For most writers, getting accepted in to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop would provide plenty of reason for celebration. But Andrew Ridker had even more cause for joy.
“I got in here and sold the novel almost back to back,” Ridker explained during an interview in an Iowa City coffee shop. Ridker is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.
The novel, “The Altruists,” has debuted to plenty of well-deserved buzz, arriving as Ridker is in his last semester at the Writers’ Workshop. There is, of course, synchronicity in the timeline, but Ridker describes his time at UI as a clean slate.
“I never turned any part of ‘The Altruists’ in for workshop... I was turning in new work and I was just as susceptible to criticism as anyone else,” he said.
The Writers’ Workshop experience — as well as the slowly unspooling processes of the publishing industry — has given him some distance from the book.
“It does very much feel like it belongs to another iteration of me... It feels like someone else’s book now, for sure,” he said. “I feel proud of it, but I don’t recognize myself in it as much anymore.”
“The Altruists” is the story of a father and two adult children. The children have inherited money from their mother; the father needs money to save the family’s luxurious dwelling in a private St. Louis enclave. It’s a coming of age story blended with a campus novel combined with what Ridker calls “a reverse inheritance plot,” and a dab of gothic or Victorian haunted house flavor.
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“I’m someone who likes to pick a set of constraints and see what can be made of them,” Ridker explained. “If each character brings to the table a different literary inheritance... it creates a patchwork — something new out of something old.”
He thinks of this as a way to honor canonical writers and work while also pushing literature forward. His influences are something of a patchwork, too, as he drew different lessons from his literary heroes. From Philip Roth: “anger and shame can be mined.” From Lorrie Moore: “’Birds of America’ gave me permission to be funny.” From Jonathan Franzen: “You can have a beating heart and a tingling brain at the same time.”
To reverse the metaphor, Ridker unstitched portions of his own persona and split them apart.
“I took hard to look at parts of myself, ramped them up to 11, and scattered them to the various characters.”
This, naturally, results in flawed — and arguably unlikeable — characters. But Ridker isn’t too concerned with likeability.
“I love them,” he said, “but they’re my creations. I would never claim that the reader has to like them... My priority is that people will relate to them.”
He identifies two types of readers: those who want to see the best of themselves in the characters they read about and those who want to see the worst in themselves. The latter might seem counterintuitive, but Ridker makes a good case.
“I read to see the human frailty that I see in myself. What a relief to know that I’m not the only person thinking selfish thoughts.”
Ridker thinks of himself as a realist, but he’s discovered some readers of “The Altruists” seem to think of him as a satirist. He tells the story of a friends whose Baby Boomer parents assumed the portions of the book depicting people their age were realism while the portions depicting millennials like Ridker must be satire. He vigorously disagrees while noting that this can be a problem when writing funny material.
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“When you’re writing in a comedic vein, there’s a tendency for readers to think you’re exaggerating for comedic impact when in fact you’re selecting for comedic impact.”
That selection process is all about details.
“Everything that happens here is plausible... but this is so much more interesting than reality because of the details I’m selecting... I’m not bored the way I am in real life,” he said.
From this, he ad libs a quasi-mission statement: “The least boring form of literary realism would be my highest aim.”
• What: Andrew Ridker will read from his new book,
• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free