STONINGTON — “I think there’s something great about how humor and comic writing can short circuit us to some degree. I think it allows us to think about topics or ask questions that might not be raised in polite company. I think often what a culture finds funny says a lot more about it than what a culture idolizes,” explained Ryan Chapman, the writer in residence at the James Merrill House for the month of October.
“With writing comic fiction, hopefully I can bring in some of the bigger questions about life and our society and do so in a way that doesn’t feel too pretentious,” said Chapman, 38, a Sri Lankan-American writer who worked for a decade in publishing in New York City.
In his debut novel, “Riots I Have Known,” published in May 2019, Chapman wrote about an anonymous prisoner who believes he is facing his own death during a prison riot brought on by a piece in “The Holding Pen,” an in-house magazine edited by said prisoner.
“I knew it was going to take a lot of empathy and imagination to live inside the head of a kind of monstrous figure,” Chapman said. “I also knew that — and really believe that — dark comedy and black humor can often kind of ‘trojan horse’ ideas and truths that are more difficult to look squarely at and that if these ideas were investigated in a straight forward dramatic fashion we might even resist them. I think that’s kind of the power of satire and comic fiction.”
In the book, he raises issues about the dehumanization of the incarcerated and satirizes the publishing industry.
A prisoner narrates the book using a dictionary-worthy vocabulary, which Chapman said was a tool to build the character and to create comedy.
“Because the book is narrated in the first person, I knew that I would have to express everything I could about the character through the only thing he’s giving us, which are his words. And I knew that he was going to be someone that was self-taught, but also had a massive ego,” he said.
Chapman said that he thought about how a person who spent long stretches of time in prison and believed himself to be a brilliant writer would express himself.
“I thought he would try and reach for these 50-cent words and that some of them he would kind of misuse and not realize it — and that he’s trying so hard to show that off. For readers, I hope that it’s comic,” he said.
As a writer, Chapman also explained the expansive use of vocabulary as one of the gifts of the English language.
“We just have so many more words than most developed languages by a factor of 2 or 5 or 10,” he said. “English is so expansive and it’s great from a fiction writer’s standpoint just to be able to play with every corner of that sandbox.”
Now at work on his second novel, Chapman said the apartment and study at James Merrill House are built for inspiration and working.
“Also, the library is really incredible. I’ve been grabbing books at random and reading stories, passages here and there, finding some writers I’ve never really heard of, and that’s really inspiring,” he said.
He said that his new book might be nearing completion. Without revealing too much, Chapman said he was exploring the theme of personal reinvention, especially in a situation where, near the end of the protagonist’s days, the foundation and substance of his life is found to be fraudulent.
“We’re in a country of this belief that if you get knocked down by life you can pull yourself back up,” he said. “I want to look at that from someone who might not be in a position to do so, and then what that might be like. It’s also a comic novel, so this person is trying to pretend they’re wealthy and successful even though they know they’re not and the world is finding out that they’re not.”
Chapman, who lives in Kingston, New York, said he values writer residencies as concentrated blocks of time and space.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to do a couple of them and they really concentrate the mind. I feel like I can get six months of work done in a few weeks and it’s such a privilege in a way to solely focus on a creative project,” he said.
Chapman on what he is reading these days:
Reading during lockdown has been difficult. How do you maintain concentration with so many urgent news alerts? I tried a couple pandemic novels, but it was like looking straight at the sun. Other books rubbed me the wrong way, with their fancy protagonists drinking in bars and going to concerts. I needed something in that goldilocks spot, with a little terror, and a little reprieve.
Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible will probably win the National Book Award in November, and with good reason. It’s funny, and sad, and about climate disaster, and very, very, hard to put down.
Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory has beautiful passages on his childhood summers spent at the family estate south of St. Petersburg. The Russian Revolution — which would send the family into exile — colors the nostalgia, much like a certain current spectre of death. (For more on why I love this book so much, I direct you to this piece.)
I’m reading The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem as part of research for my next novel. Ah, to be a young composer, meeting one’s heroes, gallivanting around Europe, living life. If you’re looking for another bit of autobiography by a queer artist discovering his talents on the continent, there’s James Merrill’s A Different Person. (There’s probably a word in German for the thrill of reading someone’s memoir while staying in their apartment.)