Spokane writer Shann Ray shares stories behind American Masculine

The Gonzaga University professor and Bedtime Stories Spokane author talks with Humanities Washington about his latest book, pre-broken characters and why men rip their shirts off before a fight.

  • September 7, 2012
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

In advance of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories Spokane (Sept. 28) and Bedtime Stories Seattle (Oct. 12) galas, Spark magazine is conducting 5 Questions interviews with each of the talented Northwest authors featured at this year’s events. Today: Shann Ray. Previously: Kathleen Flenniken and Jess Walter.

Check back during the next few weeks for interviews with Kim Barnes, Charles Johnson, Jim Lynch, Kevin O’Brien, Nancy Pearl, Amy Wheeler and Nance Van Winckel.

Shann Ray

Shann Ray

The ways of being a man hold great concern for Spokane fiction writer, poet and educator Shann Ray. His short-story collection American Masculine, issued last year by Graywolf Press, strides across his native ground of rural Montana, following the wayward, conflicted men who work the earth and blow off steam in the bars. His protagonists battle inner demons while trying to find their place in the world.

In his day work as a psychologist, Ray has tried to help such people gain their balance, and found fascination in the troubled human spirit — his own as well as that of others. A former college and professional basketball player, he now teaches at Gonzaga University.

Aside from fiction and poetry, he’s written social science texts including Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity. American Masculine won the Bakeless Prize for fiction and was recently earned an American Book Award.


What: Bedtime Stories Spokane 2012

Where: The Skyline Ballroom of the Red Lion Hotel at the Park, 303 W. North River Drive, Spokane [Directions]

When: Friday, Sept. 28
Cost: A limited number of individual tickets are available for $75 each.
Note: For information on becoming a sponsor or purchasing a table for this event, contact Kari Dasher at (206) 682-1770 x103 or kari@humanities.org.

Ray appears as part of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories literary gala in Spokane Sept. 28.

Humanities Washington: Your book title, American Masculine, is evocative. Is there something specific about being a man in this country and this time that you wanted to elucidate?

Shann Ray: I love titles, and always carry around a number of titles when a book is getting close to finished. When that book was wrapping up, I had a page of a hundred or so titles, and not all of them were working that great. A poem I had written about a year earlier was named “American Masculine,” and then it just kind of slid over in my mind, that title – knowing that all the stories were based in this dynamic. I thought, “Good title!” But when we got Graywolf in the conversation, they were like, “Ooh, that title, I don’t know.” I think they just needed to hear from me that my own understanding of what the role of the masculine might be in America right now, and around the world, and about how both feminine and masculine tend to cut off the other side, which creates alienation and desolation between both of them.

American Masculine

American Masculine, by Shann Ray

HW: When you start from that premise, you’re starting off with characters who are already kind of pre-broken. We come into their lives when they are already not whole. Is that kind of character more interesting to you than someone who has balance, then loses their way?

Ray: I think everybody’s pretty pre-broken, and the idea of coming to a wholeness is something that’s so earned, it’s got so much grace in it – it’s a combination of discipline and mercy and a lot of close relationships that help them come to the right place. So when I think about that character then falling, that does interest me, so thanks for saying that. (laughs) But I think most people, myself included, are trying to work out our own brokenness through a term that most people in America hate, which would be “submission” or “obedience to something higher.” Working as a psychologist with people for the last 20 years, I get to see people come into that path and listen really deeply and come into forgiveness with their loved ones — so that always fascinated me on a visceral level, that that actually happens all around society, underneath all the overt glam and capitalism and pain and loss that we see.

HW: A lot of people might say, “Well, there’s no room for poetry in science.” But it sounds like you see it differently.

Ray: There is actually a great fit. I hadn’t thought about it; I just came out wanting to work with families, and I had a deep love for writing and the music of language, and that sort of led me eventually to doing an MFA in poetry and fiction later. I don’t really directly think about the people I work with in my stories, but that foundation of just being with people every day, I think, is very helpful. And the science actually is helpful. I think a lot of that stuff is just sort of layered into the poems and into the stories.

HW: Your nonfiction appears under your given name, Shann Ray Ferch, and your fiction under Shann Ray, the middle name you share with your mother. Does that dual identity serve the work somehow?

Ray: The two worlds are somewhat different, but they’re pretty blended. I think growing up in a family of all sports – we had so much sports focus, which was great, but it was again very bodily, tactile, physical. Historically, the women in our family have held the arts side and the spirit side of life, and the men have, I think, loved that in the women of our family. I think the beauty of it is that this way, the focus of the fiction and the poetry gets to be a shared element between my mom and me. I love her and she’s an amazing woman, and a very poetic woman, so it was kind of a nice way of turning those tables a little bit.

HW: Your stories and poems are sometimes concerned with violence, and the cost of violence. How many fights have you been in?

Ray: (laughs) I haven’t been in any death-oriented fights, but I’ve been in a lot of minor ones, usually through sports. But my dad did quite a bit of barfighting, and my cousin was a major barfighter. I did actually interview them quite a bit, both of them, and some of those stories are real hilarious. And also sad: It’s just the masculine at its most ramped-up, alcoholic, central power, if that makes sense. But it is something important in society, for sure. My brother and I talked to my cousin a lot, and we’d say, tell us about barfights. And he’d say, well, this happened and then that happened — but pretty much every story he told, he’d be like, “Then I ripped off my shirt!” So finally I was like, “Why do you always rip off your shirt in a fight?” And he goes, “Well, if the other guy doesn’t take his shirt off, I’m wrapping it over his head and beating the crap out of him.” Who would’ve known it was a utilitarian move?

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