LOCATION: NEW YORK CITY/CHICAGO (SKYPE CALL)
Ryan P.C. Trimble is the author of his self-published novel, Fragments from 5th Ave, and once helmed the writer’s room for the Wilmington based comedy troupe Pineapple Shaped Lamps, before making the move to Chicago. This interview explores his love of writing, comedy, and general silliness. For the sake of being concise, some sections of this (hour long) interview have been edited down, but I tried to keep in the little conversational asides and interruptions that lend themselves to authenticity, and hopefully, humor.
Me: Ryan, welcome to “Hey That’s Pretty Neat,” a blog series where I interview my favorite people about the neat things they do. Can you introduce yourself and describe how writing factors into your daily life?
Ryan: It’s something I’ve done all my life. And something I’ve done semi-professionally with Pineapple-Shaped Lamps in 2010, which was the first time that I purposefully set out to write and stage things. PSL is a sketch comedy group in Wilmington, North Carolina that I was one of the founding members of, and they are still going strong. They produce lots of people that have worked all over the country and all over the world so it’s exciting to see them get bigger and bigger, which is fun. So, that was when I first started doing proper stuff with comedy, and since then I published a book, a lot of things I worked on with PSL and other groups were nominated for some local awards, works that I’ve done have been performed all over the country at shows and festivals and stuff like that.
I also was a producer and reporter for a TV station, WECT and WSFX, in Wilmington as well. And I was a social media reporter, which has spun off into my later endeavor where I work here in Chicago for a company that runs social media accounts for several reputable worldwide companies. I’m part of a team assigned to a certain company, and we manage the Facebook page and the Twitter. So, writing is something that doesn’t factor into my daily life, it is my daily life. It’s something that I’m always doing, whether I’m writing a tweet, working on my book, writing a facebook status of my own, or translating things for a Lemony Snicket fansite. I’m kind of always doing something, all over. So there’s a very long winded response to your question, and you’ll have fun transcribing that at some point.
M: Yes I will. I actually didn’t have this question written down, but while you were talking I was thinking, because you are a novelist, and a comedy writer, and you work professionally with social media…do you enjoy how versatile writing is as a field, or can it be hard to carve your career path, because there’s so many different tracks you can take?
R: I think, it’s fantastic [that] nowadays writing has become something that anyone who wants to do it is able to do it. Because for a very long time, even as recently as the early 2000s, writing was still very much an elite thing, as far as getting your work out there. I mean everyone learns how to read and write, but as disseminating what you’ve worked on, that was not something that was accessible to most people. At that time you either had to write for television in some form, or you had to write for a newspaper or a magazine, or write a novel. That was basically it. Nowadays there are so many ways that you can get what you’re feeling out into the world, in small forms such as tweets to large forms where self-publishing has taken off and become a very thriving industry on its own that I like to compare to the independent film industry. It’s sort of taken the same vibe to it, where…filmmakers don’t have to wait for Sony or MGM to pick up their film. It’s become the same thing with people who write published works like novels. But also, just thinking about the job I do, it didn’t exist —
R: Even…if you had told me when I started college in 2009, that you could tweet for a living, I would have been like, “What no, stop.” The fact that that’s a job that not only am I allowed to do, but I’m encouraged to do, and get paid to do, is amazing. And I think that makes it a lot easier for people to get their foot in the door in different ways. There used to be fewer platforms, now there’s a lot of platforms, but now you have to stand out even more. So I think it’s just fascinating to watch that market evolve, as it has, and go from being an elitist market to very much a market of the people. But there’s still that capitalistic aspect of it too, where you just throw stuff out there…if you throw it out there that doesn’t mean anyone is going to look at it. You still have to push yourself. Which I love, because I love talking about myself. So.
M: I feel like that’s a complex and an optimistic answer. Because, I mean, you constantly hear people bemoaning the death of print journalism.
R: Ugh, eat my *******. The death of print journalism — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. You keep going and then I’ll answer.
M: Well, I mean, I like that you said that the field is changing, and that’s true for a lot of fields, especially in art and technology. The internet and various digital resources have changed the face of a lot of different creative industries, which can make it harder for you to be noticed, but also gives more people a voice.
R: Yeah. And just to speak on when people say “print journalism is dead,” that phrase bothers me so much because people think that print equals printed things, like things printed on paper literally. But it doesn’t, the print industry is anything that is written down. So that is something that will never go away, it just changes form. I think it’s fascinating that people jump to that conclusion, that just because things are changing the old form is dying. You know, it’s — people like to be nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake…And I think being nostalgic for print media would be the same thing as if I was like, “Ugh, remember when we used to chisel cuneiform? Like, wasn’t that the way to get things across?” No, you can’t be angry that the technology has changed. You can, but that’s…dumb.
M: Changing track back to novel writing, do you find that you write more for yourself or more for potential readers?
R: I absolutely write for myself. I think, again, with people being connected a lot more, it’s easier to find people with similar interests. So there’s not as much pressure as I think there once was, to write something that’s as broad as possible. Because before it used to be like, “Well hopefully there will be other people out there who think like me.” And now it’s like, if I were to write a novel about abandoned train-lines, which I might, I’m literally a part of a Facebook group dedicated to abandoned train-lines that has several thousand people in it. So you can prove that there are other people who are interested in the same things you are, so I think that…especially being a — Oh, there’s my boy [picks up his cat Roger and brings him into frame.]
M: Oh, boy, hi Roger.
Roger: [immediately wants to leave]
R: Say bye Aunt Meghan– oh he’s gone.
M: Bye, Roger.
R: He loves seeing you. And now, I just got honey in his hair, which is gross. Anyway…
M: “Honey In His Hair” is a country song, I believe.
R: It’s a Taylor Swift song, isn’t it?
R: I miss Taylor Swift, she needs to put out another album.
M: It’s too bad she’s dead.*
R: [laughs] Too bad she’s dead. Yeah. Um. So, I would say, to continue answering your question, I definitely do write for myself. And that’s not to say that I don’t accept criticism, because I think you can write things that are structurally sound and still have an off beat topic. So I very much strive to make sure that the works I put out are structurally sound, so that if lots of people read them, who might not be terribly interested in the book themselves, but I want to make sure that…Gustave Flaubert has a fantastic quote, “Art is nothing without form.” And I think that’s important to remember, that everything has a form. All art has a form you have to learn, before you can start breaking it up.
But, I think one of the people that very much inspires me to write that way is J.K. Rowling, because she wrote the first Harry Potter book for herself. And she continues to say that she writes all of this for herself, and it just so happens that there are a lot of people that found [her books] interesting. Now, she had a fantastic editing team and she had a lot of people working behind her to make them, again structurally as good as they can be, but she doesn’t have to write for a committee, she’s writing for herself. And now she’s at a great point where she can explore this world that she’s created, and I think that that is kind of every writer’s dream to be able to write something that they love, find other people who love it, and just play around in that world. Um, so yes, I do write for myself. And I know that even if there weren’t something such as publishing at all, I would still be writing and getting these stories out because I need to just get them down somewhere. Because if you’re a storyteller you know that it’s not an option. It’s an itch you have to scratch; you can’t just ignore it. You have to get this down somewhere.
M: So in terms of personal satisfaction – keeping in mind your long history of working in comedy – is it more satisfying for you to complete a sketch or a chapter?
R: Ooh. Ooh, boy. That’s a great question. Um, I think that they present different joys. I think personally, that finishing a chapter is more satisfying when I’ve been working on it for awhile. I’ve always found that when you’re trying to accomplish something, setting small goals for yourself helps you accomplish it better. Rather than saying, how am I going to write this book? I say, what scenes does this book need to include? And then, what scenes can I group together? And once I’ve done that, how can I finish writing this chapter? So, writing a chapter and then also seeing it in relation to the rest of the book and how it fits with the flow is extremely satisfying. But chapters aren’t something you can write in isolation. Whereas sketches, you can. So that’s satisfying in its own way where you’re like, this is this irrelevant thing that I just wrote like…the Flying Cat Monster sketch, which I will write later. You write it. You do it once, people giggle at it. And you’re like, yes that was fun.
It also has the immediate reaction of being able to tell whether people enjoyed it or not. Which is something I definitely love. Cause with books, and other printed works, people can tell you they liked it but you don’t know. If someone doesn’t like a comedy thing that you’ve written and is being performed for them, you’re gonna know immediately. Even if you write an awful book people can still tell you they like it, and you’ll never really know whether they’re telling the truth or not. But there’s no lying about comedy. You cannot lie about live comedy. So I think for a writer it has its own form of satisfaction because when you get it right, it’s just like the best high in the world and when you get it wrong, it’s like the worst feeling, ever, to have a sketch bomb. We used to have the dumbest ideas and thought that they were the best ideas in the world, and then apparently nobody else thought that. And you’re just like, “Oh! That’s interesting.”
But again, going back to writing for yourself, ultimately, if you enjoyed it and you had fun creating it, I think that’s more important than if people end up laughing at it. Especially if you’re not getting paid to do it. You know, in the early stages of PSL stuff, and even now it’s all about getting reps out. That’s what we say in the improv world. There’s a show here at iO in Chicago called Reps, that’s literally about getting independent teams on stage to perform. It’s a great show, and that’s kind of the idea [of] just getting out there and doing it a lot. So I think there’s a value in staging stuff, no matter if it’s “successful” or not. I think getting stuff on stage can be considered a success in and of itself.
M: I mean, one of the major differences between sketches and novels is that when you create a sketch character you often don’t revisit that character. Unless it’s one worth re-visiting, which actually, we collaborated on a character together named Trevor–
R: Yes we did, Trevor’s a joy.**
M: Who I don’t write for anymore because you were the only one who could fill that role.
R: I miss him.
M: Yeah. But typically you don’t revisit characters like that because they’re, you know, flash in the pan sort of characters, just made for laughs. But characters in novels, it’s like old friends, you keep sitting down with them again and again and creating dialogue with them, almost. So for you, if you were to write a completely original character and it would be an ideal character for you, what narrative and descriptive ingredients would go into making that recipe?
R: Oh my gosh…I think it’s hard to say what an ideal character would be because it depends so much on what they can serve the story. And a lot of the time — and this sounds very New Age-y but I think a lot of writers would agree with me — you don’t necessarily invent characters as much as they walk into your head. And again, that sounds very silly, but through all the writing that I’ve done…Well, sketch is a little different because they have to be very premise-y. And they have to be: The Man Who Only Speaks in Trumpet Noises. Like, that man did not walk into my head. I had to think pretty hard about that. And, feel free to use that. Anyone is allowed to use that.
M: Sure, I’m going to use The Flying Cat and Trumpet Man.
R: Those are my gifts to the world, when you do your one woman show and do both of those characters…But I think that an ideal character that I would love to write is someone for people who wouldn’t normally be able to see themselves in a story. I mean, just like we mentioned when we were talking before [this interview] about our cities and how diverse and exciting it is to see so many different types of people, I think our work should reflect that. So I think the ideal character is someone that people can identify with. People would be inspired to create their own thing.
That’s the most important thing about stories…stories are not an end point, they’re a beginning point. They might be an end point for me when I finish it but for someone receiving the story, even getting to the end of the story is not the end for them, it’s the beginning of them thinking about the story, creating their own stories, being able to apply it to different things in their lives. So I think that that would be an ideal character. A character that would be an inspiration for people who wouldn’t necessarily think that they have anything to offer.
M: I am so glad you brought up inspiration because my next question was: what books have influenced your writing and your larger ideology as an author?
R: I think my first inspiration and certainly the one I go back to the most is L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Oz books. He is the first writer that I got very interested in following. He was hella dead by the time I got around to that, seeing as he died in 1919.
M: So close.
R: I know!
M: You just missed him.
R: I just missed him by a little bit. But his stories were always fascinating to me because he had a very interesting life outside of his stories. He was a guy who wanted to do and be everything. His first ever book was actually a book on chickens. It was a very huge fad at the time to raise these little, fancy chickens. So L. Frank Baum wrote a book about raising fancy chickens, and it was the very first book he ever published.
M: Is that what the teens were doing?
R: That’s what the teens were doing. His first book was published in 1896, it was called the Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise Upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs, which hamburgs were a variety of chicken. It was a national craze, isn’t that hilarious?
M: That’s amazing.
R: It’s so funny, the late 1800s. Everyone was like, “Well the Civil War’s over, we have nothing else to do. Let’s raise chickens, everyone!” So there was a twenty year period where people just raised chickens for fun, and L. Frank Baum wrote a book about it. But that was just very typical of the things he would do, where he was like, “I’m just going to try this.” And a lot of the times it didn’t work. He had a lot of businesses he started, he was involved with a lot of different writing endeavors, and he wrote for a theater for awhile. He would write and star in his own musicals and do tours of the Midwest, because he was born in Chattanooga but he grew up in the South Dakota area. He was sort of involved in everything.
The Wizard of Oz wasn’t actually his first success, he had a book called Mother Goose in Prose. It came out in 1887, and he took Mother Goose rhymes and wrote them in story form, and everyone was like, “WHAAAT, this is so cool!” And in 1889, he wrote a book of Father Goose, His Book a collection of silly poems. It was actually the best selling children’s book of that year. And he thought, well what else can I do? So he used to tell a Wizard of Oz kind of story to his kids and he was like, why not that one? In 1900 it was published and it was a huge success. For two years straight it was the best selling children’s book in the United States. And he just wrote a lot more. And the thing was he was also an early adopter of what we think of now as franchising. So he was like, “What’ll we do now? We’ll make a stage show, we’re going to have a traveling movie show.” And eventually the very first Oz movies were directed by L. Frank Baum in his own studio, that he created. Again this was in the 1900s, the 1910s, before Hollywood was a thing, so he was very pioneering in that way.
He wrote Oz books all the way up until he died in 1919. In fact the last one that he published came out in 1920, because Glinda of Oz was written before he died. He wrote up until he died, and he didn’t just write the Oz books…Baum used several different pseudonyms depending on the different books he was putting out. He had this book series called Aunt Jane’s Nieces that he wrote under the pen name Edith Van Dyne, and they were really cool because they were feminist works. He was very forward thinking, his [wife’s mother] Matilda Gage was a feminist. That’s why Dorothy is one of the strongest female characters ever written. He continues to have Oz as a matriarchy, it’s ruled over by the four witches, the Emerald City is ruled by a female ruler. He had that sort of proto-feminism. He was the first person that I read, and then read about, when I realized, oh, I don’t have to wait to do things. I don’t need permission to write. L. Frank was my jam for a real long time. My dad actually banned me from writing book reports about him, because I wrote so many in a row…
And then other writers that severely influenced me: J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket. The way that they were able to write stories that took place over very long arcs. Because the Oz books are very fun, but [Baum] didn’t love continuity. That wasn’t something he was super into. So they were very much stand alone stories and from one story to the next things would change, and they very much didn’t care to fix it. Back then they didn’t care as much. But, Lemony Snicket and J.K. Rowling taught me how to craft a story that has a long game. With every book you write you need an end game, and you need to know how to get there. And I think that their stories really influenced how I construct stories.
Style wise, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a huge influence because he was one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read. Victor Hugo is another, because he is very good at captivating you, about writing things that you didn’t know you were interested in. Les Mis, for example, has hundreds of pages that have nothing to do with the plot, and his publishers were like, “Sure, Vic. Go for it.” And you sit there and you’re like reading it, and some of it you skip, but a lot of it you’re involved in because it’s very fascinating. Ray Bradbury is another one that I just dig a lot, because he was very creative. He and Aldous Huxley were very creative and very good at making you think while writing.
M: Somewhere in there you mentioned having an end goal while writing. So what was the end goal you had in mind when you were writing Fragments from 5th Ave?
R: I wanted to commit to memory as closely as possible this time period in my life that I shared with the people that lived in my house. Fragments from 5th Ave was very distinctly based on my life at the time living in Wilmington. That was I think, the first time that I very purposefully did not write for myself, because I was writing it for me and my roommates. It was for all of us to remember, so the end goal there was putting out a work that they could be proud of, just as much as I could. Every word, every sentence, was written with the thought of, “Will they enjoy being represented by this?” So I think in that sense that was kind of the goal there, because there’s not an arc. It’s a plot arc in that begins and ends, it crescendos and it goes down. But there’s no big mystery. It’s called Fragments because it’s just five chapters of things that took place over five months. So the goal was to make everyone proud of the book I wrote, and I think I accomplished that. I mean, I’ve gotten very good responses from it, even from people I’ve never met before, strangers who bought it. Which I think is the true test of the success of it.
I’ve had people say, “Oh, it reminded me of hanging out with my friends.” And I was like, “I can die.” That’s what I wrote this book for. I wrote it for other people to be reminded of times they shared with people they loved the most.
M: That’s awesome. And now you’re working on it’s sequel. What can you tell us about that?
R: I’m on chapter seven of like, the fourth revision. The sequel I’ve been working on for about two years now, is a very good example of ideas strolling into my head. At the end of Fragments, one of the characters Grayson, who was based on Jason…I’m very creative with my names…Grayson moves to Los Angeles to get involved in the budding Hollywood community out there. In the time the book takes place, 1923, Hollywood existed but it was still very much becoming Hollywood, the way we know it now. The big three or five studios were kind of coalescing. So, at the end of Fragments Grayson moves out to California, and one day I just remembered him thinking, what if he came back? What if he showed up at the house and offers the main character a job in a movie. And very quickly that was where the idea evolved from.
The book is about the first film studio to ever open in Wilmington, in 1925. It’s a fictional version, because the first film studio to open there was Screen Gems in the 1980s. But Wilmington actually has a very interesting history of film. One of the earliest studios for creating films was actually founded in North Carolina, out in the mountains, all over the state. And there were several films made in the Wilmington area as early as the 1910s. There was a guy who used to do town films. He would go to a town, film it, and then cut it together, and people would watch it and be like, “Ohhh, that’s fun!” There was another one, which was similar, where this guy had written a story that could take place in Any City, USA. He would go to different cities — it sounds very Music Man-y, very shiesty, but he ended up actually doing it in the end — and he would hold The Most Beautiful Girl in Town Contest, who would then star in the film, and they would fill out the rest of the cast with local people. They would film it around town, swap out different images and then be like, “Hey, we made a movie. Isn’t that fun?” And there’s actually articles from the time about how exciting it was, and they filmed car chases on Chestnut Street, and everyone gathered around and watched. And I didn’t know about that until I started writing, because I really thought Screen Gems was the first studio, so it was interesting to go back and find that there was stuff beforehand.
It’s much bigger than Fragments was, it tells a proper story, and it’s a mystery as well. So, I’m trying to use all the tools J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket have gifted me, and wrap it up with my L. Frank Baum, “tell the story you love”-ism, that I’ve learned through the years. I’ll put it out sometime next year [and] I’m having it illustrated, which is exciting, by Liam R. Findlay. I’m also having a great cover designed by Jordan Mullaney, who is a magnificent creature.
M: Wonderful. I have one last question.
R: I have a multitude of answers, I’m sure.
M: It’s kind of just to wrap everything up, and hopefully someone will read this and be inspired by your words. If you have advice for someone who wants to write – whether it’s a sketch, a novel, or funny tweet that they’ve been thinking about for awhile and haven’t had the courage to post – what would you tell them?
R: I would quote Captain Widdershins, from The Grim Grotto, book 11 [from a Series of Unfortunate Events] who said, “He or she who hesitates is lost” and while that does or doesn’t always work out, I think it’s a great phrase to remember when you’re writing something. The longer you wait the less time you have to do something. So there’s no reason to sit and think about, what’s going to happen if I write this thing down? Nothing bad can happen, from just getting your ideas on paper.
One of my other favorite phrases that I like to remind myself of is, “you can edit a draft, but you can’t edit a blank page.” So, just get it down, just start writing. It’s the hardest part, but just sit at a computer, sit at a whatever, and just start scribbling. Something will happen. And I know personally that’s the hardest part, just starting it. Because you have all these ideas, and you get hung up on what’s not good enough, and you just have to ignore that. You won’t ever be able to convince yourself that they’re good enough. You’re not gonna do that. Consistently anyway. One day you’ll think, “This is the greatest thing, since The Great Gatsby.” And then you think, “I need to burn this, and burn my face, and my hands, and make sure nobody ever looks at me again.”
But I think just convincing yourself that what you have to write is worth writing down, is the first thing. And that not everything is gold off the bat. And that’s okay. I’m not gonna write the next great American novel in my first draft. I might not even write it in my third draft, I might not even write it at all. But, I’ll have written something. And that’s better than a lot of people can say.
R: [sarcastically] And the essential thing is to better than other people.
M: They say that writing is steeped in narcissism.
R: And they’re correct.
M: Thank you so much for allowing me to talk to you.
R: Thank you for letting me.
M: You’re my first head writer, and my role model, and my friend. So I greatly appreciate it. You can buy Ryan’s novel Fragments from 5th Ave at Lulu and Amazon and follow him on Twitter for content that’s always 💯. And please watch this video of him, just for fun.
* Taylor Alison Swift is still very alive and is worth $250 million. She is just fine.
**Trevor™ is a sketch character I first created in 2014 who always has terrible and weird ways of doing things (whether it’s background acting, tap dancing, or haunted house scaring) but he always wins people over to his side in the end, because comedy. He’s like a son to me. A very dumb, fictional son, who was portrayed by Ryan on stage three times and was never seen again.