|photo: Claire Welsh
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of We Cast a Shadow and The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You. He's been an avid reader ever since he came across Garfield at Large at a school book fair. He believes that books are entertainment, but also foster connection and community. Ruffin teaches creative writing at Louisiana State University. His third book, The American Daughters (One World, February 27), is a speculative take on 19th-century New Orleans.
Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:
My book is about pre-Civil War Black women and girls, some free and some enslaved, who form a spy ring to kill Confederates.
On your nightstand now:
Asha Thanki's A Thousand Times Before; January Gill O'Neil's Glitter Road; and Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)? by Jay Ellis.
Favorite book when you were a child:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I think that a lot of children's books are very safe and avoid big topics. But Wrinkle dives right into fear, mortality, metaphysics. I think it was the first time I realized that we're mortal, and sometimes the people we love go away. But we never lose contact with them completely. It showed me life was much more complicated than I ever imagined.
Your top five authors:
Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Chris Claremont, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Book you've faked reading:
Ulysses by James Joyce. Listen, I know I'm supposed to read this book so that I can impress (or bore) people at dinner parties. I bought it about 20 years ago and opened the first page and thought, "No. I don't have to do this to myself. I will not." Which is odd because I love Joyce's Dubliners, especially "The Dead." The lesson I learned is that you don't have to go along with every experiment an author decides to perform. It's totally okay to admit that you're just not that into it.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. I read this book during a trip in 2020. I wasn't sure what it was at first. Then after about 50 pages in, I was completely in love. Jones does so much with an omniscient voice, inhabiting unlikely characters with absolute mastery. Ultimately, it's one of the best books of the 21st century, and I think it'll be reassessed and read for a long time.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Uncanny X-Men #236. Picture it: New Orleans, 1988. I'm walking through a pharmacy. I see this rack with a comic on it. And I have so many questions. Why are those two heroic looking characters strung up like prize tunas? Why is the lady so much taller than the guy? How will they ever get out of this situation? Ma bought me the book, and from there forward I've been obsessed with all the questions that stories can bring. I also find it funny that none of the X-Men films have managed to nail the zany fun of that era of the comics. I add that vibe to a lot of my scenes today, like in my new book where these freedom-fighting women are plotting their resistance movement while making fun of each other and making finger sandwiches. They have serious things to go, but they're also sisters who love each other dearly.
Book you hid from your parents:
I don't remember which one it was, but it was one of Alfred C. Kinsey's Human Sexuality books. I needed answers, and I need them now. I was too embarrassed to even think about asking my parents over dinner, "so what is happening to my body now? Am I a mutant?" I volunteered at the library in high school, and bringing it to the counter for check out, where my supervisor was manning the desk, was maybe the bravest thing my young self did.
Book that changed your life:
Toni Morrison's Sula. I think that book opened my eyes to the way patriarchy works to undermine the lives of women. It's obvious, I think, to women, but as a young man I was just living in my privilege. Then I read Sula, and I've never been quite the same.
Favorite line from a book:
"Call me Ishmael." --Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
As a reader and author, I love this because it's simple, declarative, and also possibly a lie. His name may not be Ishmael, but an alias. Whenever I start writing new fiction, I'm thinking of this line. My characters are always telling you who they are while withholding information. Plus, I'm not great at remembering lines. This one is short, so even I will never forget it.
Five books you'll never part with:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon; Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Virginia Woolf's Orlando; Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which I've read three times. Like most of my favorite books there's a thread of resistance and healthy dollop of the unexpected. I didn't know this one would become so important to me over time, but it has.
What writing has taught you:
Every writer started out loving to read. It's a very special privilege to be able to create what you love and share with readers. I know that a piece of fiction is working if I'm enjoying the writing, so I make a point to have fun.