An Interview with Canadian Author
Starting right at the beginning, your dedication to “the nameless” is very cryptic. If it’s not too personal, what is the story behind it?
- The nameless represent the unnamed millions who died in the Holocaust and those who suffered in the horrors of that time. As I revised and refined the novel, I did considerable research and saw Nazi film footage of the early gas chamber trials. I have faces that will stay with me for the rest of my life -- I may not know their names but I won't forget them.
- How long did it take to complete “Living Underground”?
Starting out as a short story in the mid-1990s, the tale quickly became a novella and eventually became a novel. The first version was completed in 1998 at 58,000 words and was a semi-finalist in the Chapters/Robertson Davies novel competition. However, after that it went in and out of "the drawer" for months -- sometimes years -- at a time. Usually after each series of rejections from agents and publishers. They were right to reject it. It wasn't ready until about 5 years ago.
My life and Sheila's were quite different; however, we writers do mine our own experiences somewhat (consciously and unconsciously). Like Sheila (and most teenagers), I felt like a complete awkward outcast in high school. Unlike Sheila, I was exposed to art and culture in my childhood -- my mother taught me to read at age 4. Like Sheila, a German immigrant lived in our basement apartment. Unlike Sheila, he barely spoke to me other than to nod and mutter "Fraulein" as we passed on the basement stairs. And unlike Sheila, I've been married to the love of my life for 40 years.
What is your favourite part of your book?
There are several scenes that wrote themselves and others that took years to develop. I don't really have a favourite.
I think I counted no less than 5 different James Bond metaphors/comparisons. Is there a spy novel lurking somewhere in your closet?
No. I enjoy a good thriller or mystery but popular culture references in the novel were used to establish time and place. Bond has always been a bit too sexist to suit my tastes.
How significant or relevant is WWII to your life? Why did you choose this as the framing device for the book?
I read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as a preteen. I was stunned. How did people do that to each other? As I got older, I realized that some people responsible for gassing babies must have had babies of their own at home. And it wasn't just the Nazis who committed atrocities in WWII -- or throughout time, for that matter. I write to consider possibilities, to understand what it is that drives us to be a beautiful species capable of brilliant creative expression and yet, still capable of unspeakable cruelty.
Can you tell us a little about your process? How do the ideas/stories make it to paper?
They nudge me until I give in. Maybe it's just an overheard phrase or a headline in the paper or an especially quiet moment in the forest. When the muse shows up, you just have surrender. Sometimes, it's a scene for a story or a play or a novel. Sometimes it's a poem. And sometimes, it's absolute self-indulgent drivel that I toss out.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp or that people tend to miss?
The story belongs to readers now. It is up to them to extract their own meaning and messages. I have no interest in "directing" their experience with my book. Each reader brings their life experience and set of eyes to the text and what happens in that connection is as unique as the reader.
Did you learn anything from writing your book?
Patience. Humility. And far more than can be captured in any response I can muster here.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?
No. It's done and doesn't belong to me anymore.
Who were some of your greatest influencers growing up?
My mother and grandmother, both of whom gave up so much for their children. My grandmother was a kind and loving person; my mother had a brilliant sense of irony and inspired in me a love of language, literature and history.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing?
Plot. Plot. Plot. And plot. Oh yes -- creating an "elevator pitch."
What books have most influenced your life most and why?
Growing up -- fairy tales, folk lore and fables of all kinds because it is always first and foremost about the story and I do love story. As an adult, the works of William Shakespeare. I continue to enjoy the classics -- Bronte, Austen, Dickens. Poetry is also inspiring -- both classic and modern. I had a writer's epiphany reading "The Diviners" by Margaret Laurence. Now, I read as a writer and it takes a lot of the fun out of the process but I do learn from other writers. A book must be stellar to captivate me -- but I'm no literary snob. A great character-driven fantasy, a brilliantly researched science fiction or a darn good tale about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances -- that is a really good read in my opinion.
What book are you reading right now?
Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer's "Humans", second book in his intriguing Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. I recently finished Alissa York's "Effigy" and Will Ferguson's "419" and couldn't put either book down.
What/who do you normally read when not writing your own books?
Mostly fiction and poetry. But I'm also an editor so it's tough to simply "fall into reading" for the pleasure of it. Too many poorly edited books are being published, often with a rushed or unsatisfying ending. A good editor is vital to the process (thank you! to my editor, George Down) and if publishers are skipping that part to save money, it's not fair to the writer and it's certainly not fair to the reader. But writers need to do their part and develop strong editing skills of their own.
How real are your characters to you? Do they ever surprise you? Is there a character you relate to more than others?
Some characters are more demanding than others. It wasn't until I gave in to a character in "Living Underground" that I was able to move the second half of the book into a much better story. I was surprised but that is the joy of writing for me -- discovery.
Are there any new “up and coming” authors that have grasped your interest that we should watch for?
I'm a member of a 10-member critique group -- Critical Ms -- and each and every one of them is producing compelling work of a wide range of genres.
What do you do when not writing?
I love our
cottage property -- we're next to a river and surrounded by giant pines and mixed forests. Perfect for thinking. Before that, we camped quite a bit. My family is central to my joy so they come first; thankfully, I have their constant support to write. I enjoy film, including foreign films and early classics, plays, opera and a wide range of stage productions. And I've played cards with essentially the same group of women for 20 years. They all want me to write a book about "The Card Ladies." ;) Haliburton County
Any advice for amateur/developing authors?
Write and read - read widely and with an open mind. Seek out workshops and critique groups that will challenge and excite you as a writer. Learn to refine and edit your work -- this part is the real work of writer. I co-own Writescape with writer/editor Gwynn Scheltema and we teach creative writing workshops and lead retreats for writers of all kinds and at all levels. May I suggest the word "amateur" is perhaps better represented by the word "developing"? We are all developing at various stages along the writing path -- some of us are just a bit further along. Many writers just beginning the journey are already better writers than I will ever be.
What’s your next project? When will we see another novel from you?
I am delighted (and reassured) that so many readers have asked me that question. I'm editing a novel now and it should be ready to "shop around" soon. Publishing is a tricky business, so "when" is up the fates. While that manuscript is looking for a home, I'll go back to putting together a collection of poems and revising a stage play. Or pick up the pieces of novel manuscript #3 and see if I can find my way back to its heart.
Where can people go if they want to learn more about you and your work?
I have a website: www.ruthewalker.ca and am on Twitter @imruthwalker; for writing workshops and retreats: www.writescape.ca; info@writescape; @Writescape_
Anything specific that you want to say to your readers/Fans?
You are a big part of my process -- I am intensely curious about what it is to be human so I write to connect with others, to hold a mirror on some behaviour or aspect of life and say: Here, take a look at what I see. Thank you for taking the time to "take a look."