A Q&A with Cynthia Bond

The 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist will be announced tomorrow! Ahead of the big reveal, we caught up with longlisted author Cynthia Bond to discuss her nominated novel Ruby. Read on to find out where Cynthia got the initial inspiration for her debut, the role of spells and spiritualism in her work and why sometimes you should listen to your mother’s advice.

Where did you get the initial inspiration for the character of Ruby?

I have thought about, and answered this question many times. There are true answers. My mother grew up in the place where Ruby lives. There are red roads and crows making eights above the pines. I taught writing to homeless youth living on the streets of Hollywood and heard crushing stories that settled in my body and took root. I grew up on the college campus where my father taught Speech and Literature in late 60’s, early 70’s. There were protests and the National Guard and tear gas and the Student Union burned to the ground, and a young black student shot down by the police. There is my own life in which I slipped out of the net and was lost, for a time, in plain sight. I have also loved hard. Passion and joy rolling down my back like sweat. I have often said that writing Ruby was like making a pot of Gumbo, all that I had seen, all that I have known stirred into the pot. While all this is true, there is something beyond which conjured Ruby. It is the ephemera beyond experience, beyond what we know, that sits beside us when we write. There are, for me, real beings born of the muck of experience, that hold answers we cannot imagine. Who have a path a walk we could never fathom, until they show us. As writers it is our job to plan the trajectory, pull back the bow and try like hell to make the mark. Sometimes we miss. Sometimes not. So Ruby is everything I have ever known, and everything I could never imagine, revealed one page at a time.

You founded the Blackbird Writing Collective in 2011 – could you tell us a bit about this cause and why it’s important to you?

So many of us are silenced. This is not a coined cliché, it is simply a truth. As women; White, Black, Latina–all women of color; as gay, bisexual, straight, these stories are often sealed by oppression and lies told to us when we were young. By the cost of being rejected and alone, or, as one woman in our group wrote the burden of “her pretty” and how it was used as an excuse for all manner of acts. Some of us are mothers, loving beyond measure the children in our charge. I once wrote an essay asking how many novels are lost in trying to get the mystery stain out of a child’s shirt. There are so many impediments. Blackbird Collective began to help women write. I thought of the name because of the crows that congregated around my small guesthouse while I was writing Ruby. Also, the iconic words that John Lennon wrote about the struggle Blacks faced in the battle for civil rights. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive.”

Ruby was originally 900 pages long, but it was eventually split it into a trilogy. Why did you decide to do this?

Simply put…my mother. I started working on Ruby fifteen years ago in the basement of a one-room guesthouse. What began as a pile of scenes ripped out of spiral notebooks grew to over 900 pages. The entire time I was working on it, my mother kept telling me that Ruby was more than one book. I vehemently argued that it was not. After I finished the second draft and found my splendid agent, Nicole Aragi, we met in New York City. In a mid-twenties restaurant, she looked at me and said, “This is more than one book.” I realized suddenly that it would work better as a trilogy. It is a horrible thing to admit your mother is right. I waited a good month before I told her.

Ruby has been called magical realist by many readers – why did you choose to weave spirits and spells into your novel? 

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of my father quoting Macbeth, and Hamlet while I was growing up. Of fairy tales read to me with witches and a spindle that could kill a woman were it not for love. It is also my grandmother, born in Louisiana, the belief of the other, floating and living on the wind. The no nonsense practical spiritual beliefs and actions done to protect a family. There were ghosts I imagined walking within those piney woods. The secrets they whispered to me as I slept. They were simply a part of the fabric wrapped about me as a child. They also allowed me to express the fullness of pain and joy exuded beyond the physical body. The belief that we are more than flesh and bone, that we pass into the ether either settled or with great unrest. These are the myths and perhaps the truths with which I was raised, and which helped to better explain the paths and trajectory of my characters.

Which authors most inspire your work?

Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Junot Diaz, Janet Fitch, John Rechy, Edwidge Danticat.

Find out more about our 2016 longlist here. Stay in the loop with this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction by following us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.