He talks to angels

“Growing in broad daylight”: Musician Josh Ritter had a song that wouldn’t fit on his latest album, so he expanded the idea into his debut novel, Bright’s Passage.

Josh Ritter is no stranger to war — at least as subject matter. He wrote "Girl In The War" on the 2006 album The Animal Years; the song "The Temptation of Adam" is set in the Army on 2007's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. And it was a song idea that couldn't fit onto Ritter's latest album, So Runs The World Away, that eventually grew into the post-World War I novel Bright's Passage (The Dial Press, 2011). Well, a song and a whole lot of reading.

Passage is the tale of veteran Henry Bright who returns to his subsistence farm in the Appalachian mountains, haunted by his experience on the battlefield and also by an angel who inhabits Henry's horse and offers advice of dubious wisdom. The plot sounds a lot like one of Ritter's songs — a convoluted folk yarn replete with word play, intrigue and a kernel of sadness nestled in the rich melodies and marching rhythms. In fact, Ritter attempted to set Bright in present day but then, "I kind of discovered the first world war as I was beginning to write."

Though it's a heavy subject matter — and Ritter read a number of biographies by "regular soldiers" — he didn't find it depressing. Instead,  "It was a sense of total wonder that this crazy, medieval, horrible thing happened in living memory" and "complete excitement about finding this whole new place to learn about," says Ritter. "I just wanted to share it."

What amazed him, he says, was the realization that, in the late 19-teens, there were pockets of what we think of as modernity (steam power, electricity) side-by-side with pre-Industrial Revolution living (horsepower, barter economy). Events that shaped our modern era were taking place at that time, yet it's still in recent memory. The last surviving American WWI veteran, Frank Buckles, passed away in February of this year, followed by British-born Claude Choules in May, who was the final surviving WWI veteran in the world. "It's a tantalizingly close past," says Ritter.

But as excited as Ritter was to introduce the subject of that war to his audience, he says he didn't want to just echo his research. He wanted to tell the tale from Henry Bright's perspective.

"There's something in writing a song where you leave the details to be filled in," says Ritter. "With a novel, and talking about a real historical thing, the danger is to get too detailed." The solution, he decided, was to leave room for his own imagination.

Passage strikes a balance between rich imagery (the hard-scrabble life in Appalachia and the horrors in the trenches in Europe juxtaposed against moments of pure love and beauty) and white space. At less than 200 pages, it's a quick read, but its lyrical phrasing and deftly conjured allusions linger with the same shivering beauty as Cold Mountain or Doctor Zhivago.

The most chilling aspect of Passage is Henry's angel, which first appears to him in a European church just moments before Henry escapes a bomb blast. But the angel seems as much a harbinger of misfortune as it does a good-luck charm.

"The initial idea [for the novel] was this guy who gets periodic and trivial instructions from something that says it’s an angel: 'Go wash your car,' that sort of thing," says Ritter. Angels figure into many of his songs ("Angels on Her Shoulders," "Folk Bloodbath," "Galahad") — an apt archetype. "Every society in every culture has something like an angel that's halfway between a god and a human," he says. "Everybody wants to be a better person. …When an angel shows up, it's exciting to think, 'maybe there is a plan. Maybe this isn't a huge chaotic mess. But invariably things turn into a huge chaotic mess anyway."

It does seem that there's a plan, and a good one, for Ritter. "When I first discovered songs, it was an amazing moment," he says. "The excitement of doing something and feeling like it's adding up to something and it makes you happy is so great." He's having a similar experience as a new author, but that doesn't mean that music is a thing of the past. Ritter has been performing short acoustic sets as part of his book tour and is currently working on both new songs and a new novel. He says he has so much that he wants to do and write about, and feels like he's arrived at authorship at just the right moment.

"I definitely feel like I'm growing in broad daylight," he says.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Josh Ritter
what: The folk-rock musician reads from his debut novel, Bright’s Passage
where: Malaprop’s
when: Thursday, Oct. 6 (7 p.m., free. http://www.malaprops.com)

More in books:

Local author Ron Rash (a faculty member at Western Carolina University and an award-winning writer) is set to release Waking, his first poetry collection in nearly a decade. Rash's last book of poetry, Raising the Dead, dealt with the displacement of the residents of the Jocassee Valley, which was flooded by Duke Power.

In recent years, Rash has focused on fiction, penning Serena, the chilling story of a timber baroness, in 2008 (that book was a PEN/Faulkner finalist); and short story collection Burning Bright in 2010, for which Rash won the Frank O'Connor Award.

Waking keeps its themes in the territory of Appalachia ("Watauga County: 1959," "Elegy for Merle Watson" and "Junk Car in Snow" are a few titles of poems), but Rash's sparse, lyrical verse transcends the everyday dust and toil, finding elegance and light in the land, the people and their traditions.

Rash reads at Malaprop's on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. Free. http://www.malaprops.com.