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Josh Ritter: First A Songwriter, Now A Novelist
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Josh Ritter: First A Songwriter, Now A Novelist
Josh Ritter: First A Songwriter, Now A Novelist
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has been compared to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

(Soundbite of song "Girl in the War")

Mr. JOSH RITTER (Musician/Author): (Singing) Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom. And the angels fly around in there, but we can't see them.

BLOCK: These days, you might just as easily find him at a book reading as on a concert stage. Ritter's debut novel titled "Bright's Passage" comes out this week. He told me the soundtrack for his writing was Radiohead. He'd put on his headphones, crank up "Kid A" and write every day wherever he could.

Mr. RITTER: I made a real decision to not be precious with where I wrote, you know. Most days, I'm traveling, and if you're in an airport lounge or a hotel room or a tour bus or backstage before a show, they're all places that you can write if you set your mind to it.

BLOCK: So no cabin in the woods required.

Mr. RITTER: No. But I wouldn't turn one of those down either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Josh Ritter's novel is the story of Henry Bright, a young West Virginian who's just come home from serving in World War I in France. Bright's young wife dies in childbirth on the very first page. He's left with his infant son, fleeing a raging wildfire and a trio of avengers. One more thing, there's an angel who's taken over the body of his horse.

Mr. RITTER: I started writing on a tour bus, traveling somewhere. And the story kind of exploded out of me as if it had been there for a long time. I had been interested in the First World War, which I really feel is one of the great forgotten episodes in U.S. history, you know?

And out of that came this idea of the angel, you know, angels being something that I've always thought about in my songs and far from benign characters. So it - I felt like, a lot of times, writing this novel, I felt a little bit like I felt when I write a song, which is you take all your interests and all your preoccupations and you kind of fill up a bucket and the stuff that runs off is - over the top is a song or is a novel, you know? You can't really direct where it's going to go.

BLOCK: You mentioned that the angel is far from benign, and that is really true. The angel who's sort of a guardian angel for Henry Bright also seems really malevolent at times.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. I always have found, contrary to what we look at a lot of times in popular culture - we kind of take all the spice out of the angel, you know? You know, I feel like I see angels as many times on desktop calendars as I see kittens, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RITTER: I feel that angels, when they show up in the Bible or wherever they show up, that's rarely a good thing.

BLOCK: You tell the story of Henry Bright interspersed with flashbacks to his time in the trenches in France in World War I. And I wonder if you would read a section for us. This is on page 66.

Mr. RITTER: Sure.

(Reading) The concussive shock of the first shell hitting the church was the only one Bright actually felt. After that came the now familiar feeling of capsized calm in which the world seemed viewed from beneath a great depth of water. It was as if all the sound and feeling were gone suddenly, and within that watery silence, death was not something hurtled from above but more like a meadow of wildflowers that blossomed from the ground in radii of plaster, mud and dust, swallowing buildings and bodies, chewing them in the air awhile and then spitting them back out upon the trammeled ground like the ends of gnawed bones. When the flowers finally stopped blossoming, the earth lay back down again and the senses returned.

BLOCK: Josh Ritter, when you tried to imagine what that would feel like to be in the middle of that explosion, what did you turn to? How did you try to convey that?

Mr. RITTER: I would say that most good images come from almost a dilated spot in your mind, you know? When you get lucky, this sort of muscle opens up in your head and the images kind of come out very real. They just sort of fly through that opening and you grab them as they come through, and you kind of mourn when they're - when they stop.

We have all kinds of images of war in popular culture, whether it's movies or pictures or whatever, but I have been reading so many autobiographies and descriptions of the First World War for so long that the images felt much more real in war when they were silent.

BLOCK: Hmm. It did seem to me, reading the novel, that one of the main questions that Henry Bright is struggling with and the angel is guiding him through is the notion of, you know, where is God when things are awful, when the world is evil in many ways? And it's certainly all through the book. I think we also see it in some of your songs. I'm thinking of the song "Thin Blue Flame," a long, long song.

(Soundbite of song "Thin Blue Flame")

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) Heaven is just a thin blue line. If God's up there, he's in a cold dark room. The heavenly hosts are just the cold dark moons. He bent down and made the world in seven days. And ever since, he's been walking away. Mixing...

BLOCK: Did you find yourself as you were writing the book, realizing that you were coming back to themes that had been through your music all the time and here they were in a different shape?

Mr. RITTER: It's really strange. I didn't really think about that until I got towards the end and realized that I've been working on these ideas for years in my songs. And, yeah, I think that is one of the main questions I've always asked in my music is - and now in "Bright's Passage" is that I feel like, sometimes, we're owed an answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RITTER: I mean, I think - my parents are both scientists, and one of the things that they always taught my brother and I was that art and science and religion, and most large sort of human pursuits are about trying to answer -provide answers to human problems. And there is so much chaos in human life that I feel that it's important to ask, you know, is there a God? And if there is, is he really looking out for us?

(Soundbite of song "Thin Blue Flame")

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) The days are nights, and the nights are long. Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs. And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign get missiles from so high they might as well be divine.

BLOCK: I'm talking to the singer and songwriter Josh Ritter about his debut novel, "Bright's Passage."

I wonder whether there would be a novelist who've worked at this for years and years, listening to you, thinking that takes some nerve as - for a songwriter to just sort of come in and write a novel and say that was pretty easy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RITTER: Well, the first thing I'll say, it was - is that it was very - like a song, it's very - it's a very beautiful combination of really, really hard work and a lot of joy, you know? And I've always considered that what I do first is tell stories, and how I choose to tell them has been with songs up to this point, but that I've now found this new way of writing in this new format. And, yeah, I guess, it is pretty nervy to come out with a book, but it isn't. It's something I've just been so excited by that, hopefully, when people read it, they'll accept it in the spirit that it's offered, which is with a lot of excitement and a lot of joy.

BLOCK: Josh Ritter's debut novel is called "Bright's Passage."

Josh, thanks very much.

Mr. RITTER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Thin Blue Flame")

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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