The first time I met Patrick Ryan was several years ago, at Temple Bar in Soho. We were sitting next to each other at a long table after a reading at McNally Jackson Books. I had no idea he was an editor at Granta, and he had no idea I’d written a story that he’d recently read and edited. In a business where attitudes often overshadow magnanimity, what struck me about Ryan was his openness and generosity, in both the personal and professional senses.
It’s that generosity of spirit that shines through in The Dream Life of Astronauts, Ryan’s luminous new story collection, that follows stray shafts of light as they trickle into dim circumstances and situations. Set in the 1960s and ’70s against the backdrop of the NASA space program on Merritt Island, Florida, these nine stories feature people sifting through the frailties of humanity in search of connection to family, friends, and sometimes strangers—from that of a young boy yearning to bond with his free-spirited uncle to a middle-aged thermal systems manager convinced his wife’s trying to poison him while she screws his best friend and then a pregnant teenager who longs to be crowned Miss America on national television.
The author of the novel Send Me, also set in the Florida of his youth, three young adult novels, and numerous short stories that have appeared in literary journals including Catapult, One Story, Tin House, Iowa Review, and Yale Review, Ryan is currently the Editor-in-Chief of One Story and One Teen Story, and teaches writing at various venues around New York City.
The Rumpus: I’m sure you’ve heard this fourteen million times, but I love the title. It really is fabulous. And the title story says so much about the subtext in relation to Clark, the astronaut. What struck me is that Clark’s dream life seldom seems to intrude on his reality; was that intentional? Because all of your characters, from the young’uns on up, seem to have a very keen sense of their own realities, even while looking to distract themselves.
Patrick Ryan: I’m glad you like the title. It was a collaborative effort between me and my editor. I think we fused an idea of his with an idea of mine and came up The Dream Life of Astronauts. I see Clark as someone who’s gotten so attached to his ideal image of himself that he practically lives in that costume. He’s almost unaware that it is a costume. Which is why it was important to me to get him naked in the story, naked in every sense. Extremely cocky people have this remarkable ability to stay “in character” almost all the time, don’t they? And when they’re dragged out (or are forced to drag themselves out), they aren’t happy. That was part of the tension I was going for.
Rumpus: This collection is so character-driven, and I was so caught up in the characters’ lives that frankly the NASA space age thread kind of faded into the background. But it’s a compelling backdrop. I know your parents worked for NASA and you thought about being an astronaut as a kid. Was it in the back of your head to write about this even then?
Ryan: No! I never saw the charm of it, the exotic side of it, the richness of it as a backdrop until other people started pointing that out to me. As a young man, I was cranky about having come from such a “dull” place. I would have traded it for Walton’s Mountain or Mayberry in a heartbeat. Eventually, I wrapped my head around the fact that people found the place interesting. Then I had to wrap my head around the fact that I was having a hard time escaping my growing interest in it as background fodder. I would go to set a story someplace else, someplace that wasn’t even in Florida, and often I would find myself back there. Like a lot of writers, I had to get out before I could feel comfortable writing about it.
Rumpus: An acquaintance who writes and teaches memoir says she’s convinced that everything everyone writes is memoir, even fiction. I always want to know where the story comes from so I have to ask if that’s true of any of the characters in these stories.
Ryan: I think there’s always a strong connection between how the character responds to situations and how the author might, on some level, respond to similar situations. And, of course, it’s the author who conjured up those situations to begin with, so that’s revealing. In the case of these nine stories, nothing that happens to one of the main characters happened to me, but I was sometimes once or twice removed from the situation. In the story “Miss America,” for example, a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl tries to figure things out for herself while everyone around her lobs advice. I was the very good friend of just such a girl when I was fifteen, and my original intention was to write a story about a kid like me and his pregnant friend. I even wanted to make that kid, the boy, the narrator of the story. But as soon as I got close to actually writing the first draft, I realized I had no interest in him. And so he isn’t in the story at all. And she’s the narrator. The story “You Need Not Be Present to Win” was based, in part, on some things my dad went through with his mom, some of which I witnessed, and some of which he told me about after she died.
Rumpus: The range of voices in this collection is phenomenal. A young boy witnessing the slow death of his parents’ marriage. A teenager lured into a surprising sexual configuration. A middle-aged man scared about recovering from a stroke. A senior citizen in the witness protection program—so loved that concept—among others. How long were you listening to these characters’ voices before conceiving this collection?
Ryan: They all happened one at a time. In other words, I didn’t write toward the collection but wrote stories and rewrote—line for line—a few older stories I’d been tinkering with for years, and the ones that shared the setting went into the book. I never set out with the intention of trying a wide range of different perspectives, something I’d deliberately done in my first book, Send Me. I just went to ideas for stories that interested me. And I never worked on more than one at a time. That was, in part, because I have very little time to write, and in part because I find it better to settle into one idea completely and try to fully realize, if not exhaust it before moving on. So I got very deep into each one of those main characters. I would spend anywhere from two to six months on a single story.
Rumpus: You’ve written adult and young adult books, and you’ve been an editor at Granta and now you’re editing One Story and One Teen Story. This collection has a wonderful crossover of adolescent and adult voices and POVs. Do you lean towards one or the other in terms of which is easier to write, or which resonates more with you? I always think there’s still a fifteen-year-old boy or girl trapped inside most of us that we’d like to disappear, but they never do.
Ryan: There is definitely still a fifteen-year-old boy rattling around in my head. And he frequently acts like he’s nine. But I don’t consider the adolescent perspectives in the book to be at all young adult in terms of how they’re written (as opposed to my three YA books, which are very YA in both voice and perspective). And I don’t find one easier to write than the other. They’re all heavy lifting. That said, there are certain adult voices that I find more challenging to write than others. First person is usually harder than third.
Rumpus: I’m trying to find another way to say that everyone in this book is so human, which has been noted in other interviews. They’re so mortal, how’s that? And they all seem to be seeking some kind of connection, which is why I was struck by the sense of aloneness most of them seem engulfed in, particularly Hannah in “Summer of ’69” and, to some extent, Leo in “The Fall Guy.” It’s a combination of fear and yearning that’s striking, because in both those stories the protagonists are surrounded by people who are supposed to love them. Strangely, Nick, in “Fountain of Youth,” seems the most content with his emotional solitude, which is weird because he’s really cut off from everyone in his former life. And yet even he begins reaching out to a most unlikely source. I so love the last line of that story.
Ryan: You’ve made my day! That line was always in place. Before I ever started writing the story, I knew I wanted to end with that line. And when I rediscovered the story twenty years after writing it and blew the dust off, and then set about rewriting it almost word-for-word, that line survived.
A lot of my stories are about people behaving badly. In fact, I seem to gravitate either toward characters who are trying to do “the right thing” as they see it and mucking it up, or toward characters who are behaving badly. On a certain level, that’s probably true of every story in the history of fiction, so I’m not claiming to be breaking any new ground here. But I think most bad behavior and fumbling emanates from a place of fear and insecurity. In fact, I’m convinced that every bit of asshole behavior traces back to fear and insecurity. Not that that excuses anything. But it’s interesting to me. Those difficult people in your life whom you sometimes have to pull away from in order to save yourself and others around you? Those people are insecure, just like you. They’re afraid, just like you. Knowing that doesn’t make them any more tolerable, but it’s a baby step toward compassion. That’s my entry point into a character’s humanity and the messiness that comes with being mortal.
Rumpus: What also struck me, especially in the title story, was the absence of parental or familial concern or authority. Frankie’s sister is sure that Clark wants to fuck him but offers few words of warning, and even his mother doesn’t seem very concerned over Frankie’s potential rendezvous with an older male stranger. If the story was set in 2016, Clark would probably be in jail right now. You can’t help but compare that to the present day helicopter parenting that extends way beyond adolescence. And yet the young people in these stories seem none the worse because of it.
Ryan: This reminds me of that video that was being passed around where the footage is of kids doing outdoor kid things like playing stickball and riding bikes up makeshift plywood ramps, while the voice-over is saying, basically, In the old days, we did X, Y, and Z every afternoon, all of which are now considered dangerous and reckless, and we tended to survive. I’m not a parent and have no place commenting on what it would be like to be one. What I suspect, though, is that it’s more tasking now than it ever was because kids can be in touch with anyone, anywhere in the world, and parents don’t have the excuse of not being able to watch their kids every minute of the day. Because now they can, right? And many of them do. And I probably would. But when you and I were kids—especially if we grew up without extra money floating around—our parents were too tired from working to keep track. My mom was very protective of her kids, she would claw through walls to protect us, and she still would. But when she got home from work, she was exhausted. She wanted to eyeball each of us and see that we were still alive and had all our limbs, and then she wanted to take a nap before she had to start making dinner.
Rumpus: That parental absence was juxtaposed in a really interesting way with the lack of fear on the part of the teenaged characters. In “Miss America,” Emerald has only met Derek, the would-be talent scout, once, and seems very willing to put her fate in his hands. Frankie, despite his lack of experience, has no qualms going off with Clark even after the tour of NASA falls through. It’s like their desire to be transported someplace new and daring and different overrides any cosmic queasiness, even when it becomes apparent that these adults are fraudulent in the ways they present themselves. Like when Frankie no longer even likes Clark but still feels attracted to him and forges ahead.
Ryan: Oh, man, the situations I used to get myself into. Trusting, trusting, trusting. Either trusting strangers or trusting that I would be able to get myself out of a sticky situation if one arose. I know it might sound like I’m illustrating exactly why “the good old days” were more dangerous, but I certainly learned a lot about what I was capable and not capable of by wandering around on my own. I certainly learned how to move fast on my feet. I never pursued an ex-astronaut, but I did once stalk a budding trapeze artist and was confronted by him, something that happens to one of my characters in Send Me. I got to college as a church-going kid who didn’t like to swear, and within a month I was dating a drug dealer. I spent many days one summer riding around in a car with a smelly guy who was ten years older than me, and even while I was doing it I thought it was weird that he, a twenty-four-year-old, wanted to spend so much time with me, a fourteen-year-old. It never got sexual or even creepy but it was weird, and I knew it, and I just went with it because it was cool, being driven around, drinking Slurpees.
Rumpus: What happened when the trapeze artist confronted you? And how did you meet the twenty-four-year-old? Seriously, if it didn’t get weird or creepy, what do you think he wanted from you? Did he at least pay for the Slurpees?
Ryan: This was after I’d spent a certain number of afternoons watching him practice. Florida State University has a circus—you can take classes in circus! I didn’t take any of those classes, though. I just hung out in the tent, in the bleachers, until one afternoon when the trapeze artist walked right up to me and asked what I was doing there. My heart was pounding. I lied about being a reporter for the college newspaper, working on a story, and I must not have been very convincing because he told me he didn’t believe me and said I wasn’t supposed to be in the tent if I wasn’t taking a circus class. So I fled and never looked back.
As for the twenty-four-year-old, he’d been a friend of my brother’s in high school. My brother was in the Navy by then, and this guy was still in town, and I think maybe he was lonely. He was very cocky, which I found cool back then. I seriously doubt he paid for the Slurpees. One afternoon while we were driving around, he told me he’d had a dream that a big truck was careening toward his car while we were both in it and he’d made an instantaneous decision to turn the car so that the truck hit the passenger’s side—my side. I think that was near the end of our afternoons together.
Rumpus: On another note, there’s also a thread running through several of the stories, “The Way She Handles” and “Earth, Mostly,” of younger kids being left behind by the adults they most want to follow out into the world—even an imaginary world—and being hurt and angry about it. And each of the adults has different reasons for denying entrance.
Ryan: I didn’t start out with any recurring threads in mind. I never write with a theme. I start with a sense of the characters and the situations I want to put them in, and I usually have some general sense of the ending, but often not a clear plan for getting there, which is how I like to work. It’s all about balancing a sense of the characters with a sense of discovery. What I find when I look at my own experiences and the experiences of people around me—including complete strangers, characters in novels and films, historical figures I’ve learned about in books—is that we’re always disappointing one another. Despite our best efforts, we’re letting one another down to some degree, and life is about how we deal with that, what we do with that, both as the disappointer and the disappointee. That’s why those rare moments when someone steps in and does absolutely the right thing for someone else just when it’s most needed aren’t just joyous but heartbreaking.
At the end of “Earth, Mostly,” the grandmother is realizing that her eight-year-old granddaughter is one of the few people who understands human struggle in the same way she does, and it reduces her to tears. At the end of “Miss America,” that same character, the grandmother, circumvents her usual self-involvedness and rises to the occasion of helping her teenaged daughter with her pregnancy.
Rumpus: Those are the collection’s only interconnected stories. In “Miss America,” Gail is a newly divorced mother of moderate means with a pregnant single daughter, and in “Earth, Mostly” she’s a grandmother raising her granddaughter while Dani has run off to California. I’m curious, was there ever the seed for a story about Dani and what became of her? Or was it intentional that we never learn how she ends up?
Ryan: It was intentional, but only because I haven’t figured it out yet. I feel like there’s a Dani story in me that I might one day write. Dani in California. Or Dani on her way to California. I’m just not sure where she ends up, or what happens to her, and I don’t write in the dark. I have to have a vague idea of where a story is going before I launch into it. Too much light on the situation and I don’t want to write it. Too much darkness and I don’t know what I’m doing. Dusk is ideal.
Rumpus: I love those lines in “Fountain of Youth,” “You can be somebody one minute and nobody the next. Full of yourself in the morning and empty as a tapped well in the afternoon.” I’m thinking of Gail’s reaction to Dani’s announcement that made for such a surprise ending. I wouldn’t have thought she’d react that way, as if, despite her shitty life, she was still seeking some kind of wonder. That seems to be at the core of all these people’s lives, that even when the wonder falls flat, the earth keeps turning. I thought having the televised impeachment of Nixon was an absolutely brilliant illustration of this; here’s a man who let down the entire country, leaves the presidency in total disgrace, and he sstill flashes the victory sign on his way out.
Ryan: I’m very hope-for-the-best, expect-the-worst in my approach to anything. When I feel disappointed about something, a voice in my head says, “What, you really thought it was going to go well?” I’m always expecting things to fall apart—the plane to crash, the deal to fall through, the coffee to spill. When it doesn’t, that’s like a little gift the random collision of molecules handed you. It’s something to appreciate. I like the way you phrase it, even when the wonder falls flat, the earth keeps turning. That’s pretty much what every short story is about, isn’t it? The trick is to hold on to what the wonder felt like while you’re figuring out what to do next.
Author photograph © Koitz.