Domenica Ruta’s mother wasn’t like the other mothers in town, but she did instill a ferocious love of story in her child, whose critically-acclaimed, darkly comic coming-of-age memoir reminded the Discover selection committee readers of The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr (a Summer 1995 selection) and Townie by Discover alum Andre Dubus.
I wasn’t the only one around our offices with a dog-eared copy of With or Without You, thanks to passages like this:
“What else do you need to know about this woman before I go on with the story? That she believed it was more important to be an interesting person than a good one; that she allowed me to skip school whenever I wanted to, and if there was a good movie on TV she wouldn’t let me go to school because, she said, she needed me to stay home and watch it with her; that, thanks to this education, I was the only girl in the second grade who could recite entire scenes from Scarface and The Godfather by heart; that she made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine; that her ability to make money was alchemical; that she was vainer than a beauty queen, but the last time I saw her she weighed more than two hundred pounds and her arms were encrusted with purulent sores; that she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me; that at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me.”
Domenica Ruta discusses the books that inspired her as a child (though she wanted to be a figure skater/surgeon, not a writer, at the time), the differences between writing fiction and memoir, and “the alchemy of art ” with Discover Great New Writers.
One of the things I find most inspiring about your book is the way that your love of reading helped save you—it got you out of your mother’s house, and it turned you into a writer. And yet reading wasn’t something that was encouraged in your household, where there were no books. It seems like a gift that was naturally yours. What were some of the books that inspired you most early on? Was there a particular point when you thought you might be a writer?
To be clear, my mother never, ever, discouraged me from reading. She thought it was adorable how bookish and nerdy her daughter turned out. And when I was reading I was quiet and out of her hair and she appreciated that. While my love of reading was instinctive, my love of narrative came directly from my mother, Kathi. Whether it was someone’s drunken monologue at our kitchen table or an actual monologue from a Neil Simon play (or in our case, movie-adaptation), Kathi had a good ear for dialogue and a keen sense of rhythm.
There wasn’t much available to me, but I (thankfully) gravitated toward the classics as young reader. I loved books about girls living in another time. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maud Montgomery. The popular kid-lit of the 1980s never appealed to me. I found it condescending.
I did not want to be a writer when I was a child. I wanted to be a part-time figure skater/surgeon. It was not until high school, when I read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, that it dawned on me that writing was something someone like me could actually do.
Despite the strong bond you felt with your mother, living with her wasn’t always easy, to put it mildly. Do you wish that your childhood had been more stable, or now, as a writer, do you believe that some of that craziness lent you a greater richness of perspective than you might otherwise have had? Do you feel that your ability to see the world from different perspectives, to see the complexities and ironies in relationships and situations has its roots in your complicated home life? Or is it instead that as a writer, you have the ability to present that world to us as complex and filled with humor and love as well as pain?
Regret is a waste of time. Imbedded in grammar of the conditional mood is all the awkward futility of regret – if I had had another chance… if it weren’t for her. All those unwieldy modals and contradictory tenses. It’s ugly. I hate thinking in these terms. I can only reflect on the life I have lived and continue to live, and it has been exactly what I needed, every moment, even the bad ones.
There’s a line in A Farewell To Arms that could have been the epigraph of this book – “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” No one in this world escapes suffering. And that suffering is a gift if you want it to be. That’s the alchemy of art. We are all capable of it. I don’t know which came first – the perspective or the voice – only that I am grateful for both.
How do you think your mother might describe the way she raised you? How much awareness do you think she has of what was different about your childhood from those of other kids?
Kathi was the first one to point out how outrageous she was. There was a television show we both loved —Absolutely Fabulous–about this coke-head clubbing fashionista and her mousy, intellectual daughter – and my mother shrieked from her bedroom, “Nikki? Are you watching this? They’re just like us, only British!” She had a deep sense of pride in the way she raised me. She sensed the stimulation I needed was different than other kids my age, and she was right. As her diseases progressed, she lost a lot of her fierce wit. The fire of her own intellect dulled and her world view got very, very small, and eventually collapsed. I became to her this two-dimensional traitor, an ingrate.
Your grandmother is one of my favorite characters in the book—practical, foul-mouthed, and totally reliable and devoted to you. Do you have any sense of how she felt about the life her daughter was leading, and how you were being raised?
She was an old-world Italian and lived by a code – You don’t open your mouth. You don’t interfere. I think she surrendered to the failings of her children long before I came along.
I know you’re working on a novel now. How are you finding writing fiction different from non-fiction?
What I love about writing fiction is how often I am surprised by the characters I think I know. Threads are woven in unexpected ways in the world of fiction. Memoir writing is more like ironing a wrinkly linen shirt.
Who have you discovered lately?
I loved Tracy K. Smith’s collection of poetryLife on Mars. Donika Ross and Miriam Greenburg are also poets I love, both working on their first collections. Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove was the best new novel I read in 2012. Karen Russell is my favorite out of my “generation” of fiction writers. Smith Henderson, a fantastic short story writer, is soon to be selling his first novel, Fourth of July Creek, which I am really excited to read.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.