Lisa: I’m so pleased to welcome author Ralph Josiah Bardsley to TNA. He’s got a brand new novel releasing today, A Careful Heart, from Bold Strokes Books, so let’s get started and get to know both the author and the book a bit better.
Welcome, Ralph. How about if we start out with you telling us a bit about yourself?
Ralph: Hi Lisa. Thanks for having me on TNA. I’m a huge fan of your site. A little bit about me? I’m an avid reader – I read mostly fiction, but recently have been getting into a little bit more non-fiction. I finished A Little Life and My Policeman most recently – both fascinating novels. I’m also in the middle of a biography of Juan Trippe – the founder of Pan Am.
When I’m not reading, I’m working or traveling. I love seeing new places, learning about new parts of the world and meeting new people. I’m a chronic runner – although as I navigate my early forties, maybe it’s safer to say I’m a jogger.
I live in San Francisco and Boston, and I’m married to my partner of 16 years.
Lisa: What book(s) and author(s) would you say influenced you to become a writer yourself?
Ralph: What a great question. Mary Renault’s novels had a big influence on me. In particular, The Charioteer and The Persian Boy, were my favorites. They were wonderfully written books – an amazing use of language – with characters that I couldn’t get enough of. I think The Charioteer is probably the most amazing love story I’ve ever read. I also grew up on many of the books we all read – Fitzgerald, Twain, Baldwin, Camus, Sartre… They all influenced me in various ways. Fitzgerald made me love glamor and attention to setting. Twain made me realize the power of detail in dialogue. Baldwin made me realize the power of struggle, passion and friction, and that not all good books have happy endings. Reading Camus and Sartre made me appreciated subtext in new ways and the power of burying a message in fiction.
Of course, all of that literary stuff aside, there is a great book called Write Your Novel This Year, which gave me a lot of the practical tools to get started years ago. I got that book for my birthday after a long time away from writing and it was the catalyst that pushed me to finish up my first book.
Lisa: Before we get to A Careful Heart, let’s start with your debut novel, Brothers. It was published in December of 2015, and then went on to garner some pretty impressive recognition, including it being a Lambda Literary Award finalist. What was your inspiration for the book?
Ralph: My family was really the inspiration for that book. While all the characters in the book are fictional, I pulled a lot from my life growing up and what it was like to be part of a large family. Brothers, in a lot of ways, is my favorite book. It’s about taking care of each other and about the responsibility we have for our siblings. The kernel of the book comes from something my mother used to always say to my brother and me – “Your first responsibility in this world is to your brother. You take care of him no matter what.” It made a big impression on me, and I wanted to write a story about how siblings take care of each other, accept one another’s differences, and clear a path for each other to become who they should be.
I have had a lot of amazing letters and emails about that book. I’m humbled by the reception it received and I’m so happy that it touched so many people.
Lisa: Had you written much before you sat down to pen Brothers? When did the writing bug officially bite?
Ralph: That’s kind of a funny story.
In my late twenties I was doing a lot of writing – both for work and in a writing group back in Boston called The Splinters. The Splinters were a lot of fun – and there have been a few successful authors who came out of it. Randy Susan Meyers and Leslie Talbot, both members of the group, have had a lot of success as writers. Chuck Leddy, another member, is a successful journalist. We had a lot of fun, but did a lot of writing as well.
When I turned thirty, I promised myself that I would do two things that decade. I would run another marathon and I would finish a novel. Well, my thirties turned out to be different than I expected. I focused on my career, working out and partying. The marathon was no big deal to accomplish, but I suddenly found myself 39 years old and not having written a single word of a novel. So I sifted through my notes from my days with the Splinters. I found the rough outline for Brothers – although at the time the title was “Arc of the Jump.” I wrote my ass off that year – every morning from 5am to 7am before work. Long story short, I submitted the manuscript to Bold Strokes Books and two weeks before my fortieth birthday, I had signed a contract with them for the book.
Lisa: Your second book, The Photographer’s Truth, made my Best of 2016 list. It’s such a gorgeous novel. Speaking as someone who’s never been to Paris, I have to say that when I was reading the book, it felt like you very well might have written it while sitting at a sidewalk café in the heart of the city. Have you been, or did you just do a lot of research to capture the essence of the setting?
Ralph: Thank you for the compliment. I put a lot of time into the settings in The Photographer’s Truth. Yes – I spent a lot of time in Paris for work while I was writing that book. It is actually inspired by a conversation I had with a stranger one night while eating alone in Paris. The stranger was a very successful photographer who had loved his work, but given it up out of creative frustration.
I love Paris. It is one of my favorite places in the world. The light there is like nowhere else – it’s softer, more luminescent and it makes you feel like you’re walking through some sort of alternate universe. I would recommend everyone go – but if you can, find someone to visit there or at least stay in an AirBnB type of place. Paris is no good for hotels. You need to experience it with people you know or at least in some great little apartment with a balcony where you can sit and sip coffee and gaze out over the city for hours on end.
Lisa: Though both books are about relationships, Ian and Luca’s story has a decidedly more romantic arc to it. One thing I’ve noticed you don’t do, however, is wrap everything up for your readers in a nice, tidy happily-ever-after bow. Why did you prefer to leave your characters on the cusp? Or, is it a preference at all?
Ralph: I love Luca and Ian – and I hate them. They’re these wonderfully dynamic characters that I got to spend a year with. The experience of writing them was more like meeting them and getting to know them than creating them. But they are both cowards in their own way – not in a bad way, they’re just so scared of the things we’re all scared of – love, responsibility, getting hurt.
You’re right – I try to avoid tying everything up in a happy ending for my readers. I like to give them a choice of what happens. In both Brothers and The Photographer’s Truth, I lead readers to a place where they can decide what they want to believe happens, although, Photographer is a little more open-ended. I feel like it empowers the reader in a way.
Lisa: Tell us a bit about A Careful Heart. What inspired the idea for the story?
Ralph: A Careful Heart is the story of two friends, Stephen and Travis who grown up together. They both end up in gay relationships with very different men. I don’t want to give too much away, but one relationship is very turbulent while the other ends up being very strong and sweet.
I was inspired by the dynamics between “best friends” – how one often seems to shine while the other is quieter or more subdued. Of course, this is a gross generalization – it just happened to be something I was noticing a lot during the creative process. I wanted to explore the idea of what happens with that relationship switches – when one friend goes from being the shiny penny to being the more subdued of the pair. In the end, there are similarities between this book and Brothers. The main characters end up taking care of each other throughout some pretty turbulent times.
Lisa: This is your second book with Boston roots. What makes it a particularly good place to set a story?
Ralph: I spent my twenties in Boston and I got to know the city really well. I was young there, with lots of friends and not a lot of money – so I walked everywhere. I got to know the streets and the bars and the parks really well. The imagery there is very strong for me. I still spend a lot of time in Boston, it’s still home. But I live most of the time in San Francisco now. The Photographer’s Truth had a lot of scenes in San Francisco. I tend to like to write about places I can drench the reader in.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany this year, so there might be something set in Dresden or Berlin coming up…
Lisa: What would you say are the easiest and most difficult parts of the writing process for you?
Ralph: Editing is by far the most difficult part. It takes more discipline than any other part. I do several rounds of editing myself, then my editor gets ahold of it and we go through another couple rounds. It is exhausting and by the time I’m finished I can’t stand to read another word.
I love the part of writing where I’m just creating new content. The first draft is always magical for me – there is a freedom to it that’s hard to describe – it’s like having the ability to shape your own world and in some small way, make it real by writing it down.
Lisa: Of all the characters you’ve written so far, which would you get along best with, and why?
Ralph: It would probably be Gabriel from A Careful Heart. He’s funny and humble and beautiful without realizing it. He is fiercely loyal and has a great sense of humor. I think he’s the kind of guy I would just like to hang out with for beers or go for a run with. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a cop – there’s a sense of vulnerability and danger in that part of him.
Lisa: Do you have any works in progress you’d like to talk about, maybe a tease about what you’re planning for your next book?
Ralph: Well, it’s a little early to talk much about it, but I mentioned Germany earlier in this conversation and I am working on something set there. I had the chance to spend some time in Dresden and Berlin this year and, well, there is so much excitement over there – especially in Dresden. It’s so different from what we’re experiencing here – in terms of art and writing and ideas. My interpretation – and there’s nothing to back this up – is that in the thirty or so years since the Wall came down, there has been this wave of creativity unleashed there. I’m trying to capture that in a manuscript I’m working on. But, I’m taking my time on this one. I worked insane hours on the first three books and so I’m taking it a little slower now.
Lisa: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. It’s been great to pick your brain just a little bit. Will you tell us where we can follow you in the internet?
Ralph: Thank you, Lisa. It has been great catching up with you! My website is ralphjosiahbardsley.com or you can follow me on Twitter – @ralphjosiahbardsley or @rjbardsley; Instagram – @RJBardsley; Facebook – Ralph Josiah Bardsley.
About A Careful Heart
Travis Gaines and Stephen Davis are as close as two best friends can be. Born less than a month apart, they grew up as neighbors in a small northern New Hampshire town. After college, they make their way together to Boston, craving the excitement and fast pace of New England’s biggest city.
As they get their bearings in Boston, Travis falls hard for Benson, a senior executive at the financial services firm where he works. Benson is wealthy, handsome, and well connected among Boston’s well heeled. At first it seems like Benson is everything a guy could ever want, but behind that glossy veneer is a dark side that threatens to tear Travis and Stephen’s friendship apart and change their lives forever.