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.
LS: 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.