A conversation with Ryan Ireland, author of Ghosts of the Desert

14 minute read

Ryan Ireland lives in Ohio, but his imagination seems to live in the mythical Old West. His first book, Beyond the Horizon, turned the Western on it’s head. The Guardian called it “a complicated double helix of a tale…that plays havoc with time and space”. One of the main characters has no name, and is simply The Stranger, in what seems a nod to Clint Eastwood’s various mystery men. The LA Review of Books called it a “gothic western”, capturing the genre-bending nature of his work.

Ryan is back with a new novel, Ghosts of the Desert, set in the desolate wasteland that is Western Utah, amidst the ghost towns and empty mountains. Norman is a researcher from Indiana out researching ghost towns, when he stumbles upon a group of outfits and misfits living in the desert. Things happen. Mostly bad things. (You can read our review of the book here, or just go read it!).

Ryan graciously consented to answer a few questions. My questions are in italics.

So when did Ghosts of the Desert come out? Are you still in the whirlwind of marketing?

Yes it came out on June 14th and we did the book launch Thursday evening, I’m right in the thick of it.

Sometimes it seems like sometimes it’s more work to promote a creative work than it is to create it!

Yes. there’s so many things out there, those of us who are authors new to the scene and trying to get noticed, it’s difficult. Sometimes it’s hard for readers to find the right book.

I hope you will take this as a compliment, but Ghosts of the Desert doesn’t map neatly to any genre I can think of — neither thriller nor horror nor literary fiction, but with strong elements of all of those. Who were you aiming for? How do you think about your readers?

The funny part of both of the novels, Beyond the Horizon and Ghosts of the Desert, I really thought they’d never get published so I was never worried about audience or readership. My day job is as a publicist for the Greene County Public Library — I’m always thinking about audience, but when it came to my own work, “eh, forget it” (laughs). The joke’s on me, now we’ve had two books where people have said similar things. Having Beyond the Horizon be called an anti-western was cool, I was purposefully subverting the western. Ghosts of the Desert isn’t a western, it just happens to be set in the west. More of a psycho-sexual thriller, where I’d classify it, and I have some uneasiness about that classification. I’m just an obstinate personality, my knee jerk reaction is to work against conventions. It’s a great thing for a writer during the writing, but not in the marketing.

Your audience might be the kind of people looking for a non-genre. Just looking for something really different. A book that doesn’t fit in. The LA Review of books called Beyond the Horizon a Gothic western — that’s not a “thing” I’ve heard of, but it seems to capture the book.

That was a label I was like “yeah OK, that works” and it was the LA Review of Books so you’re just thrilled period. That wouldn’t fit as well with Ghosts of the Desert.

Ghosts is dedicated to “memories of Frisco (Utah)”. Paint us a picture of Frisco and how it inspired this book.

A Frisco is ghost town in Utah. My sister lived in Salt Lake City. I visited, we packed up the car, went down to Beaver county. It’s very desolate there. The closest town was Beaver — it’s tiny — a few hundred people. Then you go another 45 minutes, Frisco is 45 minutes from everything. Just static on the radio. It was before iPhones were a thing — we printed maps. We were not in contact with anything. You get there and there’s a plaque by the side of the road — it says “only shifting sands and memories are left”.

Beehive Kilns at Frisco

But my sister says, “no, there’s more”. So we start exploring. We find the Beehive kilns. I knew the Beehives would be downwind of town, so we went upwind in search of Frisco. Sure enough we end up on private and BLM land. We came across a graveyard, then some structures. It’s tucked into a valley, the structures are very well preserved, the ground is littered with broken bottles. What was mind blowing about Frisco was it was massive — a huge town, 27 saloons, gun fights in the street, the no-nonsense sheriff, a scheduled body wagon to pick up the corpses in the street. It was a huge deal. Now it’s not on any maps.

We ran into a grave robber while I was there.


Now it’s humorous — then, it was frightening. My sister had stayed back to set up camp, my brother in law and I went exploring. We’re in this graveyard. It’s only children’s graves. It gets real quiet. Then we hear this voice behind us, “Are you looking for the boot?”. All the hair stands up on the back of my neck. This guy appears out of nowhere with his metal detector, looking sketchy, and it’s such a strange question, and I’m speechless. My brother in law is like “Oh what boot are you talking about’? “ Well, years ago, they were digging around in this graveyard and they found a child’s boot made of solid gold, goes the story.

“You know what they say about boots”, says The Stranger.

I’m thinking “let’s get the hell out of here is what they say about boots”; my brother in law says, “they come in pairs!”. We’re all nodding our heads like there’s music on…. “Y’all stayin’ out here tonight?” he says. And we’re like ‘no no no we’re leaving and you’ll never find us.’…that was kind of the seed of this entire novel. There really are these modern day grave robbers….

Thomas Hobbes, ruminating on the natural state of mankind as a “warre of every man against every man…. and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” That sounds a lot like Ghosts of the Desert! I seems like you wanted to rip that “thin veneer of civilization” off.

I did want to rip the veneer off. I wanted to rip it off and then say civilization is really the same thing underneath. We just have a way of making ourselves OK with it. It’s a very flimsy disguise. It’s this trite little lie we tell ourselves. I go back to slave labor. Slavery is wrong, everyone agrees. It’s an embarrassing part of American history, but we all think we’re mostly past it. But so much of what we consume today is the product of slave labor and exploitation, we’ve just outsourced it. I’m very much a pessimist and have a dark view of humankind. Like Mr Rogers, we go looking for the helpers, to see the good. As much as I try and I see that, I look for the helpers and then things like Orlando happen.

I want shift town out of ghost towns to the Diner. I love the scene when Norman is in the truck stop diner. You captured his awkwardness very well, and captured the sense easterners get sometimes when they’re in a lonely place in the west, when you come in the room and everyone is looking at you. Did you have an experience like that?

That came from every day of my life (laughs) I know a lot about being socially awkward. I can do the publicity thing for pay, but put me at a dinner party and oh boy, things get awkward in a hurry. So much of this book was based in the time I spent in academia: indoctrination, cult like behavior, social awkwardness — being in the Ph.D. program was very formative that way.

About that scene — it didn’t have a purpose at first. I thought I’ll stick this character in a western diner, I know that setting well, and the “you’re not from around here” vibe. This will be an easy scene to write and I’ll figure out this character a little bit. I don’t outline — I didn’t know Norman’s back story. This scene revealed to me that something was going on with Norman and it was not good, and it was based in sexuality in some way, and he was probably a sociopath. And I didn’t know any of these things about Norman before writing that scene. I chose “Normal Norman” as an everyday character you can put in a strange situation, that was really the only thought I went into it with.

The Norman Bates analogy didn’t occur to you?

I wish it had. I would have done more with it. I love Hitchcock, Psycho was a huge moment for me. Before Hitchcock all the monster films were about monsters. After Hitchcock the monsters were us, “Normal Norman”. That’s how Norman came to be, “Normal Norman”.

Norman starts off as mostly sympathetic, but (no real spoilers here), he rapidly becomes less so. Did you worry about creating a book where there’s nobody to root for?

I wasn’t worried about when I wrote it (laughs). I worried about it after I wrote it. I thought we’d have a protagonist we’d like, but I quickly realized we didn’t. It really worried me for the last year. I am a political junkie, but I don’t subscribe to any ideology. I was just watching the election process with a droll fascination. And there’s 20-odd people running, none of them are likable, but people can’t stop watching. So in the end I decided it would be OK.

OK let’s have some fun. I love music, who’s on the soundtrack for this book?

There was a movie a few years ago, All is Lost with Robert Redford. It’s just him in the ocean starving to death, it has a very sparse soundtrack, written by Alex Eber, of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. One of my favorite old westerns is McCabe and Mrs Miller. Leonard Cohen did the soundtrack — especially Leonard Cohen now, with the gravelly voice, is a great fit. In my wildest dreams, the person I’d most like to have would be Bob Dylan, his albums Modern Times and Tempest. Pay in Blood and Ain’t Talkin’ come to mind. “I’ll slaughter my enemies where they lie.” It’s dark.

That sounds about right. I’ll build a soundtrack and post it with the review.


Who’s starring in the movie?

OK Norman, I hate to be callous about my own character, but I just don’t give a damn who plays him. I think you have to go the Mark Hamill route and find some unknown kid. I don’t want them to carry any baggage in the film. The most crucial character would be Jacoby, and I just keep coming back to if we get Patrick Stewart to grow out a white grizzly beard and play an evil Captain Picard. Or Bruce Greenwood, like his performance in Meek’s Cutoff. I can’t say it was a film I enjoyed, but Greenwood had such a minimalist performance leading these people through a wasteland.

I had mentally penciled in Robert Duval in it.

I’d never seen him be anything less than fabulous.

Who do we get for Grace?

Gosh she’s a complicated character. I think Michelle Williams from Dawson’s Creek and also Meek’s Cutoff has the versatility to pull off this character.

What was your hardest challenge or most difficult scene?

I tend not to get stuck, I’m very regimented about writing, and I’ve spent a year thinking about the story before I sit down to write it. It’s like training for a race. Running a marathon only takes a few hours, but you spend a year training for it. It’s the same thing for writing a novel.

Probably the most difficult was writing the rape scenes. Rape is such a large part of this book. Those scenes are extremely difficult — I knew I needed those scenes in the book, on the page, in front of the reader, and make them confront the horror of what’s going on.

Nobody sits down at 4am says I want to write a rape scene. I don’t write for fun. I feel compelled to make sense out of the really messed up world we live, and writing does that for me. And the reality often really sucks. That’s why I write. Writing a really horrific scene isn’t what I really wanted to do — but I did it. Then you get published and you realize your mom’s going to read it…. In Beyond The Horizon, there’s a scene where a large number of babies are killed all at once, and I remember stopping and asked myself — “do I really want to do this?”. I peered out into nothing for a long time, then I thought “Yes, I guess I have to. If it’s making me think, it will make readers think”. I want to make people uncomfortable — that’s how you get people to confront reality…. We don’t treat rape seriously in this culture. As I said I taught at university for six years and I saw it in the classroom. Inherent in the university structure. The male dominated hierarchy where women aren’t valued. And having Norman come from that environment was a key thing for me.

What are you working on right now, if you’re ready to talk about it?

Ghosts was done a year ago, so it’s out of my head. I do a reading and read a passage and go “oh I wrote that?”. It’s kind of purged now. I’m most deeply mired in right now are two non-fiction books. The first one is a memoir — a period of my life from childhood to 21. When I was 19, my brother was having surgery, he essentially died on the operating table. They were able to revive him but he has severe traumatic brain injury as a result. Ever since then he’s had no short term memory. He still thinks I’m a short order cook and an undergraduate student. He doesn’t remember my life, my wife and kids. It’s got me thinking about memory and childhoods. So the book is an exploration of our life together, and how memory works.

The last year, I’ve not read or written much except my Ph.D. dissertation on libraries as systems of memory. Everyone said my dissertation was really fun to read, you could turn this into a non-fiction book about libraries. It’s about 2500 years of the history of libraries, and the history of memory, and how we’ve treated memory over time. Some of the characters are really crazy. Melvil Dewey (the inventor of the Dewey decimal system) was a complete nut job. He could be a hero and villain in the same week. One guy had Hypermnesia — the inability to forget anything — they had to actively devise ways for him to forget things.

When you’re growing up, libraries are just a place to go to get free books. But the more you talk to librarians, they have a very different conception of their role and what libraries are for. Libraries are Important. So your exploration sounds really interesting.

Libraries are rapidly changing in America. I’m watching what’s happening in the UK — quite frankly they are being foolish — they are shutting down libraries at record speed. In America we’re actually headed in the right direction — we have a huge public library system. We have more public libraries than McDonald’s — good for us! Libraries are becoming community hubs, having maker spaces — it’s the future of community memory. I don’t think the book is going anywhere — libraries will still have books. But we’re expanding what we do, and its immensely valuable. I could go on for a long time about libraries (laughs).

You can find Ryan’s books on The Hawaii Project: