The Canadian Learners Television recently aired an interesting program called Writer’s Confessions. Much to my surprise (and delight) I was able to see Elizabeth briefly talk about her writing life. One interesting comment which stayed with me wasn’t so much about her writing but perhaps a reason for writing. She panics when she’s still and too quiet. After years of being a gypsy, she is doing a great job of making her mark on the Canadian and International literary scene. Her first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence was a finalist for the Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, the City of Toronto Book Award and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. With two novels published and an anthology she compiled and edited, it’s obvious this author who says “I write to communicate with others.” is bound for something better than a life within her head. Elizabeth has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Counselling Psychology, both from the University of Toronto. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, a highly recognized and successful jumping platform for writers in Canada wanting to break into the literary scene. Elizabeth Ruth is currently teaching a course at the University of Toronto.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Elizabeth Ruth: Did I choose this or did this choose me? Hard to answer. I’ve always written, however there came a time when I did make a conscious decision to rearrange my life around my writing rather than slip my writing in around the rest of my life. That moment took place at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. I was still working full-time in another career back then, and desperately wanting more time to finish my first novel. My workshop instructor was the brilliant Canadian novelist Timothy Findley. One day, during the week-long workshop, Tiff took me outside (he was on a smoke break) and we talked about my writing aspirations. He insisted that I must finish my novel. Hearing those words from a writer I so profoundly respected made me know that if I didn’t make an honest go of it then, if I didn’t really give it my all I would always wonder about “what if” and I would have no one but myself to blame. That was the moment I consciously chose to become a writer. It is a terrible cliché, I know, but I quit my full-time job the following Monday, determined to piece work together in a way that left writing at the centre of my world.
Moe: Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager?
Elizabeth Ruth: I kept a diary as a child, and wrote poems and very short stories. I created a working library, numerical shelving system and all, with my books. I wrote my first poems when I was 6 or 7, and I still have them today. They show a natural understanding for the pace and rhythm of language, and great empathy for characters, and a certain whimsy – all qualities that appear in my fiction today. If those poems belonged to someone else I would judge them as promising. The writing I did as a teenager, on the other hand, is lacking. Those were self-absorbed, troubled years and my writing reflects a certain lack of focus and a need to over dramatize. I showed those poems and stories to a librarian once, to her horror, and she asked me if I was all right?
Moe: What inspires you?
Elizabeth Ruth: To understand a writer’s spark you usually need a bit of context: I moved every year of my childhood, often more than once. I changed schools frequently, attending many public schools and high schools. Change was built into my bones at an early age. Change and adaptation appear as themes in my work, as does The Outsider. By that I mean, Misfits, idiosyncratic characters, Outlaws and generally people who don’t fit in. I was always one of those people, joining a group that had a long history, coming in from the outside, not to mention my unconventional family life where visiting relatives in psychiatric facilities and hanging out with relatives between prison stints was the norm. You learn to pass for common and keep the other stuff to yourself. I still keep my personal life fairly quiet. But my writing is preoccupied with the lives of outsiders and outlaws and making those lives central rather than marginal. Both of my novels, in different ways, challenge basic preconceptions about normalcy.
Also, I was born in a border city. Windsor, Ontario, which sits across the river from Detroit, Michigan. I am interested in the ways that border and boundaries get drawn in all kinds of ways. Border cities are interesting places because they leave their citizens literally straddling an arbitrary line. The myth is always that the border divides cleanly, when in fact it’s porous and that’s what interested me in writing my newest novel, Smoke. The way that all kinds of borders, both literal and metaphoric can be crossed and need to be crossed.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day how do you spend your time?
Elizabeth Ruth: I treat my writing as a full-time job so I’m at my desk by 9 a.m. and I work until 5 p.m. most days, and if I’m in the middle of a novel or another writing project then I work on the week-ends. Can you tell I don’t have children? If the day comes when I have responsibilities other than to myself I will have to become a better time-manager and a faster writer, working the same 1000 words a day into fewer hours. To make money I teach evenings, leaving my days free. Writing is hard work and it should be supported by the culture as such, though it’s most often seen as a hobby, something a writer would do for fun, even if s/he weren’t going to be published or paid. That’s crap, really. I write to communicate with others. I want readers, so I need publication, and to survive for long stints writing a novel I need money. During my writing days I do not answer the e-mail, the phone or the door. I reason that if someone is calling me or writing me then they are alive and it can wait. I have two cats who keep me company. The first half of the day is usually when I get new writing done, and then in the after noon I edit and rework. I stop somewhere in the day for food, but there’s no schedule for meals.
Moe: How long does it take you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write through or revise as you go along?
Elizabeth Ruth: Both of my novels took four years to write. Sadly. I had hopes of speeding up but, you know, they require time if they’re going to be textured and rich and challenging. I hope the next one takes only two years, but I’m not banking on it. In terms of how I wrote them; each was an entirely different process. The first, Ten Good Seconds of Silence, was a novel that dealt with memory and time and so there were flashes forward and flashes backward. Therefore, I was able to write the scenes I wanted to and later, because it was a more circular storyline, piece together the order of telling. However, my recent novel, Smoke, follows the cycles on a tobacco farm and therefore certain things needed to happen at certain seasonal times. As a result, I wrote it more or less chronologically, in a linear fashion. Also with Smoke, I knew the ending before I began so I was writing to that. In both cases I revised as I wrote. It was a dynamic process.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Elizabeth Ruth: No. I write literary fiction, so I’m not usually thinking genre in the conventional sense of detective fiction or mysteries, though it would be a great challenge and a lot of fun to try and write either of those. I have learned to not consider the audience, to write what I want to write and wait and see who those words reach. Reviewers I never would have predicted have embraced my work, and readers I never would have thought wanted to be challenged in the ways that I challenge my readers have welcomed my books. I know better now than to assume I can second-guess who will enjoy an Elizabeth Ruth novel. Besides, if I considered my readership, I wouldn’t be giving my full attention to the writing, which is what I should be doing.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Elizabeth Ruth: I do not write from an outline. I would be bored to death an unable to sustain the focus and interest required to produce a novel if I knew what was going to happen before it happens. I want to be surprised each morning when I sit down to write and I assume that if I am fresh and surprised by the plot then so too will readers be when they encounter it. I do, however, have a good sense of my protagonists and other supporting people, and I put them into a given situation and see how they will respond. To me all good writing is character-driven and if the characters are three-dimensional and fleshed-out then the plot will follow. If I worked from an outline my writing would come off as stilted and dry.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Elizabeth Ruth: With Smoke, my second novel, I did a great deal of research. It is set in the 1950’s and the 1930’s during prohibition, so all of that predates me. (In fact, that novel sparked because of a footnote in a history text – a single line about someone with a guarded secret and hidden past). I set out to make sure I nailed the period, the 1950’s, all the details of a tobacco farm, and I researched the Purple Gang heavily, a real-life Detroit mob who inhabit my book. I read books and newspapers of the period, farmer’s magazines and I visited a Tobacco Museum to view old farm equipment. I conducted many interviews, visited tobacco farms during harvest, and learned all about the prohibition era. Also, there is a boxing scene in Smoke so I took a 12 week boxing class at Sully’s gym in Toronto – a professional fighter’s gym. Because one of my lead characters is badly burned I researched burns and treatment options, consulted with a doctor for accuracy. I did the research before and during the writing process.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Elizabeth Ruth: My characters come from my imagination. I haven’t yet based a character on anyone I know, though people like to assume they can see themselves somewhere in the books. I’ve had an unusually (unusual to most people, not to me) dramatic life, with many moves, living in different countries and cultures and being exposed to different languages, struggling financially, meeting all kinds of people, all from an early age. So, my mind is full of possibilities….
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Elizabeth Ruth: Nope. So far no problem with writer’s block. To tell you the truth I don’t believe in writer’s block. My problem is harnessing the ideas I have and choosing which one to focus in on. I haven’t yet had a dry spell where nothing comes. If by writer’s block you mean writing poorly, where nothing of substance comes, well yes of course that happens all the time. That’s part of the process. You write everyday and some of it, much of it, is bound to be bad. I expect that.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Elizabeth Ruth: When someone reads one of my books for the first time, when they come to the end, I hope they feel they’ve been taken away to a vibrant, verdant, living place where anything is possible. I hope they have some of their basic preconceptions about normalcy, sanity and deviancy challenged, and I hope they’ve enjoyed the people they’ve been introduced to, many of whom are the sort most would deem odd, idiosyncratic or outsiders. I hope readers feel they’ve been told a rip-roaring good story in the process.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Elizabeth Ruth: Sure.
1. There are industry trends – certain kinds of writing, certain styles and subject matter that come in and out of fashion. Just go ahead and write the thing you are passionate about. It’s the only way to meet with success.
2. Everyone in the industry makes more money than the writer.
3. Make sure to read and review any information that goes out with your name on it.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Elizabeth Ruth: Smoke is set in the 1950’s, in a tobacco growing community of the same name. It centres on a 15 year old boy named Buster McFiddie who is facially disfigured in a fluke accident, and on the friendship between he and the village doctor. Doc John tells Buster stories of his early life in Detroit, Michigan during prohibition. It’s been said that Smoke is a coming-of-age story for Buster and it is, but to my mind it’s also a coming of age story for all of us now, as we grapple with changing notions of sex and gender and what it means to be human. In this book, in particular, I’m exploring that gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.
Smoke has this back-story that takes place in Detroit and centres on a real-life gang, The Purple Gang. This gang highlights the fact that behaviour that is deemed illegal and immoral or deviant at one point in history is often seen as perfectly normal and acceptable at another point. For example, alcohol consumption during prohibition and smoking today, which is understood very differently in the culture than it was a generation ago, and of course all kinds of areas of human sexuality have been and still are prohibited and regulated closely by societies. For me, an outlaw is merely an outsider born on the wrong side of history.
My mother and her family are from a village called Otterville near Tillsonburg – in the heart of tobacco country in Canada. As I read up on the area for my own interest I found that Tobacco growing pre-automation was fascinating and this led to more reading and research and eventually led me to write Smoke. Tobacco growing, priming, tying, curing is extremely difficult work and those growers who made a go of it were hardworking men and women of vision. They managed to turn one of the poorest parts of the country around to one of the wealthiest. They were risk-takers and I can’t help respecting that about them. Also, tobacco growing is an aspect of Ontario culture and indeed Canadian culture that as far as I know, has not been documented in our fiction.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Elizabeth Ruth: I like to read books that make me think about my own assumptions and understanding of the world while at the same time entertain me. I read a lot of fiction and a fair amount of non-fiction. I probably have one of the largest collections of Canadian literature going. Timothy Findley, Ann Marie MacDonald, the list is endless of great Canadian writers. But I’ve always been a big fan of John Irving’s work. I love the way he is able to take a seemingly implausible plot and make it read as perfectly natural. And Amy Tan, for her beautiful rendering of a time and place and for doing it in a way that most people can understand. Dorothy Allison is a risk-taker, and then there’s the Welsh writer, Sarah Waters… I don’t subscribe the erroneous belief that “there are no new stories only new ways to tell them.” I think there are many new stories waiting in the vast corners of a writer’s imagination and I am only interested in telling the stories that don’t get told. So, those are the stories I look to read as well.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Elizabeth Ruth: I like to watch movies in the theatre, and spend a lot of time with friends – dinner parties and that sort of thing. I travel whenever I can.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Elizabeth Ruth: Here’s my best advice:
1. No one cares, or will care, about your writing as much as you do – not agents, not editors, not readers, so be prepared to defend and promote it.
2. Most writers, at least in Canada where I live, don’t make a living off their writing alone so find meaningful work that allows time for the writing.
3. Don’t spend your time and money reading “how to write” books or journaling. Use the time instead to write fiction.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Elizabeth Ruth: That’s a hard question to answer. The rewards from starting with a blank page and then creating a whole other universe are immeasurable. The very best of me goes to my stories and novels and so I wouldn’t be myself without writing. But, if I had to choose an alternate career it would probably be something to do with animals, working with primates or as a marine biologist perhaps.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Elizabeth Ruth: My favourite words is “no”. Say it and then you really find out how people feel!
Originally published 11/5/2005 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.