An Interview with Ruth White
Ruth White is the author of three books for young adults: The City Rose, an African-American adventure story; Sweet Creek Holler, a poor girl's story about growing up in Southwest Virginia, where White herself grew up (currently translated into German, Dutch, Afrikaan, and Japanese); and Weeping Willow, a story about friendship, love, pain, and coming of age also set in Southwest Virginia. On the afternoon of October 22, 1993, only hours after finishing the final chapter of her upcoming young adult novel -- Belle Prater's Boy -- White, a full-time librarian for the Association for Research and Enlightenment Foundation (A.R.E.) in Virginia Beach, found time to talk with me about her writing.
Cole: Could you talk about influences on your writing career and how you began writing?
White: When I was a little girl living in Jewell Valley, I began creating stories. I remember making up stories, and I loved having my mother read to me. My mother always read to me even after I was able to read for myself. And I started writing stories in school in the second or third grade as soon as I could write. I was writing stories and plays and we used to act them out there in that little school in Little Prater -- like in Sweet Creek Holler. I remember doing that also when I went to Vansant Elementary. In high school I wrote short stories and all of us would read them. In college I took all the writing courses I could take, which weren't many. Writing was just a natural thing; it just seemed to happen naturally. Also, while I was a student at Pfeiffer College, I was influenced by a writer named Heather Ross Miller. She was a very promising young writer, and she was my teacher.
Cole: Could you talk about your first book, why you wrote it, and how you broke into the publishing market with it?
White: When I taught seventh and eighth grade in Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina, I wrote The City Rose. The schools had just been integrated in North Carolina the year before I started teaching, and I had two black girls in one of my classes. When we would go to the library, I noticed that they didn't check any books out. I was trying to help them find books, and they finally told me that they couldn't find any books about black children -- about themselves -- so I decided that was something we would have to fix. I decided to write one. So that's how The City Rose was born. Of course, it was several years after that that it was finally published, and those children had grown up and gone away by that time. I was really lucky with it. I had a copy of Writer's Market. I don't remember where I got it; I just looked through it for addresses of publishers who published children's stories, and I decided to send it to McGraw Hill. I had heard of them --probably because they published textbooks -- and they bought it. It was like three years later that they finally published it. It's out of print now though.
Cole: Was that the first place you sent your manuscript?
White: That was the only place! But the thing is I don't quite understand myself why I didn't write another one for eleven years. I guess it was just my state of mind.
Cole: State of mind?
White: I was divorced from my second husband in Georgia, and I sort of hit the bottom there; it was like the dark night of the soul. I thought there is nothing in my life that works. My relationships don't work. I'm financially destitute; I don't like my job. Something has to change. I've always been spiritual, so I prayed about it. I had always been interested in A.R.E. and Edgar Cayce. I thought I didn't have anything to lose, so I decided I was going to A.R.E. And it was the second best move I ever made. The first best move I ever made was going to college. I've really loved it here in Virginia Beach. After I came here, everything just seemed to take off, and that's when I really started writing. Now I'm writing something all the time, and I write for Venture Inward, the A.R.E. magazine.
Cole: Were you thinking about writing during that time?
White: Yes. I would start something and put it down and start something else, but then my life was a mess emotionally and every way.
Cole: What made you want to write Sweet Creek Holler?
White: Well, I wanted to write, and I guess everybody wants to tell his own story. It's catharsis, you know. Though I experienced many good and unique things growing up, I had a very painful childhood. My father was a coal miner, and when I was six years old, he was killed in a brawl. He was shot in the back, and the man who killed him was sent to prison for twenty years. All that's in Sweet Creek Holler. When that happened, we had to leave the coal company because only coal miners could live in the camp houses. We moved to Loggy Bottom where we lived a year. And then my mother found a little house down near Grundy -- Little Prater. When I was in the eighth grade, my mother, four sisters, and I moved to Michigan. It was just a big plunge we took. My mother felt that as long as we lived where we did, we had no chance of ever having anything or getting an education. But I only attended the eighth grade there. I was so homesick for the hills that I went back and lived with an aunt and uncle near Grundy while I went to high school. They were very good to me, but there was a lot of pain in my childhood, and writing about it helps. It's like psychotherapy.
Cole: How did you find a publisher for Sweet Creek Holler?
White: McGraw Hill had discontinued their juvenile department, but I found Farrar, Straus, and Giroux the same way that I had found McGraw Hill. I just started sending queries. I sent a query letter to thirty publishers, and I had nineteen replies. I numbered them as they came in one, two, three, four and that was the fifth one that I sent the manuscript to. I think that's an easy way to do it, a simple way to do it.
Cole: Can you talk about your writing process?
White: I've learned a lot just by writing because at the beginning I thought that I had to know where I was going when I sat down. In other words, I had to have the whole story in my head and I'd just fill in the blanks. But I learned I can't write that way. The story sort of writes itself once I take off. The most important thing I have found for me is the first couple of chapters. I have to get in my head what kind of character or characters I want in the story, put them in a setting, and make the first chapter leap out at the reader, and then it sort of takes on a life of its own. I create these people and this place, and then I sit back and watch what happens to them. In Belle Prater's Boy that's exactly what happened. I had an idea where I wanted to take that story, but it just wouldn't go that way. It went in another direction.
Cole: Can you talk about that? How did it take another direction?
White: I can't reconstruct perfectly what happened because some time has passed; however, I do remember I wanted to write something very light and playful, so Belle Prater's Boy started out to be a comedy. Woodrow Prater was supposed to be the new kid on the block and a hick from the sticks who played a huge practical joke on the entire town on Kid's Day. The narrator, his cousin Gypsy, was his accomplice.
But as I began to carefully introduce these characters in a very simple and relaxed, small-town, fifties setting, I found myself wondering, "What if this happens?" or "What if I let Woodrow do this?" or "What if Gypsy says that?" Before I knew it, I realized that, although both Woodrow and Gypsy had a good sense of humor, they were two wounded children and could not fit the light-hearted role I had planned for them. So I went back and inserted a whole new beginning to further explain Woodrow. The new beginning led to the need to explain his mother and certain events of the past, which resulted in a new turn in the story. Then two shadowy figures emerged like ghosts, haunting both Gypsy and Woodrow. The comedy angle was entirely abandoned, and a new story line took over very naturally. I simply followed it then to see where it would go, and as a result, I feel Belle Prater's Boy is a much better and more meaningful story than anything I have done before. Though set in the fifties, I feel the theme of appearances is very timely and applicable to every generation.
Cole: Can you talk about revision?
White: That's where the best writing comes in. The first time is kind of a jumbled mess -- sentences are on top of each other, there's writing between the lines, and writing on the edge and in the margin. And I have to write with a pen; I can't CREATE with a typewriter. When I'm creating, I have to write with a pen. And then the second time, I straighten it all out, and put the sentences where they belong and everything like that and get kind of a cleaner picture of what I'm trying to say, and then the third time I start typing it. It may stand the third time as it is, but most usually, it'll go through a fourth or fifth revision. Rewriting, I've found now, is the easiest part because things just start falling in place when I'm rewriting. I start tying up the ends, and I can go back and relate this to this; I think, Oh yeah, that's why she said this way back here! I had no idea why she said it, but now I can make the corrections. Things just start coming together like life.
Cole: How important is description?
White: It's not necessary. I think a concise, short description with just the right words -- very select words -- is more important than a lengthy description.
Cole: How do you file ideas?
White: I have a notebook; I jot them down. Occasionally I'll go through and try to organize it; for example, I'll group idioms I want to use or old sayings, or songs. Things like that. I may put idioms on one page, songs on another page, and ideas for stories on another. Most of the time I'm just doing housework or something, so I'll run to the notebook and jot something down while I'm thinking about it. I grab it when I've got it because I have found that it slips away. I think, Oh, gosh, that's so clever I'll have to write that down! I better write it down right then because later I can't recall it.
Cole: What kind of writing schedule do you keep?
White: No schedule. Just whenever I find time. I'm singing with two choirs and taking piano lessons. I'm trying to do too much and working forty hours a week. I want to begin cutting back on hours soon because I'm finding that writing just takes more and more of my time; and even when I'm working, I'm thinking about writing. It's stressful trying to do everything. I had a deadline on Belle Prater's Boy, which was stressful. But I set the deadline myself.
Cole: Both protagonists in Sweet Creek Holler and Weeping Willow have very distinct, authentic children's voices. How do you feel you created that?
White: I remembered. I remember so much from my childhood, and I have to close my eyes and say I am little six-year-old Ginny. How would I say this? How would I think this? Also, I taught for ten years; I was a school librarian for nine years, and I was a child for about thirty years. So I stored up a lot of things. I still see children occasionally, and I jot down things I hear them say. I don't have day-to-day contact like I used to.
Cole: Are the songs, riddles, and old sayings you write about recollections from your childhood?
White: Yes. They say as you get older you can remember your childhood better than you remember yesterday. And I do. I remember things like that from my childhood better than I do things that happened last week.
Cole: Tiny, in Weeping Willow, is a very strong character who has a lot of stamina and endurance; so is the mother character in Sweet Creek Holler. Do you see them as role models for young girls who read your books? Do you see any lessons in your books?
White: I hope so, yes. Ginny's mother is based on my mother. There is no composite there. She is my mother. And Tiny is based on my own character; she's more like me than any other character that I have written about. I wouldn't say that at that age I was that strong or that I would have been able to get through something like that the way that she did. But ideally, that's what I would like to think.
Cole: What would you hope that a young girl reading this story, reading about an experience like Tiny's, would take with her from her reading -- particularly a girl who has been abused as this girl has?
White: That she would find the courage to tell somebody. I think that's what the story says to a young girl who's been abused: tell someone you trust.
Cole: Why did you choose to end Sweet Creek Holler in such a positive way?
White: My inner child of the past does much of the writing. She rewrites my childhood and gives me happy endings. Sweet Creek Holler is almost totally autobiographical, but I had to dress it up to make it interesting. There was no Mr. Clancy, you know, who came along and swept my mother off her feet. That would have been nice if there had been. But I chose to include him to give more uplift at the end. It would have been wonderful for my family if someone like him had come along and married my mother, swept her away, so to speak. But the mother's decision in Sweet Creek Holler to go to Pennsylvania is much like my own mother's decision to go to Michigan. Neither had anything to lose.
Cole: What about the ending of Weeping Willow?
White: My editor, Margaret Ferguson at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, who is a wonderfully skilled and experienced editor, wanted it to be a little more realistic. She felt that too many good things came together there at the end. In fact, we dropped out a couple of good things because she said it's just too much. All those good things just don't happen in real life. When Tiny says, "Willa would never come again," I was trying to say that she's grown up; that this is her step into adulthood, and so, leaving Willa behind was positive. That's what I was trying to emphasize there at the end.
Cole: Relationships are an important concept in Weeping Willow. Could you talk about how that became a theme in your book?
White: I had strong friendships in school. I think my strong friendships are what helped me a lot during those years growing up. I did not have much luck with boys, but I had some wonderful girlfriends. They helped me through some rough times, and I still keep in touch with them. We had our thirtieth reunion in 1990, and we all spent the night in the same place. We were a special class because we were sort of on the cusp, so to speak, between the old and the new. Things changed after that, I think, after the Kennedy assassination; maybe it was the Vietnam War.
Cole: Both of your books are set in the 1940s and 1950s, and they're very realistic portrayals of the region of that time, but media and some literature still portray a rather drab picture of the region today. How do you feel about negative stereotypes of the region that are often portrayed in literature with presumably current settings?
White: I read one just recently. As I read it, I thought, Give me a break; this is not believable. And those of us who know how things were and how things are today know that it's not believable. It's giving a poor picture. I think my picture is accurate for the time that I wrote for, because I remember these things, I remember how they were. That's why I set my books back in time because I knew that time; I don't know the region as well now. I know that it is vastly improved now, but I think the basic thing in writing is to make your people so real that they can't be stereotyped.
Cole: Have you ever considered writing a book about life in Appalachia with a current setting?
White: Yes, I'm thinking about it, but I would have to go back and see what it's like.
Cole: When you're writing for young people, what tips would you give to aspiring writers?
White: I would tell them to write naturally. So much work by beginning writers is so stilted. Their language doesn't sound natural. Be natural; that's the main thing.
Cole: You talked about your upcoming book Belle Prater's Boy and how the story took a different direction once you began writing. What can you share about the final product?
White: This book is written for my daughter, Dee, who is the light of my life, and it is dedicated to her. The publishers just bought it. It should be out in early 1996. It's a book about appearances -- physical appearances versus what's inside. The quote that I use in the beginning is from The Little Prince: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." It's about people's physical appearances and how we judge people by their appearance before we get to know them. It's about a person's life and how it looks as if a person might have everything, but then on the inside there's a deep wound. This is what happens with the main character Gypsy -- I took one of my high school friend's names for my main character. Gypsy appears to have everything, and you don't know until almost the end of the book that this beautiful little child with the long golden hair -- whom everybody loves and thinks is perfect -- is really hurting.
I actually get emotional talking about it. The very first paragraph tells you that on a September morning in 1953, Belle Prater left her bed, presumably to go to the outdoor toilet and disappeared from the face of the earth. And then from there I go into the story of Belle Prater's boy, Woodrow, and the friendship between Woodrow and his cousin Gypsy. Woodrow is a little boy who grew up in a holler, and Gypsy, of course, is the little town girl. It's like the city mouse and the country mouse. They become best of friends, and it goes from there. So I'm excited about it, and I think kids will like it.
Cole: Is the setting Appalachia?
White: Yes. Grundy is actually what I had in mind. But I call it Coal Station, Virginia. And the way it gets its name is coal trucks from all over the county bring their coal to the railway station and ship it out from there. Gypsy lives there on Main Street; her mother is a teacher, and her stepfather owns the newspaper in town, so it appears that she is the little golden girl in town. Then Woodrow comes from the country and is crossed-eyed and wears hand-me-down clothes.
Cole: What sparked the idea for this story?
White: A comic book that I read years and years ago. I remember things that really trigger my imagination. I read a horror comic book in which a man was walking across a field when he suddenly vanished. Many people were watching him, and he just vanished into thin air. People looked everywhere, but it was such a mystery for years and years. Fifteen years later one of his kids, now grown up, walks across that field and hears his father calling, "Help! Help me!" Doesn't that make cold chills run all over you?
Cole: Yes, it does. Do you have any ideas brewing now?
White: I have one that I would like to write for A.R.E. They have their own press. It will be a metaphysical book, but of course I'll go right back to writing for children. That's my first love. The most interesting things happen to kids because they make them interesting. They still have that sense of wonder, which I suspect they retain from having so recently come from "the other side."
Aren't you tired of stories about drugs and murders and chase scenes and shootouts and deranged psychopaths? Every time a new one comes along, I want to throw up. That may be real life, but from where I'm standing there are some beautiful, simple, uplifting stories with warmth and depth that are crying out to be told. And I will feel I have done a great service for the children of the world if I can tell just a few of them.
Pam Cole recently completed her doctoral work at Virginia Tech and currently teaches in the English Department at Radford University.