American singer pens lyrical prose

After six albums, Josh Ritter has written a novel, the acclaimed Bright’s Passage, says Carl Dixon

KNOWN as a singer-songwriter, American Josh Ritter released his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, in the US in 2011 to acclaim. The book is now being released here. Ritter’s popularity in Ireland was a springboard for his musical success. Born in Moscow, Idaho — the son of neuroscientists — he began playing music aged 18, inspired by singers like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. He released his debut, self-titled album in 1999 and was spotted by Irish band The Frames, who invited him back to Ireland. Once here, his melodic, erudite songs found a ready audience. Since 2000, he has released six albums and has received consistent praise. He is on the boundary of mainstream success. Ritter has turned to prose. It feel a natural transition. “I suppose you start writing songs because that is what draws you in,” he says. “I think you have to keep changing or you end up getting trapped in a particular box. I have seen it happen to a lot of artists; in that sense, it was something new that I needed for myself.”

Ritter’s love of words shines through his music and his novel. The book is the tale of Henry Bright, who returns from the horrors or World War One to west Virginia to look after his young son after his wife has died. Accompanied by his son, an angel in the form of a horse and the ghost of his dead wife’s father, and haunted by the war, he travels a landscape devastated by fire. Witty and sardonic, the novel is powerful and disturbing. Ritter luxuriates in the complexities of the English language; this is a singer who used a line from Hamlet to name his sixth album, So Runs the World Away. Yet he effectively communicate his ideas.

“There was a time when I read the wordiest stuff I could get my hands on. I looked for the richest meal,” he says. “I revelled in writers like AS Byatt, Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie. Books where you need a reference book next to you to look shit up. In more recent times, I have come to appreciate conciseness and the ability to chisel down to an exact idea. Writers like Muriel Spark and Flannery O’Connor, who have somehow made it through with a lot of self-awareness. Of course, Hemingway, Twain, Shakespeare and Dylan form the underground river we all drink from; I suppose it is a question of bringing across your ideas in a few well-chosen words and then you erase the obvious tracks that brought you to that point.”

An angel in the form of a speaking horse suggests that the author does not take religion too seriously. “I was raised with conventional religion, but relinquished those beliefs at a certain stage,” he says. “Songs, writing, art and science are all really just a means of asking questions. What is the point of anything if you know all the answers as religion claims to?”

The book has made waves in the US. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King said “Bright’s Passage shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime ... this is the work of a gifted novelist.”

In a book that features a talking horse, how does Ritter avoid farce? “It is tongue-in-cheek to a degree, and when I wrote the first draft it was a much cruder sketch,” he says. “There were points where it was too slapstick. I wanted sympathy for Bright, this young man back from the war and facing huge challenges. I didn’t want to abandon him to confusion or for him to devolve into a figure of mockery. I wanted it to be hopeful, hilarious, and ridiculous at the same time.”

He is writing his second book. “It is still a new process for me,” he says. “It is different from writing songs, which often come from moments of inspiration. I was surprised by the number of drafts required and I have learned to allay that sense of victory until I am actually finished. I kept cracking open champagne, thinking I was finished, only to find another draft was required. If it had been expensive champagne, I could have spent thousands.”

Josh Ritter will read from his novel Bright’s Passage and perform an acoustic gig at Triskel Christchurch tomorrow at 8pm.

Ritter is a guest at Dublin Writers’ Festival on Monday, Jun 4.

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