READERS GUIDEDOMENICA RUTA TALKS WITH JACLYN FULWOOD:
MAKING ART AND A HAPPY LIFE
A native of Danvers, Massachusetts, Domenica Ruta graduated from Oberlin College and earned an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin. She’s been the recipient of residencies at several artists’ communities, including the Blue Mountain Center, Jentel, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. Her memoir, With or Without You, is her debut. Ruta took a moment from working on her upcoming novel to speak with us about learning from the past and turning it into art.
Excerpted from the November 7, 2012, issue of Shelf Awareness, with permission from Shelf Awareness and Jaclyn Fulwood
Jaclyn Fulwood: In With or Without You, you focus heavily on your mother’s influence on your life. What important lessons have you learned from her?
Domenica Ruta: I feel so lucky to have had a mother who could laugh so deeply. For her, and for us, comedy was a rich psychospiritual experience. As a genetic gift, I can’t think of anything more important to my survival. I see so many people in this world who live as though a storm cloud hovers overhead; I’ve never had that problem, because my mother armed me with this sublime sense of humor. Like athleticism, it is in part something you are born with, but also something that needs nurturing to develop. It’s the precondition for finding beauty–humor clears away the brush, tills an open space in the mind so that instances of beauty can be seeded and grow. For me it is so necessary in the process of making art and a happy life.
JF: If you could go back in time and talk to your teenage self, what would you say?
DR: This is hard. I’m tempted to beg her to get sober. Preserve those brain cells you are about to slaughter for the next decade and a half! You’ll read Faulkner and for a moment touch the divine–you’ll “get” it, what he’s doing, how you can do it, too–then you’ll forget it all a second later. All of your best ideas–the human frailty of your friends and teachers, the searing connections between mind and body, the metaphors echoing everywhere as though in a universal song–will evaporate as soon as you have them. You won’t learn as much as you can! You won’t grow!
But then again, I needed every scrape and burn to become the person I am. I couldn’t learn the easy way–I think few people can. Suffering is a good teacher. So maybe I would just tell that teenager to relax and stop worrying about her body–it’s fine the way it is and there are much more interesting obsessions in this world. I would also encourage her to stay out of the sun. And learn Spanish before the plasticity of her brain dries out.
JF: Tell us about your creative process.
DR: For every three to four solid hours of writing, there are an equal number of hours in which I pace, fret, clean, fuss, open and close the refrigerator–without actually eating, mind you, just saying hello to the produce, I guess-then some more worrying and cleaning. On top of that, I’ve spent enormous amounts of time excoriating myself for this waste of time, which becomes a vicious cycle. Funny how a little validation can change everything. Once Cindy Spiegel bought my book, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I was doing something right, that maybe these hours of discursiveness are actually an essential part of my process. So now I do what I’ve always done–10A.M. to 2 P.M.: fidget; 2 P.M. to 6 P.M.: work–just with more joy and (slightly) less reproach.
JF: We hear that running has become a big part of your life. Every runner seems to have an essential playlist. What’s on yours?
DR: I discovered runner’s high in those dark first months of my sobriety, and it was as essential to me as antidepressants or acupuncture have been to other recovering addicts. To get me through a tough run, long distance or not, I’ve relied on selected songs and/or entire albums of the following artists on shuffle: Amy Winehouse, Biggie, Bowie, the Cars, Florence and the Machine, the Fugees, Liz Phair, M.I.A., Michael Jackson, the Pixies, the Stones, the Supremes, the Talking Heads, and U2. Though there have been runs when I just listened to the theme from Rocky on repeat.
JF: Your book is intensely personal. How did you decide to tell such intimate stories to the world?
DR: I tried not to think about that aspect for the first draft. I wrote as if no one in the world would ever read a word of it, and told myself, if the issue of personal revelation becomes relevant, I will be more grateful to have this problem than I will be worried. But this approach is critical to writing anything. There are too many voices telling you that everything is a bad idea from the start. I’d never get anywhere if I considered these things in the beginning stages of development. It’s a good thing writing is 90 percent rewriting, because with every new draft, I was growing as a person and a craftsman. I was getting stronger and more confident in my decisions–what to tell, what not to tell.
JF: What do you hope readers will learn or take away with them from your book?
DR: The point of almost all memoirs, especially the subgenre of trauma and recovery, is the simple promise that there is hope. I hope my book expands on this–that, like hope, there is also beauty, everywhere and always, as long as you are willing to search for it. Ultimately I want readers to feel they’ve been given a good story, something worth retelling.
JF: With or Without You has been compared to The Glass Castle and The Liar’s Club. What do you feel sets your story apart from other memoirs?
DR:I intentionally avoided memoirs as a genre during my drinking years because I didn’t want anyone to ruin my pity party or kill my buzz. While writing the first few drafts of my memoir I continued this abstention, but this time to protect myself from being influenced. I didn’t know what a memoir was supposed to look like structurally or sound like tonally, and this ignorance felt to me like a precious state, the ideal place to start. After a couple of drafts, when I felt like I knew the basic shape and texture of this thing I was writing and was secure in that at least, I went on a memoir spree with an intentionally innocent curiosity. How does So-and-So do it? It was a great experience. I remember the day I read that Mary Karr’s mother had the same gun my mum did, and I was so happy. It felt like an omen, or a blessing from the queen. I think all of the mother-daughter stories, the addiction stories, the traumatic childhood stories, speak for themselves. I consider myself lucky to be another voice in this chorus. What we have in common as memoirists is a subjective observation of a common humanity. It’s what everyone has in common, whether they write their life stories or not.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Ruta begins her book with a scene from her childhood, when Kathi takes her along with her when she goes to destroy someone’s car. Why do you think Ruta chose to begin her book with that scene? What does it tell you about Kathi? How are the themes that it sets out subsequently explored throughout the rest of the book?
2. The dedication of With or Without You is “For Her.” Why do you think that is her dedication?
3. In her late twenties, Domenica worked for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “If only all battered wives could be so conveniently sympathetic,” Ruta writes. “The real picture is something more complicated, a prism that captures the full spectrum of good and evil and shatters it into fractured pieces of color and light” (p. 4 3). How does With or Without You explore this theme?
4. In a quietly momentous scene in the book, Domenica sees her sister lying on Carla’s stomach and whispers a single word. “It wasn’t until much later that I understood what had happened that day,” Ruta writes. “Inside me was someone new waiting to be born…someone who would devote her life to describing such moments in time” (p. 53). What does Ruta mean? Why is that moment so significant?
5. What do you consider Kathi’s biggest betrayal?
6. What would you consider Kathi’s best attribute?
7. What do Kathi and Domenica have in common?
8. The extended Ruta family is almost continuously burdened with debt. Explore the theme of debt, both literal and metaphoric, in the book. How do debts affect their relationships and hold them back?
9. Why does Domenica enjoy working in the dementia ward?
10. When Domenica is recovering, how does she find solace?
11. While in Austin, Domenica falls in love with another writer. “It was just as awful as my mother had said it would be,” Ruta writes.”It was even worse that she was right” ( p. 145). What is Ruta referring to? What is the larger significance of Domenica’s realization?
12. Near the end of the book, Ruta wonders why she can’t have compassion for Kathi. Do you think that Kathi is deserving of Domenica’s compassion? Do you believe that Domenica does not have compassion for Kathi?