The singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has been compared to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. In the past decade, Ritter has released five albums of literate, folk-based rock that often combine fantastical imagery with sincere emotion: His 2006 album The Animal Years paired wartime stories with biblical imagery, while the gothic sounds of last year's So Runs The World Away were leavened with touches of humor.
Ritter's voice doesn't particularly sound like Dylan's or Cohen's, but he's got a similar ambition and mastery of words; critics use literary references in discussing his music. So maybe it's fitting that these days, you might just as easily find him at a book reading as on a concert stage. Ritter's debut novel, Bright's Passage, comes out this week.
The novel is the story of Henry Bright, a young West Virginian who has just come home from serving in World War I in France. After his young wife dies in childbirth, Bright is left with his infant son to flee a raging wildfire and a trio of avengers. The fantastic hasn't been left behind — one character is an angel who has taken over the body of Bright's horse.
That sounds like the outline of a particularly oversized Ritter song, but he tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block that the soundtrack to his writing — every day, wherever he could — was Radiohead's electronic masterpiece Kid A.
"I made a real decision to not be precious with where I wrote. Most days I'm traveling and if you're in an airport lounge or a hotel room or a tour bus, or backstage before a show, they're all places that you can write if you set your mind to it," he says.
No cabin in the woods required, though Ritter adds with a chuckle that he wouldn't turn one of those down. Besides, he says, writing the novel felt, a lot of the time, like writing songs:
"You take all your interests and all your preoccupations and you kind of fill up a bucket. And the stuff that runs off, over the top, is a song or is a novel, like Bright's Passage. You can't really direct where it's going to go."
He started writing the book on a tour bus.
"The story kind of exploded out of me as if it had been there for a long time," he says. "I had been interested in the first World War, which I really feel is one of the great forgotten episodes in U.S. history, and out of that came this idea of the angel, angels being something that I have always thought about in my songs [as being] far from benign characters."
The angel in Bright's Passage fits that description; sometimes a guardian to Henry Bright, sometimes malevolent.
"I always have found that contrary to what we look at a lot of times in popular culture, we kind of take all the spice out of the angel," Ritter says. "You know, I see angels as many times on desktop calendars as I see kittens. I feel that angels, when they show up in the Bible or wherever they show up, that's rarely a good thing."
At times, Bright's story flashes back to wartime trenches in France; Ritter fills these passages with harrowing violence but also transcendent awareness. An exploding bomb fills the air with "capsized calm, in which the world seemed viewed from beneath a great depth of water. It was as if all the sound and feeling were gone suddenly and within that watery silence, death was not something hurtled from above but more like a meadow of wildflowers that blossomed from the ground."
Ritter says that after researching the events of WWI and thinking about the images of war that permeate popular culture, he found that violence felt "much more real" when silent. Figuring out how to convey the feeling of being in the midst of that kind of terror even required a kind of meditation.
"I would say that most good images come from an almost dilated spot in your mind," Ritter says. "You know, when you get lucky, this sort of muscle opens up in your head and the images kind of come out very real, they just sort of fly through that opening and you just grab them as they come through. And you kind of mourn them when they stop."
Through Bright's Passage, Henry and the angel struggle with the question of where God is when things are awful, or when the world seems evil. It's a question Ritter also addressed in his song "Thin Blue Flame" from The Animal Years, though he says he wasn't aware of the connection until the story was nearly finished.
"I think that is one of the main questions I've always asked in my music," Ritter says. "I feel like sometimes we're owed an answer. I mean ... my parents are both scientists and one of the things that they always taught my brother and I is that art and science and religion, and most large sorts of human pursuits are about trying to provide answers to human problems. And there is so much chaos in human life that I feel that it's important to ask, 'Is there a God, and if there is, is he really looking out for us?' "
One question that doesn't seem to bother Ritter: What makes a songwriter think he can just sit down and write a novel?
"Well, the first thing I'll say is that like a song, it's a very beautiful combination of really, really hard work and a lot of joy, you know? I do think that there's art that is tortured, but I prefer art that has the joy in it," he says. "I've always considered that what I do first is tell stories, and how I choose to tell them has been with songs up to this point, but that I've now found this new way of writing and this new format, and yah, I guess, it is pretty nervy to come out with a book, but it's something that I've been so excited by that hopefully when people read it they'll accept it in the spirit that it's offered, which is with a lot of excitement and a lot of joy."