Finishing His War With Words: Author Ross Ritchell On His Debut Novel The Knife

Ross Ritchell

Ross Ritchell

By Daniel Ford

Author Ross Ritchell, who is a former soldier that served with a U.S. Special Operations Command direct-action team based in the Middle East, has become my writing Zen master the last couple of weeks, so it’s hard for me to remain truly objective when it comes to his work. However, from what I’ve read of his debut novel The Knife, I can safely say that it deserves all of the kudos it’s received from the likes of The Washington Post, The New York Daily News, and “All Things Considered” contributor Alan Cheuse.

Ritchell recently talked to me about why he became a writer, how literature on the War on Terror has evolved, and how he developed the idea for The Knife.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Ross Ritchell: I decided I’d try to be a writer during my senior year of college at Loyola University Chicago. I was a business major and found that the part of my day I most looked forward to was the train ride to and from classes, during which I read exhaustively. It was about an hour each way, so I got a lot of reading done during the commute and I found myself disengaging from business studies and focusing on the fiction classes I took as electives instead. There was a passion from an early age—I’d always read a lot as a child—but I didn’t really think I could ever do it myself, certainly not professionally. And one day my wife just suggested I should try writing. I remember she said, “You like reading so much, why don’t you try writing?” I was sitting in an old blue chair—and I did. And I haven’t stopped. My wife’s always known me better than myself, so she should get credit with “deciding” I should be a writer. As a good husband, I simply listened. I’m still trying to be a writer, though. I haven’t decided if I am or not.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

RR: I have pretty vivid memories of reading Redwall books as a kid—as well as the standard Goosebumps that were required among children of a certain age. I also remember checking out the Wizard of Oz series as well. The latter had a distinct book smell that I seemed to like—old glue and dust and yellowed pages—and I can still smell that today. I also remember attempting to read The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, which is an epic of D-Day and was wildly out of my age-bracket. But I probably thought I looked pretty awesome holding it, so I held it. And one day I read it. I was also fortunate enough to have family and friends that were very pro-books. I don’t think I ever got turned down for a library visit or a stroll through a bookstore. I also remember listening to some books on tape in a best friend’s red station wagon. At the earliest point in my reading career I simply liked being taken to new and different places. I sought out books that accomplished that.

The writers I’ve looked to for guidance while writing myself provide unique and memorable voice, tangible sensory details, and courage. I love Mary Gaitskill because she makes me squirm. I read Alex Kotlowitz and Flannery O’Connor so I can see what people are like through their actions and words. Cormac McCarthy taught me it was okay to be dark and Hemingway plain doesn’t stop teaching. Tim O’Brien taught me a lot about truth. And Anthony Loyd showed me how I wanted to make people feel. I wont stop being influenced until I stop reading. And that wont happen, so I’m comfortable being a sponge.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

RR: I really like Stephen King’s advice about first drafts. He says just to get the damn thing out and leave all the editing and nit-picky ballywho for edits and rewrites. I’ve tried to implement that and I’ve found it helped with The Knife, as well as the novel I’m currently working on. I feel as much self-doubt as confidence when I wrote—if not far more of the former—so leaving all the little things to reconcile themselves later is liberating and encouraging. Doing that helps me feel like a writer. If I think too much I’m fucked.

As far as process goes, for The Knife I tried everything: I wrote at night so I could remember what it was like being out on missions in the dark; I wrote with a glass of wine or beer at hand because writers love saying how they’re such romantic alcoholics; I wrote with a huge wad of chewing tobacco in my mouth and my combat boots on my feet so I could try and pretend I wasn’t safe writing in a Chicago suburb, but holding a rifle and smelling someone else’s home again; and then I just wrote the thing at a job I wasn’t meant to hold while I had free time and listened to music.

The novel I’m currently working on has consisted of waking up at 5:00 a.m. (before the little kiddies wake up and rock my shit) and going to a coffee shop. I listen to music and implement King’s mantra for first drafts. I just let myself go and get words on paper. I’ve found the music helps me stay focused. And when I’m really flowing I don’t hear anything at all.

DF: How has your military career influenced your writing (aside from the subject matter)?

RR: Great question. And I have no idea. I think I’ve been influenced by everything to be where I’m at right now so I wouldn’t be able to put a specific finger on any one point. But I’ll give it a shot. When I was in the military I was in the 75th Ranger Regiment, a direct-action Special Operations team. I only had one combat deployment before getting out of the military due to hearing loss, so that one deployment was my only war. The standard deployment rates for guys in my unit have been numerous times beyond that. Guys usually have four to five deployments as an average, for a term of service of the same years. I was talking to a good buddy of mine after he read my book, which was nice of him because he’s rather busy, and he said he was surprised by how much I remembered. And that’s not to say that the book is a memoir in any capacity—or non-fiction—for it is absolutely not. He meant that I remembered so much of what it was like after being out for so long. I got out in 2008 and the book was published in 2015, so that’s a seven-year gap between being in a place and taking yourself back to its fictional counterpart. And that was the case for me because everything in that deployment happened for the first and only time. Every death was a first and last. Every sunrise, sunset, and helicopter ride was its own and of a finite nature. Because of that I’ve tried to really pay attention to the little details of the experience for the reader in my writing. I want them to really feel, see, and smell what is going on, even if they never served in or saw a war. I especially want them to feel that if they haven’t felt or seen a war. My buddy, who has nearly as many deployments as fingers on both hands, told me he can’t remember what’s happened on what deployment. That’s something. He can’t remember all his wars because he’s been in so many. I wanted to make The Knife something you couldn’t forget.

DF: How did the idea for The Knife originate?

RR: That’s easy. The culture of my unit, and likely any Special Operations unit if not the larger military as a whole, was a testosterone-rich environment. War wasn’t something we wanted to avoid. It was why we got up in the morning. That sounds insensitive and it is, but that was the experience, personally speaking at least. Since I only did one deployment I felt emasculated, like I’d failed or otherwise let some ideal of myself down. It wasn’t until I got back and really recognized how surreal war is, and horrible, that I started being okay with what I’d been apart of and I began to let it go. For so long I felt like, “If only I could go back a few more times I’d have my fill and be able to move on,” but as I wrote the book I got to finish that story for myself, even though it’s of an entirely fictional nature. I finished my war in that book. So the idea originated because the war wasn’t done with me and I needed some peace. So I started writing.

DF: “Authentic” is a word that gets used in many of the reviews of your novel. How did you go about transcribing the conflict you experienced on the page? How did you use that realism to discuss the themes that are inherent in all armed conflict?

RR: I wanted to create a book that made people uncomfortable because war sure as hell made me uncomfortable. And to do that I simply had to put down what made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t always death or the physical act of war that made me uncomfortable, but often just simple scenarios, even comical ones, in which I’d ask myself, “Would I want my kids watching me do that? Would I want them to?” If I said no to that question than it belonged in the book. To me, “authentic” simply means not letting the reader off easy. I wanted to make them see death, smell it, feel it—just as much as I wanted them to see the humor and the love and the softer side of the guys as well. War is crazy. All these beautiful babies that are nurtured and fought for and raised by their parents are all doing their best to undue the countless hours and years of parental sacrifice and safe-keeping. In life, a guardian’s job is to preserve life at all cost. In war it’s often the opposite. Kill or be killed. War is the ultimate paradox: nurtured babies grow up and become adults to go hunt down the other nurtured babies who have grown up to become adults and kill them the same. That’s war. So to me, being authentic meant showing the dark with the light, letting the reader see the soft sides and happy sides and funny sides of the men that would have to do things that were anything but.

DF: The last couple of years have seen really quality fiction tackle the wars in the Middle East, including Redeployment, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Yellow Birds, and Green on Blue. Did you consult any of those novels before starting The Knife?

RR: I did not and I’m glad. I’ve read them all now and I would’ve been intimidated and tried copying everything they did. They’re all beautiful, important works and if mine never makes it to their level, than at least I can say I failed following my own way. I can’t recommend those titles enough. Beautiful and harsh. Exactly what I was going for.

DF: Also, I feel like it took a while for popular culture to discuss the past decade of war without delving into cliché or caricature. Where do you think a shift change started, and why do you think that honest discussion took so long to ignite?

RR: I’d say it was the Bin Laden raid. It’s been said that the only unique or special thing about that raid was the target and I think that’s apt. The wars have been going on since the fall of 2001 and every week and month and year there are countless stories that never get told. That raid not only eliminated the most-wanted terrorist in the world, but showed what eliminating said terrorist entailed: flying clandestine through hostile airspace, entering a home and engaging targets in the dark, and altering the plan as soon as something went wrong. That mission represented all the hard work that had gone largely unnoticed for the better part of a decade—especially the work that had nothing to do with catching him (read the entire war in Iraq). The news broadcasts and subsequent books and films all brought war into the American—and worldwide—conscious. That raid was the war on terror, and I think people finally realized it wasn’t just playing a video game or pushing buttons on a drone. I think if you look at people’s reactions to the initial bombing of Iraq in 2003 and the Bin Laden raid you’d see stark differences: the former was all night shots of bombs exploding , which was so impersonal and removed, and the latter was realizing that American forces just crossed into a country largely undetected, broke into a compound, scaled three stories and shot the man responsible for 9/11 in the head. And they’re both war, but the latter made people realize how personal it is. And that’s really sad, because so many people die in large-scale bombings—civilians are always casualties in bombings whether precision-strikes, suicide bombings, etc.—but we don’t pay too much attention unless it’s up close and personal with the world’s most wanted. That’s the biggest shame to me about war: history doesn’t remember the civilians and innocents killed—only the villains and heroes.

DF: When you finished The Knife, did you know you had something good right away and how did you go about getting it published?

RR: Ha! To this day I wouldn’t know if It was good or not. I just know it was as true of a fictional war story as I could ever write. Whether it was good or bad, that’s enough.

After I edited and re-wrote until I couldn’t think of any more changes or corrections to make I queried a few agents and secured a partnership with Inkwell Management. My agent was great at recognizing where the story was and where it needed to be to get it out (Shout out to Will!). He gave me some insights that brought me back to the drawing board and then when he said it was ready, I guess it was because he got it sold. And I couldn’t be happier with my publisher, Blue Rider Press. I want to make them bag-lunches every day for the rest of their lives. And I don’t mess around with my bag-lunches.  You get delicious sandwiches cut into pristine angles and so much healthy nonsense it’ll make you sick. I firmly believe I got lucky, no matter what anyone will say, but if I didn’t than I won’t accept that I didn’t get lucky with the group I’ve got. I wish everyone that kind of relationship.

DF: Your book has garnered rave reviews from both literary and military publications. How has that experience been, and what are your future plans?

RR: Well the experience has certainly been a humbling one and again, I think it centers around luck. You have whole staffs of reviewers at endless publications and if you’re lucky one of them decides to read and review your book. And anyone whose read a book and talks to other people about it knows that people get all sorts of different things out of the same book. I’m grateful for anyone that read my book, or will, whether they liked it and said so in a review or didn’t and said so in a review. Obviously you want all stellar reviews—authors are human and sensitive and confident and shy and happy and sad and everything else one can be, after all—but it really is something to appreciate just to have a group of people decide your work was worth publishing. People are dying in Nepal and the Middle East and all over the world daily and reviews are meant to take people away from those realities to give them something to (hopefully) feel better about. If I did that than great and I’m appreciative. If I didn’t than I’m appreciative and I’ll do my best next time. In short, it’s been a blast. I escaped a war and would be a fool to let anything about this experience kill me or do anything but show me how nice life can be.

My future plans are finishing my current novel about three slaves in the south before, during, and after the Civil War, but more importantly to raise my kids to understand life’s fragile and it’s easier to be good than bad. I want my kids growing up reading about different cultures and understanding different people. I really want more people to get access to education in this country and throughout the world, and I really think a lot of innocent people are getting sucked into some really nasty wars. I’d like to do something about those things.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

RR: Never quit. I thought I sucked with every word I wrote and I won’t even read my work now because I’m afraid I sucked and just tricked a bunch of people because I’m nice. No, in all honesty, writing has been a uniquely joyous and stressful endeavor. I’ve seen and been in all kinds of stressful situations, but confronting yourself everyday—really standing up with your strengths and weaknesses at a keyboard or blank page—and writing can really be tough. I think I would’ve appreciated hearing how hard published authors found writing at times, because that would bridge the gap between up-and-comers and those that have cometh. In the end I was a happier person when I wrote, even though I was often writing about some not-so-happy stuff. If you can be happy with yourself and your efforts after you write then you should continue to do so. You can always have a job that pays the bills and write while you can—I certainly did—but you shouldn’t write if it doesn’t make you happy. And you shouldn’t let your publication record mar your happiness. Everything you write should be a little part of yourself you’ve finally uncovered and figured out. I’m a better person when I write—a better dad and husband and friend, and I’m certainly better to myself—so keep doing it if after you stop you’re better than you were before you started. Writing isn’t easy but it's good. It’s important to make people think. And an easy thing is rarely a worthwhile thing.

And read. Read until your butt melts into the chair on a summer day at home on a porch or on the train and you need a loved one or stranger to pry you off with a wooden stick. After all, if you’re trying to do it, you learn from those who already have.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

RR: Hm. Yes, I can. My birthday is September 1, which was the start of World War II. Germany invaded Poland on that day and I’m mostly German and my wife’s mostly Polish. And that’s why we should stop killing each other, so past enemies can hurry up and get married and bring beautiful children into the world and fix the mess we’ve made for them.

To learn more about Ross Ritchell, follow him on Twitter @rossritchell.