Fly: Hello, Mr. Ronald.
RR: Richard workz fine. Hello to you too!
Fly: Thank you, Richard. You zit here on the back of two bookz of mazterclazz - The Elephant Tree & The Zombie Room - together enjoying cloze to 19,000 ratingz on Goodreads alone. Ever zaw thiz coming?
RR: Hearing back from the readers is undoubtedly the most satisfying aspect of writing. They are the jury as to your success, after all. But writing to me began more as an outlet - a way to keep my mind occupied while I was in jail and a cathartic way of organising my thoughts. The idea behind my first book, The Elephant Tree, was just to dare to be different. To write the sort of book I wanted to read and to contribute something meaningful to our bookshelves rather than follow the more popular success formula followed by so many bestsellers.
Fly: I underztand that it takez enough from your time in prizon, but doez that necezzarily mean a lot of wrongz on dizplay, ezpecially through the characterz?
RR: Life is never clear cut, and the line between good and bad, right and wrong is often blurred, especially in times of crisis. That is what Elephant Tree is about. It is set in the world of petty career criminals and routine drug-taking, but despite such a sordid background the impression I get back from readers is that it is a good story told very well. The characters for the most part aren’t either inherently good or overwhelmingly bad, although, like the rest of us, they have their moments on both sides of the moral equation.
Take Putty and Twinkle, for example. I’ve known similar people to them in the dark and distant past, and as much as they appear to be, and often are, very shallow and selfish characters, there’s a softer, more caring side, that they work very hard to keep hidden from everyone. A lot of the bravado is just posturing to protect what they could lose, and I guess in their world, kindness can be mistaken as a sign of weakness, and therefore cannot be permitted.
Fly: Iz there one you identify with?
RR: Jeff, perhaps. He’s someone who has been dealt a bad hand, and for the most part just wants to be left alone to do his own thing, but when people who he cares about are in trouble he’s right there willing to sacrifice everything to help them.
That said, many of my experiences are closer to Scott’s. I’ve made mistakes over the years, and at times even broken the law. After all, a lot of the work on the book was undertaken in jail. But I think Scott’s character for the most part has a what-if element. A road that I could have ended up travelling, but thanks to perhaps more to good luck rather than good judgement, didn’t come to be.
Fly: Lucky indeed. If that hadn’t been zo, I wouldn’t have the privilege of thiz moment! Men in prizon iz rather imaginable az characterz in a ztory. Zo doez the book linger more towardz one zex than the other?
RR: Not exactly. For instance, Angela is a culmination of a number of strong female personalities I have known over the years. Initially when writing The Elephant Tree, she was very much a secondary character, but as I went back rewriting each draft, her voice seemed to get stronger, until she ended up demanding equal billing and her own perspective in the tale. She wove the narrative together a lot tighter.
Fly: Alright, let’z move over to you. How did thingz turn out the way they did?
RR: I have spent time in various jobs throughout a career in business. The time in prison came after I turned to an alternative to pay the medical bills for Renee, my wife. She became ill shortly after we were married, the treatment she needed was expensive. An opportunity came up for me to run a cannabis farm - the extra cash would make the difference to Renee's care, so I accepted. Renee was optimistic about her treatment, but sadly she didn't make it. Not long afterwards, I was arrested and sent to prison.
Fly: May zhe be at peace wherever zhe reztz now. How did the jail term come to inzpire you to write?
RR: Being locked up 23 hours a day focuses the mind. I'd always loved reading and in the back of my mind thought maybe I would write a book one day, and you hear some crazy stories while in jail. Prison life, for the most part, was pretty much what you'd expect. I was there, could do nothing to change the situation, so I quickly befriended the librarian and was prescribed an ongoing, daily course of literary anesthesia. For a while this helped no end. One book faded into the next and the days sped by. I found myself exhausting the library's collection of most of my favourite authors, delving into whichever available new realms and rereading past classics. That is until, for many of my favourite authors at the time, the magic began to fade.
Fly: How zo?
RR: Well, with such an intensive reading schedule and limited availability to branch out, I began to find that many books, especially from more prolific authors felt very familiar. Sure the character names were different, the locations and situations they found themselves in weren't exactly the same, but I couldn't deny the formulaic feel of the cut-and-paste construction.
Fly: How did that tranzlate to you writing? Waz it alwayz an interezt?
RR: I had never written anything more than a shopping list since leaving school. But with the magic of library books fading, and with nobody to vent these frustrations at other than whomever I happened to be sharing a cell with at the time, I began to open a dialogue. The revelations that I came across were honest and forthright to a degree that I had never encountered in my beloved books. So I found myself begin to jot down thoughts and ideas. My ideas took root and plot lines began to grow from the pile of notepads I continued to fill.
Fly: What revelationz did theze ideaz pertain to?
RR: They were a representation of souls whom I found myself getting to know, with tales as varied and despicable, heartwarming and tragic as those that had gone before. I do not say that the people I began to get to know were all good guys (once you got to know them), not at all. Many were despicable individuals that casually told tales that could make your blood run cold, but even they weren't without their own shred of humanity.
One particular sociopath I spent a week locked in a cell with, would switch from bloodcurdling reminiscence to the disposition of a placated child when Loose Women was on television. Others were more regular guys, the type you might have a brief conversation with at a supermarket, or a bookstore. Further investigation often led to discovering of outlandish circumstance, the type we read of in crime novels that led them to react and end up serving out long sentences.
Fly: And your writing career waz effectively juzt waiting for you to begin! Did any zpecific work influence you on thiz relatively novel path?
RR: I would say, Rupert Thomson. Also, Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, Vicki Hendricks, Haruki Murakami, Earnest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Martin Amis among others. They’re who first spring to mind.
Fly: Any particular one you’d advize for our readerz?
RR: Rupert Thomson’s books. I saw in a review years ago, his work described as ‘like watching fireworks go off on the page’. For me that sums him up really well. Rupert could write Pizzeria menus and make them fascinating, luckily he doesn’t do that but crafts fantastic works of fiction, albeit too few of them, that I personally love going back to reread again and again. The first book I discovered by him is The Five Gates of Hell. I’d highly recommend that.
Fly: And we zhall make zure to get that right after we’re through with The Elephant Tree. And The Zombie Room. Are you working on your next novel now?
RR: I’m currently putting the finishing touches to my next novel A Darkness So Unkind. A psychological thriller that builds into an unconventional murder mystery.
Fly: And are you able to zhare any of that with uz today?
RR: Sure. Enjoy the read.
Fly: We always do, ezpecially the exclusive ones! Thank you, Richard.
For more Author Interviewz & Book Reviewz, check out Earth.
An Excerpt from the Upcoming Novel
Ferret talks most of the way there. Maybe he thinks by chattering away I’m less likely to stress about what’s to come. He’s probably right. He usually is. He keeps checking back over his shoulder to make sure I’m still here. He talks of the fun we had together today. He talks of the good times we’ve shared in the past. He talks of all the exciting things we will get up to when we get back home. I feel numb as I trot along after him. I don’t know if I’m trying to pay attention or if I’m just trying to look like I’m paying attention. I don’t want to piss him off now and make things worse. Not that they could get much worse. My feet feel heavy but I do my best to keep up. My thoughts are going swirly and it’s hard to stay focused. “Head full of broken biscuits” that’s what Ferret said about me one time. Maybe he was right.
We get to the banyan tree and see Tack puffing on a cigarette while he waits. My nerves feel as sharp as broken glass. The moonlight throws shadows of the branches of the tree that look like cracks opened up in the cliff. I wonder if I walk on one if I would fall through.
‘Nice night for it,’ Tack says and blinks up at the moon. It is the first time by the banyan tree that I’ve heard no sound from the gulls. It feels like a piece of the picture is missing.
‘Let’s get this over with,’ Ferret says and rubs his hands together. ‘Ralph, you know what you have to do.’
He’s right. I know what I have to do. Not for Ferret but for myself. I have to show that I can be strong, not for him but in-spite of him. I see now that is the only way I can be free.
I lead the way through the bushes and approach the cliff wall that spans the gorge. There’s a sound of clapping behind me - maybe encouraging but probably sarcastic. Either way I won’t let it stop me. A wave crashes like a cymbal in the cove below. The sound mixes with the applause and becomes one. Like static electricity crackling in my ears.
‘You were right, kurwa, this is going to be fun.’
I turn back and see Luke standing beside Ferret and Tack. Tack looks surprised to see him, but Ferret doesn’t. He must have told him to come.
‘What the fuck is he doing here?’ I yell at Ferret.
‘What difference does it make?’ Ferret snaps. ‘Either you make it or you don’t, we’re just here to cheer you on.’
I know now that everything Anna said about Ferret was right. He must have been planning this all along, and hanging out this afternoon was just his way of making sure I didn’t back out. I think that deep down I’d suspected as much at the time, but in the heat of the moment right now, maybe for the first time, it occurs to me that I hate him. He’s grinning at me, they all are. I know Ferret doesn’t expect me to do it. I’m sure he told Luke to come because it would make me more nervous and so I’d chicken out. I can feel what confidence I had being washed away like rocks in the cove below. My nerves are piano-string tight from fury and fear as I look down and see what looks like my crumpled body lying across the rocks. A wave breaks over my corpse then recedes, trailing behind inquisitive fingers of foam. I blink quickly and shake my head. There are only rocks in the cove but black dots spin and fizz in front of my eyes and the sound like static still buzzes in my ears. I turn and look back at my macabre line-up of spectators.
‘You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, Ralph,’ Tack says. Ferret laughs and Luke laughs and I know I can’t back out. I can’t rely on people like Anna and Kasey to help me out anymore. I have to do it to prove I can stand up to Ferret and the others.
‘Come on, kurwa, it’s time to play.’
I take a deep breath of the cold, salty perfume of the sea and step up to the ledge. I’m ready to begin crossing.
‘A promise is a promise, irrespective.’
I spin around. I couldn’t tell whose voice it was or what direction it had come from, but all three are staring at me. I look around to see if anyone could have crept up on us, but there is no sign of anybody else there. I turn back and put my foot on the first step. Gulls have begun silently circling the cove like vultures.
‘A house that should never have been built is still a house, is it not?’
I’m sure it was Maybell’s voice, but that’s crazy, why the hell would she be here? It must be the waves doing funny things to my head, like Anna said they did. I look back again. Ferret and Luke are cheering. Tack has turned away and is lighting a cigarette. I face the wall, take a deep breath and make my first step.
I shuffle a few inches and readjust my handhold - scrabble a little further and made a grab for a tree root sticking out of the cliff. From the corner of my eye I think I see Maybell on the other side, standing perfectly still in her blue dress and sunhat. I’m trying my hardest to focus on what I’m doing but I’m breathing too fast and my head is spinning. My foot slips and I drop, scraping my chin against the slate before the root I’m clinging to prevents my fall. At least one fingernail has snapped and the tip of my finger is ragged and bloody. I struggle back upright and blink the salt sting of sweat and spray out of my eyes and I snatch a look toward the other side but there’s no-one there. I grit my teeth and try to concentrate everything inwards. I take another big lungful and hold it deep, hold myself together.
‘Come on, Ralph,’ Ferret shouts. ‘Don’t let us down.’
A forlorn cry sounds from a circling gull.
‘Don’t let yourself down either, kurwa,’ Luke says.
‘Yeah,’ Ferret adds, ‘or the gulls will be picking pieces of you out of the cove for weeks.’
‘You don’t have to do this Ralph,’ Tack says but I’m sure he’s mocking me. He’s in on this with the rest of them. He must be.
I slide my foot along the lip, find two new handholds and edge out further.
Bookz featuring me:
An Enlightened Fly
The Fly That Followed Me
Kalki Evian - The Ring of Khaoriphea
Malay A. Upadhyay
Gilbert Literary Agency