Cynthia Bond: The Power of Listening

photo: Jay Harris

Cynthia Bond has taught writing to homeless and at-risk youth throughout Los Angeles for more than 15 years. She attended Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, then moved to New York and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A PEN/Rosenthal Fellow, Bond founded the Blackbird Writing Collective in 2011. At present, she works as a writing consultant, and teaches therapeutic writing at Paradigm Malibu Adolescent Treatment Center. A native of East Texas, she lives in Los Angeles with her daughter. Ruby is her debut novel.

There is so much beautiful imagery in Ruby and the characters are so vibrant and well-defined. Can you tell us where the seed for this novel germinated? Was it in a particular image, or a character?

First, thank you for your kind words. Ruby began in a tiny writing class many years ago. We were given a prompt to write about someone receiving a surprise. No laptops, only lined paper and pens. (I'm dating myself!) I looked around the room, everyone was writing away furiously--it felt a bit like a quilting bee, each person sewing, attaching their own swatch of fabric. Then I had an image of a woman in a gray dress. It wasn't a far-fetched image--I was wearing an oversized gray cotton shirt. I had been wearing it for days, driving around Los Angeles in a very old yellow Ford Fiesta, in a state of abject loss. Abuse has many casualties--sleep being one of them. I had just started piecing together scraps of my own forgotten childhood, and had great difficulty going about the business of everyday life. I sat down in that class and wrote: "She wore gray like rainclouds." It helped. I believe writing is its own medicine. You present the problem, and if you follow the words, follow where the story leads, answers emerge. That day, sitting there in my gray voluminous shirt, an angel cake materialized, and a kind man to carry it and tend to great sorrow. I wrote, basically, the first arc of the novel--Ephram bringing Ruby a cake, in that 30-minute writing exercise. Then of course, it took many, many years to take those four pages and fill in the rest of the story! But the seed for the novel began in that class.

Writing a novel is often a journey through the unexpected. What part of this process did you find the most surprising?

What an amazing question. What you don't know is that characters take on sinew and form and begin to lead you where they wish to go. They enter you, so that you feel the squeeze of their hearts when they are in pain, and the utter delight pulsing through you when they experience joy. The words that wait in their throats, that swish around in their mouths before speaking. Their rhythms of walking, moving and breathing. People enter the story who you never expected and linger and destroy the path you thought you had carefully laid. I fought this many times. Saying "no" aloud and writing, cutting, reshaping the obliterated pathway. I always had to admit, pride be damned, that I was wrong. Eventually I learned to ride the story like a wave--not to fight it. I also learned not to let some characters ride roughshod over others. One character in particular, the Dyboù, wanted to do this often. He was a bit sneaky and I found myself having to go back, and pluck out the sections where what he wanted did not serve the story. What you don't realize is that you become a witness, a kind of chronicler of the story unwinding before you.

Logistically, the amount of work involved is completely unexpected, and thank God for that! If I had known how many drafts, how many tears, how many times I felt it would never be completed only to begin again, I may not have begun. Ignorance, in this case, is a kind of gift. I liken it to giving birth. The doctor tells you one more push, when in fact there are probably at least 50 more--but in the end you have a baby, so it is all worth it.

Much of Ruby centers on the power of memory to shape--and sometimes distort--the present. Can you talk about how that theme developed for you?

If one experiences horrific abuse as a child, the world can forever be colored in those splashes of terror and pain. Trust is the first thing obliterated, so that every person becomes a potential enemy, capable of great harm. The landscape of life is fraught with danger. For Ruby, this is the case. As for many of the "magical" and "supernatural" elements of the story and Ruby's perspective of this--it is not for me to form an opinion if ghost babies and haints exist. Is shape-shifting real? I can't say. I tend to believe her, but I would not object if someone read the novel and thought that was not the case. They are real to her. Her past informs her present. Her pain allows anything to transpire. She sees all elements and all shadows as alive. This is the world she lives in.

How much research did you have to do before (or during) writing Ruby? Did anything you discovered along the way change the course of the novel?

I did quite a bit. I discovered that Liberty Community, the town that inspired Liberty Township where the novel is set, was much different than the one I pictured growing up. I was born and lived in Prairieview, Texas, but hadn't visited Liberty. My mother was raised there and filled me with stories of her childhood. My mother is a brilliant, lyrical storyteller, and my sister and I grew up being fed story after story like spun honey on freshly baked bread.

Although a beautiful and quite accomplished woman today, my mother grew up in poverty on a small farm. She has a collection of small scars on her body that illustrate her journey... stepping on a rusty nail and having to wear a slab of salt pork wrapped around her foot for an entire summer. The elbow where a teacup was hurled at her as she bolted out of a door. As children, my sister and I would point to each of these scars, these "chapters" in her young life. In many ways, this is how Ruby began.

As my sister and I grew older, my mother shared more of her story. Of her beloved sister being murdered by the sheriff and his deputies, of so many other siblings who, because of their skin color, and the dehumanization of racism, made the decision to flee up North and pass for white. My mother told us tales of being picked on for being "yellow"--having light skin and straight hair. She told us how, for survival, she learned to fight to protect herself.

The people were vibrant and alive in her stories, but I always imagined a more rolling, verdant landscape. While I was working on my second draft, my mom and I took a trip there. Upon visiting I saw the tall spindly trees and the deep lush ones as well. I realized that Liberty is in the middle of the piney woods! I saw that the skies are filled with crows. Huge congregations populating trees, purring, ticking, talking to one another. I had heard about it my entire life, but didn't understand the beauty until I saw for myself. Particularly the red clay roads, and the way the sun turned them golden at sunset. I also learned that Liberty is an incredibly anachronistic town. It really is as if time has stopped, which is why, at times, the novel seems set in a much earlier time period.

In addition to reading every book that Zora Neale Hurston wrote, especially The Sanctified Church, which outlines many beliefs about conjure and ancient spiritual beliefs, I've also read countless other books on both healing and destructive magic in the Deep South, and throughout America in both white and black communities. I was also able to do research and contact organizations that deal with human trafficking and the horrific number of children abused in this manner.

The life I have lived, I suppose, has also contributed to this novel. My own history of abuse informed this novel as well, and once I became an adult working with homeless youth in Hollywood, I heard horrific stories of abuse and loss. I watched the streets slowly whittle away at these young people, until so many of them gave up all hope. I've also seen that it is possible to find love, and to heal, from absolutely anything.

There is a wonderful lyricism in your prose. Do you feel that your stage experience has informed the rhythm of your writing? Can you talk a little bit about how this factors in?

Certainly, I had some amazing experiences as an actress that impacted my writing. The work I did with playwright Charles Fuller, who had just won a Pulitzer for A Soldier's Play, had a great impact. I worked with an amazing ensemble of actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Hattie Winston and Ed Wheeler. I think that stage work was particularly helpful in creating dialogue and timing. However, I believe that watching my father from the back of a theater at the Kansas University, where he taught Speech and Theater, also had a major influence. I watched him cast actors, direct plays, discuss scenes with actors and discuss the play itself. I saw the scripts he was working on, dog-eared, curled at the edges, carried under his arms. My dad had a love of words, and he knew theater like the back of his hand. Ibsen, Chekov, Shakespeare.... I grew up in a house where my father quoted Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, or any number of characters constantly. From watching my dad, I learned that listening is just as important, if not more so, than speaking on stage. I learned that not expressing an emotion is more powerful than blurting it out. I learned that and all of those things informed my work as a writer. --Debra Ginsberg

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