By Leslie Lindsay
An intimate portrayal of one boy’s search for his place in this world, connection, intimacy, and, ultimately, love.
Add in the complexities of grappling with one’s sexual identity, the allure and anonymity of the Internet, and yet the isolating power of bullies, drama, and tragedy all lurk there and in one’s own backyard.
Meet Ricky Graves: He’s vulnerable. He’s confused. He’s reaching out. What does that even mean, ‘reaching out,’ he wonders? But he’s there, on-line. A gay chat room. A cyber crush. A call for help. And yet…
Told in alternating POVs of six intertwining lives, THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES is about our relationships with one another, with social media, the faces we show to the real world, and the ones we must confront in our darkest moments.
Sparked by the 18-year old Rutgers student (Tyler Clementi) who was a victim of a horrific act of cyber-harassment and humiliation, THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES (Little A Publishing, December 1, 2017), touches on the “It Gets Better Project,” survivors, and the ultimately—love and friendship.This is a tough read. But it’s so, so important. As the first interview of 2018, I challenge you to look within, seek a deeper meaning, and realize that kindness, empathy, and karma are all part of this life, however brief.
Please join me in welcoming James Han Mattson to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: James, I was so taken with THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES It pulled me in right away. You bring such compassion and depth to the story. What propelled you?
James Han Mattson: Thank you! I prefer writing stories about people on the fringes, and as you mentioned earlier, the Tyler Clementi case inspired the book’s beginnings. I wanted to somehow meld the themes of bullying, culpability, and technology, but I wanted to do so in a non-didactic way—there’s enough written on the inherent dangers of social media, the insidious effects of bullying, and the fault of (insert issue here) for America’s violent crimes. My main aim, then, was to complicate these ideas and show them in a more nuanced light: sometimes the bullied becomes the bully, sometimes nobody and everybody is at fault, and sometimes technology helps and harms.
“Mattson’s first novel is an excellent, character-driven work of literary fiction that will continue to resonate with the reader long after the final page.” —Booklist
L.L.: I had to remind myself that THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES was not a memoir. Can you talk about how you brought such authenticity to the narrative?
James Han Mattson: Authenticity is tricky to talk about, especially when discussing fictional characters. It often gets construed in umbrella-experience terms, assigning categories to complex existences. For example, I often get asked how I write women, how I’m able to write about an experience I know nothing about personally, and my response is usually: I don’t “write women.” I don’t actually know what that means. Every woman is unique, and is a culmination of myriad factors, so to say that someone, especially a man, “gets” the “female experience” is really short-sighted. I write characters, and I try to write characters with rich interior lives, and while race, gender, and sexual orientation, curate these characters’ lives, the demographic details are not all-defining—what’s more important to me is painting a holistic, complicated life, focusing both on how characters perceive the world and how the world perceives them.
L.L.: Since the book is inspired by the case of Tyler Clementi, the college student who took his own life due to gay bullying and humiliation, it is not exactly that story. Can you tell us more? What research did you do?
James Han Mattson: This book is very voice-driven—each section is told by a different character in first person. As such, I needed to really “hear” the voices. I spent three summers in southern Maine, mostly just listening to the people around me, noting voice inflections, cadences, and tics. Since the story takes place in present day, I didn’t have to do a whole lot of historical research, and the town itself is fictional, so I just had to make sure I understood it spatially. (I drew a couple maps.)
L.L.: What do you hope others take away from THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES? And what might we do to prevent such atrocities from happening?
James Han Mattson: I’d love if the book elicited some nuanced conversations about the three themes I mentioned earlier—bullying, technology, and culpability. I don’t have a tidy answer regarding teen bullying/suicide prevention, but I do think a good place to start is through deep, penetrative self-examination—that is, understanding the differences between current adult selves and former adolescent selves. Momentarily seeing the world through former adolescent eyes before reaching out to troubled teens will enlarge empathy, and perhaps generate efficacious suicide prevention programs.
L.L.: Switching gears a bit, I understand you semi-recently traveled to Seoul, South Korea to reunite with your biological family after nearly thirty years separation. What was that experience like and does it have any place in a future book?
James Han Mattson: The experience was very intense. I was there for two years, and it took a huge toll on me, both mentally and physically. I’m not sure if I’ll write a book about it specifically (though I think about it from time to time), but themes of alienation, isolation, and cultural ambiguity always tend to creep into my work.
L.L.: What’s on your literary to-do list this year? Books to read, classes to teach, writing to do? Something else?
James Han Mattson: I’m so far behind on reading, but I’m going to make sure I finish at least 25 books this year. I just started Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and am really enjoying it. I’m also excited to read Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know. Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing, Taylor Brown’s River of Kings, and Oliver Sacks’ The River of Consciousness are also on my list. (Admittedly, I’ve already read Sightseeing, but I found the stories so beautiful and evocative that I can’t wait to read them again.) I hope to finish a draft of my new novel sometime next fall—an ambitious goal, I understand, but I’m hoping this summer will prove productive.
L.L.: James, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked about, but may have forgotten?
James Han Mattson: I can’t think of anything off hand! Thank you for asking such incisive questions!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Han Mattson was born in Seoul, Korea and raised in North Dakota. A Michener-Copernicus Fellowship recipient and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has taught at the University of Iowa, the University of Cape Town, the University of Maryland, the George Washington University, and the University of California – Berkeley. He has worked as a staff writer and editor for Pagoda Foreign Language Institute, the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, and Logogog – South Africa. In 2009, he traveled to Korea and reunited with his birth family after 30 years of separation. His first novel, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves,was an Amazon Literature and Fiction Pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, a Publishers Lunch Bookseller Pick, a Kindle First Pick, and was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He currently lives in Maryland.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media sites:
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Little A/Shreve Williams Public Relations. Author image credit: Tara Mattson; used with permission. ‘Not Going to Be Easy’ retrieved from , Southern Maine coastal town image retrieved from ]