Ryan Praefke looks like he’s just returned from a trip. He’s carrying a black case stuffed with books and a draft of the screenplay he’s currently working on but not ready to discuss.
He’s perched at a table inside a crowded Sarasota café, nursing an iced coffee, people-watching and taking mental notes, as writers are wont to do.
Things capture his attention easily: the sound of construction, the stream of eccentric coffee drinkers that spill in from the street, the whir of midday noises that clang and buzz and distract — things that fuel all writers.
In a sense, the 34-year-old author has just returned from a trip of sorts. A year has passed since his first novel, “Eternity’s Missing Children,” was bound into a 263-page paperback with a cover so black and austere you wonder if by reading it you’ll be privy to all of the author’s secrets.
“It’s been a strange but rewarding trip,” Praefke says of the post-publishing blur. “It’s tough if you don’t have the last name Clancy or Grisham, ya know? It’s not like I got into it thinking I would write the great American novel.”
He pauses, reconsiders.
“Years ago I was probably hoping for that,” he says, laughing a little at the admission. “Everyone wants to step up to the plate and give it a shot. At least I know I’ve done it, right? You could fill the Rose Bowl with unfinished novels.”
He was 25 when he started writing “Eternity’s Missing Children.” The book took four years to publish, and during the publishing process the story morphed from a meticulously detailed screenplay into an artfully rendered novel with evocative subject matter and equally evocative characters, starting with the devil saddling up to a New Orleans bar and ordering a glass of whiskey.
It wasn’t until Praefke — a Wisconsin native who studied journalism at the University of Minnesota — delivered the manuscript to his publisher’s office in all its descriptive glory that he realized how enormous his story had become and how much of a novelist he really was.
His screenplay was the thickness of a phone book. When Praefke set it on his publisher’s desk, it made an obvious thud.
“It’s unique representing something you wrote in 2001,” Praefke says. “There are people who wouldn’t want to stand next to e-mails they wrote in 2001, much less a novel. It’s funny standing next to your product under the fever of extremely personal things. Your first book is very autobiographical.”
He’s talking, of course, about the outcast character he based loosely on himself — Jameson O’Hara, a boozing, self-aggrandizing writer with a penchant for self-pity — the character he says he abandoned in his late 20s.
“Your first book is commonly a love letter to someone,” Praekfe says. “And Jameson became my little tool, a vicarious leap. There have been some definite ‘Jameson’ moments in my life, a kind of lost boy theme. They say contentment doesn’t breed art.”
Coffee shops have long been the haunts of writers, but for Praefke, who has worked for six years as a Starbucks barista on St. Armands Circle, the surroundings are even more comfortable.
He experienced his first burst of literary creativity a few blocks from his college campus at a small bohemian coffee shop, where Minnesota native Bob Dylan first started playing guitar.
Praefke remembers he sat down to write a paper for his journalism class and an 18-page short story came out instead.
“I call it the scene of the crime,” Praefke says, fidgeting with his aviator sunglasses. “I remember walking out of that café without that paper done and something was different. Something had changed. The desire to create a character or a scene became my preoccupation. I started to see things differently. You become a little like a sponge.”
He returned this spring to the University of Minnesota, where he was invited to speak about his work, which as of recently has grown to include two more novels and two more screenplays, one of which was inspired by Founding Father Thomas Paine.
He says this time he’s waiting to get an agent before he publishes more work.
“For the most part, publishers don’t like dealing with novelists,” Praefke jokes. “We’re neurotic and demented and married to our books.”
There are many things about Praefke that undeniably make him a writer: his fascination with Hunter S. Thompson, Dylan and Jack Kerouac; his former love affair with whiskey; and the ways in which he smokes a cigar and talks about road trips and the arc of a good story.
However, none of these things add up without self-discipline, which is an unromantic literary character trait, as Praefke is well aware.
“I think sometimes it’s hard to go from a 12-hour writing session to shopping at Publix for milk,” Praefke says. “By mistake, you take yourself too seriously. My goal is to be a modern-day J.D. Salinger — but with a better social life.”
PRAEFKE’S TOP 5 WRITING MUST-HAVES
‘Blonde on Blonde’
“I never would have put pen to paper and covered it with ink if it wasn’t for Dylan.”
“My writing advice is simple: coffee. A lot of it.”
Maurice Ravel’s ‘Boléro’
“It was used in the Dudley Moore movie ‘10,’ you know, the one with Bo Derek and the braided hair?”
“It’s a place you can’t forget. It doesn’t let you. Between the voodoo and the booze, there are gentle reminders everywhere.”
‘The Shining,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove’
“Those are like the Mount Rushmore of movies.”
To buy a copy of “Eternity’s Missing Children,” visit www.rspraefke.com.