I recently finished reading South of Bixby Bridge by Ryan Winfield, and I have to say that I became a bit addicted to this roller-coaster ride of addiction and temptation because it’s not the predictable narrative of an addict who hits rock bottom. In this novel, gaining a foothold on the upper echelon reveals new depths of depravity.
South of Bixby Bridge is told from the perspective of Trevor Roberts, a good-looking young addict – although in his mind, he doesn’t have a problem – whose traumatic past is still reverberating through his present. Because he doesn’t think he has anything to lose after a stint in rehab, Trevor allows himself to be charmed by his new hedge-fund-owner boss and his tantalizing wife. As he becomes absorbed into their Dionysian excesses of money, power, and sex, he eventually learns that what he thought was the pinnacle of success is only a valley of destitution.
I had the pleasure of asking Ryan some questions about South of Bixby
Bridge, which he graciously answered.
Q: Where did the inspiration to write this particular story come from?
A: It all started with an image. A young man alone, standing at the treatment center window looking out at the morning street on the day he’s free to leave. I was fascinated by the journey that begins with hitting bottom and discovering this disease of alcoholism and addiction working inside a person.
That initial image worked into a character sketch and I began doing timed writing. Where did he come from? What did he want? What did he really want? What did he need? The results of these exercises became a screenplay titled “Brave Ascent”. But when I finished the screenplay, I wasn’t satisfied. The characters wouldn’t leave me alone, the whole story hadn’t been told. So I started writing the prose from Trevor’s point of view and that developed into the novel.
Q: As a San Francisco Bay Area native, the setting of the novel (Bixby Bridge on Highway 1, San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Sacramento) resonated with me. What significance do these places have for you?
A: I was born in Bellingham, Washington and I grew up roaming its streets with a canvas paper bag strapped to my shoulders. As soon as I was able, I took off in search of adventure and made it as far as Northern California, where I would live for the next ten years. As a boy from a small town, California was Mecca to me. I lived in Sacramento, San Francisco, Napa, and even a little butterfly haven north of Pebble Beach called Pacific Grove. When I wrote Trevor’s story, the geography became as much a character as any other. From the flat, fog-covered valley to the glittering mansions of Napa, Trevor’s rise and fall, his ultimate surrender, and then the crossing of his own all-important bridge, are all represented in the landscape.
Q: Alcoholics Anonymous places great importance on the second step of their 12-Step program: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Many addicts, including Trevor, really struggle with this step. What role, if any, do you think accepting a higher power plays in Trevor’s recovery process and his chances of remaining sober?
A: Great question. It means everything. It might even be what the entire novel is about. An important passage to me, and one highlighted quite often by eBook readers, is a line where Trevor’s counselor asks him if he knows why God’s so hard to find. Trevor shakes his head and the counselor says: God’s so hard to find because he ain’t lost.
Trevor grew up with an abusive father who selectively quotes scripture and quite literally beats people with his Bible. So Trevor has this resistance to organized religion, an allergy to fundamentalism. But he needs a higher power desperately. He searches for this power in wealth, booze, drugs, sex, and even in his relationship with his boss and mentor. And, of course, he can’t find it there. Things get worse. It’s not until Trevor discovers this wounded boy inside of him that he’s able to dig even deeper and find the real father that the boy needs there too. So he finds a higher power he can connect with, something inside of him that’s not him. And he finds God in the people who help him too. There’s another character line I love, where Barbara, who’s a bit like a surrogate mother to Trevor, says to him: God hides himself pretty well in the world. If you want to find him, you might have to look left and right – not up.
Q: Screenwriter Stewart Stern has influenced your writing. Which other writers have greatly influenced or impressed you?
A: As a young boy, I was often left alone and books and their characters became my companions. I’m thankful for some very wonderful writers – including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, and Ray Bradbury – who let their gifted imaginations create wonderful characters and then found ways to work morality into their stories without being preachy. These men were the best fathers I never had. Later, I discovered Cormac McCarthy and the way he uses language to create images had a profound impact on my writing. Movies have also played a big part in my writing and I’ve been very lucky to have a best friend and mentor, Stewart Stern, who you mentioned. Stewart wrote some very powerful and timeless films, including Rebel Without a Cause and Sybil. Every writer has to decide what higher themes merit his or her attention, and I’d say Stewart has been the most notable influence on my sense of responsibility as a writer.
Q: In the novel, Jared, Trevor’s roommate at the treatment center, asks Trevor what he would do if he weren’t afraid. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
A: The lessons Trevor needed to learn were all lessons I needed to learn, including this one. In writing the novel, I had to dig deep and dredge up some ugly things from my own past, and in doing so, they lost power over me. When I wrote the last line of the novel, I felt a remarkable freedom from fear. That freedom is still with me, so I guess I’d answer by saying I am doing it. I’m writing. I’m working on another novel right now, a novel that I’m very excited about. If I’m still not afraid when I finish it, I’ll even let people read it.