Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that my latest obsession is Ruthie Knox's serial novel Truly. For those of you who haven't heard, Truly is a contemporary romance available in serialized form for free right now via Wattpad. A handful of new chapters are uploaded every Monday, between September 3rd and November 4th. The whole thing is very wonderful and agonizing what with the story being mesmerizing and involving (among other things) one cantankerous rooftop beekeeper, one gal who stabs her fiancé in the hand with a fork, and one surprisingly sensuous taco dinner. The first 16 chapters are already up and waiting for you to devour them. In the meantime, please welcome one of my favorite discoveries of the year—Ruthie Knox!First things first: I am accustomed to being able to devour your latest book in a single night if I so choose. This having to wait a week in between installments of Truly is killing me by inches. What sadistic urge made you opt to release it as a serial?
It wasn’t me! This was all Random House’s idea, in concert with the Wattpad people. But it is good practice for my fans, since I have another serial starting up in November. You’re going to have to get used to it. Or, you know, wait for it to be done before you start reading. Which is a completely legit option, even if the endless promotion of the ongoing serial you’re not reading makes you want to stab me in the eye.
Actually, it’s kind of cool to have Truly out in the world, even temporarily, because I finished it back in April but due to some stuff getting moved around in my schedule it’s not going to be released until August of next year. I like that it’s getting read and petted for a while before it goes back on the shelf.
You trained as a British historian. As a lifelong Anglophile, tell me more, baby.
Now I wish this were a more interesting story. I was a history and English double major in college, and my passion for Victorian novels led me to a slightly unbalanced enthusiasm for my British history classes. I did an honors thesis on Condition of England novels (think North and South, except we didn’t know about Richard Armitage yet), and then I carried on with the Anglophilia in grad school, where I earned a Ph.D. in modern European history.
I wrote my dissertation on “baby farming,” which takes too long to explain so I’ll just say it was sort of about infanticide and sort of about the origins of the foster care and adoption systems in England. Dead babies, ahoy! As part of that process I spent nine months living in Greenwich and geeking out all day in the archives. All the archives, baby. Hours and hours of poring over documents. I made no friends, but I got down and dirty with some late-nineteenth-century police records, child nurse registration cards, and loads of rare newspapers. So that was pretty hot.
Then I wrote About Last Night about my train fantasies, basically.
I’m a relatively recent romance reader, and I remain fascinated by different readers’ points of entry. When did you first start reading romance? What brought you to the genre, and what was your first book and/or author?
I had two entry points. In high school, my best friend’s mom had a small bookstore, and for some reason (we were told it was accidental) she had a copy of a Loveswept category romance hanging about called Warm Fuzzies, by Joan Elliott Pickart. The heroine of Warm Fuzzies is called Lux Sherwood. She owns her own stuffed animal shop, where she sews on all the faces by hand. The hero, Patrick “Acer” Mullaney (who is often called that in the text, Patrick “Acer” Mullaney, even in dialogue), is a football quarterback with an injured knee, a playboy past, and a lot of white V-neck sweaters from which his chest hair peeks out attractively. In the first scene, Lux delivers a six-foot-tall blue teddy bear to Acer’s mansion, and she has to drag it indoors herself because he’s on crutches and all surly due to his man-pain.
My friend and I read the first few chapters out loud to each other, giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. Then I took it home and read the rest, ravenously. I was soon a subscriber to the monthly hit of Loveswept titles, delivered right to my door, which meant I could revel in the awesome craziness of books like Olivia Rupprecht’s I Do! (Wherein a seventeen-year-old virgin genius marries the dying Operation Desert Storm soldier with whom she’s been carrying on an illicit correspondence, but then he doesn’t die, so she has to deal with the fact that she’s wed to an eye-patch-wearing foul-tempered foul-mouthed sextastical Wisconsin dairy farmer with a limp and a chip on his shoulder. Also, he ties her to a fence using only her prairie skirt. And does what one does when one has one’s child-bride tied to the fence, bare-assed.)
Anyway. I lost touch with romance in college and grad school, but then I had a baby and got a Kindle, and I picked up a six-pack of free Harlequin titles one day. I started reading category romance again in a big way—mostly Harlequin Blaze—and kept going and going until one day I thought, “Huh. I could maybe write one of these.” So I tried, and then I tried a second time, and then I tried a third time and ended up with Ride with Me. I am still not sure why I thought that book was a Blaze. Obviously, it was a Loveswept.
I feel like you are perpetually in the middle of scads of projects at once. How do you keep all your ideas from overwhelming you, and how do you prioritize writing projects?
I actually only ever write one thing at a time. I’m not much for multitasking when it comes to writing, and in fact for scheduling reasons I recently had to stop writing a novel for two months in the middle, and trying to pick it back up again was horrible.
I have always been the sort of person who assumes that whatever I’m doing is awesome and whatever I was doing a week ago probably sucked, so it’s weird to live on the timeline of publishing, which requires me to be promoting whatever I was doing a year ago and not talking too much about the awesome thing I’m doing right now.
But in a nutshell, I write whatever is under contract and is due next. Right now I have books contracted to write through next June, which feels like a lot. I do sometimes have ideas about things that aren’t contracted and I just have to make myself take some notes and then set the projects aside. Usually my fierce desire to write them is just a symptom of a problem I’m having with whatever it is I am trying to write.
There is a lot of emotional work in this job, from all different angles.
You write both novellas and full-length novels. I admit to avoiding novellas for much of my life, but I can honestly say yours have made me see the light. How different is your mindset when you set out to write one or the other, and is it hard switching gears?
I have never been a big novella reader, myself, because I read fast and I read a lot, and I don’t like spending money on something that’s going to be over in an hour. But my tune has changed on that, too, in part because novellas these days are often $0.99 and I will spend $0.99 on just about anything, and in part because now that I’m writing novellas, I look at them differently.
I think the big difference between writing a novella and writing a novel is that novellas only have room for you to do one thing, so you have to know what your thing is before you start. Mary Ann Rivers likes to say they are a great format for an experiment to be carried out, which is a nice way to think about it. A novella has to push some sort of an agenda, and I will usually know what that is going to be at the outset. Like, I knew that Big Boy was going to be about the relationship between motherhood/caretaking and identity. And that Making It Last was about epilogues, and what love looks like after marriage.
Whereas when I’m writing a novel, I usually don’t have as clear an idea up front what the message is going to be. I am more likely to begin with a situation, and some people, and a plot. I figure out what it is I’m driving at as I’m writing. And since writing a novel takes weeks and weeks and weeks, that process is more likely to make me want to tear my hair out than the process of writing a novella, which is shorter and easier to wrap one’s head around.
But on the other hand, writing a novel can be more satisfying ultimately, because you’ve had so much more room to work out the implications of whatever it is you’re trying to do, and to really commit to broad-stroke characters who can change over the course of a longer period of (fictional) time. You just love them more, in the end, and sob over them more. Or I do. I’m sure mileage varies.
Your novella Big Boy hit me where I live (despite the fact that I am not a single mother and don’t make a habit of meeting strange men for railway liaisons). How did you manage to pack so many emotions into one 66-page novella?
I don’t know! The funny thing about Big Boy is that it hits some people really hard, and other people say it’s “emotionless.” So I think it must resonate in a particular way that only hits this slice of audience, but with gusto.
What happened with Big Boy was that I wrote it at a time when I had been working with my agent for quite a while on trying to craft a series proposal to sell to my publisher for print. This was my attempt to parley Ride with Me and About Last Night, both of which were contracted after I wrote them, into a multiple-book print contract with a good-sized advance. At the time, I was writing at the margins of my life and working as an editor, so the contract had the potential, it was hoped, to let me write full-time, or even half-time—high stakes.
That meant a lot of thinking about what kinds of books “people” or “romance readers” wanted to read, what kinds of books were likely to get put into print, what was attractive as a series, what was too weird, yadda yadda. I put energy into a couple different ideas that didn’t work out, and I kept feeling like everything I wanted to do that was interesting was getting watered down or changed around. Finally I had this Rubicon moment where I was being asked to consider changing my unemployed Green Bay roofer hero into a Chicago baseball player and my globe-trotting girl who sold cheese out of the downstairs of her dilapidated Victorian mansion into a cupcake shop owner, and I was just kind of, like, No. Fuck it. I’m not sure I can do this.
It was right around this time when my friends and I were talking about writing the Strangers on a Train series, so I wrote Big Boy in one fast rush, over I think four days, and I wrote it exactly the way I wanted it, for fun, without thinking one teeny tiny iota about whether anyone would like it or wanted a story like this or anything, really, except “What story do I want to tell?” and “How do I want to tell it?”
So Big Boy was therapy, and it was also kind of a reminder to me that I have to figure out how to make my career in this industry, and that means learning where the balance is between what I want to do and what publishers want, what “the market” wants, and so on. It’s something every writer of genre fiction has to find their own way of handling. If you write a book people like, you’re going to get asked to write that book over and over again forever. Or maybe you’ll be asked to write a book that’s just like this other book, over here, that’s doing well. So you have to decide how you’re going to cope with that—what will make you happy, who you want to be, what your ideal career looks like, how far you’re willing to be pushed away from that ideal. These aren’t thinks anyone ever has to think about before they sell their first book.
(I should probably say, too, that I did end up figuring out a series to sell to Random House, and Truly is the first book in it. Given that it has a hero who’s a marginally employed New York City beekeeper with anger-management issues, I feel as though I’ve managed to strike a pretty good balance between what “people” want, what Random House wants, and what I want. And also, I want to say that the people I’m working with at Random House are awesome, and I love them. So none of this is a reflection on evil Big Six pressure or anything. It’s just part of what you wrestle with when writing genre fiction—thinking about where the money is, what the world’s like, all that immutable stuff.)
Your character names always strike me as matching their personas exceedingly well. From May and Mandy to Tony and Amber, is there a rhyme or reason to naming your characters?
Definitely. I’m really choosy about names. I subscribe to the idea—which I first saw articulated in a blog post that Meg Maguire wrote, back when she was writing a blog—that either your characters should be named one of the top 200 most popular names the year they were born, or basically there should be a reason they aren’t. You should know why they’re named what they’re named, and the “why” shouldn’t be “Because that’s a hot name for a hero to have.”
Although, you know, I’m me, and I’ll do what I want, and everyone else is free to do whatever they want. I’m not going to tell you not to name your forty-year-old hero “Austin.” I’m just going to point out, quietly, that I have a forty-year-old brother named Austin, and when we were growing up, I never met another human being who had that name. (Also thin on the ground at the time: girls named Ruth.)
So, anyway, yes. I poke around until I see a name that feels like the right name, and once I’ve got the name, it’s set in stone. My agent once asked me to change a character’s name, and I did, but I couldn’t get used to it. I couldn’t remember her new name. I hated it, and I had to change it back. Which I think means that there must be a way in which, once I’ve chosen the name, the name shapes that character’s personality, because otherwise they wouldn’t feel so immutable to me.
You have another serialized novel on the horizon (
curse you, Knox). What do we have to look forward to with Roman Holiday?
Oh, lots. Roman Holiday is going to be so interesting! It was conceived from the start as a serial, and it’s going to come out in two “seasons,” with five episodes in each one. So, first off, you’re going to hate me because there’s a hiatus in the middle. And, secondly, you’re going to love me, because it’s really really long, and it’s turning out to be kind of EPIC.
Roman Holiday is about these fairly extraordinary ordinary people, like all my books. The hero and heroine meet because the heroine has chained herself to a palm tree on the grounds of the down-at-the-heels vacation property in the Florida Keys where she grew up. The hero is the developer—and new owner of the property—who would be knocking the place down if this chick weren’t in the way. They end up getting stuck together on a road trip, and also there’s a hurricane and an Airstream trailer, and … well, things get weird. It has kind of a Carl Hiaasen vibe, a little bit, where things are funny and gothic and odd, but also there’s a lot of big emotion.
What is one book and/or series (from any genre) you’ve been gushing about nonstop lately?
Last month, when I was having a lot of trouble writing, I fell headlong into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. I’d already read the first several—the series (which is sci fi) begins with a two-book romance arc, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and then follows the couple’s only son, Miles Vorkosigan, through adolescence into adulthood—but I’d stopped when Miles was still in his early 20s. In a fit of trying to get my Kindle TBR cleaned off, I got back into the series where I’d stopped and then read something like nine novels in a row until I’d gotten to the end.
What I just love about Bujold—and I guess what I needed last month, as I was trying to gestate this romance epic of mine—is that she does a beautiful job creating a world that is cruel to her characters. I mean, Bujold’s world is as cruel as it can possibly be, almost—she writes right up to the edge of the worst possible things, but they are always worst possible things that are ordinary. Pain, death, self-doubt, really inconvenient love, loss, grief, the puncturing of ego when ego’s all you’ve got—all that life stuff. But over the arc of the series, beginning with her foundational couple, Cordelia and Aral, she gives her characters each other, so that they have resources to help them learn what they need to learn and triumph.
Over the course of the series, the beauty of the world that she’s created keeps getting more beautiful and more poignant, because these people are so fucking great, and they’re trying so hard, flailing around in the wilderness that we call life, and every high keeps getting higher and the lows are all lower until a character can just say one thing, spit out a single sentence like “But I’m Vor,” and you’re just sitting there sobbing helplessly on your Kindle screen because you love them so much, and life is so hard, and GOD GOD GOD.
Courtney Milan does this, too, by the way. The Governess Affair gives us a foundational couple, and then in the novels that come afterward she tears her people up and breaks them down, but she lets them have each other, and the world of the series keeps expanding until we have this team of awesome paired-up couples against the wilderness of the world.
I’d like to be able to do this, too, when I’m a grown-up writer. I have the privilege of watching Mary Ann Rivers do it in the manuscripts of her Burnsides series, which is going to come out with Loveswept starting next year. (She’ll kill me for saying that.)
And just for fun, what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say:
Green Bay: Packers
Thanks so much, Ruthie!
Thank you! This was fun.
And now for the giveaway! Ruthie is offering an awesome prize pack including ebooks of Big Boy, Making It Last, and an advance copy of the first episode of Roman Holiday to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter. The giveaway will run one week from today (9/27). Good luck!