We recently reviewed Nate Ragolia’s spanking new dystopia The Retroactivist. As wonderful as it was, we thought he might have a few more words in him – and luckily he was kind enough to give us an interview.
Firstly, how are you doing? I’m doing really well. My wife and I just returned from our honeymoon, a 20-day hop around France, Italy and Iceland. We were very lucky to have generous wedding guests who made it possible.
Tell us a bit about yourself! Hmm. About me? I’ve been a writer since I can remember. I used to fill notebooks with weird little stories when I was in elementary school. I even advocated for a writing workshop in 4th or 5th grade; I can’t remember exactly which. I studied creative writing and philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, graduated magna cum laude, and I’ve held a few strange gigs since. For 5 years, I worked customer service and did some catalog copy for a kite store. I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor, and most recently I work for a nonprofit here in Denver.
I’m co-founder of Spaceboy Books LLC, our optimism-focused, science fiction publishing house. And I also run Boned, a collection of skeletal writings. It’s a magazine that posts new content on Tuesdays with the only rule being that there must be a skeleton (or bones) it the work. It’s been so much fun that I’m collecting all the content from 2016 to publish through Spaceboy (probably in June this year) with the goal of donating profits to a bone-related charity.
What drove you to use fiction writing to comment on society? On one hand, I don’t think it’s possible to write fiction and not comment on society. The act of writing a story, of making up people and a world and a conflict and its resolution is subversive. Real life, real society doesn’t work that way. One can’t simply manufacture true events, though in politics it seems to be catching on more than ever. But, I really believe that writers, and all creatives really, have a capacity to alter the cultural conversation. If we write stories and create works that compel audiences to seek a better future, rather than fearing some inevitable horror, I believe it can and does, over time, make a difference. Also, my heroes in literature, art and film always comment on society, whether in protest, or simply to lampoon the things we think we must have to be happy. The likes of Vonnegut, Atwood, Picasso, etc.
Have you come across any difficulties as a modern writer, particularly in the dystopian genre? Hmm. There’s an inherent difficulty in being a modern writer. People have many more things to consume and many more ways to consume than ever before, so being a writer means taking a chance on a truly ancient medium to convey a story. That said, I don’t think anything has been more difficult for me than anyone else. I have had lucky breaks like my first book There You Feel Free (1888center/Black Hill Press), which was borne from a poem and the encouragement of a publisher who believed in me. Otherwise, I write because I get joy out of it, and though there are always days of disappointment, the next story tends to pull me through. The dystopian genre was a tough one for me to tackle. I had wanted for a few years to write something to really prod at it, to dress it down, to question it. The market being flooded with these books at this time is a blessing and a curse, I suppose.
Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? Are you an ‘in the zone’ person, or can you write bits and pieces waiting for your next bus? I tend to write in bursts. When I have a project I’m keen on I’ll work on it for 2 to 3 hours a day until it’s done. I can get into overdrive pretty quickly, so I tend to ride the wave while it’s there. I do take a lot of walks and listen to a lot of podcasts. Whenever I’m blocked I’ll go wander the neighborhood, just watching the birds, dogs, pedestrians, cars, and paying attention to what’s happening around me. You’d be surprised how many bits of dialogue, or concepts you can stumble upon just by observing the people around you.
What books/writers influenced The Retroactivist and writing as a whole? The big ones really influenced The Retroactivist: Huxley, Orwell, Atwood, Vonnegut, and bits of Robbins, Bradbury, and sci-fi stalwarts. I had a lot of help from my friend Antoine Valot, too, who reined me in when I started getting too expositional, and provided key criticisms that made the book a lot stronger.
Orwell, Atwood or Huxley? Whose speculations were most effective? Between Orwell, Atwood, and Huxley… I pick Atwood for the body of work, but Huxley for the world I’d actually want to live in. Brave New World is a bit more utopian than we discuss commonly, and it’s tangled up in ideas about rugged individualism and purpose that I try to deal with in The Retroactivist. I think Atwood’s speculations will be most effective, especially given the current political climate, but also because her humanity runs so much more deeply in her characters. Beyond Handmaid’s Tale, if you look at a book like The Blind Assassin, which weaves sci-fi into the everyday, you see the heart of people. I think that’s always our hope as writers, to find the heart of people and speak to it.
Do you have any plans for where your writing will go next? I have a few ideas rolling around in my head. I have been writing a lot of short stories lately focused on the connections between humanity and technology, and also on the mystical aspects of love and nature. I’ve been dabbling with a love story, set in space, too, but I haven’t even begun to sketch anything out. Mainly I’ll be focusing on working with authors for Spaceboy Books and Boned, until the idea tells me exactly how to start.
Is writing more of a blessing or a curse? Writing is most definitely a blessing. The only aspect that hinges on curse is the consumption part. Everything I write is meant to start a conversation with readers, so if something doesn’t get read that can be disappointing. Otherwise, writing is magic, immortality, and joy. I can’t imagine my life without it.
And finally, the golden question: how do you feel about comic sans? Comic sans is bad, but it gets a bad rap. Look at Papyrus or Bradley Hand! We need to be more diligent.
The Boned Pile 2015 collection will be out this summer. Spaceboy Books will release 4 more novels this year, with 2018’s roster filling up fast. You can read some of my short pieces at Boned, 1888.center, The Stoneslide Corrective, and more. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on Facebook.