An Interview with Domenica Ruta, Acclaimed Author and Michener Center Graduate

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Introduction

The New York Times has praised Domenica Ruta's memoir, With or Without You, as an "intensely philosophical memoir" and "a luminous, layered accomplishment."

Ms. Ruta graduated from Oberlin College and received her MFA degree from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, Jentel, and Hedgebrook.

The Austin Review first met Ms. Ruta at the Texas Book Festival, following a panel discussion she held with fellow Michener graduate Fiona McFarlane and moderated by Michener Director James Magnuson. Later that day, Ms. Ruta performed a reading for Austin's first Lit Crawl event and graciously agreed to the interview below.


Interview

The Austin Review: If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe your style of writing?

Domenica Ruta: If Anne Carson and Euripides had a violent, transgressive affair, Domenica Ruta would be the deformed bastard of their poetic union. (By the way, I think my writing is nothing like Anne Carson, or Euripides. I was thinking in the realm of fantasy reviewers. Except reviewers don't exist in my fantasies, so . . .)

TAR: What contemporary authors excite you the most?

DR: I read two wonderful debut novelists this year, both discoveries from the Texas Book Festival, Fiona MacFarlane and Eric Lundgren. Fiona's prose is so crisp, and her novel The Night Guest is one of those miraculous plots that really builds sentence by sentence. Eric's first novel, The Facades, is a literary neo-noir, a genre that ordinarily wouldn't interest me, but I loved it. It was funny and ponderous, full of electric language and moments of startling beauty.

TAR: What classics do you most identify with and why?

DR: The ancient mythologies of any culture, though I'm partial to the Greeks, mostly because I'm lazy and they are the most accessible. Myths are portals to the world beyond this one, where all the magic of creation exists. It's as close as someone like me can get to the holy or the eternal without stepping into a monastery, where I have no business being.

TAR: Do you see the rise of ebooks and the decline of print as beneficial or harmful to writers today?

DR: It's a new interface, that's all. The medium does not change the message. If writers are worried about losing audiences, they need to write better books, more engaging, exciting, affecting stories. I ride the NYC subway all the time and it's about fifty-fifty, ebooks to paper books. Most people are playing Candy Crush or re-reading old texts from their friends and enemies. That's what we have to compete with: blissed out geometrical flow and the haikus of love and hate. So sharpen your swords and get to work, writers!

TAR: How extensively do you edit or rewrite?

DR: I am a terrible draftsman but a pretty good editor. I'd say 90% of my style, whatever that means, does not emerge until rewrites. The first draft is an assembly of materials. It's like going to the grocery store, lugging home the heavy bags, then dumping it all out on the kitchen table. It's a mess, inedible. The second through one-millionth draft is where things come together for me.

TAR: What qualities do you believe make for the best editor?

DR: It is entirely personal, and dependent on the work. An editor might be perfect for one writer but not another, or see with perfect clarity one book by a particular writer, but not her next book. An editor is someone who fundamentally gets what the writer is trying to do and asks the right questions of the author that inspire him to find the answers, find the edits himself. I've only ever had one editor, the brilliant Cindy Spiegel, and that is just what she did. At first I was disappointed. I expected my manuscript to come back to me bloodied by red pen excisions and marginalia. Not at all. She trusted me to make the changes myself, offered her perspective, was thoughtful and respectful. It was a wonderful arrangement.

TAR: What role do you think literary magazines play today? Are they—like newspapers—a species in decline?

DR: Literary magazines are insider trade publications. They are for other writers more than non-writing readers. I think the strong will survive. Starbucks put a lot of little coffee shops out of business, but the ones who are still standing did so because they were adaptable and committed to their unique branding. Look around Austin and you'll see evidence of this everywhere. So it is with lit mags.

TAR: What is the next book you plan to read? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?

DR: I'm a two-sometimes-three-at-a-time person. I usually have one non-fiction book and one novel or poetry collection going, for a well-balanced diet. Next in my lineup is Mary Roach's Packing For Mars and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

TAR: What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

DR: I have four different monographs on prostitutes and three graphic novels by Alan Moore. This doesn't surprise me at all, but sometimes visitors raise an eyebrow.

TAR: What book have you always meant to read and never gotten around to yet? Or, what do you feel embarrassed never to have read?

DR: I've never read Rushdie, which I am redressing as soon as this interview is done. I've never read Paradise Lost, either, which seems like something I should have done in college, and now I just don't care anymore.

TAR: What was your favorite thing about attending the Michener Center? About living in Austin?

DR: I loved hanging out with writers at the bar after class, playing our nerdy word games, talking passionately about books. I miss everything about Austin, except the month of August.

TAR: Any advice to writers who are considering enrolling in an MFA program?

DR: Do NOT go into debt for an arts degree! Everything you need to learn about the writing process you can read in The Paris Review interviews, and everything else you can and will learn best by reading and writing as much as you can, then getting yourself into a lot of trouble and putting yourself back together as many times as you can stand. If you are enrolling in an MFA program, a funded one like UT is the way to go.

TAR: Is it harder to read reviews of your memoir because, indirectly, commentary involves not only your writing, but also aspects of your life?

DR: I was disappointed by how little reviewers talked about my actual writing. Most reviews read to me like elaborate summary. Maybe they were going easy on me or maybe my book just didn't inspire trenchant criticism. I don't know. Before the book was published, I made the executive decision to completely detach from all responses, good and bad. It would be overwhelming to the point of crippling if I took everything to heart, because I am both the protagonist and the author. The author Nick Flynn gave me some good advice, adapted from his wife, the actress Lili Taylor. It was that most readers aren't really seeing you, or, more accurately, the memoir portrait of you. They are seeing a projection of themselves and their families and their decisions, either set in opposition or in relation to you. So I don't take anything a reviewer says about my family or me personally because responses say much more about the responder than the person or work they are responding to.

TAR: When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

DR: Prickly pear and creative homeowners making art out of trash and tacos and I Heart Video and Wheatsville and Ginny's Little Longhorn and live oak genuflecting to the earth and pecan trees and heat so hot I once hallucinated at the bus stop. I miss that town. There's no place quite like it.