By: Daniela Montes
Eli Ryder is a man as diverse as the fiction he loves. He is a professor, a father, and a writer. He goes from playing the guitar and singing around a campfire to filling you with horror when you read his prose. His story “A Quiet Street” was a Roswell Award honorable mention this year. Eli is one of the cofounders of the online literary magazine Automata, where he and his colleagues publish prose that pushes the boundaries of weird.
The Coachella Review: Your short story “A Quiet Street” was an honorable mention for this year’s Roswell Award. How did you find out and how did you feel about being an honorable mention?
Eli Ryder: I found out about the honorable mention via a pretty nondescript email: “Congrats, you’re an honorable mention,” something like that. I read it a few times to be sure of what it was, and each time it sunk in a little deeper, got cooler and all that. I’d have liked to win, obviously, but it was pretty great to even be acknowledged. It was validation for the work I’ve been doing, trying to get better and better, which turns into motivation. Also, though, hearing all the finalists’ stories was motivating too. They were great, all of them, and it was incredible to be mentioned among them. Still processing the whole thing, to be honest, and because it was my first real public acknowledgment, I probably want to hang on to the processing for a while. It was pretty cool, and I’m already thinking about what to send them next time around.
TCR: Eli, you’re a busy man. You are a college professor, a father, a cofounder of the online literary magazine Automata, and a writer. How do you juggle all of your roles?
E.R.: There are days I have no idea how I handle everything I’m doing. Any typical day, I’m up at five or five thirty, either writing or grading writing or prepping some lesson about writing or reading submissions to Automata or taking care of the kid, who seems to have a radar for when I really need her to sleep until eight because those days she’s up at six. On the Automata front, I have to acknowledge how much John and Jamie do to keep that thing moving. They’re responsible for the look of the site, almost all the marketing—the nonsensical tweets are mine, though. John and I split reading, but even little things like organizing our submissions to make tracking them easier, that’s John. Makes juggling that aspect of my day much easier, so big credit to them. All my other stuff—it’s a writerly life, all in all, so it’s easy to do the work because it’s rewarding. I write, I read, I teach writing, and it’s all symbiotic. Now that I’m done with the full-time job search, I’m not writing application packages and statements of teaching philosophy and whatnot. That time goes to fiction now. What keeps it all separate and relatively functional is that I’ve got an amazing wife and she’s as invested in all of these things as I am, in that she makes sure I get the time I need. We try to organize things on a schedule or calendar, and for the most part that works—I’m answering these questions in the early morning blocks of my day, and when that block is done, I have to move on to other things. But should the kiddo wake up before that scheduled block is done, my wife handles the kiddo and I get to finish the time out. It’s weird how solitary an activity writing is, considering how much of a village it takes to get anything done.
TCR: Automata was started by yourself and John Flynn York. What inspired the two of you to start the magazine?
E.R.: Starting the magazine was John’s idea, actually. We’d briefly talked about it I think the winter before we graduated, and then revisited once the graduation high wore off in June. It didn’t take long for us to decide what space we wanted to sit in. There are lots of horror mags, sci-fi, weird fiction, etc., but what excites me most about those genres is how they can mix things up, bring in other elements and string them together to dizzying effect. I think about “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for the most widely read example. That’s southern gothic, and in that horrific, but also a bit of crime, and family drama, and aging and racial tension and morality and divine grace and all these things. The result of those intertwinings is this magical bit of text that we can’t shake for the last sixty-five years. And it’s the big horror at the end that nails that down for us. The prose is masterful and the characters compelling, but it’s the bang-bang ending that elevates those things to immortal levels. Without the horror at the end, which raises the moral questions making the story so intriguing, I doubt we’d hear about that story past 1970. So, I like that we look for those kinds of interlaced genres. I think we’ve achieved that in everything we’ve run so far, and what we’ve got coming will demonstrate those things too.
TCR: What has been your favorite part of running a literary magazine?
E.R.: My favorite part of running the magazine—two things, really. First, getting a look at the work coming in. It’s not all great, and I don’t want to pretend it is. But the stuff we’re getting that’s good is good. And I love seeing stuff we run get mentioned in the “must see” lists. It’s only been seven months now, but Premee Mohammed’s “More Tomorrow” has hit two different lists and it’s really rewarding to have been part of bringing that story to light. I have no doubt she’d have sold that elsewhere if we hadn’t jumped on it, but I’m glad we did. We get to see it gain traction, get to see people responding to it, and get to feel good about helping make that happen. Second thing—sappy, I know, get over it—is working with John on this stuff. We are very different writers and very different readers, and I think those differences work to make sure the magazine stays in a space between genres. The submissions that catch our eye do so for different reasons, most times, and when something hooks me and then grabs him, we know there’s something special in that piece. That’s taught me a lot about subtlety, about how genres and ideas can intersect, how stories can be more than what labels make them. We all know that intellectually, but from an emotional standpoint, this has been sublimely educational. If you think about all the best stories, with the most lasting impressions, they dance to a few different tunes all at once. So, it’s been outstanding to work with John to find those tunes in these pieces.
TCR: What has been the most challenging part of running the magazine?
E.R.: Most challenging? Time, easily. But that’s been a learning experience too. We alternate blog responsibilities, share editing responsibilities, and the reading is no small time commitment. But like anything else, little by little, I chip away, and eventually I get to the end of whatever it is I’m working on for the magazine. I get some fun writing done, read some kick-ass stories, and all that makes the time commitment worth it. I’m proud of the work we do on the magazine, and though it’s a small thing now, and maybe it stays a small labor of love for the entirety of its existence and maybe it gets huge. But all that time is not only creating the magazine, it’s also informing my writing and my teaching in ways I’d never have predicted. So, challenging, absolutely. But worth every minute.
TCR: As an editor, what is your biggest pet peeve?
E.R.: I think my biggest pet peeve, from an editor’s standpoint, is seeing submissions from writers who haven’t read our guidelines, but I’m guessing that’s a universal editorial gripe. Beyond that, which is a small thing, to be honest, nothing comes to mind. We get a lot of great writing that doesn’t fit our goals, which in the beginning was understandable since there wasn’t much to compare to. But now, when we get the pretty prose and wistful nostalgia piece wherein someone of privilege stares off into the proverbial middle distance contemplating the meaning of life without complications or whatever, I have to wonder what that writer’s goals were in sending us the piece, and then I want that time back. There are all kinds of places for that kind of story, and probably always will be. We’ve declared pretty clearly we’re not that place, so when we get that stuff I cringe a little, no matter how good it is.
TCR: Automata published “Bats” by Stephen Graham Jones. “Bats” takes Batman’s origin story and gives it a new twist. What did you find compelling about his retelling?
E.R.: What I dig about “Bats” is how the tragic origin story found room to become infinitely more tragic, but the kid’s life—and lifespan, even—is still defined by that vigilante story. It’s certainly a new angle, one that pushes falling into the cave from catalyst to conclusion, and somehow takes that Dorothy in Oz “It was all a dream” trope and makes that original again, too. For me, the idea that Batman, this brutal but principled entity who harnessed fear for the purposes of good, is the product of an injured brain trying desperately to give its body a reason to live is extraordinarily compelling. I mean, Batman was desperately giving Gotham a reason to live while Gotham’s city officials, police department (save Gordon, of course), were broken and injured and brain-bleeding themselves to death. Surprising angle, but I’m not surprised it was Stephen shining the light down that particular well. It’s what he does, right?
TCR: When it comes to Automata you look for stories that push the boundaries of “weird.” What compels you about writing that pushes the boundaries of genre?
E.R.: I think I might have answered this question earlier, oops. But, anyway—John and I are pretty much same-page with this, which is why we’re looking for this stuff. All the best writing we can think of plays in more than one sandbox and does so with purpose. Looking back at our first few blog posts on the site reveals some specific texts as examples of what I mean. Satire and mystery, but not buffoonery; western and horror, but not vampire cowboys (though I might have to keep that idea around); literary character studies and comedy, but not wholly comedic characters, etc., etc. I think we’re complicated as human beings in that one particular identity can’t possibly define us on the whole. Instead, it takes many labels to accurately describe characters, which leads to needing many generic elements to appeal to our full emotional ranges. Fear needs humor and love and purpose and hope to remain powerful, love needs risk, crime needs motivation, and on and on. One of them can dominate, without a doubt, and maybe should? Maybe another discussion there? But fear can’t be the only thing. Otherwise, that edge-of-your-seat, panting anxiety gives way to mild expectation and then finally to boredom once we acclimate to the feeling. Love, lust, revenge, powerful as they are, don’t have staying power without their partners. In film, I think 28 Days Later and Train to Busan handle that beautifully. There’s redemption and trust and love and social commentary throughout, but they’re also zombie movies, and all the elements feed one another. Another onscreen example: Firefly, which I guess is a space occupied by Westworld, now. We’re not just after genre liminality, though. We also would love to see more experimental takes on narrative, weird ways to tell stories. There are all kinds of things writers can do on a page, and we’re always hoping to find someone doing something we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves.
TCR: How do you push boundaries in your own work?
E.R.: I’m not sure I’m actually pushing boundaries, myself. I know I try to make sure there’s someone in the story people can care about, and that something is happening or about to happen that shouldn’t happen to someone people care about, and then work from there. Stephen told me something in a bit of feedback once, said he caught on early to the emotional core of something I turned in and that it came to a satisfying conclusion. I hadn’t thought at all about that until he said it, and now I can’t shake it. Which in turn has made what I’m writing more about character than situation, and that’s harder for sure. But infinitely more rewarding both in terms of successful writing and personal satisfaction. So, maybe the line I’m toeing is the divide between character-based literature and shock-and-awe horror or cerebral sci-fi? Maybe I just think I’m pushing that line. Time will tell, I guess. I know the story in which Stephen cued onto that emotional core is one that I’m extraordinarily proud of, despite having had it rejected by something like seven markets. It’s horror, no doubt, but twists up a bit with an ending that is more heartbreaking than scary, I think. Maybe it isn’t, and that’s why it isn’t selling, but I like it anyway and someday it’ll find a spot. I hope.
TCR: Where do you draw inspiration for your work?
E.R.: I mean, where DON’T we draw inspiration? I live, well, now, but am about to move away from, a really weird part of California that is simultaneously beautiful in its isolation and god-awful in its desolation. It’s always, every day, no matter what time of year, windy—not breezy, but gusty, 25–60 mph. The trees here lean to the east because the wind pushes them that way. Telephone poles too, and just that might make a story—driving down a stretch of bleach-white asphalt in a crosswind that would suck the smell right out of your nose and the power poles lean down seeming close enough to rip the roof off your car. It’s hot as hell in the summer, bitter cold in the winter, but no snow or rain to dull either of those edges. People move here or are born here and then very rarely leave, but everyone says they hate it. Seems idiosyncratic, like this very strange spot full of personality overshadowing the weirdness of every other place. But if you spend long enough in any other place, you get to know the personality there too, and it’s as swelled-to-bursting with weird as it is here. Every place has that kind of magic, and the people in those places are products of that magic, and they generate all kinds of what-ifs. Happens everywhere, if you look hard enough. But there are some mundane sources of inspiration too, I guess. I wrote a story for a contest (another honorable mention) asking for clothing-themed stories. Since I seem to lose a sock in every load of laundry and my beagle/blue heeler mix won’t stop barking at shadows to save his life, that story became a weird little monster tale about creatures who use socks as conduits to their underworld home. And sometimes the inspiration comes from the sound of keys clacking words onto the screen. And all of the above all at once. And if none of that is working, I’ll go find some open anthology calls and let that get things moving. I have four prompts staring at me from the whiteboard above my desk as we speak.
TCR: Do you have a writing routine, and, if so, do you mind sharing it?
E.R.: I try not to have a routine, because then the routine becomes an excuse not to write, which was something I’ve remembered from an evening program in my first residency about how to make time for writing. If my writing time is only six to eight a.m., and my daughter wakes up too early for me to have that time, the routine says I don’t write that day. That’s no way to get anything done. So, I schedule time, and mostly I get the time I schedule. But when that doesn’t happen, I try to wedge time between other things. Example—right this very moment, I am between a trip to the zoo and a class I have to teach tonight, which still needs planning beyond the “we need to talk about moving from outline to draft” stage. Prime time for making something happen. When my students are writing in class, or we’re watching a film or something, I’m usually clacking away. Vacations? Not without my laptop. The only routine I try to stick to without variation is writing every day. Gotta make something every day. And I forgive myself pretty easily for not doing so, unless I finished some TV binge or something instead. Then, there’s some guilt. Ultimately, I think if you want to make writing a job, then you have to do the work every day, because every day you don’t touch a keyboard/pen/idea is a day you’re not getting better. I have so much room to get better that it seems a waste not to do so.
TCR: How do you put yourself in the mindset to write horror? Is there a specific genre of music you listen to or books you like to read to put you in the mood?
E.R.: Anymore, do we need a specific mindset for horror? I feel like we’re sort of living out the midgame of a political thriller fueled by power-grubbing zealotry and hate, right? Really only some supernatural entity away from horror. Ha-ha. Ha. Ha. Um. Ha? Really though, I just sit down and write. Sometimes I’ll throw on some dramatic metal band I’ve barely heard of in order to focus, but if I end up finding something I like and start recognizing songs, I focus too much on that and find myself typing their lyrics instead of my story. So, something heavy and dramatic that I’m not familiar with is where I wander. I’ve tried movie scores, but inevitably John Williams sneaks in there and I start thinking about how Boba Fett would have fared against a pack of velociraptors instead of whatever problem my characters are supposed to be dealing with. As far as books go, I just read, without really thinking about the book or story putting me in a mindset. I think maybe I don’t need to put myself in that mindset, I’m just naturally there. I wrote a romantic comedy story for a contest recently. The headspace for that one took some doing. But horror? I’m already here, really.
TCR: What do you enjoy the most about writing horror?
E.R.: I like that horror can be so many different things, little subsections with independent rules and standards all marching under the HORROR flag. Creatures, houses, ghosts, murderers, or any combination thereof creating as-yet-unnamed nightmares, all pointing at one specific target—to scare the hell out of you. All writing presents challenges, no doubt, but I love the challenge of hitting that fear target. Because doing it right requires doing all the things good literature does—characters, conflict, relatability, and reality(ish) while also concocting a bit of escapism, all those things—but in service of fear. Genre-specific fiction needs to harness all of that to pull the crime- or mystery- or horror-ness along. So, I think the challenge in that is intriguing. But I also dig hearing about the thrill from people. I like messing with the world’s rules, digging around to figure out what consequences there might be for our actions, or exploring the idea that there aren’t any. I like seeing what happens after we’re not careful what we wish for, I guess. I’m not religious, but I know there’s more to know about existence than we’ll ever be able to understand, which then makes anything possible. I like to write horror because I can’t ever not think about all those possibilities. So much of how we live our lives is based on how we think about those possibilities that I can’t ever not mess around in that sandbox. I think the way we deal with horror and darkness tells us more about ourselves than most other measures, and what else could you ask for out of art than understanding the human experience even just an immeasurably small amount more?
TCR: What advice would you have given yourself if you could go back to day 1 of your MFA?
E.R.: Don’t try to go to everything, but don’t miss things because you drank too much the night before. Don’t treat it like school—it’s on-the-job training, and even an audition at times. That even applies to how you act during breakfast and lunch; to this day I’m convinced my agent reading during my grad residency was tainted by our casual disagreement the day before over the American Gods adaptation. The due dates keep you organized, but don’t stress them like assignments. Write every day, and you’ll hit those due dates. Don’t miss the due dates. Sign up for meetings and just talk like people—and do that in your first residency, don’t wait a year because you don’t know what the hell you’ll talk about. Eat with as many different people as you can, because there are some people in the program you won’t get to meet otherwise. No one thinks the “bowl of scoops of ice cream” thing is as funny as you do. Also, that’s the best dessert day. Don’t eat the scrambled eggs; wait for fresh egg day. Make plans now to ensure your post-grad life is a writerly life. Don’t try to be impressive, just do your best work. Submit, submit, submit. And then submit again. Finally, surround yourself with writers like your classmates and instructors. They are your colleagues, your network, your cheering section and support system. Your beta readers and potentially your closest friends. Hang on with all you’ve got.
Daniela Z Montes is a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program. She received her BA in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship: Short Story Contest.