Ryan Dunlap is an innovative author, filmmaker, and marketer who has taken full advantage of new media tools and technologies to advance his unique brand of introspective and well-structured stories. Modern storytellers who are interested in writing and finding an audience in our highly-competitive media landscape would do well to take a page out of Ryan’s book…so to speak.
Ryan has self-published two steampunk novels, The Wind Merchant and The Reclaimer, as well as an illustrated children’s book, The Littlest Clockwork (a favorite in my home). Ryan has also received acclaim for his widely-viewed short film, Leave Me, and has released his first feature film, Greyscale. Yes, Ryan is a very busy guy! Most recently, Ryan won a publishing deal contest from JukePop Serials and 1888center, and his winning novella, The Goldfish, is now available for purchase in print or Kindle formats. Ryan was kind enough to share some insights into his work and process with Legendarium Media.
Writing is hard! Why do you do it?
While I was writing The Goldfish, I came to the realization that I write cautionary tales for myself. I think for stories to really resonate, they have to come from an honest, relatable place, and the stories I’ve told that are reflections of what I’m personally wrestling with are the pieces that connect the most with readers. By the end of the process, I come out feeling more self-aware and like I’ve been able to better handle the struggle.
That probably comes off as selfish, but early on in my storytelling career, I co-wrote a short film that received a comment from a guy on another continent who left work early and bought flowers for his wife. I feel like good stories make us want to be better people after they’re done with us, and great stories make us act on those desires. I’m not saying my work was a piece of staggering genius, but it did connect with him in a practical way that hopefully improved his relationship with his wife. If I can process life better through writing and it resonates with others, then that’s a win-win. Otherwise, I feel like I’m wasting my time sequestering myself away from loved ones.
But when a good story idea comes slamming in, you have to at least write the idea down. The concept for The Goldfish originated when my second daughter was about to be born, but my phone was full of pictures of my firstborn. In order to make room for new memories, I had to delete old ones. All good stories thrive on conflict of choosing the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils, so my story radar went off. Then, I started to consider how our brains get wired for efficiency and are more likely to remember reference points than the actual information…and so a story about a more concrete relationship between our devices and our curated memories came forward.
You’ve got a full-time job and a family, so how do you make time to write?
Time travel. Seriously though, my writing output has decreased significantly since our children entered the scene, and I’m totally fine with it. The Goldfish is largely about me trying to reconcile how I spend my time, what memories I’m creating, and how that affects my family. I used to be able to write in the mornings, but both of my girls are early risers, so I have to work in short bursts during lunch breaks, commutes, and grabbing time in the evenings if my brain is still willing to produce anything of value at the end of the day.
How did you get into sci-fi?
When I wrote as a child, I wrote Star Wars fan-fiction before I knew fan-fiction was a thing. That epic scope of anything being possible spoke to me and I basically Mary Sue’d a character for myself to play in that world. This got me into online forum-based Star Wars roleplaying games (sorry Mom and Dad for doing this at a time when the internet tied up the phone line and had an hourly rate…), which got me into reading more science fiction.
I love it when science-fiction is less about the gee-whiz technology and instead speaks more directly to our humanity. It lets us play in a more grounded world of ‘what if,’ and with all of the technology that has developed in the last 10-20 years, I already feel like I’m living in the future.
Who are some of your greatest storytelling influences (writers, filmmakers, etc.)?
I remember watching Christopher Nolan’s Memento in college when someone stuck it into my dorm lobby DVD player, and I had no idea what I was in for. That led to me staying up until 3 a.m. with my mind blown that a story could stick with me for so long as I would continue to delve into searching for answers and meaning within the story. Now that I’m considering it, it probably played a bigger influence on the theme of The Goldfish than I had anticipated. So, I love Christopher Nolan’s stories, and I treat them like mind puzzles. Once I know one has been announced, I won’t let myself watch the trailers in case it would spoil anything for me, and then I go to the first showing possible to go in completely blind and ready for some fun.
C.S. Lewis has had a hold on me since I was a child, but only when I got older did my favorite of his become The Great Divorce. I enjoy reading Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy worlds, particularly the Mistborn series, and Pat Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind series. I still revisit the second half of The Name of the Wind when I want to get a good sense of candid dialogue among characters.
Lastly, now that I have children, I more and more appreciate the work of Pixar’s storytelling team. Seeing a film a dozen times still unlocks little setups and payoffs that I didn’t notice before, and the work they put into their worlds is so thorough that even if a premise feels like an odd choice, they wind up bringing the story home emotionally.
You’re a very intentional writer. What’s most important for you to accomplish or convey when you’re telling a story?
As a society, I think we look to stories as a way to make sense of life. It’s often tidy, things wrap up in a mostly positive way, and we can move on after it concludes. I think at a deep level those are things we want to believe about how life operates.
To be more direct with the question, I think I want to feel like we’re less alone than we think. Writing is very solitary. Reading is the same. With how connected we are on a superficial level when it comes to social media, taking the time to spend hours with a story creates a deeper connection that I think can be very valuable.
What The Goldfish hammered home for me is that we live in a society where we’re telling our own stories. We’re curating our lives for others, but also ultimately for ourselves. We’re determining what we want to believe about ourselves and how we present ourselves. Ultimately we’re creating a digital legacy in a way that no previous generation has been able to accomplish, and what I post today may be viewable by my grandchildren. They can see where I’ve been or what I looked like as a young man, but I also like the idea of leaving something deeper for them in the form of my stories.
Why should people read your novels?
Hold on, let me see where I put my marketing hat…I think I keep a fun sensibility to my writing, I focus on evoking an emotional reaction over pointing at some bit of wordplay cleverness, and I think what I write is fairly easy to read. One of the last editing passes I run the manuscript through is just reading it aloud and seeing if it sounds natural. I want the reader to feel like I’m speaking to them in a conversational way. I’ve moved past the early phase of my career when I was focusing on trying to use words in the most clever way possible, and I want to get the words out of the way and just let the story play out in your imagination.
You’re also an accomplished indie filmmaker. Please tell us about your film work and where people can find it.
Speaking of getting words out of the way…Yes, I moved toward film in college and honed my writing with screenplays. I’ve directed a few feature films, and last year I released a neo-noir called Greyscale that you can find at greyscalemovie.com. When I write for film, I ‘MacGuyver’ it by writing the story based on what is feasible for production, whether it is locations or actors I knew I have access to. When I started writing novels, I went wildly in the other direction and had floating cities and other things that held zero limitations when it came to production. Now I’m working in the middle where I’ll write things like The Goldfish and keep the idea of a film adaptation something that’s a bit more plausible since it seems like so many films are being optioned from books nowadays.
What’s next for you?
I’m two-thirds of the way through the independently published The Wind Merchant fantasy trilogy and have been for the last couple of years. Oddly enough, The Goldfish was supposed to just be a writing palette cleanser to shake off the rust and get back to finishing the story and it wound up getting me published for the first time by winning JukePop and 1888 Center’s Summer Writing Project 2016. It’s been a fun ride and I get to do fun interviews like this one. I’m also seeing what this story could look like as an episodic web series since some doors have been cracking open a bit on that front. And also, I’m making sure that my family is getting me back time-wise since I can dive deep into the stories for periods of time.