In 2014, I read and loved Cynthia Bond’s book Ruby. I am lucky enough to sometimes have the chance to ask other novelists questions about their work for the Historical Novel Society and write up feature articles. There’s always something more in the Q&A that I can’t work into the articles though. So here’s a link to the piece on the HNS website, but I’m also posting the whole Q&A here.
Ruby is your debut novel, but it reads like the accomplished work of an established novelist – I’m thinking particularly of your language and the way the story weaves across time and different points of views so seamlessly. Can you describe your journey as a writer to reach this point?
First, thank you so very much. Both of my parents were academicians. My mother has been the base note, throughout my life, for the importance of reading, of acquiring, gathering knowledge as one might accrue a collection of stamps. My father, who passed away fourteen years ago, taught speech, theater and literature. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting with my sister doing homework in the back of a theater at Kansas University where he taught. I would peek up from the pages of third grade English or Math and watch him cast actors, direct plays, and discuss scenes. I saw the scripts he was working on, dog-eared, curled at the edges, carried under his arm. My dad had a love of words, and he knew theater like the back of his hand. Ibsen, Chekov, Shakespeare…I grew up in a house where my father quoted Shylock from The Merchant of Venice or any number of characters constantly.
Because Dad was one of the few Black professors at KU, he and my mother also hosted many famous writers and activists of the day who influenced me. Between the ages of seven and ten, I met Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, my cousin, Julian Bond and many others. I also picked through adult books at that time as well. When Maya Angelou visited our house on Oak Street, I leapt into her lap and asked, “Why did the caged bird sing?” Although Ms. Angelou may not remember this, she did her best to explain this titular line from the Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem to an eight-year-old. It is a story my family has retold many times. It still gets a chuckle around the dinner table.
I received a full scholarship to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I had a brilliant teacher my first year, Henry Kisor, who was deaf, yet taught me to love language. I began to write all the time, short stories, journals, essays, along with the “feature” stories we were asked to produce. I had never been happier but in an act of rebellion, I veered away from my prescribed career path until I began to grapple with my own past.
Ruby actually began in a tiny writing class many years ago taught by Ayofemi Folayan. We were given a prompt to write about someone receiving a surprise. No laptops, only lined paper and pens (I’m dating myself!) I looked around the room, everyone was writing away furiously—it felt a bit like a quilting bee, each person sewing, attaching their own swatch of fabric. Then I had an image of a woman in a gray dress. It wasn’t a far-fetched image—I was wearing an oversized gray cotton shirt. I had been wearing it for days, driving around Los Angeles in a very old yellow Ford Fiesta, in a state of abject loss.I had just started piecing together scraps of my own forgotten childhood, and had great difficulty going about the business of everyday life. I sat down in that class and wrote: “She wore gray like rainclouds.” It helped. I believe writing is its own medicine. You present the problem, and if you follow the words, follow where the story leads, answers emerge. That day, sitting there in my gray voluminous shirt, an angel cake materialized, and a kind man to carry it and tend to great sorrow. I wrote, basically, the first arc of the novel—Ephram bringing Ruby a cake, in that 30-minute writing exercise. Then of course, it took many, many years to take those four pages and fill in the rest of the story! The amount of work was like scaling the north face of a behemoth mountain. But the seed for the novel began in that class.
Can you explain what the Dybou is? Is he/it your own creation?
Ruby is set in the Piney Woods of East Texas near the Sabine River—a stone’s throw away from Louisiana. The people of the town are steeped in many of the beliefs that echoed from New Orleans. Haints, spirits, spells, and curses…a knowledge, in their bones that there is magic in the world. It is the air they breathe. It is the roots winding under the topsoil that they walk upon. It is the atmosphere of Liberty and all life and death and pain and joy happens within that weighted, yet unseen substance. The Dybou is a part of that…One character tells Ruby that she can tell that the Dybou is coming because he smells like a candle that has just been snuffed out. He is the pain and anger and fear of Liberty whittled to a sharp point. He had been a part of the book since it’s inception, but kept growing and winding across the floor of the Big Thicket. Soon he needed a name. A name from the Bayou…a French Creole name. I consulted friends and family who spoke French, researched and eventually crafted this name. I tried to imagine the etymology of several combined words. It’s funny because I’d forgotten that I’d done this until this moment. I’ve even said, when asked by someone at a reading that it was a translatable word! This is why I write fiction! Images, characters come to life and become real to me.
The small town of Liberty is sometimes a source of humor in the book and at other times, it’s the scene of unbearably cruelty. What research and real-life experience did you bring to creating Liberty?
Some of my first memories are of listening to my mother tell stories about her childhood home, the small, all-black East Texas town of Liberty Community. Although a stunningly beautiful and nationally recognized,academician today, my mother grew up on a little farm in the piney woods. I believe that it is from my mother that I learned the true music of language and storytelling. She has a collection of tiny scars on her body that illustrate her journey…stepping on a rusty nail and having to wear a slab of salt pork wrapped around her foot for an entire summer. The elbow where a teacup was hurled at her as she bolted out of a door. As children, my sister and I would point to each of these scars, these “chapters” in her young life. In many ways, this is how Ruby began. I grew up with this town, this time, being infused into my spirit.
As my sister and I grew older, my mother shared more of her story. Of her beloved sister being murdered by the Sheriff and his deputies for her relationship with a white man, of so many other siblings who, because of their skin color and the dehumanization of racism, made the decision to flee up North and pass for white. My mother told us tales of being picked on for being “yellow,” having light skin and straight hair. She told us how, for survival, she learned to fight to protect herself. How she became legendary, beating boys and girls three times her size. Maggie, in my novel, is this part of my mother’s life.
When I began working on Ruby, my mother and I took a trip to her hometown. There I saw how the red clay roads threaded through the town, how they became golden at sunset. I spoke to the people and learned even more.
But I do want to be clear that many of the things that happen in Liberty Township in the novel have never happened in Liberty Community. Ruby is a work of fiction, woven from many, many different elements and stories I have heard in my life. Working with homeless youth in Hollywood and the stories I heard. grappling with my own past and the ephemeral elements of fiction. Ruby is a bit like a pot of gumbo…Liberty Community is the roux, the heart of the stew.
This is story that confronts the terrible things people do to each other but at the same time includes moments of great tenderness – I’m thinking of Ephram combing out Ruby’s hair. What was the inspiration for Ephram’s character?
Ephram is a compilation of many good men I have known and loved in my life. However, in large part, he reminds me of my Uncle R.H, who indeed would go to milk the cow and come back with half of a pail. He was meticulous in his dress and appearance and lived part of his life with my grandmother, Mother Gatson, a strict, yet ultimately loving woman, who inspired Celia. I pay homage to my uncle in Ruby. His name is changed only a bit, spoken of from time to time, never actually seen…Rupert in the novel, Rueben Hamp Shankle in real life. He was a kind, gentle man, who loved a woman named Belle. A woman his mother disapproved of. He faced many, many obstacles in trying to win her and passed away without her by his side. He had the biggest heart of any man I have ever met.
Although the story mainly belongs to Ruby and Ephram, you give the back story to both Ephram’s parents and his sister’s knowledge of their father. How important is it that Ephram does not know about his family’s connection to Ruby?
It’s incredibly important. I also must reveal that Ruby was initially a 900-page novel that my wise agent, Nicole Aragi, suggested I break into three separate books. Ruby is the first. The story of Ruby and Ephram continues and there are many elements that are revealed, including this connection and how it has played out in their lives.
“If you brave enough to live it, the least I can do is listen.” This is one of Ephram’s lines in the novel and I read that you asked that of yourself as you wrote. Did you also want to challenge your reader not to hide away from the truths about child abuse in these pages but to read them and try and learn from them?
What an amazing question. Yes, I did. There are some very difficult scenes in Ruby. But the reality is that whether we see it or not in our daily lives, there is an undertow, a reality in the world that pulls children beneath the surface. Some make it through, some do not. We can live our entire lives not knowing, yet it is still happening. Ruby is not a story of abuse, it is a story of healing and hope, yet it also asks its readers to bear the weight of seeing for a moment what over 2 million children live every breath, every heartbeat of their young lives. It asks its readers to bare witness…and through doing so, to know that it is possible to survive anything.
Ruby feels tremendous guilt even though she has been a victim of abuse since she was six to the point where she is compared to a fox that “can’t stop chewing at his own leg after it been in a trap.” How important was it to you to convey that aspect of her character and life experience?
Incredibly important. Ruby is haunted—by the forest, by the Dybou, by the spirits that roam the woods, but mostly by her past. She doesn’t know that she is free. She is caught by her past…imprisoned by it. One of the things Ephram tries to show her, through his love, is that there is no longer a chain about her ankle…she is no longer a victim of the horror of her past. The challenge for Ruby is to shatter her memories, to not let them destroy her present life.
Some of the most harrowing scenes in the novel take place in the house run by Miss Barbara. Were they (or others) as difficult to write as they are to read??
Oh my God, yes. I love writing, and of course, I fear it as well…because it is difficult to write about such tragic events. In addition to being a carpenter, my grandfather was a douser. He would take his diving rod and start walking. The rod would just point down, begin to shake, and then he’d tell the farmer how deep the water was and start to dig. He was uncanny in his accuracy regarding depth. Sometimes he would take my mother, put her in a bucket and wheel her down, to collect rocks, and dig earth. Once, when she was down at the bottom of the well, water starting rushing in. It quickly reached her shoulders, she pulled on the rope and shouted and he quickly pulled up the bucket. Sometimes writing feels a bit like being lowered into the bottom of a great well. Sometimes it is fascinating to observe the minerals and roots, and at other times the water rushes in so quickly that I must scramble, leap to freedom. Because for me, writing is something I experience viscerally. Then I rewrite…then rewrite it…then rewrite it again! One of the reasons that I list three baristas in my acknowledgements is that, for a period of time, it was difficult for me to work alone, and I needed people around me—not talking, or distracting me, just there. The folks at a coffee shop named Swork in Los Angeles let me park in a corner with my laptop for at least two years, quietly weeping at times into my cappuccino—the foam artfully crafted into a swirled heart.
The crow and the chinaberry tree are the only things Ruby believes in. How would you describe their importance to the story?
The chinaberry is the anchor of Ruby’s life. She has watched it since she was a child…the changing of seasons, the way it flowers, grows into hard green and then dark beads. The way the birds and animals feed on the fermented berries and grow drunk, swaying away from the tree. She hid in that tree when she was being harmed as a child and buries the spirits of children there. It is holy ground…it is her only peace. The ghost of her cousin and beaux, Maggie has curled within it’s body, it’s hollow wings and becomes the creature. The crow protects and loves Ruby. It can do little about the harm that is inflicted upon her, but it can caw softly in the twilight. It can purr and click and let her know that she is loved.
I’ve already seen your writing compared to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. When reading it I was reminded of Sugar by Bernice McFadden. Which writers do you admire and feel have been influential for you?
Yes, that is a little overwhelming because I have been immensely impacted by those astounding writers. I’m not familiar with Sugar, but I will go out and buy it! I’m always looking for a good book. I admire so many writers. Although she has been discovered, then discovered again and again, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God remains one of my favorite novels. It is hard to believe that it was drafted in six weeks. I’m such a slow writer, that fact alone in nearly incomprehensible…but the gentle breath and pace of each word enters and changes me with each reading. Victor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning is a book I have also read and reread. Oddly enough, I was signing books after a reading and a man came up and gave me a gift. It was that very book! Somehow, the things I’d spoken of that evening, brought that memoir (if it can be called that) to mind. Frankl likens pain to gas being turned on in a closed room. Whether the gas is turned on for an instant, or for an hour, it still fills up the room. He reminds me that we have all experienced pain, and that, while difficult, it is possible to heal.
Other writers who I admire are of course: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Janet Fitch, Edwidge Danticatt, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Juno Diaz, Barbara Kingsolver, Anthony Mara, John Rechy, Coleson Whitehead, and so many, many more. It would honestly be difficult to mention all of the magnificent writers I’ve read who have shifted the course of my life.