Ottawa Writers Fest: The name is the game for Naben Ruthnum/Nathan Ripley

Naben Ruthnum/ Nathan Ripley. Photo: Ian Patterson

What does a person do, who wants to write serious literary fiction and also chilling thrillers? If you are Naben Ruthnum you get a pen name.

So far so good for Ruthnum. He’s published two thrillers that are attracting a goodly amount of attention. Both are written under the name Nathan Ripley. The first is called Find You in the Dark and it was a successful release. His second is out now and is also attracting attention. Your Life Is Mine (Simon & Schuster) is the story of the daughter of a mass murderer whose bloody legacy just won’t die.

Ruthnum will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 28 talking about his new novel and himself. he’ll also be on a panel with Lynn Coady and Jessica Westhead.

The Ripley novels have been influenced by the real events that are impacting the zeitgeist.

“Find You in the Dark, was drawn from true crime. I lived in Vancouver throughout the Picton years so this was on everybody’s mind.

“But I didn’t want to write a tasteless entertainment about the deaths of real people. So I found this premise about people who were fascinated by true crime. This was just to the left of being able to write a social realist book about those kinds of writers.”

In the case of Your Life Is Mine, he said he was thinking about the kind of “idiot male group violence that has led to these seemingly unstoppable shootings in the U.S. I wanted to write, again, something that didn’t glorify those guys or look at the lives of specific victims. I wanted to have an animated cast of people who had all been affected by that kind of violence in different ways.”

Fiction always has a knack of getting at a truth in a way that the strictures of journalism, say, can sometimes prevent.

For Ruthnum, fiction “has always been my best path to finding out what I actually think of those things and how I can talk about them.”

Even though, he has published a collection of essays called Curry: Eating Reading and Race (Coach House Book), “I am not a good essayist on social topics. I find that I lack the authority. I can never convince myself that I know what I am talking about.”

In Curry, he was was talking about his culture and about himself, but he said he felt he couldn’t write a book explaining what to do about mass shootings in the U.S. So far he’s not alone.

However, “I can write from this place of despair and helplessness that the characters occupy.”

For a guy who loves the work of the writer Patricia Highsmith, the name Ripley is not a nod to her infamous character Tom Ripley.

“You’d think it would be because she is one of my favourites, but I made it up in high school.” It’s actually a hat tip, he said, to Ellen Ripley from the Alien series of movies. Nathan sounds like his real name Naben.

For Ruthnum, the pen name was an uncomplicated decision. He said he knew he wanted to write pop fiction as well as literary fiction and screenplays.

To avoid confusion he thought, “I’ll just pick two names.”

Then, he said, another consideration was his heritage, which makes his poublic persona as an author more complicated, he added.

“Which is in part why I wrote Curry, as sort of a manifesto of how these choices make sense and how the perceptions of the kind of writing someone who looks like me is supposed to do” can confuse the wider world.

There are many prominent South Asian writers in Canada and around the English speaking world. Many deal with the immigrant experience or recount stories from home. These are great books, Ruthnum said.

“So many of those books are authentic to them and important,” he said, but they aren’t for him. He has chosen a different path in his thrillers or in his other work.

“I am in the middle of a literary fiction book and it isn’t the kind of book that we are talking about now, but there is a central South Asian character. There is stuff about emigration but it would not fit on the same shelf as what I call the “curry” books certainly.”

One of the reasons he doesn’t explore these experiences is nurture.

“My family has a different attitude towards immigration. There are emigrés who are longing to escape and don’t much miss the homeland they left behind. Then are those who actively miss where they came from and frequently visiting home is part of their immigration journey.

“My parents are in the first category. That complicated my relationship with the homeland. Nostalgia was never a huge part of it. That right away is how am I going to write about this. Most importantly I know so little about Mauritius where my family is from. I know more about what it is like to be a teacher or a cop (in North America) than I know what it’s like to be a shopkeeper in Mauritius.” The last time he was in Mauritius he was nine.

Ruthnum believes his pen name liberates him.

“I really do think the name thing frees me enough that I will be able to get a manuscript out under Naben Ruthnum and have it looked at as an exciting next step in a career.”

Before Curry was published Ruthnum burst on the scene by winning the Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for 2013 for the short story Cinema Rex.

That opened the door to agents and publishers but, he said he was then surprised that “there were agents and publishers who were put off by the fact that I was writing thrillers. It wasn’t what they were expecting. It’s important to note that the Nathan Ripley books both sold to Atria a Simon & Schuster imprint in the U.S. before they sold here.”

Publishers have boxes that they like to put people in. Ruthnum sees in that a sinister edge to diversity. “Often times it is made to look the same.”

He also believes that thrillers can be serious fiction too.

In Your Life Is Mine, his characters are archetypes of our modern world: the predatory journalist, the police officer with a motive, the mass murderer, the cult. And then there is the hero, Blanche, the daughter who is trying to confront the terrible manipulation her father imposed upon her and her mother.

“Thrillers lend themselves to complexity because you need so many threads pulling on your protagonist. You need so many different pressures, different suspects and different directions to the plot to keep the reader (and the writer) engaged.”

Ruthnum did investigate the world of the alt right message boards. His puzzle to crack was “How do I make 8chan message boards into real people? How do I make that sort of influence and universal agreement among men into characters?

“There is no parallel for that in the current age of mass shootings because these incidents are so horrific and stupid. There is no psychological complexity or background to look into.

“I think about how dumb it is and how helpless I feel about it in the face of reading the news sometimes day after day. That’s how I came to it. In that sense there is sort of a fantasy aspect to the book. What if a person could actually do something to stop this? It does look like relentless violence that isn’t attached to any human being that could be stopped.”

This book, he said, was prompted by the murder of elementary school children in Newtown,  Connecticut, he said. “I don’t there has ever been a worse, more distressing thing in the news.”

He also wanted to make sure that his protagonist was someone who didn’t necessarily care who these killers were or who was coming from a place of sympathy.

“This is why I think a lot people have trouble with the new Joker film.

He is a “big movie guy,” he said. But in his writer mode he’s much more influence by books.

He says he is also an instinctive writer, at least when he starts a book.

“A lot of the decisions (that seem more calculated) are third or fourth draft decisions. My favourite times when I’m writing are when I am pushing the story ahead and pushing the character ahead.”

Ruthnum has many writers that he has paid attention to. Two books by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are important.

He also gives props to Hanif Kureishi, who was as eclectic as Ruthnum aims to be. Kureishi wrote screenplays, novels, essays and pornography. He also returns a lot to Henry James and Stephen King.

“King’s best horror, Carrie and The Shining, do have the same depth and layers that a literary novel does.”

In town: Naben Ruthnum/Nathan Ripley will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 28. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.