Joe Ricker is another of the burgeoning stable of writers at 280 Steps who are ready to assert themselves in the crime fiction realm. Joe grew up in Sanford, Maine, attended Marion Military Institute, then the University of Mississippi. He went on to earn an MFA from Goddard College, after which he lectured in the writing department at Ithaca College. In between all of the above he has been a cab driver, acquisitions expert, farmhand, lumberjack, innkeeper, at-risk youth counselor, construction worker, and bartender at the City Grocery in Oxford, MS, where his clientele included Southern literary legends Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Rose & Thorn Journal, and The Hangover.
His new book is Walkin’ After Midnight, which has received praise from heavyweights such as Ace Atkins (“Ricker is a hard-boiled poet in the tradition of Charles Bukowski… These shorts are served straight up with no chaser… Highly recommended.”) and Tom Franklin (“Tough yet lyrical, bristling with hard-won wisdom… these stories beat their fists like drums.”) Joe and I discussed Walkin’ After Midnight at length, along with several other writing- and Ricker-related topics.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Walkin’ After Midnight.
Joe Ricker: Walkin’ After Midnight is a collection of stories that skirts along the dark edges of morality. It’s a collection that examines how dangerous anyone could be.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JR: The idea that I had for the stories in Walkin’ After Midnight all came from my struggle to understand violence and the primal motivations for it. There’s a very dark perspective in these stories, and I think most of them have come out of my own darkness and things I was trying to process.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Walkin’ After Midnight, start to finish?
JR: I wrote the stories for Walkin’ After Midnight over the past six years. The first story I published was “Ice Shack” back in 2008, which was also my first fiction publication. I wrote several more (probably half) between then and 2010. I didn’t work on short stories again until 2012 when I wrote the title story. The last five stories I wrote over the better part of 2014.
OBAAT: Do you draw upon your own personality and experiences when building protagonists, or make them up of whole cloth? Amalgams of people you know?
JR: I think it’s hard for any author not to draw on their own personality in their characters, especially the protagonist. Even if the author doesn’t seem to have anything in common with the protagonist, something about the author compelled them to venture into that world, and the protagonist is simply the character they put in charge. With this collection, the protagonists just seemed to emerge from the back of my mind, so I think a lot of them were drawn from my own experiences.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Walkin’ After Midnight set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JR: The stories are set in New England, most of them Maine, and most of them during the winter. The setting was important more for me because I grew up in Maine, so there was that connection to my writing. I wrote a lot of these stories to push through some aspect of my life that I was struggling with and struggle is what I remember of home, of Maine, those winters I spent hitch-hiking from Kennebunkport back to Sanford in the cold; the conditions I grew up in. It felt that I was conquering those things on some level by setting the stories there.
OBAAT: How did Walkin’ After Midnight come to be published?
JR: I’d spent a lot of time querying agents, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. It was frustrating. After about fifty rejected agent queries, I decided to focus my time on submitting manuscripts to publishers. It was a really, really quick process. I think they read and accepted the collection in two days. I was really impressed with that, and grateful.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JR: I want to feel like I’ve been abducted on some level, that finishing the story is now a matter of survival and the only way to escape. I can’t say that I have a favorite author. That’s always changing for me. I like Steinbeck, Bradbury and O’Connor and obviously, Jim Thompson. Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger both have writing styles that I feel really drawn to. Breece D’J Pancake was incredibly inspiring to me. And then there are the people I met while I tended bar in Oxford, Mississippi, who I became enormous fans of: Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay and George Singleton. Tom Franklin was my mentor.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JR: I was a really small kid. My freshman year of high school I was 4’ 10” and I weighed 98 pounds. I spent most of my childhood getting picked on and bullied. I even got beat up by girls at the bus stop. I hung out at the library as much as possible. That place was a refuge for me, practically a second home. So, I read a lot as a kid, but I always wanted more from the stories I read, especially about the bad guys. I was really adamant about getting the antagonist’s perspective in stories, especially Pinocchio and Rumplestiltskin, and those were the first things I ever wrote about. But, I think the biggest step that I took toward really wanting to be an author was March 6, 2001 right before I turned 21. I was living in a rural town in Maine in an apartment that was once a doctor’s office. There was no shower. I ended up living with this guy who was hiding out, apparently from some problems back in Detroit. He was also a drunk and addicted to oxy, like most of my neighbors. I had three warrants out in various counties in Maine. I was doing a lot of reckless shit until I hit bottom. I got out of there, eventually, and hid in a basement for a month trying to figure out what I wanted and needed to do with my life. That’s where I was for my 21st birthday. Sober and in a basement. I started writing again, just journaling, basically. A whole lot of self pity shit. There was a lot of really bad poetry, years of it, actually. Then I started writing fiction when I was about 24. I needed a purpose, to understand all the shit going on in my head. Basically, life made me want to be a writer.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JR: I had to go to church often, and that really fucked me up, worse than anything else. The most frequent punishment I received when I was a kid was being forced to sit in my room and read the Bible. That book practically starts off with murder. There’s also a lot of moral ambiguity in the Bible. Most of my writing hinges on a moral struggle, so the constant analysis of faith versus morality is a dynamic that really shaped my writing.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JR: The fact that I’m always trying to get smarter, to gain new information. I’m always looking for ways to better myself, to add something positive to my life every day. Writing does that. It forces me to be disciplined. I need that. It’s also a way for me to purge the fucking craziness and darkness in my mind. I have to get that out, and with writing, the page is the best release I can find without doing something that would send me to prison.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JR: Poets and song writers are by far my greatest influences, especially my father who’s a poet, but there’s a scattering of people with different contributions. Ben Nichols. Charles Baudelaire. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Norah Jones. Florence Welch. PJ Harvey. David Fincher. Bonnie Rotten. Tom Waits. James Maynard Keenan.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JR: I just write. I want to be surprised by where the story goes.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JR: I don’t touch the story until there’s a draft complete. I take a lot of notes while I’m working on what I might want to cut or add, but sometimes that changes, and I don’t want to lose anything that’s there until I’m sure of what the finished product should look like.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
JR: I write in silence, but music is an essential part of my writing and the process. The music I went to most in this collection was Tool and Lucero. I feel a visceral connection to Tool. Ben Nichols of Lucero has a voice like sandpaper on bone. I wanted my stories to have that same edgy, rough sound. And Nora Jones. The woman has a voice I want to swallow whole. It just completed the process, brought me back from the darkness I was in while writing. Her album Little Broken Hearts has this sinister beauty about it that was really calming for me. I’d have to say the theme song is “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline. But there’s quite a mix of other songs that influenced the collection. I’m sure a Tool or Lucero fan can find the allusions.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JR: There’s always time to write.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JR: Write everything down. At least then you know how shitty your idea from the night before was. Knowing that is better than thinking you lost the best idea of your life.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JR: Every story I write begins with a different influence. Sometimes I’m inspired by a plot, sometimes a setting, but in my drafting and revision process I work through plot, character setting and tone in that order and that’s how I get the narrative. I focus on plot first because something has to get the story going and keep it going until the end. Somebody has to be responsible for making something happen or confronting something that happens, so I focus on character next. Then setting, because something has to happen somewhere. Then, after I’ve worked through plot, character and setting, I start to set the tone. I think about what I want my reader to feel and polish accordingly.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JR: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I started it one evening when I was working third shift at the L.L. Bean warehouse and I couldn’t put it down until I went to work. All I could think about was getting back to that book. I asked my team leader or whatever useless title that person had if I could leave because I was a seasonal employee and there was nothing to do. She said, no. I quit right there. I pulled my ID tag off and handed it to another manager on my way out. I sat in the parking lot in my car and finished the book. I even made it to the bar for last call. I’d never read anything that made me laugh out loud, that kept me so rapt.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JR: I spend a lot of time outside. Hiking, fishing, camping and road trips. I spent three months on the road last year, 15,000 miles in a car with 250,000 miles on it. The transmission was slipping. I patched my radiator with liquid weld and zip ties 5,000 miles into the trip in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I still made it home. I think I’d like to start doing yoga now, though.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JR: Faking my own death.