Today I have the pleasure of talking with Ruth Walker. Ruth is one half of the brain trust that is Writescape, she is an editor, a former president of the WCDR and above all a writer and author of Living Underground (coming to a store near you September 2012). I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth for the first time in A Novel Approach 2009. What a wide variety of writers that class had. Established writers, like Ruth, a bunch of fresh faces right out of Durham College writing courses with Dorothea Helms, James Dewar and Sue Reynolds, and one reluctant face that felt way out of his league.
Ruth, I remember thinking, during those sessions, that you had a great storyteller’s voice and style. What inspires you to write the kind of stories that you write?
Thanks for asking, Dale. I love the way a good story allows me to “travel.” And I am a curious person – especially about decisions people make and the behaviours they exhibit. For example, the heart of my novel Living Underground was inspired by a man who lived in our family’s basement apartment when I was a kid. I helped my mother with housekeeping in that apartment and was fascinated by the German immigrant who lived there for several months. He didn’t need the housekeeping even though he paid for it. That apartment was always spotless. It was also empty. Other than the furniture that we supplied and the clothes that he hung on the garment rack, you would think no one lived there. No books. No photographs. No paperclips. No matches. No odds and ends. Nothing. And his shoes gleamed with polish and were lined up so you could lay a ruler against the toes and nothing would need adjusting to line up.
I wondered for years about what kind of person lives like that. I never got to talk with him (and I doubt he would have wanted to talk) but even as a kid I really wanted to ask him about his life. Who lives like that, I wanted to know.
The joy of being a writer meant I could imagine his life – his childhood, his adult years, his reasons for coming to Canada – all of it. And what started out as a short story 15 years ago became the novel that Seraphim Editions is publishing in September.
If you were to describe your style, what would it be? And what styles influenced you in your writing journey?
Good Lord. I have a style? I guess my style is to fight my urge to be too poetic. I adore language — the way a word or two can be as powerful as a drug to affect a person’s perspective on the world. So too can syntax and diction affect the mood and pacing of a text. My style is to tell the story in the way I would like to hear it, a kind of overheard kitchen table conversation. My style is a storytelling style, I guess. And because I don’t often tell a story in a straight narrative line, my overall style is to use flashback and multiple points of view to build the narrative. It remains to be seen if that style is such that it will work with readers.
I’ve written about people having an ear for music and have wondered if the same holds true for writing. Do you believe in innate talent, an intuitive writing sense per-se?
I don’t know, Dale. I think we are all artists with the capacity for rich expression and deep enjoyment but life and circumstances keep many from discovering their gifts. So many factors go into the “making of an artist” – who is to say what moves a person to colour with paints versus words versus music versus movement, etc.? I think what we consider to be “an innate talent” is probably just someone who has opened themselves to fully exploring their creative self. I barely wrote before my 40s but when I started, I was like that kid in the candy store. I could not stop now if I wanted to. And I’ve had successes. Is that talent learned or talent finally expressed? You ask a good question that probably has no clear answer. I love that. I may have to write a novel about talent now.
Being an editor as well, can that innate talent also be applied to having an ear for good writing?
Editing and writing come from very different places in my brain. I love editing when it is work that engages my imagination as a reader. I’m not a great proof reader but I can find those logic glitches (um, it was a moonlit night on page 4 and on page 5, it is pouring rain…) and I notice when a character is not fully developed or a plot is dipping into low energy. I am not a perfect editor of my own work (most writers aren’t good self-editors) but I was delighted to work with Seraphim editor George Down on my book. And yes, I, too, had logic glitches. I changed the spelling of several characters’ names and at least one city. And don’t even start on my weakness with numbers. But that is what an editor is there for — to catch you on those booboos and keep you from falling flat onto you face in public.
My exposure to your writing started with a curious young man in a Grimm’s Fairy-tale type modern world, Yvon. Living Underground is not that book. I understand it actually predates Yvon. Can you give us some background on its origins and its journey to publication?
You already have the story of where Living Underground comes from in my imagination world. Publishing the book has been a challenge. It was a semi-finalist in the 1998 Chapters-Robertson Davies unpublished novel competition and I thought that would be all I needed to get it in the hands of an agent or publisher. Of course, it wasn’t at all ready to be published. I just figured it was.
I’ve had the support and interest of fellow writers in critique groups and in workshops and retreats so the manuscript has changed a great deal.
I worked on various versions of the manuscript over the years, in between other work (lots of poetry, a few short plays and one complete and a two incomplete novel mss) and life in general. In the past five years, it generated some interest from larger publishers. Esteemed Canadian editor John Metcalf declared that he really liked the book and would publish it if it were up to him. The close calls were what kept me going. I decided last fall to give it one more big push and fired it off to 8 different publishers. Again, it came close with two of them. Last October, I came across the website for Seraphim Editions and, on the advice of poet Allan Briesmaster, I sent it to Maureen Whyte, publisher.
Three weeks later, I had an offer of publication from Maureen. I withdrew the book from the other publishers and signed with Seraphim. She said she had one spot left on her publishing program for the fall but was holding it for a special book. When my manuscript arrived, she said she knew this was the book. After all the years of hope and disappointments, this was welcome news indeed.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Giving up? All the time. With each rejection — even the ‘good’ rejections — there is the undeniable fact of not being wanted. I heard someone once say that writers shouldn’t get so upset by rejection, that it isn’t “you” they are rejecting, it’s your work. Get serious! Of course they are rejecting me because I AM my work — heart and soul and flesh, that story or poem or play or essay that I’ve sent out for consideration comes from who I am. A writer needs more than a tough skin and resilience. A writer needs to be able to live with a part of them that may not ever be wanted. It is the truth of anyone who produces creative work. And giving up is much easier than to keep producing creative work on a hope. That’s why anyone who sticks with it deserves recognition. And why a support network is really wise and healthy.
What great advice, as always!
Switching gears, put on your teacher’s hat Ruth, with Writescape, you get to nurture new voices, nudge writers along the path, and encourage them. Essentially, you help them mold their own identities. Have you ever been surprised by the quality of the work? Does it still hold the magic that keeps you and Gwynn teaching?
I love to teach. I probably would have been a teacher if I hadn’t dropped out of high school. Leading workshops and retreats allows me the best of all worlds. I teach and I learn. I learn from the participants in the workshops and I learn from my teaching colleagues. It is a privilege to work with writers who are at various stages of their creative journeys. I’ve worked with new “fledgling” writers and I’ve worked with well-published writers and the thrill for me is always the same. It comes from watching the participants lose themselves in a creative or expressive moment and discover something new about themselves or the craft that they didn’t know before. It’s priceless and it what fuels me as a teacher.
And finally, you were president of the WCDR. How has it changed since you were part of its creative process? Where do you see it going in the upcoming years and where would you like to see it go?
My first WCDR meeting, September 1996, had 11 people in attendance. I was so nervous but Marge Green, Dorothea Helms and Gwynn Scheltema welcomed me with open arms. I soon joined the board as secretary and ended up as president two years after that. Those early boards worked very hard to bring WCDR to new levels of accomplishment and prestige. For five years, we co-sponsored a Canadian authors reading series Words in Whitby with the Whitby Public Library. WCDR attended Word on the Street for the first time, ran the Dan Sullivan Memorial Poetry Contest, organized writing retreats, sponsored workshops and hosted some amazing writing guests at our various breakfast meetings. I remember being so thrilled when our breakfast meeting topped at 60 people. And look at us now. 130 to 150 sit down for breakfast each month.
WCDR is an organic entity. It has a vibrant life of its own, fuelled by its membership and given form and direction by an active and engaged board of directors. It is not always perfect but what human endeavour ever is? For me, it the very home of my writer’s heart. It was where I was welcomed and encouraged as a beginner. And it has been a true support to me since 1996. It is going in the direction that it should. Wherever it takes us, I’ll be along for the ride.
Thank-you so much, Ruth, for sitting down with The Author’s Voice and thank-you for being part of molding my own tentative steps towards writing. You are a testament to hard work and patience.
Here is a little blurb from Living Underground to whet your appetites and hopefully fill out the line-up I know will happen once this book hits the shelves. As always, check with your local book store.
They were the only family on all of Lilac Valley Crescent with a basement apartment: kitchen, living room, bedroom and dinky little bathroom – just a shower.
The last tenants bought a few paintings and a second-hand brown rocker recliner. Skipped out one rainy Thursday afternoon – took the paintings but left the chair.
Between tenants, Sheila’s job was to give the place a quick wipe up – got to show nice, Sheila. After running the mop and dust cloth around, there was time for the hi-fi and the recliner, rocking and rocking to the Top Ten hits. Above, shuffling footsteps or kitchen chair scrapes belonged to another place.
She imagined living there. Playing music, as loud as she wanted: The Beatles or the Beach Boys. Stacks of records – 45s and LPs. And guests – lots of guests. She’d cook for them, wash her own dishes – even better, have a maid. She could read FaVE or Vogue. All day.
Sometimes, she stood in front of the tiny bathroom mirror. Piled her hair on top of her head, pouted. Tried on sexy: “Oh, Mr. Bond …”
And sometimes she slow-danced around the small square living room. Eyes half-closed, watching her shadow glide over the walls and the furniture.
Papa danced with her like that. High up in his arms, his face laughing, her little-girl fingers touching his stubble. She almost could hear the music – and then her mother’s voice Tony Barnes, put Sheila down, you’re making her dizzy for Chrissakes …
Between tenants happened a lot.
Her mom said they had to be more quiet – people were downstairs and they all had to close doors, not slam them. They couldn’t yell, and the TV sound couldn’t go past the mark scratched beside the dial.
But people kept moving out. Mostly, it was when no one was around to ask for the rent.
One day, her mom would see that she was too grown up to share her bedroom.
It was going to happen. Her mother was going to tell Sheila that she should have the apartment instead of strangers who skipped out.
Sheila would just have to wait for the sign and then she’d know.
* * *
Sigmund Maier stepped off the Victoria Park bus just north of Lawrence. He stood for a moment in the shade of a small maple tree then pulled out a notebook from the pocket of his buttoned-up trench coat. Twice, he checked the street name against his notes before he put back the pad and strode down the long curving sidewalk on Lilac Valley Crescent.
He passed dozens of bungalows, their suburban sameness broken only by an occasional one-and-a-half storey house. They all were red-brick ordinary; bushes planted under front windows, small concrete porches leading to aluminium screen doors – and roller skates, skipping ropes and bicycles scattered on paved driveways and trimmed front lawns. It was mid-morning, and although it was only the Monday of the September long weekend already a few leaves on some of the trees were tinted red and orange. Sigmund Maier kept a steady, sure pace until stopping in front of a compact bungalow just where Lilac Valley Crescent began its bend northward.
He waited for all of thirty seconds, his eyes glancing left and right at the neighbouring homes. It was as if he were listening for something, and he tilted back his head, raising his chin and taking in the breeze that barely riffled through the junipers in front of the house before him. The grey-green Venetian blinds that covered the large picture window were closed tight.
Something must have satisfied him, because he moved up the front walk of the squat little bungalow. Picking his way around two bicycles and a scattering of tiny metal cars and plastic army men, he stepped up the three cement porch stairs and knocked at the front door of number 63.
To read more about Ruth Walker, please visit her at her website: Ruth E. Walker. If you are a writer and need a little kick in the pants to get you going, make sure to sign-up for one of her workshops via Writescape with Gwynn Scheltema. If you are out of the area and can’t make the workshops, make sure to pick up their handbook for tips and tricks to keep you writing.
While you are at it, cruise by Seraphim Editions to see what else they have coming out and for more news about Living Underground.
And as always ask questions, we love to hear from readers as well as writers because without readers we are just people making scribbles on paper.
For a list of previous guests, follow the red gravel road.
This is The Author’s Voice signing off until next time. Stay tuned for our up coming Special Guest, the affable Neil Crone.
Remember, if you can’t write right, write wrong with gusto.