Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My First Write With Spike Interview: Meet Ruth Pennebaker

Hey Y'all,
Some of you already know and love Ruth Pennebaker who can be so delightfully dry that she makes the desert seem like a Moist Towlette in a bucket of lemonade. (Aside: that last sentence is proof that I made no New Year's resolutions to work on similes.) Well, Ruth's got a brand new book out, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, a novel about... you know what, I'm going to let her tell you what it's about. You can also go hear her read from the book this Sunday, January 23, 2011, at BookPeople at 6th and Lamar, 3 p.m. Ruth's been a buddy of mine for years and good lord you should hear some of the stuff that comes out of her mouth/pen. She's written some great pieces for NYT, including an article about how to spend 36 Hours in Austin and another about her secret Rules for Pool, which she shares with her husband Jamie, who also happens to be a writer, and a damn good one. But enough about Jamie.

Getting back to Ruth. I asked her if she'd join me on my maiden voyage of posting Q & A's with writers here. I can't say for sure what these Q & A's might take the form of over time, though I can promise I will never exhibit the asshole-ish tendencies of Deborah Solomon as she struggles, every Sunday in NYT Mag, to prove she is more important than every single person she "interviews" (read: condescendingly mocks).

No mocking here. Ruth is smashing and I'm delighted and grateful she came out to play. And so, without further adieu, our conversation.

Spike & Ruth, Sittin' in a Tree
an email exchange...

(Aside from Spike: below we discuss a video Ruth made to promote her book. You can see that video here. Or if you read down a ways you'll see that I figured out how to upload it. Yay me!)

1. First, in the interest of the good old days, when people really got to focus on discussing the content of their books, let me ask you to tell me a bit about your new book. Of course I know you can (and should) direct us to your very nicely done video in which you describe the book, but go ahead and tell us a little something here, in print.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough is about three generations of women living under one roof.  A pretty small roof.  And they're not too happy about it.

The oldest, Ivy, has led a frugal, uneventful life till her husband died and she lost most of her savings in the recession.  She's been forced to move from a small town in West Texas into her daughter's house in Austin.  She's joining her 49-year-old daughter Joanie and granddaughter Caroline, who's 15.  Joanie's still reeling from getting dumped by her husband and having to rejoin the job market with a resume showing work experience pretty much limited to "room mother."  Caroline's miserable, awkward and shy, and in love with a good-looking guy in her Spanish class who couldn't conjugate a verb in any language.  Oh, and did I mention that Joanie's ex-husband, with impeccable timing, has just gotten his little girlfriend pregnant?

The crux of it is that these three women are each struggling with their own lives -- and can't quite see or understand what the two others are grappling with.  It's about how you can live closely with another person, even someone you love, and not really see or empathize with what's going on in her life.

2. Tell me a little bit about your process. Do you write every day? Do you have certain pre-writing rituals in which you must engage like flipping a light switch off and on twelve times while saying forty Hail Mary's?
I have no rituals, except for becoming heavily caffeinated as soon as possible.  Oh, sure, I mess around on the computer, answering emails and seeing what's going on in the world, but I always have this creeping feeling of doom that I need to get to work or I will end up on the couch eating bon-bons and watching TV.  That's my greatest fear: the bon-bons and TV.  I was raised with a lot of shame -- and the bon-bon shame gets me moving.  Maybe, as a parent, I've underestimated the Power of Shame to motivate. Oh, well, it's too late.  My kids are already pretty shameless.

3. Okay, I can't resist-- Ruth, let's have a no bullshit conversation here about WHAT IN THE HELL has happened to the state of the industry of books? (Can I call it an industry?) For example, not that I ever could get an agent to hold my hand for longer than the equivalent of a last dance, but these days, good lord, it's like-- well everything is so DIFFERENT now. From where I'm sitting it seems like the money is a whole lot worse, the lengths you have to go to to market yourself are ridiculous, and then there are so many other factors-- eBooks, audiobooks. Don't you remember the good old days when you, me and Louisa May Alcott used to toil away in our attic garret and then join up for tea in the late afternoon and talk about WRITING. What's your take on the BUSINESS of writing now, vs. simply WRITING in years past?
It's all changed and continues to change.  I think we can spend our time howling and moaning about the good old days (when, remember, we were all howling and moaning about something else, since life is perennially unfair and writers are master complainers) or we can try to constantly adjust ourselves to the changes and use them to our advantage.  It's a whole new world out there, with ebooks and iPads and blogs.  We have to adjust.  And yes, we have to promote ourselves. Then we get discouraged and go into fetal position and wake up and do it again the next morning.

But I'll tell you one thing: Publishers are as overwhelmed by these changes as writers.

4. I gotta ask you about the video promotion. It's really nice, you look great, and you don't appear to be reading off of cue cards. Did your publisher arrange this? Did you foot the bill? Any good bloopers that got edited out that you want to tell us about?
I arranged it myself -- wrote the short script, practiced it, got two friends with a documentary company to film me.  Paid for it.  No memorable bloopers, since I was pretty well-prepared.  I didn't want to spend any more time or money than necessary, so knew what I wanted to say.  I didn't want my film friends to think what a big loser I was that I'd stumble all over the place.  You see?  Shame comes through again.

5. You're an award winning blogger, no? Tell me a bit about your blog. And are you having fun keeping up with it? I mean, let's talk about PACE and I don't mean pacing of a story's plot, I mean the sheer quantity of blog posts some people put out in a year. It's crazy (I know of what I speak).
It's almost ridiculous how much I love writing my blog, the Fabulous Geezersisters. I post twice a week about everything from marriage to politics to cancer, so I commit the #1 blogging crime of having no niche.  I do have a fair number of dedicated, articulate readers whom I don't want to disappoint.

You know what I make of this?  I've always been attracted to low-paying work.  Since blogging pays nothing, no wonder I love it.

Algonquin-- Ruth took this picture which is why you don't see her in it.

6. You spent some time in NYC last year-- did that feed into any young writer romanticism you held as a writer starting out? For instance-- I got all wound up when I was in Paris and happily engaged in a most cliche but most enjoyable action: I went to-- what the hell is the name of that American bookstore there? Oh yeah: Shakespeare & Co. And I bought Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and you know, despite his sexism and his alcoholism and all the rest of it, I will always have a place in my heart for Hemingway. I loved reading his take on Paris while I was in Paris. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back to Paris right now. So did you have any experiences like that in NYC?

I had an incredible experience in New York -- for the whole year, really.  But, also, the afternoon the novel sold, I had a prearranged appointment to meet a friend at the Algonquin for a drink.  The Algonquin!  Then we went to see Nora Ephron's play, "Love, Loss and What I Wore."  I've been reading Ephron for years and love her.  So, I felt like a princess that night.  Then, of course, I had to get up the next morning and go back to work.  The truth is, I'm not happy if I'm not working.

7. It's time for the What's Next question, Ruth. So, Ruth, what's next? Another novel? More blog posts?
Definitely another novel, definitely loads of blog posts.  I also write the Urban Cowgirl column for the Texas Observer.  I've got enough to keep me busy for a long time.

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