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From concept video parts to running a skate-centric fitness company with Physical Therapist, Dr. Kyle Brown and long time friend and co-founder Chris Collins, Walker Ryan’s path in skateboarding has been atypically heady. Having acquired a sociology degree, Ryan’s pursuit of knowledge - something almost scorned in skateboarding - became somewhat of a marketing tool for his skating, rather than the loose gnar-tech style that he’s honed and refined through travel and residence in several key skate cities.
His fluidity is almost overlooked in that few pro skaters born within Californian borders could move seamlessly from HD productions to the grit of Brian Panebianco’s Sabotage lens, but for Ryan, every project, class, or endeavor is threaded together by the thrill of doing something new and what you can learn in the process.
Most probably topping the list in terms of learning a new process is Ryan's recently published his first novel, Top of Mason.
"I like to think that this is the first novel set in the world of modern professional skateboarding”
"I like to think that this is the first novel set in the world of modern professional skateboarding,” he says. “But it isn’t really about skateboarding. It’s an adventure story about a guy trying to get over a break-up - intersecting the worlds of skateboarding, contemporary celebrity, and homelessness - all the while dealing with a late-twenties identity crisis. All the characters are fictional, but it’s inspired by my love for San Francisco and my appreciation for the many unique individuals I’ve met through skateboarding."
With cover art by Sebo Walker, the 271-page book is a legitimate page-turner for both it’s compelling narrative and familiar -for skateboarders at least- character studies that call back the personalities you encounter in both skating and life. However, Top of Mason offers more than just a story set in skateboarding as it punches higher, at times flowing with action, danger, and the stark grit of reality depicted in Tarantino movies. Loosely described as a coming-of-age story, Top of Mason stands out by creating a world of desperation within skateboarding that feels as genuine as it does absurd. It tugs on the many life choices we’re often faced with and then depicts stepping over the line and out into the peril and tension that is everyday for many.
Currently living in New York City, recovering from the achy effects of Lyme Disease, and working on more video projects, Ryan opened up about Top of Mason without spoilers.
What sparked you to write a novel?
I’ve always loved reading fiction, and I like to write. I hadn’t read a novel that captured the skateboarding industry in ways that I know it, so I thought I’d try to write one. Our industry is so unique and strange, and in my opinion, it’s usually poorly represented in film and television. I wanted to put a story out there that captured the weirdness in a way that was true and honest to my experiences.
Also, I’m from a big family of novel enthusiasts and novelists. My grandmother (Susan Trott) has written a bunch of really great novels and through her, it has always seemed approachable.
When you committed to completing a book, what process did you take as far as planning it, sketching out the characters, and thinking of how you'd construct Top of Mason?
For this one, I basically just started with a short story about an ex “aspiring pro" skater, going through a bad break up, working as a maid in a hotel. I had a rough outline of where I thought the story could go and just sort of picked away at it. I finished a rough version of what is now the first “part," and showed it to some friends and family and asked if they thought it had legs to develop into a full novel. I had never tried to write fiction before, so I wasn’t sure if it worked. They gave me some great feedback and encouraged me to keep going. So knowing where I wanted the story to go, I just worked on it little by little. The finished product is way different than what I initially wrote, but the basic structure that was in my head is pretty much there.
What I loved about the process, was that the story was like my little secret. Whenever I had downtime, or I was driving, I would just think about what could happen next. When I have trouble falling asleep, worrying about life and real problems, I found that thinking about the characters' problems and where I wanted the story to go, helped me fall asleep. Then whenever I had time, like on airplanes or early in the morning, I would jot it down.
"Having people read it, like watching and sharing a video part, was what made it so fun and rewarding "
Did you find any similarities between writing and skating?
Definitely. The biggest similarity is just the long-game planning. Like, OK, I know this might take years, but I have an idea of what I want it to look like, and every chance I get I’m going to chip away to it. Add something: A trick here, a paragraph there. For me with video parts, I like to map out and plan every trick. Of course, no video part of mine has ever turned out exactly how I pictured it. And writing this novel was like that. I had a general idea of what I wanted the story to be like, but through the process of actually writing it, it came out totally different. Achieving that end goal and having people read it, like watching and sharing a video part, was what made it so fun and rewarding.
I thought it was an interesting choice to resolve the love story the way you did. Without spoiling it, can you expand more about how you used that dynamic to create some tension?
Break-ups are rough. I feel like that’s all I can say. I wanted to capture what it’s like to be hopeful about getting back together with someone who has dumped you, as I’ve seen through countless friends and my own experiences.
"The story is kind of a collection of my fears - scary hill bombs, kinked handrails, hard drugs, devastating break ups - and imagining what those experiences might be like through a made-up person."
In knowing you a bit, it felt as if the book was written as "Henry" and not yourself - specifically some of the language and dialog choices. Can you talk about the choice to make the main character more of an average skater rather than someone a bit more conscious and sensitive?
That was basically the main challenge for this book and my motivation for writing it. I’ve befriended and experienced so many skateboarders over the years, and I wanted Henry to be more representative of those people than of myself. I’m very cautious and scared of things, and I wanted Henry to be a little less so. Less introspective and self-aware. Of course, I’m probably still in Henry, in many places. But my goal isn’t to necessarily have the reader like Henry, like I might want someone to like me. So I can have him do things and behave in a way that isn’t like me, but similar to people I know. The story is kind of a collection of my fears - scary hill bombs, kinked handrails, hard drugs, devastating break-ups - and imagining what those experiences might be like through a made-up person.
How important was setting this book in San Francisco rather than another city?
It was essential. Every part of the book is inspired by something SF-related. The sky-rocketing rent prices is why Henry is living in a SRO. The hill bomb is what propels him into the street life with Gary. The reality of so many people experiencing homelessness and dealing with addiction, right in the heart of the city, and how easily one can fall into that life, is such a huge part of San Francisco. Beyond Henry’s decisions, I wanted the city to be a driving force for the story.
I know you have this framed as a coming of age tale but does it also work as a cautionary one to aspiring skaters?
I might not use the word cautionary, but something like that. The main thing I did not want this to be was a “coming-up” story or anything resembling the same old athlete’s journey done in every other sport. I really don’t like when story-tellers try to fit skateboarding into that box. It never works.
I know you talked about the emptiness of Instagram on The Bunt. In the book, Instagram is almost a character. Why did you choose to treat the platform that way?
I like that you think Instagram is a character of sorts. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it totally is. So yeah, I wanted to make Henry someone who meets Instagram in a zero-to-sixty kind of way, and play with what that would do to one's ego. I’ve had little moments of what feels like viral excitement, and it’s strange. Like earlier this year, I reposted a trick I did two years ago, and it got almost 16 million views on Instagram. In like a week my follower count went up almost 20k! Things like that make you feel like you’re the shit! But it’s so meaningless at the same time. It’s complex.
What writers inspire your work?
I really like Tom Perrotta’s novels. I love how he pulls ordinary-seeming situations and makes them so compelling and funny and sad, all at once. I like reading fiction, but I don’t think I’m a big enough nerd or an experienced enough reader to know who I’d even want to emulate. There’s too much more to read.
As a hetero male writer, It’s imperative to be aware of how you write female characters and depict them, especially when you see so many tropes in writing. Was that a concern for you?
Totally. I tried to bring women into this story in a way that wasn’t solely love-interest based, which I feel like can happen so often with the hetero male author, guy-type of story. With Top of Mason, I think I actually realized a little too late how I hadn’t really made natural space for more women as main characters. But with this being my attempt at a “Skate Novel,” the honest truth is that my experiences in skateboarding haven’t involved many women. I hope that changes, but in the last twenty years, I’ve “worked with” hundreds of dudes and I could basically count the number of women on one hand. So with this book, it’s really about three main characters: Dev, Gary and Henry. Each person represents a direction that I think is most interesting in the skateboarding industry. The superstar. The total burn out. And the cling on. For this story, it felt the most realistic to make them men.
The book is a wild ride, did you have any concerns while writing it about believability or that it could be so sensational that it takes you out of the story?
Yes and no. I wanted the character aspects of the story to ring true, be it the skateboarder or the street person, but I wanted to have fun with the plot. Not that I have personal experiences with drugs and addiction, but through friends of mine who have, I wanted to try to keep it relatively grounded and checked with them before I put it out. But when it comes to other parts of the story, like the plot stuff—I like action movies and dramas that take a turn into something sensational and not 100% believable. So I wanted this story to have that feeling too.
Can you talk about how you wanted to resolve the book and what you hope people take away from it?
I’m not sure what I hope people take away from it. Like any novel, I hope it makes the reader feel for some of the characters and their problems. Especially when it comes to addiction and mental health. Addiction is the problem of our age and I hope that even in some small way, feeling for a Gary-like character might help you feel for a random person you might see on the street. Just to consider their potential complicated backstory. But I don’t know, most of all I just hope people who read this have fun reading it.
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