Ryan Boudinot is the author of Blueprints of the Afterlife, Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Stranger, The Best American Nonrequired Reading and elsewhere. He teaches at Goddard College’s M.F.A. program.

Ryan Boudinot

posted Apr 17, 2012

Ryan Boudinot’s new novel, Blueprints of the Afterlife, has drawn comparisons to the work of Gary Shteyngart, Neal Stephenson, and Chuck Palahniuk. Recently, Ryan was kind enough to speak with us about his new novel, treating your characters fairly, and being cool with your own ignorance.

Tom Batten


One of the things that come across at the very beginning of Blueprints of The Afterlife is the compassion you feel for the characters. In the first chapter, Woo-Jin, the simple-minded world champion dishwasher, is repeatedly placed into situations where a reader might expect him to be abused or taken advantage of, but each time he’s met with relative kindness. Do you feel that same compassion for your characters? Was it ever difficult to have terrible things happen to them? 

I consider my characters the way a director might consider his or her actors. I believe in understanding them, not scapegoating them, or setting aside certain characters the reader is meant to empathize with while other characters get to play the bad guy. If I find myself going too far down a path in which a certain character is pigeonholed as an antagonist, my inclination is to subvert that tendency and let that character have the stage for a bit and state their case. Over the course of a novel I do find that my love for my characters grows, and its very important to me that I treat them fairly, even when terrible things happen to them.

Unless you’re actually an expert in biotechnology and construction and the history of the dotcom boom and nanotechnology and dishwashing, it seems like you must have done an incredible amount of research for this book. Is research something you enjoy? Was there ever a moment when you found yourself wading through journal articles on nanotechnology and found yourself tempted to simplify your plot?

I conduct zero research. Or I guess I’m always conducting research, reading whatever interests me. It’s never deliberate. I know a lot about the dotcom boom because I experienced it first-hand, as an employee of a number of dotcoms. And I did wash dishes for three weeks at a restaurant owned by Kurt Vonnegut’s cousin, Ken Vonnegut. As for the civil engineering stuff, I asked my dad, a civil engineer, how one might go about transforming Bainbridge Island into Manhattan.

There are spots in Blueprints where you drop in an idea, almost in passing, that another author could easily come up with an entire novel about. Were you ever tempted to leave anything out? Did you ever find yourself thinking, maybe I should save some of this for the next one?

I left a lot out. There was this whole riff about Michael Jackson coming back as the messiah, descending to earth from an orbiter to take over the world with his robot army, that I left out.

The novel is riddled with pop culture references, from the everyday—Will Ferrell—to the more esoteric, like the film Holy Mountain. Your website features a reference page that explains some of these, and I wonder if you were ever concerned with the number of references you drop in, if you were ever concerned that you might turn off readers unfamiliar with, say, Walter Benjamin or the films of Jodorowsky.

I think references to cultural artifacts in literature operate differently post-Google. It used to be that we could sort of marvel at an author’s grasp of esoteric knowledge. I remember getting the concordance or reference guide to Gravity’s Rainbow and being astounded by how much Pynchon had to know to write that book. Or, I often teach a Borges story called “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in creative writing workshops. A couple months ago I was doing a close reading of the story with some of my students and I paused on a certain Latin phrase. Nobody knew what it meant, me included. So I pulled out my iPhone and within a few seconds translated it. So I don’t think readers are as turned off by references to things they don’t know about because they know that they can find out what they’re about with a little digging. And the other thing is, everybody has to be ignorant of all the things they know at sometime in their lives. I’m constantly learning about new writers, artists, music, films. If you let yourself not know everything, if you’re cool with your own ignorance of 99.999% of what’s out there, then I think you can better enjoy the process of discovery.

Do you have an ideal reader for your work? If you do, does that ideal reader change from project to project?

I write the books I want to read. I guess I’m my own ideal reader. My tastes change over time like anybody’s. The differences from book to book are a reflection of how my interests and ambitions are changing. I read somewhere recently that a writer has to be like a magician who gets fooled by his own tricks. This sounds right to me. I’m constantly attempting to see my work anew, as if I didn’t write it, as a reader.

One of the great thing about Blueprints of the Afterlife is how you navigate all these different genres, sometimes sliding from one to the other, sometimes mixing a bunch together. There are a few points in the novel where the character Abby seems a little turned off by this kind of thing, where she seems to long for a less complex life. I think this works to ground the reader a little bit when things get really far-out. Was it important to you to have a character like that in the book, or to find a way to balance some of the far-out material?

I realized it was okay for some of the characters to express confusion that would mirror the reader’s confusion. This felt honest to me, to have Abby confess that she had no freaking clue what was going on. Because most of the time I didn’t either. There’s still stuff in the novel that I haven’t figured out. The giant heads in the sky, for starters. What the hell does that even mean? I have no idea. And I don’t care that I don’t have any idea. It’s more important to me that something is fun to write than that it’s meaningful or even comprehensible. Fun trumps everything.