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True-life scare inspires local author’s second ‘gritty’, ‘darker’ novel

Every now and then, the “story behind the story” offers its own edge-of-the-seat intrigue. Such is the case with the “story behind the story” for Ryan Ireland’s second novel, “Ghosts of the Desert,” which releases from Oneworld Publications in the United States and Canada on June 14 (it released in the United Kingdom in May.)

But first, Ryan’s new novel, described in his own words: “It’s a modern Western, taking place in 1973, and centers around Norman, an anthropologist who works at a university. He is out in the middle of the Utah desert and is studying ghost towns. That’s what his grant was for, and he ends up getting abducted by a family of hermits. Soon thereafter, he begins developing Stockholm syndrome. Through a series of flashbacks, we find out more about Norman’s own sordid past.”

Intriguing, but so too is the story of how Ryan came up with the concept.

Ryan says that while still in college, he went on a break to visit his sister who, at the time, was living in Utah. Ryan attended Wright State University, completing a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing as well as an M.A. in English, and just completed his PhD in English with a focus on composition and rhetoric at Miami University.

“I didn’t realize I was necessarily doing research when I was visiting my sister,” Ryan says. “I love the desert; it’s my favorite place to visit.”

Ryan and his sister and her husband (his new novel is dedicated to the pair) went out to explore the ghost town of Frisco, opting to camp out there. Ryan and his brother-in-law noted a strange man — “a grave robber, with a metal detector,” roaming around the area. They thought the man was gone when they’d settled down for the night.

“But in the middle of the night, I heard something, and came out of our tent. We were the only people around for 50 miles. Rather foolishly, I went out to see what was going on. And there was the grave robber. He didn’t have a metal detector at that point, he had a rifle, and I startled him. He ended up pointing a gun at me for what felt like an extremely long time,” Ryan says. “But it was probably a couple of seconds. I’m not an action movie star. I froze. I happened to be wearing bright yellow and trying to hide behind a scruffy shrub, and I thought this is it. This is how I go! It’s funny in hindsight. Then the grave robber literally ran around in circles, and jumped into his car — a station wagon — and took off out of there.”

All hilarity-in-hindsight aside, it was a scary moment. But it inspired a ‘what if,’ idea, Ryan says.

“I got to wondering about a character out there in the open who has a difficult past and ends up in a situation that could only happen in vast, empty territory. Plus, one of the things I’m really interested in is memory, and how memory functions. So I wanted these moments where Norman’s memory lapses, almost like a psychological break.”

The novel itself, Ryan says, is “gritty” and “darker” than his first.

The setting of his novel also resonates with the theme of memory.

“I’m fascinated by the deteriorating past; that was one reason my sister knew I’d love to go visit ghost towns. Once Frisco was a booming city, a boon town for about 12 years. Now, it’s just broken down buildings, foundations and a million broken bottles. It’s not even on the map anymore,” Ryan says.

But Ryan happens to collect old maps, and is “particularly intrigued by maps from 1888-1890. So much was happening so fast in those years.”

Back home in the Dayton area, Ryan pulled out a map from his collection and found Frisco, complete with a major rail line.

“All these ideas started working together,” Ryan says. “That was about eight years ago. I tend not to write about my ideas right away!”

He needs time, he says, for the ideas to stew in his imagination and memory.

Learn more about Ryan Ireland’s work at

Meet Ryan and hear him read from and discuss “Ghosts of the Desert” at Books & Co. at The Greene on Thursday, June 16, 7 p.m.


Books & Co. at The Greene will host the following author events:

  • Monday, June 13, 7 p.m.— Mary Kay Andrews, New York Times’ best-selling author, will introduce her newest novel, “The Weekenders.” Mary Kay is an “honorary Daytonian,” having attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in 1990 and returning since as guest speaker, instructor and keynoter.
  • Tuesday, June 14, 7 p.m. — Lee Martin will introduce his newest literary thriller “Late One Night.” A professor at Ohio State University and 2006 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, Lee has also been an instructor and keynoter at Antioch Writers’ Workshop, and this summer will lead the afternoon creative nonfiction session.
  • Thursday, June 16, 7 p.m. — Local author Ryan Ireland will introduce and celebrate the release of his newest novel, a literary thriller called “Ghosts of the Desert.”

Registration for Antioch Writers’ Workshop’s Full Week program — featuring instructors such as Roxane Gay, John Drury, Becky Hagenston, Shane McCrae and many others — continues through Wednesday, June 22. See for details.

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