AN INTERVIEW WITH CATHOLIC NOVELIST STEPHEN RYAN by Catholic Fiction.net
Most Recent Book: The Madonna Files
Employment: Branch Manager, Potomac Wealth Management in Alexandria, Virginia
Profile: A passion for life, people, and faith.
Author Website www.themadonnafiles.com
Author blog www.mysticpost.com and www.ministryvalues.com
Favorite Quote: “Do not be afraid to be the Saints of the new millennium; if you become what you are you will set the whole world on fire.” Saint John Paul II
Favorite Novel: Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Favorite Movie: Apocalypse Now (1979)
Favorite Painting: The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
Favorite Piece of Music: “The 1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Favorite Song: “American Pie” by Don McLean.
Favorite Meal: Linguine with a red clam sauce,
Last Book Read: A Free State by V.S. Naipaul
Last Movie Seen: The Transporter (2002)
Last Trip Taken: Sail boat race, Chicago to Mackinac Island.
Last Non-literary Feat: Attending my beautiful daughter’s college graduation.
CatholicFiction.net: Why do you write?
Stephen Ryan: I have given a few talks about my book and writing and that question comes up every time. In the case of The Madonna Files, it was not a case of “Why?” I felt I had to write this book. It was inside of me and I had to get it out of me. I felt at times I had no choice.
CF: What inspired you to become a writer?
SR: Probably my travels. I took time off from college and “bummed” around Europe, really lived the ex-pat life. I made my way to Europe on a sailboat then bought a motorcycle in Spain. Basically followed Hemingway’s footsteps even though I had given little thought to writing – I had some of his books in my bag, I do remember that. I started jotting things down. I like the way it captured my memories better than photographs. I also have to credit my college English teacher who pulled my short story out of a pile of papers and started reading my story to the class. That little moment stayed with me for years. I was an economics major in college and sometimes I wish I had spent more time with the English professor but I was focused on a business career. I think she may have talked me into a different career path.
CF: If you were a critic writing about your own books, how would you describe the defining characteristic of your writing style?
SR: My favorite writers are V.S. Naipaul, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, and Graham Greene. These guys were kind of my road map. Naipaul for his writing style. Hemingway is the kind of writer you want to imagine is looking over your shoulder when you write. He makes sure each word counts. Hunter S. Thompson, certainly a man with a dead soul, but his prose, his turn of a phrase, for me, displayed a jaw dropping talent. Tom Wolfe called him the greatest comedic writer of the 20th century and I could not agree more. Graham Greene because of his great book Power and the Glory. It is a masterpiece, and I would encourage any writer to pull that book out and randomly pick a page and just read some sentences. It is how you do it.
CF: Is there a favorite place you have to write?
SR: Two places. In my den during the day/weekends. At night with my lap top in bed. This is not ideal but I found I would have the lap top on my bedside table and as I was getting ready to go to sleep I would work out plot in my head and when I got something I liked I would grab my laptop and go to work. There were many times I would wake up in the middle of the night with lots of ideas running in my head. I found this time very productive.
CF: What is your cure for writer’s block?
SR: I prayed a lot, but what I found helpful was to go driving. Just get in my car, turn the music up loud. Sometimes words from songs would help me with my own creative needs.
CF: What is your cure for procrastination?
SR: I was pretty obsessed with my book. I wrote an essay for International Thriller Writers titled: “Is Your Lawn Yelling at You? And Other Horrors of Writing Your First Novel.” Saturday afternoon yard chores were the real victims of my procrastination, not my writing.
CF: Describe in your own words what the “Catholic imagination” is – or alternatively, what it means to be a “Catholic writer.”
SR: I think the Catholic imagination is the greatest asset for creative writing. I don’t want to be polemical here, well maybe I do, but so called “Christian” writing seems to have a need to hit the reader over the head with the Christian message. Catholic writers like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Graham Greene tell great stories yet maintain their deeply spiritual Christian core.
CF: What three writers – alive or dead – would you like to invite to dinner?
SR: Pope Francis, Graham Greene, and Ernest Hemingway. I think that would be a good time. By the way Hemingway named his boat after a Marian apparition that took place in Zaragoza, Spain . The apparition is known as Our lady Of Pillar. Pillar was the name of his boat. Hemingway would go to Zaragoza for the bull fights. He references his Catholic faith often in his writing.
CF: What would you serve them – appetizer, main course, dessert and drink?
SR: Oysters on the half shell and calamari, Clams linguini, and ice cream sundaes with lots of whip cream and chocolate sauce.
CF: What is the “best thing” about being a writer?
AC: This is a tough question. I guess we all have inside of us something to say. Writing fiction allows me to express things that are important and interesting to me. It is gratifying when I feel somebody gets my message. I have been particularly moved by people who have told me they have begun to explore their faith again because of my book. Saint John Paul II said often ‘To Christ through Mary”. His words are the heart and soul of my book.
CF: What is your latest book about?
SR: The Madonna Files is a contemporary religious thriller. What drives the narrative is the mysterious world of Marian apparitions. Appearances of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and Our Lady of Kibeho in Rwanda all play big roles. The hero, a priest known as the “Miracle Detective” – he is the Vatican’s chief investigator into alleged supernatural events – finds himself in the middle of a Vatican power struggle. Additionally, our hero priest had been tasked into looking into the alleged events taking place at Me?ugorje. Me?ugorjeis controversial but, say what you want, it remains a fascinating unexplained event. Thankfully the Catholic Church has taken decisive action by investigating Medjugorje – a final ruling is imminent.
CF: What inspired you to write this story in the first place?
SR: In some ways the story was inspired by my conversion or return to the Catholic Church. I encountered the incredible world of Marian apparitions and the supernatural which ultimately led me back to the Church – I had been away for a long time. I became intrigued by this mysterious world both spiritually and intellectually. I found I had no answers to explain Fatima or the miraculous events of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I just felt this mysterious world of Marian apparitions – events that are hugely important to many Catholics – could make a good story. There are many books about the Blessed Mother but I felt a need to tell Her story in a completely different way.
CF: Did you hold onto the idea for a long time before giving it shape, or did it come together in a flash?
SR: I blogged often at ministryvalues.com. My website attracted a lot of traffic and eventually talented writers began to contribute to my website. This gave me confidence in my writing ability. I also had a lot of content that led me to start thinking how to take all the material and put it into a book. I had a lot of moving parts and I thought fiction might be an interesting way to put all the pieces together.
CF: All fiction comes from a mix of past influences and impressions – things we’ve lived, seen, imagined, or read. Can you talk about some of the elements that came together to shape this particular fiction?
SR: I have spent a lot of time racing sailboats on the ocean and so I thought it would be fun to have one of the heroes living on a boat. Also most of my novel tales place in Washington, D.C., Annapolis, Md. and my hometown Alexandria, Va. It was fun to move the characters around Washington D.C., and to put them on boats.
CF: What did you learn about yourself in writing this book?
SR: I learned that writing is hard. To get each sentence to sound write, to capture the mood effectively, is really time consuming. Maybe for some writers it comes easy. I tell people that writing is like real estate but instead of “Location, location, location” it is “Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.” What I learned about myself is that deep in my heart I now know that the Catholic faith is beautiful, peaceful and eternal, and priests are the greatest people on earth. God bless them.
CF: What was the most challenging aspect – a character, a plot point, etc. – of writing this book?
SR: As I said, the story has a lot of moving parts with a number of settings: Russia, the Vatican, Rwanda, Washington, D.C. – all within the framework of a love story. To bring things together was challenging. Boy meeting girl in a plausible way took forever. At one point I almost gave up. I felt I could never get everything to fall into place and so I put my book down for over a month.
CF: Which characters in this book did you find most challenging to work with, and what was it like to write with them? Conversely, do you have any characters that came particularly easily to you?
SR: The most challenging character was the bad guy. What made it difficult was he believed he was a good Catholic. He was a Sedavantist who in his mind loved the Church, but felt Vatican II was leading the Church to ruin. He thought he was doing God’s work. The easiest character was one of the heroes. He was an avid sailor, and so that was fun to get some sailing jargon into my book.
CF: Creating a work of fiction is a spiritual journey in itself. Can you talk about your own spiritual life – realizations, doubts, crises, etc. – that came during the writing of this work?
SR: I think I touched on this earlier. My story, in a very subtle way, is my spiritual journey and that is how the Blessed Mother led me to her Son. I am grateful for our wonderful popes who throughout the ages have had special devotions to the Blessed Mother. To find Christ though Mary is a very natural path as it turns out.
CF: Name one good habit you do have as a writer and would like to continue to cultivate.
SR: I grind. I will rewrite a paragraph until it sounds right to me.
CF: Name one bad habit you have as a writer that you would like to break.
SR: I am copy edit challenged. When in doubt about something I need to stop and spend some time researching my concerns.
CF: Name one good habit you would like to have as a writer and do not have at the moment.
SR: Discipline. I write when intriguing ideas take hold of me. Most great writers work on the “craft” of writing. I wish I had that discipline.
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