GWEN IFILL: Next, a musician-turned-novelist.
Jeffrey Brown talks with Josh Ritter about his debut work of fiction.
JEFFREY BROWN: Henry Bright is a 20-year-old young man just returned home to West Virginia after serving in World War I, when his life is turned further upside-down. His wife dies in childbirth. And Henry, instructed by an angel, escapes into the wilderness with his newborn son to flee an approaching wildfire.
So begins “Bright’s Passage,” the debut novel by a man better known for his work in another art form, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. His most recent album, “So Runs the World Away,” came out last year.
And Josh Ritter joins me now.
Welcome to you.
JOSH RITTER, “Bright’s Passage”: Thank you for having me.
JEFFREY BROWN: I guess the obvious first question is, why a novel? People know you for your music. Why this?
JOSH RITTER: Well, I always thought, as a songwriter, that what a songwriter does is build sort of a hallway. And you’re building a hallway for people to travel down.
And — and they walk down the hallway. And then, at a certain point, they decide to walk through a door to the right or left. And they go into their own mind and their own kind of reverie. I was interested with “Bright’s Passage,” which began as a song.
JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, it did begin as a song?
JOSH RITTER: Yes, yes. And I decided that I wanted to just travel down that hallway and go through one of those doors and just sort of see what was beyond.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but you go through the door usually, and it’s a three- or four-minute song. And this becomes a couple-hundred-page novel.
JOSH RITTER: Yes. Yes. That’s right. Yes, it started off as a song, but it was a very, very — it was about a guy who gets periodic instructions from an angel. And I thought, well, this song is — this song is cool, but I want to see what else happens.
And I had the whole plot here in my song. And then, by the second page, there was an angel talking out of a horse. And so everything went awry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before we get to the angel and the horse, tell me a little bit more about this character, Henry Bright. The book goes back and forth between his time past and present in West Virginia and his time fighting in Europe, in World War I.
JOSH RITTER: Yes. Yes.
Henry Bright was a character that I had in my mind as — and I mostly just saw his eyes. I thought he had the look in his eye of somebody who was trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle on his own, you know, and just looking for a pattern somewhere.
And the idea of kind of a sweet, normal man going from West Virginia and suddenly arriving in the absolute downpour and hailstorm of the First World War, and then having to come back home to a quiet life, was something that really struck a chord with me, and I feel like maybe has — strikes a chord with, you know, with the times today.
JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so there is the hard realism of war, which you address. And then there are the angel — there’s the angel and the talking horse.
JOSH RITTER: Yes, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, so there is — there’s a — it’s an interesting balance. I mean, and I know from talking to a lot of writers it’s hard to get that right, that kind of magic suddenly and fantasy thrown into a very real, hard reality.
Was that hard for you to balance?
JOSH RITTER: War, being the absurd kind of canvas it is already seemed — almost to broaden the doorway for something like an angel to kind of come into the picture. Things — you know, with the — at the beginning of the First World War, there were horses. At the end, there were airplanes and poison gas, and whole new countries had been created.
And I think a lot of people were wondering, what was the role of heaven in all of this? And if there was some sort of divine plan of any kind, you know, what was it? And I thought that the angel was important, because angels always seem to come in with a great deal of conviction. They always seem to know exactly what’s going on. But rarely do the events that come after make a whole lot of sense.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, for the reader, I mean, it’s a question of — I don’t want to give too much away here. But the question I guess I had was, this sort of magical realism, that there’s actually an angel, or a mental derangement, that he’s — after all, he’s been through war.
JOSH RITTER: Yes. And I think that that’s — to me, that’s a question that I really love the tension in. And I don’t know if he is or not.
I know that the angel — he — whatever it is, if it’s real or if it’s some kind of a manifestation of the brokenness that Henry Bright has kind of sustained in the war is something that I really – I really was interested in looking at.
And the one thing I want — I felt a great deal of empathy for him as a person. And I wanted whatever questions he was asking, no matter if he was in the woods talking to a horse or in the woods talking to kind of his own soul or his own conscience, I wanted him to be — have — to be a sort of empathy and make sure that he was never a source of ridicule.
JEFFREY BROWN: And when you went to work in this longer form, was it hard? Was it surprising — surprising for you to tackle?
JOSH RITTER: Yes. In some ways, it really was.
But, in other ways, it was a tremendous — there was a tremendous sense of freedom. You know, I had finished working on songs for my last record, and I was about to go on tour. And, suddenly, I was writing this novel. And every day, I would get up and I would write. I would write for about an hour.
And it was just this great sense of freedom, like, none of the words had to rhyme, you know?
JOSH RITTER: That was a great thing. And I wrote the — you know, I wrote the first draft in about two months.
And then, as time went on, and over the next year or so, when I was editing, I began to see how much like songwriting it is. Every single word is so important. And it’s like a balance beam. And you’re walking along, you know, a several-year tightrope, and hoping not — hoping that you never fall off, but hoping that you — you know, you’re taking the right chances.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, finally, what’s next? Are you — you’re still making music, of course.
JOSH RITTER: Yes. Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And are there more novels to come?
JOSH RITTER: Definitely. I love writing songs. I love playing shows. It’s my — it’s a joy of my life.
But I feel like — a little bit like a — I feel like a little bit like a horse that is standing in a field and looks up and sees another field over there and then kind of want to go over there sometimes, you know?
JOSH RITTER: So, I feel really lucky for that realization.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. This novel is called “Bright’s Passage.”
Josh Ritter, nice to talk to you.
JOSH RITTER: Thank you very much for having me.