How an Artist Listens to the Voices in His Head
By John Williams
The singer and songwriter Josh Ritter’s musical work is often praised for its imaginative and deeply considered lyrics. His first novel, “Bright’s Passage” (2011), started as a song before Ritter transformed it.
For his second novel, “The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All,” he was inspired by the history of Idaho, where he grew up. It’s narrated by Weldon Applegate, a 99-year-old man remembering back to his teenage years, when the long line of lumberjacks in his family seemed like it might be petering out.
The novel is a tall tale laced with humor and salty language, delivered by Weldon in a classically folksy manner. (His father was “so poor he could barely afford to whistle a tune.”) Below, Ritter talks about the irascible Weldon, the history of timber towns, the characters in his head and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
About seven years ago, living in Woodstock, N.Y. I’ve always been really interested in myth, and particularly American myth, because you can get such big ideas into small spaces.
I was sitting on the floor with my daughter, Beatrix, who was very young at the time, and I just noticed the floorboards in this house, which were immense. Each one looked like a supper table. I was thinking of the people who took down those trees and moved them, and how they had turned them into these incredible floorboards. I’ve never really read a story about lumberjacks, and I grew up around lots of timber towns. So my mind went from those floorboards to those towns in northern Idaho where I was a boy, and from there the idea was just so plain: I had to write a lumberjack tall tale.
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I started working on it, but I was touring a lot, on the road with my family, raising a little kid. I picked up the novel and put it down a bunch of times in that period.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
When I was growing up, the woods had emptied out some. There wasn’t the kind of influx of people from all over the world. What I learned in my research was that back just a hundred years ago, it was hopping. Around that area, there were the silver mines, there was timber, fishing, all the agriculture. Huge labor disputes. To walk down the streets of one of these towns now and imagine back, it was a profound experience to learn about that period.
And for me personally, as a writer I’ve worried that there’s a store of characters or a store of songs in my head, and when I get through those I won’t have anymore. I’ve fought with that in my music so much. When I started to work with Weldon Applegate and let his voice out, I realized that there was a well there — a spring rather than a cistern. There’s something that’s continually creative, that made me feel like: OK, I have all the characters up there, they will always come. I just have to listen for them.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I wrote many drafts of this book, maybe 15 or so, and with each draft there was time in between. It developed as I put it down and stepped away from it. I think of it like painters stepping away from the canvas to get a view. With a novel, you have to put it down and forget that you wrote some of it.
What I noticed is that Weldon is a much more sympathetic character than he started out as. When I started writing him, he was not only cantankerous, he was a real hard-ass. Over time, he had changed. He’d gotten a little bit more humane; there was a sweetness there that was really surprising, and I was charmed by it.
There’s a book — I think it’s Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds,” I read it so long ago — where the author’s characters come alive and do stuff while he’s asleep. There’s that element to writing, which is so beautiful. Sometimes with songs or stories, I really do think that you end up following them, they’re like a strong dog on a leash. You follow along and pretend that’s what you meant the whole time.
What creative person (not a writer) has influenced you and your work?
I have two that are very important to me. The creative heroes I’m always on the lookout for are people who make big changes in their art and continually change. And they manage to have families and lives that aren’t consumed by their art. Their art doesn’t eat them up. They manage to feed the fire without getting burned. One of those people is Tom Waits. He’s done an amazing job of always finding new ways to express himself and communicate with the world.
The closer, even more personal one, is my own mom. She was a neuroscientist, and a major force for me in envisioning what it was to have a life where you loved what you did and worked on it as a joyful activity. And my mom loved Tom Waits.
Persuade someone to read the novel in 50 words or fewer.
Moonshine, avalanches, witches, devils, murder, piano players, mobile homes, old injuries and lightning strikes.
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