Credit: This article was originally published in US Represented — writer, Eric Stephenson
Rye Curtis will read from his novel Kingdomtide at the Pikes Peak Community College Downtown Studio Art Gallery on Wednesday, February 19th, at 7:00 p.m. Kingdomtide was named one of the best books of January 2020 by O, The Oprah Magazine. In the novel, 72-year-old Cloris Waldrip survives a devastating plane crash only to find herself lost in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. Park Ranger Debra Lewis, a woman struggling with addiction and relationship problems, refuses to give up the search for Cloris. Through intricate plot construction, rich language, wicked humor, and an unyielding refusal to succumb to conventional literary bromides, Curtis has created a story the reader wishes would never end. US Represented caught up with him for an interview to shed some light on his creative vision.
USR: Cloris Waldrip is a meaningful addition to the literary canon. Tell us a little about where she came from and how she evolved.
Rye Curtis: I came across a little black and white photograph in an old book my dad had out on the family ranch back in Texas. It was of a little old lady named Cloris. I’d known for a while I’d wanted one of my main characters to be an older Methodist Panhandle woman, but I expect it came together when I learned from that picture her name ought to be Cloris. Cloris needed to be somebody raised in a culture of black and white morality and conservatism (particularly from back then) in order to come up against the kind of questions I wanted the book to ask.
USR: Kingdomtide is an artful conflation of mystery, nature writing, action-adventure, comedy, absurdism, philosophical examination, and so on. Were there times when you wondered if you were going to be able to wrestle all these elements into place in a convincing manner?
Rye Curtis: Firstly, thank you. I hope I did wrestle them together in a convincing manner, or in some kind of manner. Truthfully, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about that particular aspect, the notion of combining differing generic elements. But I knew that I wanted the story to be engaging in the way adventure stories often are, and I wanted that to be something of a trick. To coax a reader to a place where they might eventually be left unsettled and hopefully entertained, but mostly unsettled. I’m usually most entertained by something when it unsettles me.
USR: The novel is also an intricate sequence of connections viewed from separate reference frames. Why did you choose this structure?
Rye Curtis: The two main characters are in constant reference to each other in some way or another, and I liked that this structure allowed for some thematic counterpoint to occur between the two halves. There are probably many reasons why I think it was an important structure, but if I spelled it all out, that might take some of the fun out of it.
USR: You use humor to great effect throughout the novel, from delicate, awkward intimacies to grisly physical encounters. How much of a pleasure is it to infuse a comic moment into a draft knowing that it will make your reader cringe and laugh at the same time?
Rye Curtis: That is likely the key to what I enjoy the most about writing. I prefer to have all comedy and sorrow folded into the same notion. I even find myself reading comedy into gravely serious works of any kind (even real life) that I’m told later are not intended to be funny at all. So it all goes together for me. I’m not interested in puffed up reverence.
USR: Did using a 1986 setting and Cloris’s subsequent reflections allow you more freedom for social commentary?
Rye Curtis: The time and Cloris’s age at that particular time are indeed meant to put her in a position to address certain changes in society and to get a good sense of the fear somebody her age might have glimpsing this future we’re living in.
USR: At one point, Cloris admits that she weeps mostly for herself, not others, and of course the novel is, in large part, her journey of discovery. How important is Cloris’s admission to our understanding of literature’s function?
Rye Curtis: Cloris is somebody who confronts nuanced and difficult notions and comes out reveling in her newfound ability to doubt and consider subtlety, and I think good literature often does that for people.
USR: Which authors have influenced you the most over the years? For instance, your ability to create eccentric yet sympathetic characters with implied secrets hidden just below the surface hints of Dickens.
Rye Curtis: I used to read a good deal of Dickens when I was little, but I think it’s a little hard for me to pick out authors that I’m influenced by. I willfully try not to think about that too much because I want to maintain a certain mode and not get confused during a project. I research certain elements of style in old newspapers and history books that I intentionally allow to influence me. But I’ve been told Charles Portis, and I do love Charles Portis, so I’m happy with that. Also I reckon Todd Solondz figures into it.
USR: You have a flair for nature writing, too. Are you close to the earth, and do you spend a fair amount of time in places like Bitterroot?
Rye Curtis: I grew up much of the time out on ranch in Texas mostly in the middle of nowhere, so I imagine that could have something to do with it. I do like being outdoors when I get the chance.
USR: Cloris, Debra, Bloor, Jill, and the others in Kingdomtide are part of a memory album that will seem alien in many ways to America’s grandchildren. Do you ever see yourself as a chronicler of an evaporating history that needs to be bottled and stored for future generations?
Rye Curtis: I think that goes in part with my own inclination toward looking at the weirdness in the past to assess the weirdness in the present. For whatever reason I have a great affinity for the old and the on-their-way-out.