How Patrick Ryan Made it to Outer Space
And the Fifteen Unpublished Novels He Wrote Along the Way
He was at a meditation retreat in the Catskills, sitting cross-legged on a big flat rock on the side of a lake, eyes closed, pulse steady, surrounded by chipmunks and beavers and deer and newts, when Patrick Ryan decided he would never again try to write a book.
He had completed seven unpublished novels by then, attempted eight or nine more unfinished ones, all of them shoved away into manuscript boxes that took up as much space in his apartment as a child’s coffin. As he was nearing 40, there was nothing impressive about this activity of his—writing, that is—but a sad compulsion that bordered on the absurd.
It wasn’t that he had experienced no success at all. In two decades of writing nearly every day, he had seen some of his stories published in literary journals, and he had a few close calls with publishers and agents who found value in his work but ultimately could not sell it. One of them, an editor from Simon & Schuster, had even invited him to lunch after reading one of his novel submissions. Ryan walked into that restaurant on a snowy January day thinking that his time had finally come, only to be schooled on the concept of track records.
“I really love it,” the editor told him of his unsolicited manuscript. “It’s depressing but funny, and I think the writing is wonderful. But if I publish it, it’ll be the end of your career.”
Sitting in the living room of his tidy, Outsider Art-packed apartment in the East Village last week, Patrick Ryan remembers this lunch with a rueful laugh. The manuscript boxes of his unpublished work still form a small wall in the entry hall, but next to them are a half-dozen copies of his first book, Send Me, the one that did eventually get published, as well as the three young adult novels he’s brought out since then.
And now, ten years after Send Me, Ryan has written a new collection of short stories, The Dream Life of Astronauts, which returns to a setting he’s been familiar with since childhood: Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“I keep the unpublished stuff around, just like I keep the rejection letters for all the novels and stories I sent out. It keeps me awake at the wheel, you know?”
In the book’s title story, a teenage boy named Frankie with a fetish for outer space allows himself to be seduced by a middle-aged astronaut, who, because of “politics and whatnot,” never actually made it to the moon. A predator is operating here, and he is after a prey, but as in all of Patrick Ryan’s fiction, villain and victim switch roles so frequently and seamlessly that by the end, they all but cancel each other out.
The humor and the danger make their appearance simultaneously in his narratives and often carry forward to a moment, a heartbreaking detail that spins the story around and redefines the reader’s expectations. There is threat in the fun and fun in the threat, an intuitive feeling that, in all the light-heartedness, something terrible is going to happen.
“Something terrible is always going to happen. Always. Like, always,” he tells me, speaking not about his fiction, but about life in general. “Someone’s just about to do something unthinkably horrific within 50 feet of where we are right now, don’t you think?”
Frankie and his spaceman meet after a presentation the latter gives at a local library event on Merritt Island, Florida—home of Kennedy Space Center and setting of all the stories in this collection. It is also where Patrick Ryan, when he was about Frankie’s age, met a real-life writer for the first time, under less ominous circumstances, at a school event organized by his English teacher. The writer was also from Merritt Island, had published three or four books, and had been invited to talk to this class of tenth-graders.
“This living writer came and visited us,” Ryan says, as though still in disbelief. “And you know when you’re a kid, everybody’s an old person. I thought he was 102. This fucker’s still alive! He was a gray-haired man with stooped shoulders. And he came and talked to us, and after class everybody left except me. Because I was that kid, you know? I was the kid who wanted to be what he was.”
He was the kid who typed up a sequel to Star Wars and mailed it to George Lucas—certified—with a note saying he could use it for free. He was the kid who kept seeing Bigfoot in his backyard and UFOs in his night sky. And he was the kid who always picked up the phone and dialed the police to report such sightings.
“The dispatcher would say, ‘Where are you? What?’ ‘Bigfoot. You’ve got to send somebody over.’ And my best friend’s dad—he was an architect and he had taken us to his office one Saturday, I remember, in this woody area—and he would be yelling from down the hall, ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘The police.’ ‘Why are you talking to the police?’ ‘Because I saw Bigfoot.’ ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, hang up!’”
Ryan’s brief interaction with the writer was not in itself life changing, and despite his teacher’s efforts to facilitate a conversation between them, the man was unfriendly and curt. But the possibility he represented, solid as the book he had written and which Ryan held in his hands, was inspiring.
This inspiration put him on a trajectory as dramatically different from his parent’s lives as though he had decided to become an astronaut. His mother had worked for NASA as a secretary and had since gone back to school and become a nurse; his father had worked for NASA as a supply room clerk and had since become a tire salesman. His mother encouraged him; his father did not.
“That’s better than average, in terms of parental encouragement, don’t you think? And I wasn’t expecting anything good to happen anyway,” Ryan told me. “Why shouldn’t awful things happen to me? Or why shouldn’t mediocre things happen to me? What am I, immune? I believed that I wasn’t going to make it and that it was going to take me forever not to make it.”
He would not meet another living writer for a very long time. He worked as a housepainter, a waiter, a stockroom clerk. Later, in a library, a yogurt shop, a Pier 1 Imports. Ryan finished his first novel before orientation day at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the only MFA program that accepted him on a full scholarship. He made five photocopies of his manuscript, took them on a train to New York, then walked around the city, handing them to the publishers and agents he had circled in The Writer’s Market, as though they had expected to hear from him all along.
“I would just go into an office building in midtown, walk through the lobby, get on the elevator, and go up,” he remembers. “I had a blazer on to make myself presentable. People thought I was a messenger.”
None of them replied. And so he went back to work. He was an English teacher, a bartender, a clerk at an appliance repair store. He read into a tape recorder for a blinded Argentinean soldier who didn’t know Braille, had a shift at a bookstore for a while. He moved from Florida to Virginia, from Virginia to Ohio, and back to Virginia. He wrote a second novel, then a third and a fourth, countless short stories. His free time was often spent between the copy shop and the post office. When the manuscripts came back to him in his pre-stamped envelopes, he went through the pages one by one, hoping most of them were still usable. He ironed some of them, made new copies of the ones beyond repair, stuffed them into new envelopes and sent them out again.
“Sometimes they would write their rejection right on the first page of the story. Even though you had sent them a self-addressed 8 1/2 x 11 envelope, with the postage. It means you want it back. And they’ve written across it: ‘Not for us.’ It’s as though you’re on your first date with somebody and they take out a sharpie at the end of the night and they write on your face, ‘No thanks,’ and they send you home with this fucking thing on your forehead and you’re like, ‘Did you have to deface me too?’”
It would take 20 rejections for him to give up on a novel, more than 30 for a short story. But by the time he shelved one, he was well into the next.
“I never waited, never. That would have been sensible, right? If I’m going to make sandwiches for a living, let’s wait and see if people eat these 12 before I make 50 more. I just kept making sandwiches. I just kept making fucking sandwiches.”
* * * *
Patrick Ryan’s characters are people who are a little more beaten down than they know. They are not introspective by default, and yet, due to circumstances, they are forced to look into themselves and find something that, in his own phrase, feels like life. In The Dream Life of Astronauts, they range from a teenage beauty-queen wannabe to a middle-aged family man who’s suffered a stroke to an orphan who works on a farm to a senior divorcee in the Witness Protection Program who now spends his days flirting with the head of his condo board and intimidating teenagers. Ryan peers into their souls with pointed perception, but he does so delicately, as though he doesn’t want to hurt them in the process.
“I write about people who are just making do,” he says, with genuine sympathy. “You have to come up with a character, and then respect that character. You have to, as soon as possible, get to this point where you’re collaborating with your creation.”
The thing about Patrick Ryan is that he looks exactly like the good guy who can’t catch a break. He is unintentionally skinny, wears thick-framed glasses, has an earnest face and a gray cowlick on the front of his head. At 50, he dresses in short-sleeved shirts and sneakers, and walks clasping the straps of a backpack on his shoulders, as though he’s on his way to a piano lesson after school.
Like his characters, he has often wandered into situations with just enough guarded curiosity to get him through the door. He moved to New York City at the age of 33, knowing almost no one. He got a job in an enormous shark tank of a law firm and kept writing.
Five years later, he was sitting on the banks of that lake in the Catskills, with his eyes closed, resolving not to give up writing altogether but to abandon his dream of ever publishing a book. He no longer cared about impressing anyone. And he resolved right there and then to write this new story he wanted to write, in the way he wanted to write it, because no one was ever going to read it anyway. He considers this a pivotal moment in his life, though he wasn’t able to fully appreciate it at the time, because when he opened his eyes he discovered that he was sitting next to a family of snakes. He screamed and scrambled, but as he was driving back to New York, he thought, “I am really onto something.” That story would evolve into Send Me, which marked the first occasion a publisher attempted to put Patrick Ryan in a rocket and launch him to the stars.
Send Me was well received, didn’t put him into orbit, so Ryan carried on as before. Encouraged by Edmund White, he successfully interviewed for a position at Granta magazine.
“So it was that at the age of 44, I became the world’s oldest editorial assistant.”
In a way, this job was a breakthrough. He worked on stories by Colum McCann and Joy Williams, and eventually was editing pieces of his own. But it often left him with very little free time. And, despite his diligence, he considers himself a slow writer—it can take him up to six months to finish a story and polish it. This is evident in his sentences, which are of poetic precision and dogmatic economy. It is easy to imagine him getting fixated on a scene or a verb. Without the constraints of the short story, he might hold his characters hostage in a car for 40 pages and make little progress in terms of plot.
“I’m more of a watchmaker than a shipbuilder,” he says, proud of the analogy.
“Do you still believe in Bigfoot and UFOs?” I ask him.
* * * *
Late on a Wednesday night, not long after I talk to him, I am sitting on a couch in Chelsea. There are silver stars and moons dangling from the ceiling at the loft of Ryan’s new agent, who is hosting a celebration for The Dream Life of Astronauts. The food and beverages offered are all featured in the book: Tang, Twizzlers, Triscuits, Zots, astronaut ice cream, and an alcoholic cocktail called “The Astronaut”—the only bit that distinguishes this event from a child’s birthday party.
Ryan is wearing an argyle tie and a short-sleeved shirt of a lenticular-printing pattern that seems to be shifting as he moves. He tears open the small aluminum foil bag that I eye skeptically and produces a white-and-brown lump from it.
“It’s real ice cream,” he tells me. “Chocolate chip!”
It looks like Styrofoam. He bites into it and offers me the other half. Then he watches and waits.
“No, don’t chew it. You have to let it melt on your tongue.”
The thing does assume the taste of chocolate chip ice cream, eventually. It seeps into the walls of my mouth, where it stays for the next two hours, despite the many glasses of water I chase it with. Patrick Ryan is beaming that night as he makes the rounds across the room from one cozy constellation of acquaintances to the next.
For those who will discover Ryan through The Dream Life of Astronauts, his dogged insistence to never stop writing, even when the world kept telling him to do so—over and again, year in and year out—is one great service.
“I don’t know what the analogy would be, but that process of never stopping, that was key to my lunacy, and to why I’m still here doing it,” he says. “All I want is to keep doing it. To enjoy it, and to have a few people read it and like it. I’m not without an ego, I do want people to like it. This is why I’ll never make a mint, because it’s more important to me for people to like it than to buy it.”
When I ask him about his future goals, he takes a moment to consider them.
“Well, there’s this story I want to write,” he says.