Ryan Wirick is the author of a two-part novel called Invisible Escalators. Want to know what it’s about? Get the details at: www.invisibleescalators.com
Ryan is a freelance writer and videographer, born in Torrance, CA, and raised in various cities along the coast of southern California. Here is the rest of his story: “As a kid I loved to draw and play with puzzles more than anything, which led me to video-making when I purchased my first camcorder in 1995. Since then, a lot has happened. Most notably I received a BA in Philosophy, as well an MA in English, and an MFA in Creative Writing. All from Chapman University in Orange, where I first started as a film major. But after a few semesters I switched majors due to an urge to learn a thing or two about this world, since I never paid much attention in high school (not that you learn a great deal about this world in high school). Thus, at the start of 2003, I quit all things video for seven years, during which I studied most of the religions and philosophies of Earth, both in and out of class. I explored painting. I spent a summer in Italy studying creative writing. Wrote some short stories. Traveled to China and Tibet. Worked concrete construction. Read a lot of literature, history, mythologies, scientific theories. And for some reason I was given the William James Award in Philosophy. In grad school I wrote a novel, Invisible Escalators (InvisibleEscalators.com), for which I won the John Fowles Center for Creative Writing Award. Post-grad school, I’ve been doing a good bit of freelance work. When I was hired as a writer for Laguna Beach Patch, I decided to get back into video-making after my seven year hiatus. For every article, I piece together a video to accompany the writing.”
You’re currently working on the second half of your two-part novel, Invisible Escalators. Tell us a bit about the story and what made you decide to divide it into two parts.
A bit is a bit is a bit is a wha? Well, Invisible Escalators is many things including many stories but the central story is the narrator’s story which is a story about a bankrupt, heartbroken, drug-addicted, selfish and self-loathing, cynic and iconoclastic, and yet open minded, intelligent and funny twenty-two year old college dropout named Cleve Backster, who in the first of twenty steps (I call my chapters in this novel “steps”) drowns and has an out of body experience, only to come back to life in a strange refrigerated room, reanimating his cold, numb body. With a new lease on life, mostly sober for the first time in over four years, Cleve starts to piece together his place in the world in spite of the lack of peace in his mind, which reveals itself through a series of unpredictable (yet, ironically, predicted . . .) adventures, both in the now and in memory, both in a waking state and sleeping, both with people already born and yet-to-be. As the book goes on, more narrative threads are introduced with each character, however the primary threads are probably: 1, Cleve’s relationship with his MIA father, Richard Backster, who may or may not have worked for a secret government remote viewing program and was forced to lie to his family about what he does and what he knows; 2, Cleve’s inexplicable and unwavering love for a girl named Shanshi, whom he has only met once, and whose death as reported in his high school newspaper he refuses to accept/believe . . . (step 19 is the outlier of the novel in that it tells Shanshi’s story from her point of view . . . her voice takes over the narrative, with good reason); and 3, Cleve’s struggle and acceptance of the evolution of his own consciousness, overcoming destructive family cycles and awakening to the power of love, forgiveness, gratitude, redemption—what Cleve’s father would call his “fourth density identity.” Cleve’s evolution mirrors that of a planetary shift in consciousness happening everywhere whether or not every person feels ready for it or believes. Every character in the book is feeling compelled to completely reevaluate their value systems, at one level or another, pushing many characters into states of sheer madness.
The narrative deliberately confuses the barrier between the fictional world and non-fiction—the space between your eyes and the page/screen. The world of Invisible Escalators appears very much like our own, many of the cities have the same names and appearances, it shares much of the same history, languages, mythologies, etc. From the point of view of the world-as-we-know-it, it could be said the novel is a work of magical realism, but from the point of view of the world of Invisible Escalators, it is a firsthand account of one person’s post near-death adventures of the mind and body, and there’s absolutely nothing magical or fantastic about it. As far as why the 2 parts? See my answer for the following question:
You’ve had scenes from this novel published in LitterBox Magazine and Elephant Tree. Once it’s complete, what’s the next step? Sending it out to publishers or self-publishing? I’m in no hurry at this point to decide these things (as if it’s really up to me). I’m not even sure how I feel about having older versions of scenes published before the rest of the novel. It was one of those things where I wanted to get my work out there, anywhere, if only to feel established, and the only work I had was this novel in-progress and a short story. So I got a couple scenes-in-progress published in the dearly missed LitterBox Magazine and MadHatter’s Review published my short story. At the time, I thought I would finish my novel and immediately seek publication, which was rather naïve considering the scope of the work. But to be fair, I haven’t always grasped the scope of the work. Invisible Escalators came to me as an ensemble of characters at first, I wasn’t sure what it would become. When I write, I tend to start with an image I can’t shake, and then during the process the story just happens as I move from image to image, scene to scene, line to line of dialogue. So when I started writing Invisible Escalators I actually thought I was writing a short story about a character named Teddy. I called the story, “The Unlikely Demise of Ol’ Serpent Eyes.” It was four pages long and the first piece of fiction I wrote in graduate school. The Great Doctor Martin Nakell had assigned the class to write a 2 page story with no plot, and a 2 page story driven by plot. I wrote a 4 page story that was half a kind of meditation on the state of civilization as seen through eyes of Teddy, and (without giving too much away) the other half was the story of what appears to be Teddy’s “unlikely demise.” I really wasn’t sure what was happening, I was just getting my bearings. I had spent the previous 2 years studying philosophy, religion, and all kinds of alternative/esoteric theories about the mysteries of history and reality. Some kind of spark went off when I wrote those 4 pages like nothing I had experienced before. A rush. I felt like I was tapping into something super weird, something that surprised me. And I wanted more.
But I never wanted to write a novel—certainly not a 2-3 part novel—as I had only written a few short stories up until that point. To be honest, I figured I could rework those stories I wrote a couple years before graduate school, write a few new ones, and then bam, a finished thesis! But as the saying goes, “Fuck your plans.” (or something like that) . . . Instead of a few short stories showing up in my imagination, there were all these characters. I kept seeing their faces, hearing their voices—that background static pre-creation/big bang chaos. I really wasn’t invested in a story yet, I was just getting to know these people, just learning their names. Teddy and his lover Ayahuasca, Teddy’s old friend Charles Uncleborge and his brother Frank—I thought maybe I’d write a collection of shorts with these characters, i.e., Salinger’s Nine Stories. But then what happened was the narrator’s character showed up, the narrator’s voice: Cleve Backster (no relation to the Cleve Backster of the-world-as-we-know-it). At that point I knew I had something much bigger on my hands, and most likely something I didn’t entirely know how to write. But I wanted more of that rush, and these characters weren’t about to leave me alone, so I gave it a shot. Once I had Cleve Backster’s character in my mind, the actual story of Invisible Escalators began to reveal itself, for it is really Cleve’s story more than anyone else. Suddenly all that research into reincarnation, crop circles, alternative/esoteric theories about the origin of civilization, how planets forms, etc.—all those ostensibly weird things I had been reading about for a couple years suddenly had an artistic purpose, for they formed the scaffolding that holds up the world of Invisible Escalators.
But after finishing the first ten steps (what I’ve come to call Hemisphere Y) back in 2009, I realized I was nowhere finished with my research for the following ten steps (Hemisphere X). I’ve learned over the years that when a piece of art is finished, the same voice that told you to start it should be calling the shots, not some societal desire to feel established and rush to publication. It was an incomplete project, to say the least, and I was running out of steam (not to mention my life underwent a complete transformation . . . see the next question). The voice that had come through Teddy was now telling me that the novel and I needed a rest. I remembered something Alicia Kozameh said to students at Chapman during her reading in the John Fowles Literary Forum. She described her process of completing a novel, then letting it sit for a couple years. She would literally place the manuscript under her bed and sleep on it. This stuck with me, and it confirmed a general sense of the art I’ve always wanted to make in this world. Before I could write for the life of me, I was a movie fanatic and all I wanted to do was make films when I grew up. But I didn’t want to make a lot of films, I wanted to be more of a Kubrick than a Spielberg. I wanted to make films that shook up the whole game, that made a ruckus (Terry Gillian makes an interesting comparison between the two filmmakers somewhere on YouTube). I think that instinct extends into everything I do as an artist—quality over quantity always—depth over superficiality, accepted complexity over forced simplicity. You can watch a Kubrick film a hundred times and still find something new, feel something new, connect in new ways—like the whole peeling an onion simile, but I would compare it to penetrating deeper dimensions, like Alice’s rabbit hole—art that does that is the only art that really interests me. I don’t want to read a book where reality is portrayed with a coherence it doesn’t have. Let’s address the mess. There are many novels that retain this kind of quality (not that they do so for everyone, but enough to make a ruckus), and I hope when Invisible Escalators finally is finished and published, it too will make a ruckus and inspire numerous readings.
And besides, the way I see it is that any route of publication is all a big compromise to what I’d like to see happen. As whole, Invisible Escalators has 20 steps (Hemispheres Y and X), with a third part that serves as a rainbow bridge between Hemispheres Y and X in the form of an illustrated children’s book (Hemisphere Z). This children’s book is narrated by a reoccurring character who is Cleve’s unborn sister, Lyla (although she keeps changing her name), as she gives Cleve an out of body astral tour of our multidimensional solar system and its secret history and councils. The prospect of a publisher embracing this thousand page project, with a color-illustrated children’s book in the middle, written by a first-time author, is a bit far-fetched even for my imagination. Ideally, my novel wouldn’t even come in the form of a book, for in my mind it was never shaped like a book. I have drawings that I made months before I knew the story of the novel, and they are all variations on the same geometric structure. Ideally my novel would exist in the form of a 10 stepped pyramid hand carved out of maple. The pyramid would be split in half so there would be 20 compartments, each with a copy of the corresponding step, with steps 10 and 11 at the top beneath the capstone. Inside the capstone—which would be made of jade or some kind of healing crystal—there would be a copy of the children’s book. Oh, to dream . . .
Since the ideal remains impossible (for now), I will most likely publish Invisible Escalators in 3 parts, or hemispheres. Although I haven’t decided on self-publishing or not, I have decided not to pursue publication of what I have already written (Hemisphere Y) because the story is still in flux as a whole, things may change here and there, the characters and my mind are still working out a few details and that’s OK.
What do you have in mind after you’ve finished Invisible Escalators? Do you have another writing project brewing? In 2009, aside from feeling creatively drained after writing Hemisphere Y, my life went through a serious transformation that prevented me from continuing even if I wanted to. I found out my dad has alcohol-induced dementia combined with Hep C, and my wife (then-girlfriend) and I basically moved into his house and started taking care of him, soon realizing it was more than we could handle and with the help of my brother sought out the intensive care he needed, and continues to need. Cleve’s father Richard Backster is mostly based on my dad, and without giving too much away, I will say that a lot of my novel seems to have predicted, three years before the fact, challenges that I would have to overcome in my life (who said what about life imitating fiction?). I was never that close with my dad due to his alcoholism and tendency to be a recluse and never call (which was probably due to his alcoholism), and since the onset of his dementia, we have actually grown closer than ever before. He has lived an improbable life, cheating death countless times since long before my own conception. He grew up in Southern California, saw a UFO as a teenager (which at least one of his friends agrees was a legitimately unexplainable event, and which serves as the basis for Richard’s sighting in I.E.), he was a professional surfer back in the 60s and 70s, travelled the world, experimented with practically every drug on the planet. And so my other book project will be a biography about my dad’s life. I plan on interviewing as many of his old friends I can track down, and follow his life to the present, as he continues to cheat death by remaining amazingly lucid given the ammonia levels in his blood. According to several doctors, he is truly a medical anomaly, and for me, an anomaly of a father, who I relate to in more ways than I care to confess. I plan on making a documentary to go along with the book.
Other projects include screenplays that my wife and I always talk about writing. I may write more children’s books depending on how the first one (Hemisphere Z) goes. I’d love to make a feature film. I’d love to make documentaries. I’d love to paint again. I’d love to learn more of the piano. I’d love to put out a collection of poetry. I’d love to construct labyrinths in public spaces. Last year I wrote an article on the sculptor Noguchi, and his work inspired me to think bigger than writing and video. Last December I carved out an eleven-ring labyrinth on a flat area of land in the Laguna Canyon. I noticed over time people in the community would maintain the labyrinth by aligning rocks in the grooves and stacking rocks in the center. I saw families discover the labyrinth and teach their children how to walk the path and revere the space. Frankly, I’d be happy building labyrinths for the rest of my life. You write an art column and produce videos for Laguna Beach Patch, and it sounds like they give you a fair bit of creative leeway there. Do you think that freedom aids your fiction writing?
Yes . . . that Noguchi article was for the column I have with Laguna Beach Patch called “In The Galleries.” I realized a long time ago that writing about other people’s art is a tremendous source of inspiration for me, and writing about people who make art for a living keeps me feeling sane. Plus I have an editor who gave up on trying to impose word length limitations on my articles. So the column is a win-win-win for me. I’m not really an art critic so much since I only write about art that I like, I see myself more like a promoter for the arts as a whole, confirming the importance of art for any community. As far as freedom goes, I know no other way. I would probably not thrive in an environment of fast-paced deadlines. I tend to write from a place that is not tainted/filtered by many formal conventions. Growing up I didn’t read or write much until I was seventeen, and I think that preserved certain instincts and liberties often lost through the process of what they call education. I never unlearned certain indescribable things. At the same time, I work best when I impose upon the process certain deliberate limitations. Learning about the Oulipo movement of which Calvino belonged freed me. In the summer of 2004 I went to Italy with Nakell’s study abroad program—a program that Chapman eventually shut down instead of promoting as the transforming trip of a lifetime that it was. I wrote a story called Six Uneven Rectangles. I got the idea from an art piece I had written for a creative writing class a few months before. I would visit a museum, and because I hate how awkward notepads are, I would fold a piece of paper into rectangles, then take notes on the rectangles, flipping and folding the paper as I went. When I got home I would unfold the paper and see all these rectangles with notes that I would decipher, and in the process write the paper on my experience. After reading of Oulipo it occurred to me to use this idea as a structural device for a short story. Once I realized that, Six Uneven Rectangles arrived as I tried to explain the words I assigned to the rectangles.
With Invisible Escalators, I use geographic points on the planet as a limitation, as well as the novel’s pyramidal 20-stepped structure. Before I had a story in place, I knew where each step took place. I knew step 10 was in Tibet, for instance, and I knew step 5 was in Arizona, I knew it started in Laguna Beach, I even knew the titles of the steps. A lot of the story arrived by trying to figure out how Cleve gets from one coordinate to the next. In setting these limitations, the process created scenarios I would have never imagined if I was starting with absolute nothingness—a void. I set other limitations for myself too, for instance, I use a dash instead of quotes for dialogue, and I tend to avoid the semicolon altogether, I try to limit if not eliminate the use of adverbs, similes, lazy description, while retaining the importance of how the narrative sounds out loud. One of the best compliments I think I have ever been given is that the poetics of my novel convey its own meaning, and could be enjoyed by people who don’t speak English simply for the sounds of the words and the rhythms of the language. Reading my work aloud is a significant part of my process. There’s a line in the opening paragraphs where Cleve says the phrase “some childish inkling to twist rhyme over reason,” and I tend walk that line between explanation and mystery. Flannery O’Connor discussed this somewhere once, when she acknowledged there are certain lines in her work that even she doesn’t understand, so there remains a sense of mystery even for the creator. I like that, and I keep that in mind whenever I’m trying to decide whether to clarify a sentence, or cut it completely, or leave it be in faith that it is serving some elusive purpose beyond me.
To thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and work with us we would like you to select a cause for Chapman Writers to highlight and support this month. Which cause do you recommend? I really couldn’t narrow it down fewer than three. Hopefully every one can find between them at least one that speaks to them. Financial donations to causes are important, although I believe integrating that awareness into how we treat each other, how we think about each other and the future of society, every day at the local level is just as vital. It’s all one energy field, and every gesture for the greater good irreversibly changes the world. (Turns out all those clichés are true.) That said, here are my top three:
1. Calendar Reform. One liberating limitation of Invisible Escalators was actually derived from a cause I believe is essential if the human species is to overcome its own impending self-destruction, and that is the cause for a global reform of our civilization’s calendar system. In the world of Invisible Escalators, the world of the Gregorian calendar is falling apart. As a literary limitation, nowhere in the novel can there be found a Gregorian calendar date. You have to rely on other ways to measure and relate to time, such as the position of the sun in the sky, the seasons, the Mayan Long Count calendar, etc. There is no “Tuesday” (named after Tyr, the Scandinavian god of war) or “August” (named after Augustus Cesar).A brief pitch for calendar change, since few ever seem to consider it: Imagine organizing your life according to a different calendar than the one society has engrained into the very circuitry of your brain. Not easy to imagine, is it? Few question how we measure time, how we split the months up, the names of the months and days. Many would say it doesn’t make a difference, but perhaps it makes a fundamental difference. How could we ever know otherwise? Perhaps it is not healthy for most of the world to measure time with the sloppy remnants of an ancient Roman calendar of unequal measure, with months named after Roman gods and rulers, and for the last three months, which are Latin for eight, nine, and ten, to not even align with their names. All the information we take in informs not only what we think, but how we think about what we think. Calendars are so intricately woven into our thought processes we never even think to question them, which means, when following an arbitrary calendar that changes every month and every year, we are unthinkingly accepting irregularity in our thought processes as normal—and not to mention reinforcing an ignorance about natural cycles of time. And we are doing this every day, all the time. We were raised to do this. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that we are a species who puts robots on other planets, and yet we synchronize our lives according to a calendar devised a couple thousand years ago with an arbitrary starting date? Isn’t it all the more odd that few people seem to find this odd? [end pitch] So the first cause I would certainly advocate is the global standardization of a new calendar system, one that is harmonic, one that that would reinforce harmony as the natural state of thinking rather than unquestioned dogmatic disharmony. When I began to seriously consider these implications a couple years before I started writing Invisible Escalators, I became fascinated with the history of calendars and the many movements that have been trying to reform the calendar for hundreds of years, repeatedly shot down by the Vatican and other power structures. I would advocate any cause aimed at awakening this issue within the international (and local) conversations. I believe it is a central component in the remaking of a better world, for could there ever truly be harmony in the world if we are constantly subconsciously accepting as normal meaningless disharmony? The world changes first in the mind of the individual, then with their actions as a collective. I believe unhealthy and unsustainable ways of thinking must become totally obsolete for the world to truly break free from traditions of greed and inevitable self-destruction.
I personally have been following the 13 Moon Dreamspell calendar for a number of years, which is a 13 moonth calendar of 364 days—each moonth an even 4 weeks, or 28 days—with one day a year that is not on the calendar, celebrated as Day Out of Time, a day dedicated to peace through culture, a globally synchronized confirmation of the Roerich Pact, and the idea that time is art, not money. In time the universe unfolds in fractal patterns of geometric harmony and beauty. So too should culture / society / civilization. This particular alternative to the Gregorian norm is promoted by the Foundation for the Law of Time. http://www.lawoftime.org/
2. The Venus Project. Once humans get past all of these endless wars and toxic behavior, if we make it, it will be projects like the Venus Project that will serve as blueprints for a peaceful civilization without scarcity and within balance with nature.
3. In the meantime, a cause that is dear to my heart is the cause for freedom in Tibet. Certain locations on the planet seem to have a particular resonance, or energy, that is kind of magical in a way, and I believe the so-called Third Pole is one of the most sacred places on the planet. What is happening there, what we have allowed to happen there, is just such a tragedy. I wrote about my time in Tibet and how it relates to my novel in my blog, here:
Lastly, I just want to express my gratitude to Chapman Writers for this honor. Stuff like this makes writing feel more like a responsibility that extends beyond the confines of my own psyche’s feeble attempts at self-understanding. Writing can be so tedious, but then again I have to do something with all the voices in my head. Sanity is the goal. Hovering just beyond my grasp. Right where I can keep an eye on it.
Lastly, lastly, since they won’t leave me alone on this, each of the primary characters from Invisible Escalators would like to share their chosen cause:
Sera would like to express support for the Surfrider Foundation: http://www.surfrider.org/
Pacal would like to express support for the Coral Reef Alliance: http://www.coral.org/
Ayahuasca would like to express support for the Rainforest Foundation: http://www.rainforestfoundation.org/
Teddy would like to express support for the New Energy Movement: http://www.newenergymovement.org/
Audrey would like to express support for the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation: http://www.chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org/
Richard would like to express support for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: http://www.leap.cc/
Brian Kasselman would like to express support for my support for any cause for freedom in Tibet.
Charles Uncleborge would like to express support for Crop Circle Connector: http://www.cropcircleconnector.com/
Franky Uncleborge would like to insist this is all a big waste of time, but what does he know?
Invisible Escalators website: www.invisibleescalators.com
Invisible Escalators blog: http://invisibleescalators.blogspot.com/
Want to hear Ryan read Invisible Escalators? He has that too: http://soundcloud.com/invisibleescalators/sets/steps
You can purchase the book: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/Issue/161004
Ryan reading at the John Fowles Literary Forum: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VD6jvVwTqE
Ryan at the &Now 2011 conference in San Diego: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nFmxb0KAfU&feature=related
Always appreciated praise: http://invisibleescalators.com/praise.htm
And if you’d like to check out his day job: http://lagunabeach.patch.com/columns/in-the-galleries