Conversation with John Joseph Ryan
John chats about his love for noir and dark fiction, St. Louis, his YouTube video series featuring creepy poems, Halloween as breaking from identity, international publishing, and Barnes & Noble author events.
John Joseph Ryan’s work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s, and The Dark City (U.S.), and in international publications such as Mystery Magazine (Canada), Samjoko (Republic of Korea), Channel (Ireland), and A-Z of Horror (U.K.). John is co-author of the noir short, “Hothouse by the River” (University of Iowa Center for the Book), and he is also the author of a crime novel, A Bullet Apiece (Amphorae Publishing Group, 2015). John hosts the YouTube series, "Creepy Poem of the Day," in St. Louis, Missouri, the heart of American promise and decline.
John is also the author of the flash fiction story, “Carbon and Circuitry” from Radon issue 5.
Tell us about your experience writing from the Midwestern US, and how you were able to find a writing community.
I live in St. Louis, Missouri, near the confluence of the two largest rivers in the United States. There is so much history here, history in danger of being flooded and buried in silt if we’re not careful. And I mean that literally and figuratively. Then there’s so much future here, too. I used to tell my high school students back when I was a teacher that St. Louis would become a destination city one day. They scoffed, understandably, finding the city boring as most under-aged people do. But it’s happening now. Millennials and Gen Z are finding the city affordable and full of neighborhoods with great food and bars, plus arts and entertainment. The music scene has always produced stars, from Chuck Berry to Nelly. The literary history includes T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, and many, many others. For me, it’s a ripe environment—a troubled one, to be sure—but ripe for creativity.
My connections with other writers stretch back decades. Some became established through working on an MFA at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, others through meeting writers at events such as Noir at the Bar, and still others through “stalking” some of my favorite contemporary authors through social media. Unfortunately, the pandemic severed many of my personal writerly ties, but I’m slowly rebuilding them.
How did you discover your interests in noir, mystery, and dark fiction? Do you see overlap among the different genres you write in?
An early memory of mine is trick-or-treating in Los Angeles, where I was born, and feeling the thrill of terror when I went up onto a porch and a guy jumped out of the shadows to scare me and the other kids. I ran down the steps towards my mom, but something clicked in that moment: I was scared, yes, but I also felt that feeling transform into delight. Halloween has been my favorite holiday since then, I think. I also saw the noir classic The Third Man, with Orson Welles, around age 10 or 11. That play of shadow and light and cloaked intentions, against the backdrop of gloomy, war-savaged Vienna, must have complemented my budding love of horror. Around that time I became an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, supplemented with horror by the likes of King and Lovecraft. And, well, the darkness became complete, you might say. All those so-called “speculative” genres delight me still.
Of all the genres you have written in, which is your favorite, and why?
I think probably noir is capable of encompassing all of them. Uncertainty? There’s your mystery. Danger and fear? There’s your horror. And whether it’s set in a dystopian future or another planet, noir exposes human vice and venality as constants of the human condition. Those will never cease. They can be exposed and contained briefly, but they will always form part of our society—particularly American society. I was watching the fourth season of the TV series Fargo, and Jason Schwartzman’s characters says, “You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story.” I can’t think of a better explanation of noir’s enduring appeal than that.
You last posted to your Creepy Poem of the Day YouTube series one year ago. Do you plan to return to the series?
I would like to continue that series in some way, but I originally planned for it to be limited: one poem a day throughout the month of October. My good friend Justin Seiwell of Trend Media STL and I filmed the episodes in batches. It was a lot of work! And he had the yeoman’s task of selecting the best takes and stitching them together, so major hats off to him for that. We agreed that we had a good time but would probably not attempt such an intensive effort again. But, you know, stay tuned. . . .
Is Halloween your favorite holiday and time of year for writing?
Oh, most definitely my favorite holiday at my favorite time of year. Halloween lets you be someone else, and everyone who participates is in on it. Now that I’m an adult, I think to myself, “Wow, that’s queer! How cool is that?” Our weird American culture that is permissive in some arenas and absolutely restrictive in others produces this one night a year—now practically the whole month of October—for experimentation with identity. To say nothing of frank acknowledgement of the reality of death.
For writing, I don’t think I have a favorite time of year. When I was a teacher, I had to squeeze my writing into the summer months, then I would revise as I was able during the school year. I just didn’t have the creative juice to give to writing while teaching. Now that I’m semi-retired, I work part-time and concentrate on writing nearly every day. So, I guess you’d say every day is a good day to write.
Tell us about your experiences publishing with international publications.
The Internet is both boon and bane, no? The access we now have to the world is amazing and overwhelming. One of the benefits to that access is awareness of the incredible number of writing outlets nationally and internationally. I first published internationally in a noir anthology out of Australia called Grievous Bodily Harm. I thought, “This is cool. I wonder if I could succeed in other parts of the world as a writer?” Since then, I’ve had work published in four other countries. If a publisher in another country were to take an interest in the latest novel I’ve been working on, I’d be very interested in working with them. In that respect, the porousness of international boundaries—at least virtually—is of great interest to me.
You published your hard-boiled ghost mystery novel in 2015 with Blank Slate Press, a small press specializing in discovering and promoting St. Louis writers. What was your experience working with them?
Just to clarify, no ghosts in my hard-boiled novel, beyond the prototypical haunted detective. . . . I had a good experience working with Blank Slate. For a first novel it was a great fit. Their being locally-based helped in all sorts of ways throughout the process. They were also going through some necessary growing pains as they merged with other imprints to form Amphorae Publishing Group, so I felt I had to do a lot of the marketing and event organizing. I enjoyed doing that, and my wife served incredibly as my de facto press agent. For my next couple of novels, I would love to work with a publisher with a robust marketing arm.
Have they continued to support you over the years? They appear to have slowed down once the pandemic hit.
They’re still around and still publishing books. Over the term of my contract with them, I definitely felt supported. One of the cool things about writers and publishers I’ve met or worked with is the community of support. I’m constantly amazed at how writers promote one another and lift each other up. In genres such as noir and horror, where you might think the subject matter would mirror demented or scheming minds in the writers, the opposite is true. These are great people, often funny as hell and fun-loving.
Tell us about your experience getting published with our sister journal, Seize the Press.
Well, hell, I didn’t know you were affiliated! That’s cool. I had a great experience with Seize the Press. In fact, the piece they accepted, “The Remorseless Villain’s Parade,” comprises all of my genre loves: mystery, horror, dystopia, and dark humor.
Did you find your Barnes & Noble author events to be a boon for your profile and book sales?
They were certainly helpful. I’m glad a chain retailer such as B&N is still around as an alternative to Mr. Bezos. More so than Barnes & Noble, however, the local bookstores in St. Louis were the biggest boon. Left Bank Books, The Book House, Subterranean Books, and most importantly, The Novel Neighbor all hosted events with me. And I did a St. Louis Public Library event, too, that helped not only my visibility as an author but several other writers as well. There is certainly a supportive literary community here in St. Louis.