Writer Wednesday – Dmitri Ragano

Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
Dmitri Ragano. Devoted father and husband. Skilled and experience daydreamer. Citizen of the world.

Tell us (briefly) about you…
I have an insatiable curiosity. I am happiest when I am learning something new that helps me make sense of reality.

…and a bit about what you’ve written…
I’ve written three novels so far. The first one, Employee of the Year, is a mystery set in the call center of a credit card company during the recent financial crisis. The second book in the series is called The Voting Machine. It features Temo McCarthy, the same hero as Employee of the Year, and it’s an election thriller set in Nevada during a voter registration campaign. My latest novel, The Fugitive Grandma, is a dark comedy/adventure about the health care crisis in America. It’s the story of a boy and his grandmother who rob a string of big box retail stores for cash and medicine.

I’ve also worked as a freelance journalist for over twenty years, reporting mostly in the US and East Asia. I’ve covered a variety of topics including crime, technology, business and entertainment.

…and what you’re working on right now.
I am writing a fourth novel, The Watch List, a continuation of the Temo McCarthy series. It’s a suspense novel and a meditation on the war on terror.

What are your earliest book-related memories?
My aunt bought me a copy of The Hobbit when I was five or six years old. It was a big hard back version with pictures from the old Rankin and Bass animated version from the 70s. I always identified with Bilbo Baggins. I liked the idea of this simple little homebody going off and having a big adventure in the world. To a certain extent I ended up following in his footsteps.

What are your three favorite books?
The Dubliners by James Joyce will always be my favorite collection of short stories. I read this when I was a teenager and I admired the way Joyce captured the joys and sorrows of ordinary people from different walks of life.

My favorite novel is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The purity of Prince Myshkin makes him so memorable and lovable. Dostoevsky was the master of creating larger than life characters that represent the extreme ranges of the human psyche.

The last book on the list is A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. History is usually taught in a manner that makes the audience feel passive and helpless. Zinn turns it around and inspires the reader to think about the past, present and future like an active participant.

How many books to do you read at any given time? What are you reading now?
I usually read at least three books in parallel.

Twenty Year Death is a remarkable mystery novel by Ariel Winter. It has three parts, each of them written in the style and milieu of a giant of the genre: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. Winter is uncanny in his ability to mimic and commemorate the styles of these different writers. It’s really a marvel to behold.

The Social Conquest of Earth is an exploration of human nature from scientist Edmund O. Wilson. Man’s selfish and selfless traits, his aggression and altruism, played varying roles in development and survival as a species. Wilson incorporates concepts from genetics and evolutionary biology to try and understand what makes our species tick.

Thinking in Pictures. This is the autobiography of Temple Grandin, one of my personal heroes for her courage and compassion in providing a first-hand account of living with autism.

Finish this sentence; when I curl up with a book, I ___
Feel the tantalizing anticipation and hope that another piece of life’s puzzle might slip into place and fit just right.

How likely are you to read a book that’s been recommended to you?
If it’s someone who knows my tastes and interests, then I am very likely to read it.

How likely are you to recommend a book (that isn’t yours)?
Very likely. I am kind of a chronic, compulsive “recommender” and often need to be restrained due to an excess of enthusiasm.

What do you look for in a good book?
It will help me walk away with a story or an insight and I am a better person for it.

Why do you write?
It’s cheaper than therapy. Also more fun.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
A linguist. I love learning foreign languages. I am fluent in Japanese. I studied Russian for five years and can read it OK. I also can get by in Italian though I tend to forget it between trips to Italy.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Big world-changing ideas and simple everyday experiences.

What has writing taught you about yourself?
It has taught me to become better at empathizing with others and imaging the world from different perspectives. One of my favorite quotes is from Picasso: “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” I have many blind spots in life and my writing is a way to see things more clearly.

How do the people in your life seem to view your writing career?
I wish writing was my career but honestly speaking it feels more like a hobby. I have a career in Internet technology that provides the financial support to do the things I really love. Many of my favorite writers had day jobs and did their writing on the side. Walt Whitman was a postal worker. Franz Kafka was an insurance executive.

Are there any stereotypes about writers that you don’t think are true?
I think writers, like other artists, are sometimes stereotyped as lacking practical and social skills. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. I do think writers probably find some of the rewards that practical and social skills bring less fulfilling than others sorts of personalities.

What do you see as the biggest challenge today for writers starting out?
The biggest challenge is getting to the point where you are convinced you have something compelling and interesting to say. If you don’t have this conviction, you are plagued with self-doubt and you wonder whether writing is the best use of your precious time on this earth. It took me a while to gain this conviction. But once you have it, it’s hard to lose it.

Have you made any writing mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect but weren’t at the time?
My first novel, Employee of the Year, was probably too long by any sort of contemporary standards. Still, some readers like the depth and expanse of the sub-plots and it was difficult to determine what could be cut without damaging the essence of the story.

Is there a particular project you would love to be involved with?
I currently love being involved in the evolution of the e-book. My background is working in web start-up companies in San Francisco during the Internet bubble. So the idea that books are going through this period of technological innovation and experimentation is very exciting. I am so glad to be a part of defining a new medium. Yay!

How do you deal with your fan base?
I am not sure I have a fan base, that feels a little presumptuous. I have a reading and I appreciate their honest feedback. I try to understand what they like and dislike about my books. I want to know what characters and themes resonate most powerfully.

Finish this sentence; my fans would be surprised to know ___ about me.
I have a shameful and debilitating addiction to top 40 radio pop dance music. I am coming clean with this as part of my policy of total transparency with my fan base. I’ve tried to wean myself off of this dependency and start listening to classical music in the car but so far this has been an utter failure.

Anything else we should know?
My daughter in elementary school is a much better author than me and I predict her books will dramatically outsell my own before she is old enough to vote.

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