On July 17th, Stories and Beer presents writer Ryan Werner along with a lineup of local authors. We caught up with Ryan to find out how he thinks about the Midwestern influence on his writing and just what he has against fingerless gloves.
Smile Politely: Your bio says you’re from the Midwest, and the culture of the Midwest has clearly had a strong impact on your writing. Whereabouts are you from?
Ryan Werner: I'm from a small town in southwest Wisconsin called Cuba City, population 2,200. We can't have a school mascot because we're the Cuba City Cubans. Every once in awhile someone would get kicked out of a basketball game or whatever because they came dressed in a cheap poncho and sombrero with a giant fake cigar. I grew up half there and half in East Dubuque, Illinois, population 1,704. Most of downtown was the library and strip clubs when I was there. Can't say I miss East Dubuque, but I still go out to my folks' farm in Cuba City all the time. I still get my mail there.
SP: I was once asked by a creative writing instructor whether I felt a responsibility to write Midwestern literature since I grew up in the Midwest. It hadn’t occurred to me to think about my writing that way at all, and I still push the question around in my mind from time to time. How would you answer it?
Werner: I figured out a long time ago that if I make up absurd enough situations, then people reading the story won't be able to judge the decisions the characters need to make in order to move the story along in an interesting manner. What do you do when your mother dies without ever telling you or your twin brother who the marginally-older one is? What do you do when your ex-girlfriend wins the lottery and you say you'll only come back to her if she fills a swimming pool with New Coke? What do you do when you owe a record executive $400,000 because he personally bought off your debt to the label when your band broke up? I wrote stories with those questions in an attempt to not write about the Midwest, to make these specific situations that are highly implausible but could happen to anyone. And what does every review mention? Midwestern malaise, boredom as an ideology. So it's not really responsibility as much as it's just going to happen. Whether or not I like that about my writing is a whole different beast, but if it gives Midwesterners someone other than Garrison Keillor, I'm all for it.
SP: You mention a love of pro wrestling in your bio, and one of your stories is from the point of view of a pro wrestler’s brother. What about that style of storytelling interests you?
Werner: It's kind of simple. Rules exists so that we know who the bad guys are when they break them. Reality exists as a constant to bounce the story off. And, on occasion, wrestling itself is real: a slipped punch, a backstage fight, a break of character. So then what is it? And that's where I get stuck trying to figure out the answer to your question. Imagine if, at the next Superbowl, the Cleveland Browns come out and beat up all the members of the New England Patriots and then tell the refs, "We're taking their spot in the game." And the refs are cool with it. Or what if on the next episode of The Walking Dead, Carl joined up with the zombies and helps them try to kill everyone? What if you were watching the news one night and the weatherman came out from behind the set and told the head anchor that he wants his spot, and if he didn't get it now, there'd be hell to pay? That's what wrestling is like, and that's why I like it.
SP: In addition to being a writer, you’re also in a band. Does your experience performing musically affect your approach to readings?
Werner: It mostly just made me more confident on stage. When I started doing lots of readings and tours for it, I just reminded myself that I've spent the last ten years on stage in less clothing, performing something much more obnoxious. I figured out there has to be equal parts show and content, too. I've seen lots of great readers whose work is engaging until I actually go to read it and I've read great work from people who have performed it nervously and without conviction. It can't all be spandex and licking the guitar, but it can't all just be standing there and looking at the pedals, either.
SP: What did fingerless gloves ever do to you?
Werner: They're just gross. Watch an action movie from the 80's. The bad guy or one of his greasy cronies will be wearing fingerless gloves. I knew this guy on a guitar messageboard who looked like a redheaded Teen Wolf and he'd always post pictures of himself playing Opeth songs with fingerless gloves on. Just a huge bummer. Either your hands are cold or they're not. You might as well buy jeans with the calves cut out.
You can read samples of Werner's work, or find out more about the chapbooks he makes. Stories & Beer will be held at the Blind Pig, 120 N Walnut St, Champaign, IL 61820 on Friday, July 17th at 5 p.m., and is free of charge.