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Kansas English, Volume 85, Number 1, Spring 2000, pp.84-89, published annually by the Kansas Association of Teachers of English, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English.

An Interview with Lois Ruby
(by John T. Ikeda Franklin, Editor)

Lois Ruby, noted author of adolescent/young adult literature, spoke at the 1999 KATE conference. After she addressed and entertained us, I asked if she might be willing to participate in an "e-mail interview." She agreed. To prepare for the interview I read some of her works, including Skin Deep and Miriam's Well (both of which I recommend highly), after which I prepared some leading questions ranging from realism in her work, to her use of vocabulary, to her thoughts on conventions and expectations and rewards for both writer and reader, to how she would teach her novels, to new projects, to an opportunity to express her concerned opinion about the contemporary "community" of young people who are our students. She formed her responses into a series of thoughtful, insightful essays which she calls:


On Realism
I will admit that I'm wildly envious of the success of the Harry Potter books. Nothing like this phenomenon has ever happened in the history of children's literature. Realistic novels for young people ­ even if penned by Judy Blume ­ could never reach the gargantuan popularity and stunning numbers J.K. Rowling's books have achieved. And yet, realism is where I choose to dwell, because it is far more interesting to me than wizardry and high jinks. Realism is where people are, not where they wished they were. If my characters wish they were somewhere else, that somewhere is to be found within them, not in an alternate universe where the rules are turned topsy-turvy. The key to realistic literature is that characters have to figure out just what those mysterious and elusive rules are, then decide when to live within them, and when to change them to fit real-life circumstances.

So, how to fashion realism? You mentioned brand names as one device, but this is tricky. I have to select brands that are universally recognizable, yet time-and-place specific and not so faddish that they'll be out of vogue before the ink is dry. Brand names also say a lot about socio-economic conditions and about the choices a character makes. For example, a snobbish girl may be defined by the specific brands she doesn't select (e.g., K-Mart) and yet may shop for trendy "vintage" clothes at the DAV. Another kid might wish he had the money for Old Navy, but must settle for Wal-Mart. You can make similar distinctions with brand name restaurants, hair products, pens, computers ­ just about anything that's in popular culture. There are other techniques I use, some unconsciously, to suggest realism. Details have to be as accurate as I can make them at the time I'm writing the story. If I say two streets in a known city intersect, they'd better. If the setting of a scene is fairly esoteric, I'd try to choose details that paint a picture with a few carefully applied brush strokes. I want characters to see a clear image, although the picture they see in their mind's eye is going to be quite different from the one I envision.

In writing dialog or first-person musings, I try to "hear" my characters talk and think so they sound like real, contemporary kids, yet people whose language choices and speech patterns are distinctive from one another. Again, the trick is to use language that sounds like today, but won't be embarrassingly obsolete if the book should happen to stay in print a few years. (Most books for teenagers have a shelf life slightly longer than that of cottage cheese.)

I write a lot of historical fiction, and of course the language must sound like the specific yesterdays in which the story is set. Research is essential, not just so the language sounds and feels timely, but also so I don't allow anachronisms to intrude on the realistic setting. A family sitting down to breakfast in Civil War times isn't going to be pouring homogenized milk on corn flakes while the noise of helicopters drowns out family table chatter! Such juxtapositions work delightfully in humorous essays, but what I'm writing, I hope, are serious novels with humor interwoven in them, and thus, the humor has to fit the time and place as well.

And that brings up another point. I believe books for young people absolutely must contain humor. A humorless story is as dry as winter skin. Humor is indigenous to kids. It lightens the load of heavy realism and, as Mary Poppins said, "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." To be realistic, humor might sound stupid in the mouth of a cool 14-year-old, or might just roll off the lips of another who's a bit geeky or pretentious. But, enough about realism.

On Vocabulary
I adore words. As a species, we spill so many words, yet use so few. It's like eating vast quantities of peas and radishes, when thousands of varieties of vegetables are available in the world's markets. I talked a little about dialog and word choice to create realism, so let me just add a few . . . "words." It's unfair for an author to pepper a story with his or her own inflated vocabulary. No need to show off; we were all English majors! It's much more fun to seek out words I wouldn't dream of using in my own life and put them in the mouths and thoughts of character who aren't at all like me.

There are times when I'm immobilized while looking for the right word. I may try 10 or 12 apparent synonyms (and a few not so synonymous) until I hit the one that pleases me, i.e., creates the right mood in the most efficient way. Other times words rush like water through a brook, but they splash all over and mercifully evaporate on dry land.

Now, you asked if I see my writing as a way to enhance my readers' vocabulary skills. Absolutely not. Lots of kids aren't reading, but those who are already have good language skills. I just want my words to create pictures in their minds that arouse a response.

On My Own Conventions, Expectations, and Rewards
I like your analogy of a piece of literature as a game played between the author and the reader. Yet I'm not sure I agree with it. I think it's a game played on the court in the author's mind. Will this particular serve land the ball right where I want it to? Will it enable the character to return it? Will it knock him out of the game? Will it violate rules, enhance skills, create fights, model justice or injustice? Is it winnable? Is it worth playing at all? I have to answer those questions and make those decisions before I ever give a thought to a reader.

I won't say much about conventions, since my work is pretty conventional, as compared to Francesca Lia Block and her Weetzie Bat books which leave me totally bewildered. (I'm old, that's why.)

But as to rewards and expectations: ah.

What I expect from my books is what I expect from any decent piece of literature I enjoy reading. I expect a story to inform, touch, shock, disturb, and ultimately comfort me. Above all, I expect a story to make me think, to explore unfamiliar territory with the touchstones of a few familiar landmarks, and make me think in new ways.

The rewards? Discovering something new, whether it be a country, a Supreme Court decision, a cultural phenom, a psychological insight, a weird food ­ or just a fresh way of thinking about something that's grown old and stale.

On My Readers' Conventions, Expectations, and Rewards
I suspect readers look for something more concrete than what I've described above, but I actually have no idea what they want. All my years as a reader, a writer, and a librarian have given me insights as to the genres kids love, but I still know very little about what their expectations are from the things they read. And I must consider also that my books are read as often by teachers and librarians and parents as they are by kids. Perhaps the adults are looking for something more like what I described above (for provocative classroom discussions, etc.), or are looking for something safe for the young people in their care to read. I honestly can't concern myself with what adult readers expect from my books, because the stories are about and for young readers.

So, what do kids want? First and foremost, they want to be entertained by a story. If the book is boring or irrelevant or antiquated or patronizing, they'll know half way down page one. I think they want characters they can identify with - people who are like them, but not so much like them that the characters can't have and do things in the story that are beyond what the reader experiences. Readers expect to be transported from their own lives into the lives of others. They expect to find a variety of answers to prickly questions in their minds about drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, identity issues, family problem, and all sorts of moral and ethical decisions that confront them each day. They don't expect to be preached to; they expect non-judgmental information and viable options.

The rewards come in two areas. One is the pleasure of spending solitary hours with a book that moves them off of dead center, and the other is using information and ideas in the book to sort out their own troubles as they ease (or catapult) into adulthood.

On Influences from Other Forms of Expression
Wow, this is tough! I'm a librarian in my 50's and therefore prejudiced toward books as opposed to film, although I love movies. TV is largely a wasteland which delivers not with a whimper, but with a bang (to tweak T.S. Eliot). I use the metaphor of painting a picture to describe what happens with words on paper, because we visualize images constantly while reading. How else could we bring the abstract down to a chewable level?

I know that my writing has been influenced by the visual media. It's always been my style to tell a story from two, sometimes diametrically opposing, points of view, or in two different time periods. But recently I've been experimenting with writing shorter scenes from multiple points of view in a more kaleidoscopic, filmic way. Rob Thomas does this so well in Slave Day, but of course his main love is screenwriting, so he comes by it naturally. I'm struggling with this technique but finding it great fun to play with. Whether it works for me or not, it's too early to say. Check with me in five years.

A quick note: one of my early books was optioned for a movie. This terrified me, as the producer had full discretion to change anything and everything, and yet my name would appear as the author of the original work. Would I even want my name associated with the final product in which I could barely recognize my own voice? Fortunately, the option was dropped after two years, and I didn't have to answer that question, nor did I have to worry about a gown for the Oscars!

On Teaching My Novels
My [high school] senior English teacher would never teach one of my novels. The very stench of anything so contemporary and banal would send her to the teachers' lounge in pursuit of smelling salts. She would find my writing a severe disappointment and would be mortified that I mentioned her name in the presence of so many other English teachers who should know better.

However, I would love the opportunity to teach one of my novels in a middle or high school. I enjoy controversy, but I don't think I'd choose Skin Deep, unless I felt very comfortable with the class and secure in my job. Incidentally, I know the book's been used in some schools in conjunction with units on the Holocaust and First Amendment issues.

But the one I'd teach is Miriam's Well. Miriam is a 17-year-old in a Wichita public school. She's a rigid fundamentalist Christian whose unconventional religious beliefs prohibit her from seeking medical care. Naturally, I gave her a disease that was bound to kill her. The book's about how all those around her respond - her family, her church and minister, her friends, her new boy friend (who happens to be Jewish), the teachers, the doctors, and the lawyers. Of course, Miriam's response is the essential one. For the first time in her life, her faith is flagging, and she is wavering in the stark reality of pain and imminent death. The book deals with her personal dilemma and the dilemma of those who care most about her, along with the issue of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

I'd teach the book as an extended debate centering around these three questions and all the issues they inevitably arouse:

(1) Do you want to live in the kind of country that allows a 17-year-old kid to die unnecessarily?
(2) Do you want to live in the kind of country that denies the constitutional right to practice religion according to one's own conscience?
(3) Given the questions above, how would you deal with Miriamıs life-and-death dilemma?

On New Projects
It's difficult to discuss works in progress as they tend to vaporize with over-exposure. The fun of writing is discovering the unexpected just around the corner, and if I talk about the work too much, there are no surprises for me. In that case, why bother writing the book at all?

I do have two books that will be out this year [2000]. They're both for middle grade readers, as it's much harder to get the hard-edged contemporary young adult novels published. (I'm still in there slugging, however.)

Swindletop (named for the numerous "swindles" of the time) is set in 1900-1901, in the aftermath of the great hurricane that virtually destroyed Galveston, Texas. The kids in the story (a boy and a girl narrator) are immigrants from Lithuania, and they're involved not only in the rebuilding of the city of Galveston, but in the incredible boom that followed the discovery of oil at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas.

The second book, Soon be Free, is the sequel to Steal Away Home. It follows the contemporary girl, Dana, as she discovers the ongoing efforts made in 1857 to free Miz Lizbet's family from slavery, along with the injustices done to the Delaware Indians of Kansas. James, the boy from the 1850's, is dispatched to Kentucky with his friend Will and the free Negro Solomon to find Miz Lizbet's people and help them escape to Kansas. James is faced with a searing dilemma that forces him to betray either these freed Negroes or the Delaware Indians. The book, published by Simon & Schuster, should be available at the end of the summer [August 2000].

On the "Community" of Young People Today
Like you, I am very troubled about the environment in which our young people are growing up. People often ask me if teenagers are different today from in my day, and I answer, "No, not at all," and also, "Yes, profoundly." The not at all part is obvious, but the yes, profoundly bears some scrutiny.

For one thing, AIDS makes a big difference. Never before in human history has love been life-threatening. Some kids growing up in the 50's, as I did, were frightened and nihilistic because of the fear of the bomb. I was oblivious. No one today can be oblivious to AIDS. And incidentally, the reality of AIDS affects how sex is handled in books for young people, but we don't have time to get into that.

There's a certain mean-spiritedness that pervades our culture, and that filters down to young people from television, MTV, video games, etc. Sometimes this lack of kindness and shared respect degenerates into rage and violence. Again, we don't have time to get into that right now. Volumes could be written on the subject.

Another big difference is that family life has degraded. When you're in a classroom where the two-parent family is a vanishing minority, you can't escape the effects: cynicism, divided loyalties, lack of supervision, economic problems, and the absence of a safe place to call home. In fact, it saddens me to realize that so many kids don't feel safe anywhere ­ not in their families, their homes, their neighborhoods, or their schools.

All the more reason why teachers (and teachers of teachers) need to seed schools that are secure ­ physically, emotionally, and intellectually. People like me can help in some small part. If our books occasionally get into the hands and hearts and minds of teenagers, we can contribute to this sense of a secure community, not by feeding young people pap and pabulum, but by providing books that are honest and true and thought-provoking and give readers something to grasp as they tiptoe through the landmines of their lives.

[Let us all] give them something normal, some hope that their better selves are worth the effort and that the universe isn't indifferent to their highest aspirations.


Go to:

What I Can Do in Your School

Study Guide for Steal Away Home

Interview With Lois Ruby