I met Aaron Michael Ritchey at Mile Hi Con in 2012, in one of those author mixer venues. At a room party at the con, there were about half a dozen writers standing around drinking and conversing, and the topic of conversation went toward religion and spirituality. In a world that bears the odiousness of the Taliban, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals, it was easy for most of us to get pretty snarky on the subject of religion. And then Aaron asked the question of all of us: “Do you think religion has, cumulatively, a positive or a negative effect on the world?” The reply was a unanimous “negative.” Except for Aaron. And what followed was a thoughtful, civil discussion (how often does that happen around this topic?) about religion’s place and usefulness in the modern world, a discussion that left all of us thinking a little more deeply about things.
Aaron Michael Ritchey is a questing soul who likes to ask the hard questions–in real life and in his fiction. Last week marked the official launch of his YA novel Long Live the Suicide King, and reviews are good. This book seems to ask some of those hard questions.
TH: What is The Story of Aaron? A teenage angst-fest? A long winding urban fantasy road to redemption?
AR: No, man, it’s an Epic Fantasy! It’s the heroic story of an unlikely hero, growing up in suburbia, afraid of people, a denizen of a basement home where he watched waaaayyyy too much TV and played with Legos. And read books. Seriously, I never thought I would ever be writing novels, talking about my novels, and getting out into the world. I’ve spent much of my life afraid and looking for comfort. I’m totally a Bilbo Baggins. Not even a Frodo, man. Totally a Bilbo.
TH: You said you are a Bilbo. So, who or what pushed you out the writing door without your handkerchief? Who/what was the person, book or song that made you put pen to paper? Did thirteen dwarves show up at your door?
AR: Really, the whole thing started for me when a friend of my dad’s gave me A Princess of Mars when I was in the third grade. I wanted off this rock and soaring through the skies of Barsoom with Dejah Thoris.
But while I wanted fly away to Mars on my writing, I wouldn’t have left Bagend if it hadn’t been for a conversion experience I had when I was nineteen. I left for Tarsus as Saul and wound up as Paul. It was through that life-changing, catastrophic event where I reached out for help, well, that’s when the adventure started. I extended my arms to the red planet and wound up writing books.
AR: I walked out of kindergarten because on the first day, the teacher made it clear I wasn’t going to learn how to read that day. I remember thinking, “This is stupid. I can color at home.” Later, I wrote stories in elementary school. My favorite was about Little Bo Peep who hired a bounty hunter armed with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun to help find her lost sheep.
But I didn’t get serious about writing until my second daughter was born. She didn’t sleep. Neither did the first one. I was cracking apart in my suburban hell and I needed a purpose in life. I had always wanted to be a professional writer but never had the courage. My wife pointed me in the right direction, held my hand through the hard parts, and six years later of serious everyday type of writing, I got my first book published in 2012. The Never Prayer. I’m a later bloomer.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skills?
AR: The short answer. Yes. The long answer, I wrote a 500K epic fantasy/sci-fi/pseudo-religious trilogy that I spent seven years working on. Before that, I wrote a 150K postmodern literary fantasy novel (part Shakespearean play) that took me four years. I’ve penned a dozen other projects of various length. I’ve easily written and edited over a million words.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
AR: Dang. Can I skip this question? You really want to know? Do you? Do you?!? I want to write books I adore. I want to write books that move the world. And I want to publish those books, as many as I can, by any means necessary. I spent the summer working on a project that was my sell-out novel. I’m still editing it, but I don’t want to write books that I’m not excited about just because I think they might hit that Twilight market. No. Other people can write those kinds of books. They’ll do it better than me.
I want to write Aaron Michael Ritchey novels. What genre? Kind of YA, but edgy. Not inspirational, but grimly spiritual and oddly uplifting. Above all, I want to take this world, describe it as well as I can, and then bring in a wide array of speculative fiction’s tropes. I love me a good trope. I want to keep my books grounded in reality, but with an added special sauce. For example, I have this over-the-top-Laurence-Fishburne-as-Morpheus drug dealer in Long Live the Suicide King. It starts out in plain old suburbia, but then it gets this Pulp Fiction type of vibe. I love that. And in The Never Prayer, my heroine is just a typical girl surrounded by drug addicts in a crumbling Colorado mountain town and then I bring in demons and angels. Those are the kinds of books I want to write and yeah, I probably won’t make millions of dollars, but I want to shine with pride when I send my Aaron Michael Ritchey books out into the world.
See. Told you I should’ve skipped this question.
TH: In reference to the Never Prayer. YA paranormal romance has been very prevalent over the last few years with some big hitting sellers. What sets yours apart?
AR: I love my book. Do you know why I love The Never Prayer? It is gritty. It is real. It’s a young woman at the edge of self-destruction, running drugs for her dirtbag boyfriend, for pocket change, just so she can pay her rent. It’s not happy. And then the angels and demons come to feast. What sets my book apart? It’s an Aaron Michael Ritchey novel. I’m so proud of the books I’m publishing.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
AR: Oh, I used to love first drafts. I was the king of the first draft. Don’t make me edit!
Now I love to edit. I know, I’m odd. Things change. I was a total pantser, writing books by the seat of my pants. Now I plot books and I enjoy coming up on scenes I’ve been anticipating.
Best moment, though, is that I tie songs to different scenes in my books. I love it when I sit down to that perfect song to work on a scene. I have songs for the opening, songs for the climax, and songs for the denouement. I feel so rich when I write with music, those special scenes, and it really is magical.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as an writer? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
AR: Nothing will ever match holding my first book in my hands, with an ISBN number, with a cover, with a million hours of editing and revision. Nothing. And when someone fans out on me because I wrote a book they loved, well, it’s intoxicating.
I’ll never be where I want to be, but along the way, I’ve learned to enjoy moments of victory. Kirkus Reviews gave my upcoming novel, Long Live the Suicide King a glowing review. It was candy.
TH: Awesome cover on Suicide King. Very gritty and minimalist. More so than a lot of the YA covers out there. Was that intentional? How much input did you have?
AR: I had a ton of input. That’s the nice thing about working with small presses. The publisher and I chose the image from a selection and yeah, it’s dark, but there’s light because there’s a whole lot of light out there in this world. I’d be a fool to think there’s not.
TH: Some say that artists have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
AR: Yeah, I don’t want to, but I do. I’ve been working on some romances that don’t really fit the Aaron Michael Ritchey brand. I’m going to publish them under a pseudonym because they are different. Readers should expect gritty realism and magic from an AMR book. From my romances? Kisses and sighs and different kinds of stuff. I watched The Young and the Restless and All My Children growing up. So there is that side of me. I LOVE a good soap opera.
TH: What are the most effective ways you have found to promote yourself?
AR: I really, really like to handsell. Online, I do a bunch of stuff, but in person, talking to people about books, that’s really where I shine.
TH: Can you recall a moment when a two or more influences or inspirations came together and smacked you with a cool idea?
AR: I think in stories. I interpret the world in stories. I love ideas that set me on fire. For example, I wasn’t really excited about The Never Prayer until it struck me that my angel was an atheist. That idea exploded into my brain and I fell in love. For Long Live the Suicide King, I’ve spent many minutes of my life wanting to die, the dark moments in my epic fantasy – Bilbo in Mirkwood), and so I knew I had to write a book on suicide. But the story didn’t gel until I went for a long walk and came across a yappy little white dog and then, inspiration hit. I believe in walking out stories and ideas. But yeah, anything can get me fired up. I have hundreds of examples. I’ll stop here.
TH: You mention LOTR frequently. Favorite epic of all time?
AR: Of all time. Without a doubt. Starting in about the seventh grade, school would end and I would spend all of June reading The Hobbit through The Return of the King. My senior year in high school it was The Hobbit through The Silmarillion. The last time I read The Lord of the Rings, I was traveling through Africa and read about The Gray Havens in a guest house in Namibia. I cried and cried. Oh, how I long for the Gray Havens. I love the song “Into the West” by Annie Lennox.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as a writer?
AR: Really, there has been too many to count. It’s why I do it. It’s the daily victories that make it worthwhile. I’ve talked about the good stuff in my other answers. How about I do a bad one? If you want to be a writer, you have to have bad experiences or you’d be missing out on the whole deal. Part of writing books is being rejected and suffering.
I took my first novel to a writers conference and I was so excited and so naïve. I thought they would want me to print it out right away. So I brought a printer. A literary agent sat down with me and she had read the first twenty pages and she tore me apart. Reduced me to ashes. I will never forget how completely wiped out I was afterwards. It was a death. I was killed. And at the same time, I was reborn.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
AR: Uh, one of my problems is that I write way too many books all at the same time. I’m working on a couple of romances, one with a writing partner, which is SOOOO much fun. Long Live the Suicide King will be released on April 3, 2014. My pre-sales page is up and the reviews have been grand, as I mentioned.
I have a wonderful YA novel that I’m working with another small press on and it’s like Letters to Julia meets The Fisher King. An overweight girl and her grandmother travel to France to reunite the old woman with her lover from World War II, who may or may not be a sorcerer prince from another world. Elizabeth’s Midnight! I love that book!
And I’m working on book two of an epic YA sci-fi/western that’s also steampunky. It’s my next massive, awesome, long, epic trilogy. Once I get all three books written, I’ll publish them each three months apart. It has all the stuff I love in books: love, guns, morally ambiguous characters, addicts, alcoholics, atheists, priests, and a world in peril! Not sure what the series will be called yet, but the books, in order have working titles: Dandelion Iron. Thistle Thrones, Sagebrush Hymnal.
I wanted to call the series Dandelions, Guns, and Little Lost Souls but no one likes the title except for me. It’s like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but different.
TH: You say you’re working on some romances & a YA sci fi/western. Do you feel like your readership will accept such different genres from you? Often times when authors make extreme shifts, their readers rebel! (Anne Rice when she went from Vamps to stories of Jesus as a kid, J.K. Rowling her first non-Potter book out the gate, etc.)
AR: The thing about being small potatoes is that I have far more freedom with what I write and how I write it. If I hit it big in any one genre, I’d write that genre for the duration. I’d be okay with that. I love the process. I always fall in love with what I’m working on, and I could write pretty much anything and enjoy it. Inspiration sweet middle grade puppy stories? Oh yeah.
I am going to release my romances under a pseudonym, though, because they are such a complete departure from the books I’ve been writing. However, my YA sci-fi western steampunk family drama romance epic is a total Aaron Michael Ritchey book.
TH: Is the single season of Firefly worth the lifetime of withdrawal?
AR: Let me tell ya, I hope there is no more Firefly because it is perfect the way it stands. From Serenity the pilot, to Serenity the movie, it is perfection. But then, Joss Whedon was arguably doing the best work of his life, each week, trying to make it better and better to avoid being cancelled. That desperation, that artistic madness, shows. It was creating at gunpoint and that Joss Whedon is a genius. I wasn’t going to write my epic sci-fi western until I watched Firefly. A show which was cancelled. A show, by all accounts, that should’ve disappeared as a failure. But it was brilliant. It’s the Sistine Chapel of television art. Joss Whedon gave me the courage to spend literally thousands of hours of my life working on a project I adore more than sleep, more than health, more than my good sense.
Let’s see, Star Trek went off the air in 1969. Star Trek:The Next Generation premiered in 1987. Hmm. That’s eighteen years. The Firefly movie seemingly wrapped up the series in 2005. So yeah, 2023, I can see it. Only nine more years to go. I’m a liar. More Firefly!