An interview with author Ryan David Jahn

Author Ryan David Jahn shares how he fell in love with books, his writing process, and the story behind his latest novel, Acts of Violence.

What was the first book you remember falling in love with - what effect did this have on you – as a person and as a writer?

Memories are rarely accurate, but I think it was probably Stephen King's Cujo. I'd just moved from Austin, where I'd been living with my dad, to Los Angeles, where I was now sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my mom, my mom's boyfriend, my older sister, my younger sister, and my baby brother. When six people are sharing a one-bedroom apartment things are bound to get unpleasant now and then. I found myself visiting the library often. I remember spending an entire day in a wooden chair reading that book, shifting from cheek to cheek so I wouldn't have to stand. It played like a movie before my mind's eye and I was completely involved. It made me want to perform that kind of magic.

Where and when do you write?

I edit mornings and write evenings at a cluttered disaster of a desk I have set up against the back wall of the living room. In my last apartment, I had a dedicated office, but whenever I went there I felt that I was being punished. “Go to your room till you write ten good pages, and I don't want to hear any banging around in there, either.” I don't like feeling cut off from the world. At the living room desk I can hear traffic and kids walking to school and people arguing and my wife interrupts to tell me about a news item she just read and I like it much better.

How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?

Reading, watching movies, taking the train and getting off at random stops to explore areas I've never been, photographing those areas, learning to play the guitar, cooking, eating, sleeping, hunting for rubber bands for my rubber band ball, straightening the books on the tables at bookstores, straightening pictures at friends' houses, birdwatching, watering plants, and thinking about writing.

Which writers do you feel have influenced you most?

The writers that most made me want to write were the ones I loved from an early age—Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, and Kurt Vonnegut. The writers that helped me find focus came later. Raymond Carver was a big one, particularly with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground really changed the way I thought about characters. Then Cain, Hammett, and Hemingway, probably in that order. Cain can show you a haunted character without ever mentioning backstory. Also, in the best of his work, the plots and characters are inseparable, which is the way it should be.

What was the last book you read?

Ballard's Concrete Island.

Can you talk us through the process of writing your latest book and how you found it?

I first read about Kitty Genovese—whose murder was the starting point for Acts of Violence —in 1994, I think, in a book of television criticism by Harlan Ellison called The Glass Teat. It fascinated me, the idea that people could watch a woman get brutally murdered over the course of half an hour and do nothing to help. Over the next several years, I read other books discussing the case, newspaper articles discussing it, and so on. When, in the summer of 2008, I decided to try my hand at a novel (I'd left the TV show I'd been working on and couldn't find another steady job), the Genovese case was the first thing I thought of. I imagined being able to tell several stories at once, with each story being a spoke in the wheel that turned the plot. This appealed to me in part because I was reading a lot of short fiction at the time—Carver, as I already mentioned, and Beckett, and a collection of Jonathan Lethem's stuff—and in part, because I liked the idea of having several points of view available. If I got stuck on one, I could just switch to another and keep writing. I like my first drafts to be quick and dirty. In the case of Acts of Violence, I had one done in under a month. Despite seven or eight rewrites since, I'd like to think the energy I put into it has survived the process.