Rybeck on the Port City: Portland-born novelist explores legacy of places

Benjamin Rybeck was born in Portland and grew up in Falmouth. He went to the University of Southern Maine before moving to Arizona at age 23. It took that move away from his hometown to be able to use the Port City as inspiration for his first novel, The Sadness.


“When I was in high school, as soon as I was able to drive, I would go as often as I could to Portland,” he said. Especially moved by what were his three favorite places to research and work – Casco Bay Books, The Movies on Exchange Street, and Videoport – Rybeck has a major character echo the author’s own lament about their closings.


“All of these places were my haunts, especially Videoport and Movies on Exchange. I have loved movies for so long, reading books came late and secondary to me. All of these places closed while I was writing the book, so the process became elegiac in a way I did not intend. Their closings were my own sadness, in a way.”


Rybeck did not work continuously on the novel since he left town in 2006, but the germ of a book came 10 years ago. The Sadness is about Kelly Enright, traveling from Arizona to Portland, where she grew up, on a quest to find her long-gone father and perhaps avail herself of some of his reputed money. It opens with her twin brother, Max, a struggling filmmaker and his search for Evelyn, the onetime solo star of his unmade movie. Evelyn has gone missing, and Max puts up fliers and tries to find her, retrace her last known late-night Old Port sojourns.



“The Evelyn character arose from both real-life events in Portland and a fictional person who came from the creation of book,” said Rybeck, who knew a lot of people who knew her, but never did himself. “When I started writing the book, there was a girl who had gone missing in Portland and beyond the natural sadness, there was also an element where I felt like my life had passed her by.”


By the novel’s conclusion, Kelly has realized her quest to find their father is mismotivated and pointless. It takes a deus ex machina, for her to see that the journey she has to go on is to essentially forgive her mother, or at least understand her. She’s holding on to this image of her father and understands she can use him if she finds him. In doing so, she ignores her mother’s late-life wish, that Kelly take care of her brother, a reclusive loser with rising anger issues.



“Through a chain of events, Kelly realizes she’s just as fucked up as Max and had been pursing this selfish thing, alienating her brother and mother in the process. The change only comes Kelly finds herself where her mother died,” he said.


Rybeck uses a multi-genre point-of-view, incorporating multiple character angles, footnoted interviews (some real, some mock), diary entries and letters from deceased characters – a process he calls metatext.


“The book is about ghosts, that’s the first thing on Kelly’s mind when she drives in to Portland. There are three major characters who are missing. They cast a massive shadow of everything. As a writer try to create them to be as deeply felt as the characters who are there.” For example, Rybeck uses Evelyn’s journals to a get a sense of her. The current version of metatext serves two purposes – to get Max’s voice into the book early and also to produce soundtrack elements, something you can’t do in a novel but can do in a film.



The book was researched in Portland (“hauntingly”), and Rybeck drew upon native friends, like the Portland poet Michael Macklin, a custodian and poetry guru of the students at Waynflete, and Rick Russo. He also emulated the work of writers of international renown like Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace, each of whom has also employed multi-genre works to comparative success. “I’m a huge fan of Lethem, an influence on the book and me as a writer. In every book, he tries to do something new. And Wallace and Rick Russo, both writers I love, went to the University of Arizona,” said Rybeck who got his post-grad degree there. “I hope my writing is some sort of middle ground between them.”

For more about The Sadness, stop in Longfellow Books or visit http://www.longfellowbooks.com/book/9781939419705

Last modified onWednesday, 24 August 2016 11:12