Firelight Interview Series: Elizabeth Ruth

Elizabeth RuthWho are you?

I’m the author of three critically acclaimed novels: Matadora, Smoke and Ten Good Seconds of Silence. My work has been recognized by the Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, The Amazon.ca Best First Novel Award, The City of Toronto Book Award, and CBC Canada Reads. Recently CBC named me one of the top ten women writers in Canada.

I’ve also published a novella entitled Love You To Death, and edited an anthology entitled Bent On Writing: Contemporary Queer Tales. I teach creative writing at the University of Toronto and through the Humber School for Writers. I’m a long-standing member of The Writers’ Union of Canada and the current chair of the author’s advisory committee of the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

I’m also an only child who was raised by a single mother. I moved homes 40-odd times as a child and teen, living in Canada, Colombia, and the US. As a young woman, I lived in France (no, it wasn’t hard and moving didn’t ruin my childhood). I attended eight schools before arriving at university – in one year, changing schools three times – and as a result I’m not shy about meeting new people! Before writing full-time, I worked for eleven years in shelters with homeless women and children and in community-based mental health centres.

What’s your favourite book?

Writers are frequently asked who our literary influences are or which writers we read. The answer to those questions, of course, is entirely dependent upon our mood on a given day, stage of life, current literary passions, and so on. However, I’ve never been asked to name a favourite book, most likely because the notion of singling out a given work as THE influence is preposterous. That said, it is easy for me

When I was seven years old and living in Bogota, Colombia, where I first learned to write (in Spanish, not English), a friend of the family from Toronto came to visit on her way farther south. She brought with her two glass jars of peanut butter (one crunchy and one smooth) which, for some reason, we could only buy on the black market. She also brought along a copy of The Little Prince.

I struggled to read the book as it was in English and I lived entirely in Spanish. My mother read me chapters aloud each night before bed. At that moment in my life, I was terribly lonesome for my family back home, and I felt an immediate kinship with the prince, the sole inhabitant of a planet called Asteroid B612, and with his rose. Colombia may as well have been a different planet as far as my seven-year-old self was concerned, and it gave me great comfort, and a way to manage culture shock, to have the company of those fellow travelers.

What has made a lasting imprint upon my imagination was the prince’s willingness to challenge majority perspective, to see things from a different point of view. (Was it just a box or was there indeed a sheep within? Was it a snake that’d swallowed an elephant or was it a mere hat?) I remain comforted by the notion that my own ways of seeing are valid, if sometimes unusual or unpopular.

The writer at work: taking research notes for Matadora

The writer at work: inside a bullpen, where the bull waits before he is released into the ring

As a professional writer, I now see the lasting influence of this slim book on my own work. I notice the same preoccupations with belonging, with a desire to free oneself of “normal” expectation, to challenge dominant notions of love. I can think of no better book as an example of a call to a writer’s imagination. Because of its meaning to me personally, I have given copies of The Little Prince to a half dozen children, my daughter among them, hoping they will grow and find the beauty in it. Also, I have given a copy to a couple of adults as a gesture of love.

What’s the best gift you’ve been given by a fan of your work?

In 2001, I was on tour across western Canada with my first book, Ten Good Seconds of Silence – a novel that featured a proudly overweight psychic single mother who finds missing children for the police, and her daughter, Lemon.

I was scheduled to be interviewed about the book’s Vancouver connection at a local Vancouver radio show. My publicist sent me to town with only the address and interview time, no contact name. I entered the building and was greeted by a stunningly beautiful woman, whose name I forgot the instant she offered it. I was lost in her voice. She said she had a surprise for me. Then, from behind her back she pulled a fresh lemon. She loved my character of the same name, she said, and had wanted to do something for me no one else was likely to do. We proceeded to the studio and carried on with the interview, me answering her perceptive questions while passing the weight of the lemon between my palms, as if weighing my future as an author.

The gesture was thoughtful, and showed me, in concrete terms, the potential impact of my words. I’ve tried, in vain, to find that woman many times, to see what has become of her career, and to thank her. I kept the lemon in my pocket for the rest of the tour. My clothes smelled like a citrus grove.

People know you to be highly sociable and outgoing. Do you see yourself as an extrovert?

No, I don’t, actually. I’m obviously extroverted in some visible ways, or somewhere to the right side, along the introvert-ambivert-extrovert continuum, but like all personality categories extrovert doesn’t capture the full picture. It’s certainly true that I enjoy public speaking and performing my work before large crowds, but that has more to do with not having to fight for an audience than anything else. It’s also true that I pride myself on my ability to speak with anyone, in any circumstance. A childhood of constant change and dealing with all kinds of people will help develop that ability in a person. It’s easy for me to speak with strangers, even intimately.

However, I need great chunks of time to myself. To write mainly, but also to read, to think. When I don’t have that in a regular way I can become a bit tyrannical. Perhaps more revealing: although I speak openly about most things in my life, I rarely, if ever, speak about the things that matter most to me. Those experiences and feelings are reserved for a very few dear friends. If people want to know who I really am and what I really feel, they would have to ask me directly, or read my books.

What situation brings out the worst in you?

Boredom. If I am profoundly bored I find trouble.

Ever been in trouble with the police?

Between the ages of 13 to 15 I was pretty bored and angry, a bad combination. I rejected all authority. I was trapped without a car or money, in a small Muskoka town, one to which I didn’t belong, one where everyone else had grown up together. One day, a friend dared me to steal something from each store along Main Street, which I happily did, despite the fact that my mother was part of the local business association. I managed to score quite a stash over a one-week period, including a hot pink fuzzy angora sweater, skin-tight Jordache jeans and a handful of cheap earrings from Stedman’s department store. I hid some loot under my bed at home, and the rest in the back of my closet. On Friday night, I wore the jeans to the big mid-winter high school dance.

In the meantime, one of the store owners, who’d seen me stuff the angora sweater into my coat, called my mother and told her about the theft. My mother, a firm believer in the importance of consequences, had the backbone to call the police and report me. She told them where I was to be found and, although they were willing to overlook the incident, she insisted they pick me up at the dance and haul me into the police station for the full treatment. So, somewhere in a Huntsville police log are my 14-year-old fingerprints. I was forced to return stolen items, apologize and wash the floors at Stedman’s for a month. This was a fairly humiliating punishment for a teenager, who could be seen by all her friends through the giant glass windows facing Main Street.

Name something you do in secret that you are now willing to come clean about.

I write poetry.

A bullfight in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain, seen while researching for Matadora

A bullfight in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain, while researching for Matadora

What’s the one thing you said you’d never do that you have done?

When I was growing up it wasn’t that unusual to be raised by a single mother. It was, however, still scandalous to be the child of an unmarried mother. As in, never been married. The few kids I knew who were living with single parents were the products of divorce. Their mothers hadn’t chosen to have a child “out of wedlock” as the term was then. Their mothers claimed the title of single mother only after their marriages dissolved and while they cashed in their monthly alimony cheques. My mother claimed only me.

Contrary to what psychologists might have predicted, I was proud of our little family, a fierce defender of it. As I grew, I was forced to explain my situation (in the schoolyard, when teachers or strangers stuck their noses into our business, once or twice within my own extended family.) The questions, regardless of how they were posed, were always about marriage and legitimacy. My mother’s and mine, respectively. I vowed at a young age that I would never marry. I would refuse to participate in an institution that had oppressed me. I did not wish to be defined by my relationship, or lack thereof, to anyone else. I still associate marriage with its patriarchal history. The word “wife” conjures a picture in my mind of disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare, and sends a chill. To me, marriage and children should remains in separate spheres, for everyone’s benefit.

First comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes so-and-so with a baby carriage.

The implication of the children’s tune makes me somewhat apoplectic. I’ve told every person with whom I’ve been in a seriously relationship, that they should never propose to me, that I will flat-out refuse.

Curiously, this did not deter my current partner (of 14 years) from popping the question on bended knee, with a ring in hand. It was summer and we were driving a rented car to Newfoundland. Shocked at her nerve, I agreed, then panicked, and by the time we got back to Toronto, talked us out of it. Even more curious, once it became legal in Canada for same sex couples to marry we did. We also had a child. The order of things was purely random. Neither of us is the wife.

Was there a defining moment when you decided to become a writer?

Yes, as clichéd as it sounds, one year when I was in primary school (I went to many) there was a writing competition that was open to grades 4, 5 and 6. I was in either 4 or 5, I don’t recall. What I do remember clearly was how excited I was to be entering a contest I was sure to win. I imagined striding across the gym stage to shake hands with the school principal, and to collect my prize. Because I loved horseback riding and was taking lessons at Sunnybrook stables in Toronto, I instantly decided to write about the then-captain of the Canadian equestrian team, Jim Elder.

Somehow my mother got hold of his phone number and I called, nervous and without having prepared interview questions. We spoke briefly. From that, I wrote one draft of my story. I turned it in at school the next day, without editing. Then, I waited excitedly for the day when the school’s winner would be announced.

Finally, a month or more later, our teachers led us into the gymnasium. I was seated cross-legged on the floor, three rows from the front. When they called out the third place winner, a grade 4 girl, I was gleeful. The other girl’s name being called only confirmed my ultimate win. Next, they called the name of the second place winner, a gangly boy from grade 5. I was practically levitating; my heart was racing, ready to burst. I knew it, I thought. I knew it all along. Finally, when I couldn’t stand the waiting any longer they called the first place winner to the stage. He was in grade 6 and I was stunned, deflated. Incredulous. How could this be? I wondered. I was a writer! I decided right then and there that I would continue writing until one day people would see that my stories were good.

That evening, by way of consolation, my mother pointed out, that I had made one brief attempt, without planning or revision. Perhaps, she suggested, I should try harder next time. I’ve been doing that ever since.

Please share an inspiring sentence. What is it from and why do you love it?

“And nearly always I feel a vague contempt for you, fine brave world – for you and all the things that I see from my barrenness. But I promise you, if some one comes from among you over the sunset hill one day with love for me, I will fall at your feet.”

From Mary McLane’s I Await The Devil’s Coming.

I am moved by this passage because it was written by a 19-year-old girl in 1901, who was bored to tears with the life she’d been assigned in rural Montana. (Incidentally, she had been born in Canada.) Mary was an aspiring writer who declared herself to be a literary genius and believed it. She was angry and perhaps half mad about the limited options afforded her because of her gender.

This passage from her first book, a memoir, is pulsing with reckless abandon and the desire to experience romantic love (she was in love with an older woman whom she called the Anemone Lady.) I find her raw honesty bold and inspiring. Unfortunately, her rages at the condition of girls and women, particularly those who want to write, remain relevant today. I wonder what she would have had to say about love and writing had she lived beyond her 40’s. Mary’s memoir, published in 1902 sold 100,000 copies in its first month.

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3 Responses to Firelight Interview Series: Elizabeth Ruth

  1. Avatar
    Naomi April 5, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    I saw CBC’s article about the top 10 women writers in Canada, and wrote them all down. I plan to read one of Elizabeth Ruth’s books sometime soon, I hope. I enjoyed reading this interview! Love the inspiring sentence question. Have you read her books, and is there one you would you recommend?

    • Lauren
      Lauren April 5, 2014 at 11:12 am #

      I read Matadora in the fall and loved it. She brings the world of bullfighting to life in a fascinating and brave way.

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