IN JIM RULAND’S entertaining novel Forest of Fortune, readers are introduced to a multitude of characters that circle their own hopes, dreams, and fears amid the backdrop of a casino set in the desert. Readers are given security camera access to the lives of its characters, watching them gamble with more than just money they don’t really have or can’t afford to spend. But this is not your average casino story: ghosts, legends, and mystery darken and curl at its edges. Desperation and the humor in desperation run amok in the novel, which is now out in paperback from Tyrus Books.
Jim Ruland is also the author of the short story collection Big Lonesome, the co-author of Giving the Finger with Scott Campbell Jr., and the founder and host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount. I recently talked to Jim about Forest of Fortune, programming a long-running reading series, 10 million mutant cockroaches, and cake.
WENDY C. ORTIZ: What was the impetus for Vermin on the Mount?
JIM RULAND: Anger. Ignorance. Fear. The usual emotions that accompany a leap into the unknown. My friend Todd Taylor, who publishes the punk rock zine Razorcake, asked me to help organize a reading for Joe Meno, who was touring to promote Hairstyles of the Damned. I knew from the start that I wanted the reading to include more than just our little circle of punk rock writers. I’d just been to an event featuring Lawrence Weschler that was organized by the Otis College of Art and Design at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown, and I fell in love with the place. The fact that the bar was footsteps from where the Hong Kong Café and Madam Wong’s used to be was very appealing to me. I talked to one of the owners about having a reading there and he was all for it. It was his idea to make it a series before we even had the first one. That was back in August 2004.
Have you ever worked with another writer on the series programming, or do you program and produce it alone? If you’ve done both, do you have a preference?
Every Vermin is a collaboration of one sort or another. With the venue, the readers, and the people in the audience. I couldn’t do it alone. I have worked with lit mags and small presses and other entities in the past and will do so again. Razorcake is a big supporter and frequent collaborator. My only preference is for people to do what they say they’re going to do.
Yes! I’m all for people following through! How has the reading series changed over the past decade?
To be honest, other than the venue, it really hasn’t changed much. I’ve changed more than the series has. Some of things that make Vermin different — readings from mixed genres, the punk-inspired poster, free book raffle, and delicious cake — have been regular features from the beginning. Or at least semi-regular. Vermin is allergic to the status quo.
I missed the delicious cake at the last one I went to. Damn it.
We had a really good run in Chinatown with the amazing Wonder Bakery right there in the square on Gin Ling Way, but I’ve had to improvise with all of the moving around we’ve done in recent years. I need to find a spot in Highland Park.
I’ve noticed Vermin is going international? How did that come about?
Louis Armand, a member of the Legion of Vermin who helps organize the Prague Microfestival, invited me. Every year they kick off the festival with a prose night, and Vermin is collaborating. While I’m there, I’m going to go on a mini tour with some other expats, like Thor Garcia, who has also read at Vermin before. In addition to Prague, we’re going to Berlin, London, and Brno. Brno! I’m really excited.
Do you see yourself doing the series five years from now? If so, where would you like it to go next?
Absolutely. I don’t want it to “go” anywhere. Even if it’s just me and some writers in a bomb shelter and 10 million mutant cockroaches at the door, I’ll keep doing it. I refuse to quit. I want to keep it irregular and irreverent. I’ll keep making posters and T-shirts, but instead of scheduling events more frequently with more established writers, I’d like to make things more spontaneous and more unpredictable. More artful. More, dare I say it, dangerous. Less AWP, more Burning Man. I feel a manifesto coming on … How about you? We’ve been doing this for about the same length of time, no?
Yes — 10 years as of 2014. I like what you say about making things more spontaneous — this is exactly how I’ve approached programming Rhapsodomancy in 2015. I realized I wanted more conversation between the writers and the audience, so now we’re experimenting with a new format to get this going.
Loneliness is like a persistent and pervasive weather pattern in the landscape of Forest of Fortune, sometimes driving characters toward certain decisions. I can’t help but be reminded of the title of your first book, the collection Big Lonesome, and wonder if you see a relationship between the two books?
Definitely. Big Lonesome is the name of a town in the story that anchors the collection. Everybody is lonely in Big Lonesome, desperately so, which is also the nature of casinos. Collective loneliness. Everyone together alone. There are exceptions, most notably in the bingo hall and at the poker tables, which inspire a kind of camaraderie. But on the floor everyone is brutally alone as they plug into the machine and wait for their fortunes to change. There can only be one winner and usually it’s the house.
“Everyone together alone” — also makes me think of the internet.
Despair is like a character in Forest of Fortune that has a deceptively humorous underbelly. The equilibrium between humor and despair in the storytelling was on point. How did you maintain such a balance?
Thank you! I wanted to make people laugh but I think a work loses something when it’s always going for the joke, you know? The equilibrium is what makes it funny. Shakespeare did it. The ancient Greeks did it. Same old seesaw.
Did you do any kind of research to create some of the storylines and characters that appear in Forest of Fortune? If so, what did it entail?
I worked in an Indian casino for five years, so that’s a kind of research, but not one that I would recommend to anyone ever. Like you, I did a dispatch for McSweeney’s, but I wrote mine under a pseudonym, because I was afraid I’d lose my job, which shows you what a timid, fearful soul I was. I’m publishing those dispatches in a zine called THIS IS NOT A CAMERA and giving them away at readings this spring. They’re also available online for under a buck.
I see parallels between the (micro-) casino culture of Forest of Fortune and (macro-) American culture, especially in late capitalism. Do you imagine casino culture as metaphor entering more of your future work?
That’s an interesting question. My tenure at the Indian casino coincided with the recession, and I could definitely see that dynamic in play. When people stopped spending money, the casino business noticed immediately. No economic indicator is more bottom line than coin-in-machine. We were the canary in the coalmine, so to speak. As someone who is perhaps less risk averse than the average consumer, I think it’s a good bet that I’ll return to that dynamic in my work. I’m fascinated by people who get to a certain point in their lives and say, You know, I’ve worked hard, received many blessings, blah blah blah, but right now I’m just gonna say fuck it and take a chance. Those people are irresistible to me.
How close do you feel to your characters? What kinds of relationships do you develop with them when you’re working on a project?
I get very close, but it takes a while. I love story and narrative and plot. The mechanics of the situation. When I start a project, I have a sense of what it’s going to be about. The characters, however, are a mystery to me. I experiment with voice and it deepens from there. Writing is a way of getting to know these people who populate the narrative, find out what they are like, see what emerges as a result of whatever constraints I’ve consciously or unconsciously placed on the composition.
How do you leave a book behind when you’re finished or when it’s out in the world? Can you? Do you?
I can’t, and I don’t. I have an idea for a sequel to Forest of Fortune where the chairman of the tribe, who is a minor character in the novel, becomes a major character. I’m definitely not done with that place. But it goes deeper than that. I love writers whose works illuminate windows of a larger, connected universe. Andrew Barrett. Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Punk rock concept albums. I loved it when stories connect in unexpected ways. There’s a brand of whiskey that’s mentioned in one of the stories in Big Lonesome — Chadwick’s Unadulterated Irish Whiskey — and I put it in Forest of Fortune, and I’ve put it in other novels and other stories. I’m going to keep doing it until it exists as a real product, at which point I will relapse and die.
Please don’t die. What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel in stories that deals with pets, pet-sitting, and the strange things that occur when you inhabit a place that is not your own, which is a fancy way of saying I’ve written a book about cats. I also have a more traditional novel in the works that’s an anti-dystopian deal about the breakdown of the health care system. You know, future realism.
Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books) and the forthcoming Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press). She co-founded the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, which she has curated and hosted since 2004 in Los Angeles.