I’m reading Living Underground by Ruth E. Walker. And I’m really pleased to have her here today to discuss her books, her views and she’s going to tell us a story, too!
1.) Who are you and what do you do?
Thank you, Laura for inviting me to this online interview. My name is Ruth E. Walker and I write professionally in communications for the provincial-level government in Ontario, Canada. My passion is fiction and poetry, and I have work in Canadian, U.S. and U.K. journals and anthologies. I also teach creative writing in workshops and at writing retreats. My debut novel, “Living Underground” was published September 2012 in Canada by Seraphim Editions and is now in its second printing. Readers outside of Canada have ordered it through amazon.com and thebookdepository.com. An e-book edition is about to be launched (February 2013) on Amazon.
2.) What project-in-progress would you like to discuss today?
Thanks for asking. Here is a short synopsis of “Living Underground”, which is partially set in Dresden, Germany:
Sheila Martin’s dismal childhood in suburban Toronto, Canada is irrevocably transformed in 1967 when Sigmund Maier, the family’s enigmatic German-immigrant tenant, introduces her to opera, music and much more. When he reappears in her ordered and successful adult life, Sigmund asks for her help with what he says is a simple immigration issue. Will she now discover the truth of why he vanished years ago — and why she still longs to know what happened to him?
Sheila soon discovers that “truth” has no clear definition and memories are nebulous as she is drawn into the turmoil and accusations surrounding his life in Germany before and during World War II. As she struggles with her own issues and family conflicts, she is forced to finally confront the secrets she has held for over 30 years.
Moving back and forth in time, “Living Underground” explores the ambiguity of human emotion – how our natures can embody both the ideals and delights of love alongside the most base and dispassionate sensibilities. Some puzzles have no solutions but sometimes asking the questions matters more than discovering the answers.
3.) What inspired you to take on a project like this?
“Living Underground” was inspired by a private and meticulous German immigrant who rented our family’s basement apartment in suburban Toronto, Ontario in the 1960s.
This strange foreigner who moved into the apartment brought only his clothes and toiletries. I knew this because I helped my mom with weekly cleaning duties in the apartment. His shoes were polished and lined up in a perfect row beneath his neatly hung clothes. He had no books. No magazines. No photographs. Not even a newspaper. Nothing that spoke of a larger life and he left a few months later, without a forwarding address.
Even as a kid, I wondered who lives like that? And why?
I started a short story to figure out some of that mystery. The story got away from me and became a novella. The novella finally became a novel, set in Dresden, Germany in early 20th century, in Scarborough, Ontario 1960s and finally, in Toronto in the early 2000s.
I’ve long puzzled over how we can enjoy ordinary lives, and then go out and do unspeakable things to others. We humans are so good at compartmentalizing aspects of ourselves — at disconnecting emotions at will — often for reasons of survival. I have several scenes that underscore that theme but I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding what I’d hoped to. Perhaps the important part is simply being able to ask the questions.
4.) How do you find the time to write?
I compromise. I have a husband who supports my life as a writer. He also compromises. I constantly work at the balance of being part of ordinary life and the need to disappear into the work.
Life includes family and friends, a paid career in non-fiction writing, grocery shopping, weekend trips to the cabin, taking in a good movie, walking the dog–all the usual suspects of an ordinary existence. The work includes immersion in a story or character or structure or description so compelling, I lose sight of all the rest.
There is no formula. There is only the hope that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing at the right time.
5.) What fuels your fascination with Germany? Have you ever been here?
I’ve never been to Germany but I am fascinated by history. And I am interested in world news and events. My knowledge of Germany has always had this thread that leads to the rise of Nazism and WWII. But until I worked on the novel, I never thought of it in terms of the effect on ordinary Germans, of how events and people conspired to make the conditions of Nazism possible.
Around the time we had our German man living in the basement apartment, I was a pre-teen and reading material beyond my years. I read the “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and was especially appalled by details of the concentration camps. Those images coloured my perception of Germany from then on. Add to that my interest in current events of the time, and a divided Germany of West (good) and East (bad) became another thread. Of course, as I matured, I learned that “good and bad” are merely simple designations. There is nothing in life so simple or clear.
I did not start to write creatively until I was nearly forty but it meant that I was ready to explore the complexities of life. The past twenty years have been spent writing fiction and poetry that often explores our desire for simple truths and the reality that there is no such thing.
My research for “Living Underground” was extensive. But most of it I conducted after I had a first draft of the novel. All I knew about Dresden was that there was some lovely china from there and that it had been bombed in WWII. I am now much more awake to the events and mechanisms in place that fuelled the rise of Nazism and the horror of The Holocaust. I also learned about the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden — of the magnificent art and architecture obliterated — of the thousands of refugees and the ordinary citizens of the city, asphyxiated or burned to death in this cultural jewel. So much to mourn on all sides of that war but I had only been seeing one side of it. I think that the sprawling scope of any conflict is better absorbed through individual stories.
My novel includes a glimpse into the story of Sigmund Maier, a boy born in Dresden in 1915. Readers come to learn how his world conspired to shape him into the man who profoundly changes the life of a young girl decades later in Canada.
6.) If you could time-travel, what time period would you want to live in?
What a great question. I have several preferences but if I could only choose one, it would be in the late 1590s so I could see William Shakespeare’s plays as they were first staged. I would love to be in England in that dynamic time in western civilization — Shakespeare’s plays opened the door for seeing the wider world in new ways. He took some bold risks and the fact that his plays continue to be read and staged centuries later, speaks to the desire of people to understand their world through imagination. The larger political and social topics and themes that Shakespeare explored were grounded in simple human frailties. I would love to see how audiences first took that offering. (For that same reason, I’d love to see how classic Greek and Roman theatre were experienced but you said only one time period.)
7.) Write me a story in three sentences, 100 words or less.
The day we tried to sing the young whales back to sea is the day the ice filled in the bay and cut off their escape. All three of us, my blind son Charlie Birdsong, his girl Maryann and old crippled-up me, we were too late to save the last of them. I write this so that when rescuers come, they will know the whales either starved or drowned, in much the same way that we, the last people in Big Goose Islet, will also end our days.
8). When you aren’t writing, what do you like to do?
We have an off-grid cabin 2 hours north of our home just east of Toronto. The tree-covered hills and rocky outcroppings of the landscape inspired early settlers to call it The Highlands, in honour of their Scottish ancestry I suppose. At the forks of where two rivers meet, our cabin (Twin Pines) is boat-access only and is a lovely escape for our family. Sitting by the campfire, surrounded by massive white pines, firs, cedars and birch trees, is a wonderful escape for three of four seasons. Winter makes it off-limits because the rivers never freeze enough to safely cross.
I also take advantage when I can of the wide range of culture offered in the greater Toronto area and in our local region: operas, plays, musicals, literary festivals and readings, etc.
I teach creative writing through workshops and writing retreats. I am passionate about how words can change perceptions and inspire new ideas, and I love to share that with other writers. I think writers hold a mirror that reflects our society. We cannot force people to look into that mirror but we hold it, nonetheless.
9.) Where can we find out more about you and your books?
My website www.ruthewalker.ca has a detailed biography and information on readings, interviews and public events I’ve been to, as well as book club information for readers who belong to book clubs.
I also have a Facebook page for the book with various postings at www.facebook.com/LivingUndergroundbyRuthWalker
And anyone interested in my creative writing workshops or retreats can visit www.writescape.ca which is the site for Writescape that my business partner Gwynn Scheltema and I run.
10.) What advice would you give to a budding writer?
Everyone says “read” and I agree with that. I’d also say “read widely”, meaning read things you never thought you would. A brilliant children’s book can teach you about the power of simplicity. Read poetry to learn about the strength carried by individual words and the energy found in absence. Read genre fiction to explore the strength of plots and the interwoven storylines of characters. Read non-fiction to understand structure. And read like a writer, looking for those moments when you are immersed in the writing. When that happens, go back a few pages to discover how the writer did that to you.
And write — try to do that every day. Write about what makes you angry, frightens you, excites you or makes you curious. When you write about what matters to you, it is true and honest writing.
Learn to listen. When you are not making noise or immersed in your own thoughts, you should be open to the sounds around you.
Use all five of the senses. Emotions are triggered by the senses and will create fine moments of “show” versus “tell” in your writing. Especially the sense of smell, our most evocative sense when it comes to memory and resonance.
Take workshops and attend conferences and seminars. They help you meet other writers, which is invaluable as you build your network of colleagues and contacts, always helpful in the publishing process. And taking workshops or going on retreats lets you experiment with new approaches to writing.
Play with it all. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Some of my best writing has come from my mistakes.
Thank you again, Laura, for asking such wonderful questions and sharing my words with your readers.