Memoir Writing Like You Are Already Dead: Author Interview with Domenica Ruta

Posted by September 17th, 2013

If you’ve spent any time on Book Country’s Memoir writing genre page or on the Discussion Boards, you’ll know that I am mad about memoir. Domenica Ruta’s Spiegel & Grau debut, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, is billed as a “darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth,” but don’t be fooled into thinking this isn’t serious work by a serious new writer. Ruta writes with disarming candor about life growing up with her vivacious, drug-addicted mother, Kathi, and also of her own struggles with alcohol and her subsequent recovery. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is nothing less than the story of a writer claiming the truth of her own life, however subjective that might be.

Domenica RutaLS: It seems to me that the very thing a memoir writer needs to make their work successful—bare-bones honesty—also make the prospect of publishing a memoir terrifying. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is particularly candid: No one is safe from your gaze, from your mom to your dad to your high school boyfriend to yourself. How did you maintain that level of fearless disclosure as you wrote? Did you ever have doubts about making so much of your life public, and if so, how did you overcome them?

DR: The advice I gave not too long ago to a friend dabbling in memoir was to write the first draft as though you were already dead. What would you say if you never had to hear any criticism from anyone ever? This is a good point of departure for writing the first draft of anything, even fiction, but it is especially helpful with memoir. You cannot censor yourself in the early drafts or you will destroy the integrity of the work. In the process of rewriting the drafts that followed, however, I totally considered audience, both personally–like my family–and the larger public. Through the process of rewriting it became clearer to me what was necessary to say, what was bitterness I needed to let go of, what was harmful to others, what was an essential truth I couldn’t hold back. These are not decisions I could make up front; it’s a process of discovery. Then, when it was all done, I told myself any fire that comes my way as a result of what I’ve written is a fire I’ve earned honestly.

LS: The second half of WITH OR WITHOUT YOU chronicles the story of your own recovery from alcoholism. At the end of the book, there’s a passage I love: “’Stay sober, get a pen and a notebook, and see what happens,’ my sober friends tell me. So that’s what I do.” How helpful do you think writing this book was to your recovery?

DR: The book, my ability to write it and publish, is a gift of recovery, a by-product. It wasn’t helpful in getting me sober or keeping me sober. The only way to do that is to do a lot of work on a daily basis, and that’s grunt work, not art work.with or without you

LS: There’s a passage where you say of yourself: “my face can take on a villainous beauty, like Cruella de Vil or Snow White’s stepmother in her better years.” That self-deprecating, clever voice was what kept me from bawling my eyes out on every page of this book. Was using humor a part of your overall strategy for writing the book? Are there things you can say more effectively in a humorous tone?

DR: In graduate school there was a lot of sanctimonious crap batted around about humor being a sign of weakness in writing. It was considered a cop-out, like something you resorted to if you couldn’t convey are real emotion. That thesis is bullshit for several reasons: first, humor is a real emotion, one of the hardiest and most resilient in the human consciousness; second, humor is a powerful tool in conveying the emotions of characters or the mood of a setting in fiction and nonfiction alike because of its fundamental elasticity. Humor has the ability to do many things at once, like a playing a chord instead of a single note. But in all honesty, I didn’t set out to write a funny book. I was just telling my story in  my voice, and my voice is constantly discovering the humor of any situation. This is a gift I inherited from my mother.

LS: You got your MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the most esteemed writing programs in the country, but you didn’t workshop it there. Did you show WITH OR WITHOUT YOU to other writing partners before you started working with your agent and editor on it? 

DR: I didn’t even start writing this book until the last month of my last year in Texas. This was wholly post-graduate work. I showed an early, ugly draft to separate friends I’d met at UT, though neither of them were in the Michener Center and neither are writers. Then when I had a draft I felt was close, I shared it with Brian McGreevy, a close friend from the Michener Center and the author of the novel Hemlock Grove, and he gave me the notes I needed to write the final, selling draft.

Find out more about Domenica Ruta on her website, and follow her on Twitter at @DomenicaMary.

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