"Your brain is always mashing things together that have happened to you," said Benjamin Rybeck, marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Tex. On June 14, readers will have a chance to see how Rybeck's mind mashes things together, when Unnamed Press will publish his debut novel, The Sadness.
The Sadness is the story of a 30-year-old woman named Kelly who returns home to Portland, Maine, to ask for money from her estranged but wealthy father. Instead, she reunites with her twin brother, Max, who's squatting in their deceased mother's home and with whom she also has a difficult relationship. As Portland prepares for an annual celebration of a famous cult film shot there, Kelly and Max begin searching for a missing actress who was part of that film. Despite the mystery that runs through the novel, Rybeck noted that it isn't a detective or noir novel.
"[Kelly and Max] have reached the point in their lives, which I and a lot of my friends have reached at different points, where you look around and realize you're supposed to be an adult but have no idea how the world actually works," he explained. "It's really about that moment."
Despite there being many parallels between The Sadness and his own life--for example, Rybeck's own hometown is Portland, Maine, and his teenage obsession with film resembles the character Max's obsession with the medium--he said that nothing in the novel is explicitly autobiographical. "Everything that one writes comes from something," Rybeck added. "Your brain just swallows these things up."
Before moving to Houston and joining Brazos Bookstore in 2014, Rybeck lived in Arizona and taught creative writing and composition at the University of Arizona, where he had earned an MFA in creative writing. Rybeck described himself as a relative latecomer to writing fiction. He'd written throughout his teenage years but at that time was much more interested in film. "Primarily what I was writing at that point were screenplays," he recalled. "For many, many movies that went unproduced."
When asked about some of his literary influences, Rybeck pointed to the work of novelist and critic Steve Erickson, who he called an unsung contemporary master. "For a long time, as someone who loved film, I struggled to find authors who wrote about film in a convincing way," he said. "Erickson made me think you could do this."
The Sadness took Rybeck some three and a half years to write, although it has its roots in a project that Rybeck began more than 10 years ago, while he was still in college. That version of the book, he recounted, reached a length of 1,200 pages, about 900 of which he described as "somebody walking around and thinking about things." Nevertheless, a kernel of that manuscript stayed with him over the next decade and beyond. "It gnaws at you. And finally you have to give in and write," he said.
In June, Rybeck plans to have a launch party in Houston at Brazos and will do readings at a few stores throughout Texas, including BookPeople in Austin and the Wild Detectives in Dallas. Later in the summer, he'll head to Maine and his hometown bookstore Longfellow Books, with stops at a few other stores in the northeast. Rybeck pointed out that June 14, the pub date for The Sadness, is also Flag Day. "I have to find a promotional crossover with Flag Day," Rybeck added, laughing.
With the release of The Sadness only a month and a half away, Rybeck has begun working on other writing projects, but said it was difficult to move on completely. "The Sadness feels like it isn't over yet," he said. "It's tough to commit to a new long-term relationship when you're still moving furniture out of your ex's apartment."
Rybeck is looking forward to the time when The Sadness will finally be in stores and out in the wild. "I'm at the point now where other people will tell me what the book is," he explained. "You spend a long time writing something and you can't see it anymore. I'm hoping this process allows me to see it again." --Alex Mutter