Jim Ruland has the kind of life that more writers a few generations ago used to have, before the path to debut novel was an MFA, Internet research, and time at a writer’s colony. A Navy veteran who’s been around the world, holding a number of unusual jobs—including one as a long-time columnist at a punk rock magazine—while being a father, husband, literary event organizer (his Vermin on the Mount series is ground zero for new, cutting-edge writing in Los Angeles and San Diego), and five years sober, Ruland makes many of our lives look as compelling and action-packed as potato salad.
Inspired by the vagaries and vicissitudes of the last thirty years, the brutal and hilarious stories in his collection Big Lonesome ring true, and partially by dint of his Navy experience, Ruland proved to be a skilled and empathetic collaborator with Deadliest Catch captain Scott Campbell Jr. on their book Giving the Finger. However, Ruland’s debut novel, Forest of Fortune, is, so far, his definitive statement. Six years in the making, it tells the stories of three haunted souls, two of them addicts, as they attempt to survive and succeed in the milieu of the lurid and unsettling Thunderclap Casino. One of them, Lupita, is a career slot player on the brink of losing her family; another, Pemberton, is an ad copywriter with a cocaine problem, who comes to the casino looking for work; the third is Alice, a Native American casino employee of a different tribe than Thunderclap’s owners.
I met with Ruland at our favorite local Oaxacan joint in Los Angeles, where I pummeled the poor guy with questions about this hard-won novel that took over half a decade of his life to create, the life that led up to it, and the compelling world of Indian casinos.
The Rumpus: Your three published books so far are astonishingly diverse in topic and nature. You’ve had many different lives, and each book seems to reflect a distinct time. Tell us how Forest of Fortune fits into this.
Jim Ruland: I’m drawn to historical subjects. The two unpublished novels I wrote before Forest of Fortune as well as many of the stories in Big Lonesome could be classified as historical fiction—though I prefer the term counterfactual fiction, i.e. “what if” stories. I wanted to write something contemporary. Writing set in distant times can be exhausting because every scene presents new threats to the readers’ suspension of disbelief. For example, just getting your characters from one part of Gilded Age New York to another presents huge obstacles. I wanted to operate in a world where I had total authority. When I wrote Forest of Fortune I was working at an Indian casino. If I was stuck on a scene or a character or just needed some inspiration, all I had to do was walk the floor and I’d see something I’d never seen before. I couldn’t have written the book without the experience of working in the gaming industry.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write Forest of Fortune?
Ruland: I started it almost six years ago, in the fall of 2008, and I finished the first draft in the fall of 2008. It came out very easily in the form that it’s in now, but with a really bad ending. It was very shaky. I knew I had to go back and take a look at what I had, and that process happened shortly before I became sober.
At that time, I lost a very good friend of mine, and that sent me on a downward spiral. I was able to come out of it, and when I got my life together, I returned to the book and saw what a mess it was. Then I spent the next few years working on it, got an agent, we sent it to some mainstream places, and it did not sell, so I took another pass at it, and then we sent it to some indie publishers, and Tyrus bought it almost immediately.
Rumpus: Some kind of gambling has a hold on the life every major character in Forest of Fortune. How does the style of risk-taking portrayed in this book fascinate you?
Ruland: Going back to the time I was in the Navy, I got in a lot of trouble. I kept getting second chances and third chances; I was in a very rigorous, disciplined, inflexible routine, and I kept getting in trouble. I kept taking chances that in retrospect look very foolish. Even though I would get caught sometimes, I would get away with enough of them to feel that it was worth the risk. Looking back on that, I’m now like, What was I thinking?
As my disease got more advanced, I stopped seeing risky things as having any risk at all. It stopped being risky behavior. It became a way to cope, or an obstacle on the hero’s journey, though of course I wasn’t heroic. So I’ve always been interested in people that put themselves in bad situations and have some kind of awareness of what they’re doing.
When I created Pemberton, we were of the same cloth. His behavior wasn’t that different from my own. Then I had my awakening, pulled myself out of that lifestyle, and worked on the book, and the book helped me find my way. But I knew it would be wrong to give Pemberton the same kind of redemption that I experienced. He is right there. It could go either way.
Rumpus: Of your three main characters, you’re the hardest on Pemberton. Why is this character earmarked for suffering?
Ruland: Well, Pemberton’s a fictional construct, but in many ways, he’s my alter ego in the story. I identify most closely with the kinds of things he goes through. He’s a Caucasian copywriter with a substance problem. I was a Caucasian copywriter with a substance abuse problem. I could tell you that the similarities end there, but that’d be a little disingenuous. Now, Pemberton has a whole feast of problems that I’ve never had and hopefully never will. For one, he keeps creating situations where confrontation is necessary.
Rumpus: You’re right. One of his classic unforced errors is when he calls out Peter Metro. We’ve all met a guy like Peter Metro—the sleazy mountebank who’s more successful than he deserves—and in that case, Pemberton seems to act for the reader. In that case, we admire his lack of restraint.
Ruland: Right. Pemberton’s not someone who often stands up for himself, but when confronted by a situation where the only possible outcome will result in him looking bad, where he’ll have nothing to gain and much to lose, well, that’s when he finally does take a stand. And that’s like him.
Rumpus: The legend of the sisters was really powerful and detailed. What is this story-within-a-story based on?
Ruland: I don’t want to say too much about it because there’s a historical construct that’s key to the ending, but I also wanted to play with the reader’s expectations for what kind of things went on historically in this tribally-owned land.
Rumpus: Sure. For instance, your use of the surname “Gamboa” in two very different contexts reveals that, to a point. Also, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between this sisters in the legend and the modern sisters of your narrative.
Ruland: Yeah, that’s intentional.
Rumpus: Tell us more about your own experience as it relates to casinos.
Ruland: Well, I worked in an Indian casino for five years, in the marketing department. It was right before the recession hit, so when I started there, I was getting bonuses, and things were good, and lots of people were gambling money. Then the money started to go away, and the numbers went down. There were a lot of firings, a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety. I went through four or five different supervisors. It was like having a different job every year.
What’s interesting about the casino business is you get people who were bartenders who’ve worked their way up. It’s not always people who come in with an MBA. There’s an interesting meritocracy at work. It reminded me of the Navy a little bit.
I’ve written about this before—I won the McSweeney’s column contest a few years ago and had a column for their website called Dispatches from an Indian Casino. The problem was, I was still working in the casino at the time, and I was very much afraid of losing my job because of the recession that was going on at the time, so I wrote the column under a pseudonym. I wrote seventeen of these things, and I felt I really wasn’t able to tell anybody. If you’re really curious how the inside of a casino works, check it out.
Rumpus: One of your characters, Lupita, is a career slot player. I didn’t know there were such people.
Ruland: When I worked at a casino, I was fascinated to learn about the demographics of people who are career players. The popularity of televised poker perhaps has given rise to the idea that career gamblers are flashy, overdressed, expensive watches, living the life of Riley. Well, those people come to the casino, blow all of their money, and don’t come back.
The players that are more dependable from the casino’s point of view tend to be middle-aged women with kids in school or out of the house, who don’t have much going on in the middle of the day, who are too adventurous for TV to be appealing to them but are family people with discretionary money, and this is their thrill. But all their play is tracked, and we know everything.
Rumpus: Are you or have you been a gambler yourself?
Ruland: Yes. I like sports betting, almost exclusively. I think now that I’ve worked in a casino I’m more likely to play slot machines and things like that. Even though the odds are not in your favor, they’re not rigged. People win.
With a slot machine, you want to play a machine that has what’s called a “progressive”—a top jackpot that builds and builds and builds. More often than not, those progressive machines are tied into networks. Sometimes they can be statewide, casino-wide, or just tied into a certain bank of machines. And when the progressive is programmed to hit, it has to hit.
Rumpus: This question is more for me. The line on page 128—“Miami Dolphins versus Buffalo Bills, a very good matchup.” Obviously spoken by someone who hasn’t watched much football since the early ’90s. Tell me about the sort of thought that went into such knowing lines as this.
Ruland: Well yeah, but it’s a division game, so it’s possible that there are tens of thousands of people who would say, “Yeah, that’s a good game—circle that one,” but probably nobody in California. And there’s no sports betting in Indian casinos, by the way, except for horse racing. It has to do with different classes of gaming. Although each tribe is a sovereign nation—there are 550 Indian casinos, and mostly they can do whatever the hell they want—they’ve negotiated limits with the states on the styles of gaming available at their casinos. That’s why you don’t have dice games at Indian casinos in California.
Rumpus: I also enjoyed the line, “a decrepit saloon, a dive that even the hipsters shunned.” Your locations throughout this book are so strong, but also often vividly unappealing. You’ve not only set your narrative in the world of casinos and gambling, but dive bars, run-down trailer parks. What inspired these locations?
Ruland: One thing I like about a casino [is], when you work for a casino, it’s a little like working for Disneyland or something like that. You have an enormous staff and so many ways of navigating the terrain that aren’t visible to the guest. And once you see all that, the place just becomes unrelentingly ugly. There’s a beautifully maintained exterior, but you slip behind a door, and it’s like you’re in an abandoned Soviet hospital. As an employee, it’s a little bit like being on stage. There’s no danger of you getting swept up in the “magic” of the place.
That said, I love Indian casinos. I also like exploring them and seeing how they’re different from each other. Each casino has these little pockets that are unique or distinct, and many of them are part of the make believe experience, like the Forest of Fortune that the novel draws its name from or Thunderclap Falls, the fake interior waterfall that’s installed.
I also have tremendous admiration for what many tribal enterprises are doing with their casinos and the revenue they’re generating from them. One of the things they’re doing is forming corporations and buying property. Tribal organizations own land in cities like Washington D.C. and Sacramento and state capitals all over the United States, so when they do business in the capitals they can stay in their own hotel.
Also, there’s a tribal enterprise in San Diego that have bought the Grant Hotel, which, besides being a beautiful hotel, is rich in irony, as it’s named after the man who was President of the United States during the Indian wars. The hotel had a little museum, dedicated to Grant, and the new owners have refurbished it to tell the whole story.
Rumpus: That’s compelling.
Ruland: There are a lot of tribes who do things like that with their casino—they have a section where they tell their story. This is who we are, this is what we’re about. Sure, some of it’s for show, some of it’s for sale, and that’s something that the tribal leaders wrestle with themselves: How much of our culture do we want to turn into a showpiece? How much do we make available for people to come in and buy an experience in? I’m fascinated with all of that.
Rumpus: Are you implying, in a way, that Indian casinos are a social justice enterprise?
Ruland: Absolutely. In a way they are, except when they aren’t. Casinos have given many sovereign nations economic autonomy, which is the only thing that matters to institutions of power and control. In 21st century America, governance is a game you have to pay to play. Wealth from gaming revenue got many tribes a seat at the table, and they were able to use their capital to influence decisions that concerned their interests. Casinos have allowed many tribes to make substantial investments in their infrastructure that simply weren’t imaginable twenty years ago: schools, hospitals, daycare facilities, recreation centers, gymnasiums, museums. The list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, casinos have introduced gross amounts of social injustice in the form of tribal disenrollment. That’s when a tribe changes its criteria for membership and subsequently kicks people out of the tribe. Can you imagine? You spend your whole life on a reservation, and one day someone comes and tells you that you have to leave because you’re not a member of the tribe anymore? And it’s more than just being kicked out: you’re stripped of your identity, what makes you you. In California, a tribe kicked out an old woman, a tribal elder, who was one of the few people left who still spoke the language! It’s a big problem in many tribal communities, especially the smaller ones, which are essentially clans. What’s to stop someone who presides over the tribal council that your family had a beef with a decade ago from kicking you out? Sadly, very little. In the story of scarcity versus surplus, surplus almost always leads to corruption. It’s no different on the rez than it is in the rest of the world.
Featured image © Jason Gutierrez.