Q and A with Ross Ritchell, THE KNIFE
Tell us a little about your novel.
The Knife follows an unidentified team of Special Operators on their deployment to an unidentified country in the Middle East. I chose to make the unit a fictionalized, anonymous group of men traveling to a fictionalized, anonymous country because Special Operations units operate under classified doctrines and oftentimes even the families of the Operators do not know when, or where their Operator family members deploy; I aimed for an authentic look at modern warfare and, at the risk of coming across as too ambiguous, I’m proud of the end result. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are startlingly different, so I tried to incorporate pieces of each unique theater in a cohesive, fictional entity. Norman Mailer’s “The Naked And The Dead” was the first instance in which I saw this idea formed, and I appreciated his attempt. Likewise, I was always struck by the concept of “Telling a true war story”, which is something Tim O’Brien touches on in his work, The Things They Carried. I saw that concept as requiring honesty and authenticity from the author, so I certainly tried to achieve this with my work.
You were in the Special Forces division of the military in your early 20s and that experience intimately informs The Knife. How did this book first take shape - from an experience you had in the field, for example?
This book took its form as I took stock of my own experiences upon attempting to “reintegrate” into society. Finding myself in a world of ultimate extremes—which combat certainly is; the margin for error is oftentimes life and death—brought out intense emotions and opinions. If you had asked me right after I finished my military service how I felt about the war and my small, humble place in it, I probably would’ve shrugged it off and changed the subject. It wasn’t until after I had some time to watch the wars play out from the sidelines, and deal with my own experiences in the past tense, that I truly understood what I had been a part of, and thus started deciding what I was proud of and what I wished I could’ve changed. I hoped to create a novel that those indoctrinated to combat, and the military at large, would acknowledge as being authentic and real. I didn’t want to create scenes that I would read as a veteran and say, “That would never happen.” In this sense, I simply took personal experiences and didn’t let them end with my service. I let my imagination run and for a long time I struggled with leaving the military “early”—I lost hearing and received and honorable, medical discharge—so it probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to say the novel helped me live out my war after I couldn’t fight it. It would be fair to say that my novel changed me, and my views of the war, more than most anything else—besides marrying my best friend and having children. I felt I could truly see war for what it really was, and is, when I was no longer in it, but writing about it.
"Dutch" Shaw, your POV character, is calm, charismatic, sympathetic, kind of an ideal man (and soldier). Some of the other important characters, Hagan, Massie and Dalonna, are all so different from Shaw but well drawn. Is characterization your favorite part of fiction writing?
I love characterizations because they are everywhere in life and probably the easiest thing to create. We live in a free world as long as our eyes, ears and hearts are open, where “inspiration” can come to us on the train of our morning commute. As long as you’re a perceptive human being with an eye for sensory details, characterizations should come with time and effort. Of course, we all have extensive pools of creativity to draw from in our acquaintances, both good and bad, and ourselves as well. Sometimes drawing unsavory characteristics in a fictional character is just another way of exploring parts of ourselves we’re curious about or afraid of—and the same goes for good/endearing traits and characters. A fun part of writing is figuring out what you want to say and figuring out how to do it affectively, and characters are the vehicles by which this is done. Effective characters, and especially their dialogue, truly help deliver your authorial message.
This is a pro-humanity, anti-war novel but it's not at all didactic. What were your influences?
Ha! Thank you for reading it that way. If I die before I can tell my kids about the war than I hope they take that away from the book if nothing else. In terms of avoiding the fabled preach I simply thought the book should tell its own story, not me—I just had to bring it all together and try to piece together some sense. As I alluded to earlier, I developed intense, confusing, and oftentimes conflicting emotions about my service and my war, so I had to create scenes that would ask hard questions and offer harder answers to even figure out what I thought of the war. I certainly felt uncomfortable by war, so I guess I aimed to make the reader equally uncomfortable.
And humble veterans who saw past the medals they received and spoke objectively of the horror and sadness war sowed in their hearts have always influenced me. I never forgot a veteran from the Second World War speaking of a man he killed, and all he could talk about after decades of peace was a general wondering if he and the man he killed would’ve been friends in life. The veteran liked fishing and he said something to the effect of, “I wonder if we would’ve been fishing buddies.” That kind of humble tone and empathic perceptive stuck with me, and always will, so I think that kind of experience influenced me immensely.
How have things changed for you since The Knife's publication in February 2015?
Well my daughter, and second child, was born a month before the book came out, so I’d have to say everything has changed since the release date. My days are a little crazier and busier, but I think more than anything I’m relieved to have written the book as I did before I had kids. My son wasn’t even a year old before the deal came together, so I wrote the bulk of the book without being a father, and it was important for me to write everything I would want my kids to know about me if I can’t tell them one day. I wanted them to know how I felt about what I’d seen and been a part of, and so I feel great relief since the book has been out. Sale numbers and rankings, reviews and accolades are something you have to balance and eventually ignore, but what I’d have to say is I’ve undoubtedly developed a deep appreciation and humility for the opportunity to be an “author”. I still say that word in quotes because it doesn’t feel real.
I’ve loved books my whole life, so to think I actually wrote one myself, and at least a few people found some value in it (my publisher and agent) is very humbling. I think a lot of things came together and fell apart at a unique time in my life, which of course happened to coincide with the book release, so the whole experience post-release has been one of deep reflection, motivation and appreciation. The biggest change would be talking to people who have read my work, because I was fiercely protective of it, and likely insecure, prior to publication and never let anyone read it. It’s been fun to let it all hang out and not worry so much about what others think. I would’ve puked over a bad Amazon review right after the publication date and now I can take it in stride, the same as I hope to with a good one.
One thing I’ve realized is no one can really define or truly judge you as an author. You have to stand by your work and give it all you’ve got and that’s really all you can do. Who doesn’t want good reviews? No one I know, but that comes and goes and maybe being shot at helps me get over things easier, but I didn’t write my book for a scholarly, or literary, contribution to society. I wrote it because I was a sad young man struggling to make sense of what I’d been apart of, and hoped I could help others, if not myself, make some damn sense. I also felt an obligation to society to pull the veil off a lot of the patriotic spins we often cast on a truly tough war we’ve been waging for 14 years.
What are you working on now, if you don't mind sharing it with us?
I’m currently trying to find the time, and motivation, to finish editing my second novel, which centers around three brothers who are slavers during the American Civil War. I grew up a history buff, with a particular Civil War soft spot, so I figured what better way to follow up a war novel with one about moral injustice and depravity? I guess I like powerful, big themes. I’ve never been able to watch a wrong and not call it what it is, so the institution of slavery, and our present issues on equality seemed too ripe not to pick. It’s a work I really love and I’m trying to figure out if I can ever tell the damn thing. We’ll see, but that’ll have to suffice for now