. While I put stock in school, I really think that school only teaches you that you don’t know very much. And get used to that. Like knowing the limits of your own abilities is good. I never thought that going to school would make me a better writer; maybe a more aware writer. But I didn’t go to school to write songs and I didn’t feel the necessity to go to school to begin to write a novel. Writing the novel was certainly going to school for me. And I have learned a great deal at least about what I think I want to do better on my next one. It’s funny I was reading this thing that Annie Dillard said — the reason you have writers who have written 12 books is because they have been dissatisfied every time. (Laughs). Which is cool.
RB: Are you dissatisfied after you write a song?
RB: You don’t feel that there is more you can do?
JR: I mean in that way, most of the songs I throw out, not throw out, but I don’t use 85 percent of what I write — cuz, I just don’t want people to see it, you know. And the stuff that’s there, that actually makes it on a record is stuff that I know is good. Maybe people won’t like it, but I know I liked it and I know why. And over time I will still feel happy performing it. I won’t dissociate.
RB: So, have you begun your next fiction?
JR: Yeah, I wrote a fair portion and then decided I wanted to go back and restart. But I have a really good idea. I don’t feel stressed out by it
RB: There is no pressure on you to write fiction?
RB: There must be some for song writing?
JR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s pressure, but it’s pressure to account for myself. When people buy a book and give you a chance — I see it as they are buying a book to read, but they are really giving me a chance to go and do something else. My job is to write. I love it. I love it. I’m in this great incredible position right now to be able to write and enjoy it and the pressure is to make it good and to make it good the way I feel it should be.
RB: Well, it’s a different pressure than worrying about your kid’s dental bills, or the mortgage
JR: Yeah — right.
RB: What’s your vision or sense of your future? Continuing writing?
JR: Yes, definitely.
JR: (Laughs). I would love to write a movie. And I would love to write another 10 novels. There is a place to put stories now that isn’t just in songs. And that’s really important. Not just because it’s fun but for me right now. It’s really important because I want to continue to feel hungry — really hungry and get a sense — I get a real buzz off of writing.
RB: It’s impressive that apparently you can write anywhere. As far as know, not many writers do that.
JR: Yeah, I guess when I was deep, really having trouble writing I asked Robert Pinsky who I’ve gotten to know. He’s got grandkids, he travels a lot and he’s doing all this stuff and he has a lot of demands on his time. I asked him if he believes in writer’s block? He said that if you ever have an empty stretch of time coming up, fill it. Like with stuff. Fit your poems in, you know. And I really think that’s true. If you are going to be real precious about where you write then you are kind of admitting you are easily swayed by everything. And mostly I just like to put on music that doesn’t have words. And I sit, put on my headphones and I have a much easier time writing prose on the road than I do writing music. Which is nice, it’s nice to feel productive in another way.
RB: Speaking of people you know, how do you come to know [journalist] Thomas Ricks?
JR: In 2006 he was working on Fiasco. And he heard “Girl in the War,” which is a song of mine, and he wrote a section of his book to the record. So he wrote me a note and we met and when I was in Washington D.C. he gave me a tour of The Washington Post, which I was totally geeked out on. It was awesome. And then we have stayed really close friends.
RB: And Jesse Kornbluth is another big fan of yours.
JR: Yeah. You know him?
RB: I know his work. He reviewed your book in the most glowing terms
JR: Really, yeah, yeah.
RB: You must be very active to have these contacts outside the world of music? Are you a pop musician?
JR: I would say so. I am certainly not — it’s amazing how a song can go through the ether to people and find them and if they are interested, it’s easy to find out more. The people that I have met doing this stuff have been though music. Dennis Lehane — he wrote some of his book to a record of mine. That just happens that way. And it’s really cool that they will give me some time to try this.
RB: Have you talked to your writer fans about writing fiction?
JR: I talked to Ricks a bunch about it, yeah. He has a beautiful way of looking at it.
RB: Is he retired from The Post?
JR: Yeah, he’s writing books now and has this defense blog. He is working on a history of American generalship from WWII to the present. It’s a big one.
RB: Is there any way that writing fiction has interfered with writing music?
JR: It’s true that it used to be if I had an idea for a song I would never think about is this idea for a book. But thankfully they are different enough I get so much energy from performing and recording and it’s such a social activity with my gang, my wolf pack of people that I love. I could never give that up. I love writing for the group I am with. And I don’t think I would be satisfied writing — I am very lucky because if I was sitting and just obsessing over [writing] I wouldn’t be as happy as I am when I go and work and play.
RB: You have choices.
JR: That’s it, yeah.
RB: Give me a sense of how much you tour?
JR: It used to be 150 to 175 dates a year. You’d be on the road eight or nine months a year. Some days off in between.
RB: I wonder how cultural information [books, movies, music] impacts anyone who creates things. How does it reach you as you crisscross the country? Do you travel outside the country also?
JR: Yeah, all over the place. All over Europe and Australia. Not too much in Asia although I ‘d love to — it’s great. Basically every day you wake up and you meet new people and find your way around a town. There’s time for reading and you meet people after shows and they give you books. I think that’s what people who are writers do. They assimilate whatever is — all the stuff people are thinking. You get a range of different impulses and you try and write about it.
RB: Lots of visual information that’s almost subliminal.
JR: Definitely. I remember reading Johnny Cash’s biography and him saying that after so many years traveling that he could wake up and know within five miles where he was in the country. And I thought he was full of crap.
JR: But it turned out as time went by at least you know what state you are in. (Laughs).
RB: Who are some of your musical idols, for lack of a better word?
JR: Of course for inventiveness and seeming fearlessness, somebody like Tom Waits has been — I would buy whatever he puts out. I like that he is just trying things. [Bob] Dylan is inescapable. Radiohead, like Tom Waits for their inventiveness and their searching. And there’s people like Alfred Deller–
RB: Early European music–
JR: Yeah. Counter-tenors. Gillian Welch has a new record out who I love. Lucinda Williams. I like Jay-Z. I like a lot of stuff. I like people more and more like Neil Young who have chosen to make music and I can tell how they have chosen to live their life. Which is important to me.
RB: Young strikes me as an authentic renegade.
JR: Yeah and he also has a family and has a good family life.
RB: I am trying to think of who else has stayed on top of their game — Leonard Cohen. He got screwed by his manager. On the other hand that’s how many people wake up after Enron and the like.
JR: I saw him [Cohen] at the Beacon in New York. I never have cried at a show. I am always too busy watching what’s going on. I lost myself totally that day.
RB: He is pretty compelling and poignant. I came to like him later in his career especially after his album Ten New Songs with “That Don’t Make It Junk.”
JR: And “Alexandra Leaving.” That’s an amazing song.
RB: I was glad to see that my musical tastes hadn’t calcified and that I was still open.
JR: That is really cool. It’s interesting that you say that — so many people respond to his earlier stuff and have trouble getting in to his later stuff.
RB: Do you have a title for the next book?
RB: Did Bright’s Passage have a title when you began it?
RB: Like Steve Martin says, You started out with a blank sheet and pen.
JR: That’s how it is with records too. The title is always the last thing to come. It’s the last distillation of whatever you are working on.
RB: Well, thank you very much
JR: Thank you, man. Thanks a lot.
Image courtesy of the author.