In his collection The Dream Life of Astronauts, Ryan, 52, weaves together short stories of life's promises and pitfalls, with characters ranging from egotistical Miss America wanna-bes to a grandmother, an unsafe driver, who was having an affair with her driver's education teacher. All take place on Florida's Space Coast, with its lure of Cape Canaveral and its rocket ships as a backdrop.
Ryan is a graduate of Merritt Island High and Florida State University who holds a master's in fine arts from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. We caught up with him by phone from his home in New York City.
What's on your nightstand?
I have David Sedaris' Theft by Finding, The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. I just thought (Tree of Smoke) was amazing. With that one I was much more drawn to the parts about the soldiers mucking around in the jungle than in the CIA aspects. It is huge.
Sometimes I get mad when a book I want to read turns out to be huge. Do you?
Actually, I try not to read two books at once because I walk a lot in Manhattan, and if one is too heavy to carry around in my shoulder bag, it can get tough. How I read Tree of Smoke was I had the hardback and then I bought a paperback. I sliced it up with a box cutter and carried sections of it. I do the same thing, say, if I am reading a Dickens novel. I read David Copperfield like that. I found an extra cheap copy. I carried around 50-page chunks of it because I'm not a young whippersnapper ... not only did I slice up David Copperfield, but I got an audio copy, too. I was basically ingesting it three different ways.
Were you a reader growing up on Merritt Island?
When I was a little kid, the only things in the house were The Hardy Boys, and then one day my grandparents gave me The Collected Stories of Mark Twain. It blew my mind about what a short story could do. I had no interest in paying attention in school, but then I started reading voraciously. I had no guidance. Nobody pointed me in the direction to read. I'd get my allowance every week, like $1 or $2, and I'd go to the bookstore and I'd buy a paperback. I'd just walk in, buy something and leave. I read everything. I remember reading novelizations. One week I'd read A Separate Piece or To Kill a Mockingbird and then the next week I'd read Cannonball Run. I just didn't care. I read Gone With the Wind and then something racy like a Harold Robbins novel. I like to think I'm the opposite of a snob, and I think that's where it started. I also remember a funny thing. My parents would buy a book, and we'd all read it with different book marks. It would just be a beatup paperback. Stephen King or Amityville Horror, Flowers in the Attic. All of us would be reading the same book, and I don't remember us having a single discussion about the books. We'd share the book but we didn't share the experience at all. The rule was you couldn't take it out of the house.
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