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If We Caught Fire

Shelly Kawaja (SK): Congratulations on your debut novel, If We Caught Fire. This is a book about love; the unexpected love between Edie and Harlow, but it also tackles some difficult topics such as mental health and attempted suicide. In the end, you leave your readers feeling hopeful. How important was it to strike this balance and show hope in your story?

Beth Ryan (BR): I think there’s a lot of love in this book and it’s accompanied by hurt in equal measure. I’m interested in the fragile and dangerous nature of love.  My main character, Edie, exhibits a lot of emotional restraint when she is hurt by other people’s reckless hearts, yet her mother Daphne remains open and loving and even optimistic in the face of hurt and disappointment. Then we have Harlow, who is staggering through life, numbing his pain, and that means he’s not able to love anyone else or have much hope for the future. I think some of my characters struggle greatly to find a reason to be hopeful and others are determined to be, almost as an act of defiance. I don’t know if humans are inherently optimistic, but we seem to be hard-wired to persevere, and to keep going even when life is difficult, and that’s what most of my characters are doing. I think they are looking for the best in one another, even when it’s not obvious.

SK: If We Caught Fire takes place in St. John’s, mostly around 2016. How important is it to create a sense of place in your writing, and in this book in particular?

BR: When I started writing this book, I didn’t have a firm time frame in mind. As the themes started to emerge, I decided it had to be contemporary because I wanted to explore the way Harlow’s mental health issues impact who he is and how he acts. At another time, he might have been dismissed as immature or irresponsible, labelled a misfit or a troublemaker. Given our growing awareness of trauma and addiction, I think the other characters (and the readers) may interpret Harlow’s actions in a more compassionate and nuanced way in 2016 than they might have in the past. I know St. John’s better than any other place, so it was natural to set the story here. And I think Edie’s ideas about the world and her identity are shaped in part by being a millennial growing up in St. John’s. People sometimes see Newfoundland as the sunny and happy stuff of the tourism ads, but there’s a darkness and hopelessness here that can really seep into our psyches and our ways of being. I see it in my counselling office every day and it plays out differently for people depending on their experiences. My generation tends to have a more fatalistic take on this place – it’s all you can expect so don’t hope for more and you won’t be disappointed. But the younger people I see are resisting those limits and they talk about having a different life – whether it’s here or elsewhere. Edie is tentatively exploring that idea – what possibilities might exist for her if she got away from here.

SK: This is your second book, after a collection of short stories. How did you find the process of writing a novel in comparison to a short story collection?

BR: Writing a novel was a radically different experience for me. Of course, the elements of a novel and a short story are the same – developing characters, writing scenes and dialogue, playing with language and imagery, and creating an engaging plot – but a novel must make sense as one coherent, cohesive piece in a way that a collection of stories doesn’t necessarily have to. I think I wrote this novel almost as if it were a short story, and then it got bigger and more unwieldy. It had its own energy and started doing its own thing. I’ve been saying that I didn’t write a novel – I grew one. I planted a seed, and it turned into a forest. Then I had to go back and start hacking at it to discover the heart of the story, pruning and weeding it, guiding it to grow in certain directions. I started writing the story in the middle and built the rest of the book around it. In retrospect, it wasn’t the easiest way to create a novel. If I do it again, I might try a more structured approach.

SK: In your acknowledgements, you mention that this novel began as a post-card story or piece of flash fiction. What inspired you to expand it into a novel?

BR: I wrote this tiny story for the Victoria School of Writing’s postcard fiction contest many years ago – it was just 500 words about two young people at a party who were testing the nature of their connection. Something drew them together and kept them circling one another, and I was trying to explore what that felt like – the elusiveness, the tension, the excitement, the fear.  I played with that little scene and expanded it into a longer short story, incorporating another subplot that eventually ended up in the novel (that of an arsonist terrorizing downtown St. John’s over the course of summer) that would test the characters’ bond. Over time, Edie and Harlow became very real to me and I wanted to understand where they came from, how they met and what happens between them. Eventually, I decided that Edie’s mother would marry Harlow’s father after a whirlwind romance, creating an event that suddenly throws them together. Their relationship remains undefined throughout the novel – are they stepsiblings, best friends, drinking buddies, or romantic partners? That ambiguity made me want to keep writing and try to understand them better.

SK: What is your definition of a successful piece of writing? Who decides that?

BR: Sometimes, I define it for myself by reading what I’ve written and realizing – yes, that’s what I was trying to convey or that’s what that I wanted that character to represent, or I can see the piece has come together and it’s working on some level. Mostly, I feel a piece of writing is successful if a reader connects with it on an intellectual or emotional level. It could bring them to tears, remind them of one of their own experiences, annoy them, challenge them to see something in a new way, or just make them smile. I want a story or a character to get into the reader’s head and hang out there for a while. Maybe they’ve understood what I was trying to say, and it’s meaningful to them, or they might see a meaning that I never intended. The power of language to bring people together and offer us a shared experience can be quite magical.

SK: What elements/aspects of writing give you pleasure?

BR: I’m happiest about writing when I’ve just come up with an idea for a story. It could be a situation, an interesting person, or a question I want to explore – anything that can drive a story. I can spend days or weeks (or, in the case of this novel, years) just thinking about what the story could be. The potential is what gives me the energy and enthusiasm to write. The actual writing doesn’t come easy to me, but I get great satisfaction when I come up with a plot point or an element of a character’s personality that helps define what’s going to happen next.

SK: What writers (or artists in other forms/media) have been formative in shaping how you write? How?

BR: My earliest inspiration came from the books I read as a child. I wrote my own takes on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books or the Nancy Drew series when I was 9 or 10, doing my form of fan fiction, I guess. But it was much later that I learned that my world and experiences could be legitimate fiction material. I give full credit to the Newfoundland writers who had a huge impact on me, and many others, just by showing us what could be. For me, the best example is Helen Fogwill Porter’s 1989 book January, February, June and July, a novel about a teenage girl of my generation growing up in St. John’s. Seeing specific aspects of my world come alive in the pages of a novel was a pivotal moment for me as a reader and as an aspiring writer.  It made the idea of writing a book become a real possibility for me – not just a dream from childhood when I’d scratched out hand-written novels on loose-leaf paper.

SK: What stories do you have (perhaps generative, perhaps constraining) about yourself as a writer? (i.e., What you’re good at or bad at, where you are in your writing journey, etc.)? How have these stories changed or remained the same over time/across different experiences?

BR: When I was younger, my writing veered toward excess – long, meandering sentences and elaborate language. A couple of English professors showed me the value of economy and clarity in writing and then I went into journalism where crisp, clean writing was encouraged. In daily newspapers and on radio, my goal was to reach as many people as I possibly could with my words. As a result, others have described my writing as “accessible” – including a professor who teaches one of my stories in his first-year English class every year for that reason. In a dark moment, I might interpret that as a sign that my writing is not considered literary or elegant. Mostly, I take it to mean that I can connect with a broad audience through my writing.

SK: What are you writing against or towards?

BR: In my fiction, I think I’m writing towards empathy – or at the very least, compassion and connection. Several reviews of my book of short stories described some of my characters as losers, the dispossessed, the invisible. That wasn’t a conscious choice for me – I just wrote about people and situations that made me curious about what was happening beneath the obvious. Vulnerability is where we are most authentically ourselves. I want to write about people in the moments where there’s a lot at stake emotionally. In my novel, I’m trying to have compassion for my characters, even if I don’t like them or approve of what they’re doing. I admire my main character, Edie, for her reserved nature, her restraint, and her instinct for self-preservation yet I can also see where her vulnerabilities lie. Getting inside her head was hard for me because even though I could relate to her experiences, I would not respond the way she did. For me, writing fiction is ultimately about empathy because I have to get into somebody else’s head and imagine how they think and feel and how they experience and navigate the world, even if it’s radically different from my way of being.

SK: What is new in the world that you need to capture in your writing? BR: In this novel, I look at addiction and mental health issues and the impact they have on people, and their families, relationships, and communities, but I think there’s so much more to say. Right now, it feels like there’s a palpable anxiety in St. John’s that’s been bubbling for a while. We’re experiencing a housing crisis, increasing poverty, serious addiction problems, and growing violent crime, all of which seem to be exacerbated by the pandemic. As a counsellor, I see how this affects people’s well-being in ways they sometimes don’t even realize. As a writer, I want to explore this unease and distress through characters and situations that help me tell a story that deepens our understanding of people’s struggles. These ideas are showing up in some of the short stories I’m currently writing, and I’m curious about what happens next.

Beth Ryan’s first novel, If We Caught Fire, was published by Breakwater Books in 2023. Her collection of short fiction, What Is Invisible (Killick Press, 2003), won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award in 2004 and was shortlisted for the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Fiction and the APMA Best Atlantic-Published Book Award. Her stories have appeared in TickleAce, the New Quarterly, the Newfoundland Quarterly, Hearts Larry Broke, The Cuffer Anthology, and Weather’s Edge, been broadcast on CBC Radio, and won awards from the NL Arts and Letters Competition, the Cuffer Prize, the Atlantic Writing Competition, and the Victoria School of Writing. For twenty-four years, Ryan made her living as a writer and editor – first in journalism and later in communications and web content. After making a career change in 2011, she is now a counselling therapist in private practice in St. John’s.

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