A story that came from a song
Musician Josh Ritter makes a lyrical fiction debut
Josh Ritter is a writer’s writer, a singer-songwriter whose lyrics have always reflected a love of reading and enthusiasm for learning. So it wasn’t a surprise when the Idaho-born Ritter announced a book was in the works.
“Books have always been such a huge part of my life, and my own writing,” Ritter says during a telephone interview from his Brooklyn apartment. “Normally, when people ask me about my influences, they just always assume I’m influenced by other songwriters. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. It’s always been about writers of any kind. Aside from all the other things that happen in life, writers of any kind can influence.”
Just as Ritter’s inspiration is drawn from both books and music, the story that became his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, started with a song. While writing 2010’s So Runs the World Away, his sixth full-length studio album, Ritter began crafting a song about a man who occasionally heard an angel. “I’d been thinking about when angels show up. It’s often not an uncomplicated thing,” explains Ritter, who points out that much of literature softens angels’ appearances, while religious texts show them in more startling contexts.
“A novel, I always felt like it was something that could be unfolded from a song. You go through a door, and a novel is describing everything you find behind there.”
But the story wouldn’t stay within the bounds of a single song. “This song felt like there was more there than I could fit without the structure collapsing,” he says. So Ritter began to explore writing a novel. “As time went on, the song totally disappeared. It bore no relation to what I ended up with, but it was a good starting point.”
Henry Bright, the protagonist of Bright’s Passage, was followed home from World War I by an angel, which now speaks through Henry’s horse. After Henry’s wife dies in childbirth, the angel tells him to burn and leave his home before a neighbor tries to take away the child, whom the angel calls “the future king of heaven.” The novel follows Henry as he travels, on foot, away from both the ensuing wildfire and the neighbor.
It’s fitting that Bright’s Passage began life as a lyric; though his songs vary greatly in structure and subject matter, Ritter is a master of the story song. “The Temptation of Adam,” from 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and So Runs the World Away’s “The Curse,” among others, play like short stories set to music.
“I always had sort of blithely said—and believed, without really totally examining it—the idea that a good song should be able to be unfolded into a much larger story. I think a song is a tool. It’s a hallway. You’re building a hallway, and when we listen to a song, we can walk down a hallway into all the worlds of our own minds. There’s no directing traffic there, and at a certain point you’re off into your own thoughts. That’s an amazing, beautiful thing about a song,” Ritter says. “A novel, I always felt like it was something that could be unfolded from a song. You go through a door, and a novel is describing everything you find behind there.”
In Bright’s Passage, Henry spends a great deal of time on his own as he traverses West Virginia. During World War I flashbacks, Henry’s internal monologue remains the story’s engine, though he is surrounded by his fellow soldiers. During the two months Ritter spent writing the book’s first draft, and the subsequent year of editing, he was similarly surrounded by people on tour and isolated as he wrote. “On the road, you have some chunks of time that are best filled with that sort of thing, mornings or after sound check,” Ritter recalls. “In the end, [writing a book] is a more lonely process than writing songs or writing a record and recording. You’re by yourself.”
Ritter worked to create in Henry a character that was a blank, a person with the “thousand-yard stare” of someone focused on putting together a jigsaw puzzle, solving a problem on his own. The reader is left to puzzle out what happened to Henry to leave him with an angel guiding his life.
With the novel’s publication, Ritter will now sort through a labyrinth of overlapping book and concert tours, with summer dates scheduled across the United States and in Canada.
“I remember the first time I ever got a record back, and how nervous I was, and this was an equal level of nerves,” Ritter says. “At a certain point, you start to miss that nervous feeling, the nervousness of the idea that stuff could go totally wrong. This book has been a great reintroduction to that kind of excitement.”
Carla Jean Whitley writes about books, music and culture in Birmingham, Alabama.