Writing is like 'running a marathon with a constantly shifting finish line': Cynthia Bond
There are many things Janet Fitch and Cynthia Bond share: The L.A.-based authors both write novels with complicated characters in difficult situations, and Oprah Winfrey picked Fitch's "White Oleander" (in 1999) and Bond's "Ruby" (in 2015) for her book club. Fitch, the author of "Paint It Black" and a work-in-progress set in 1920s Russia, is a fixture on the L.A. literary scene, while Bond is a newcomer who spent years as a social worker. "Ruby," her debut, is the first book in a trilogy. The two will appear together on a Festival of Books panel on Sunday with T. Geronimo Johnson and Bridgett M. Davis.
Fitch and Bond sat down for a recent lunch to discuss writing, audience, literary idols and more. Their conversation has been condensed and edited.
Janet Fitch: My father gave me Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" when I was in junior high; my junior high, angst-filled soul responded to that. It explored so many aspects of the human condition — to my mind, that's what a novel should be. Dostoevsky was my literary idol for a long time. I got to give a talk in the Dostoevsky House Museum in the St. Petersburg museum with this book that I'm working on. Talk about full circle.
Cynthia Bond: There are so many people who inspire me. Zora Neale Hurston, the heart of her work has seeped into me, and I love her. She is one of the greats in American literature. I think she's seen as a black writer, but she is just brilliant.
Then there are people I've met: John Rechy's an amazing writer, and he was a teacher of mine. As a teacher, he was grand, and he was biting, but he was also so supportive.
And you're really one of my writing idols! You're one of the first people I sent a letter to get a blurb. I was an Emerging Voices fellow [at PEN Center USA] and you had us over to your home.
Fitch: For bad spaghetti!
Bond: I don't think anyone knew what they were eating, we were so happy to meet you!
Fitch: There's the writer who inspires you to begin with, then there are people who are like skating relay teams, who grab you by the arm and fling you ahead. You talk about John Rechy, who is sort of a lineage master to a lot of Los Angeles writing. My teacher, Kate Braverman, had studied with Rechy. They establish a standard about 4 feet over your head. The first person who tells you that what you're writing isn't good enough is a huge thing; somebody who hurts your feelings really wakes you up as a writer.
Bond: And if Rechy liked something, then you knew that you had not just done a good job, you'd done a superb job.
Fitch: Because Kate Braverman was a poet, we read aloud. You start realizing that good prose is crunchy. There's texture in your mouth as you say it. You realize bad writing, bland writing, has no texture, no taste, no corners in your mouth. I'm a great believer in reading aloud.
Bond: I don't do that, but maybe I should. For me, so much of it is going over it and over it again. Writing until I feel it in my body.
Fitch: The body, I think that's an important point. The thing that makes vivid writing is when the reader is in the body of the story, the body of the character. Things smell like something; there's weather, there's texture, there's light.
Bond: That's one of the things that's so wonderful: As a writer you get to taste the blackberry cobbler, enjoy that kiss. Then you also have to go through that crappy stuff, be the kid in a room alone with a grown man. But I won't write until I feel I am there, in that space.
I had been working on ["Ruby"] for a while when I went back to Texas [where the novel is set] with my mother. I hadn't grown up in that little town; my mother had. She talked about it all through our childhood. I didn't know it was in the Piney Woods; the whole book changed. That town, those roads, are golden at sunset. There were crows like crazy, and hawks; I got to see the house that my grandfather had built, and the area where my aunt was killed. I got to sit and talk with the patriarch [of another family]. It was difficult for me to understand them and it was difficult for them to understand me; my mother was almost like an interpreter.
Fitch: I went to Russia on a fellowship from the Likhachev Foundation. ... I visited the Akhmatova Museum — my character is in that time period in Petrograd, right after the revolution. Being there was everything. You got a feel for how Russians internalize information, how they respond to things. I did a reading while I was there — questions from the audience. In America, [they ask], "Do you write with a computer?" "How did you get your agent?" There: "What is the meaning of life?"
Bond: I worked on this for so long, more than 10 years. It was 900 pages to start; it's now three books. The last rewrite of my book, I was so glad it was getting published, but I had six weeks and I procrastinated for two because that's what you do — I think I watched the entire first season of "House of Cards." Finally I rented this little house in Tarzana, and I worked and I didn't sleep. ... Writing is like slogging through the mud. And you have no idea when you're done. It's running a marathon with a constantly shifting finish line.
Fitch: You never know, when people you know send you galleys. You're in bed, you pick it up, and you're going, "God, I hope this is good." I started reading your book, and it must have been midnight. I sat up in bed, woke my drowsing boyfriend, shook him, and said, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! This is so gorgeous."
Bond: When I heard from you that you'd started "Ruby" and that you were enjoying it, I was overwhelmed. That actually is when I started feeling like a true writer. Being seen by writers you've admired — there are no words for how you feel.
Fitch: Who do you picture when you're writing?
Bond: I just wanted to tell this story. One thing I thought of, and this is because I was a social worker for so doggone long, was I hope this will help people. I hope this will help some woman who is a survivor of abuse or human trafficking, that somebody will see themselves there.
Fitch: I always think it's going to be my friends, writers, people of intense literary interests. And then when you get a general readership — it is so unexpected. That terrified me. Because it was a difficult book — as yours is, boy. Would a general reader be able to accept all the gray areas where people aren't entirely villains or entirely angels?
I tell you, when Oprah put the book under everybody's chair and they pulled it out and they opened it, I imagined it exploding in their faces. Like each book would just go BOOM and blow their heads off. But it was remarkable — the general audience is quite able to digest adult, nuanced material. And they're often sold short.
Bond: I think you're absolutely right. When my hardcover was published, most of our reviews were really, really positive and great, but you can't help but look on Amazon: "One star: What's wrong with her? She's sick. Why would anybody write such disgusting things?"
Fitch: Writers work in a world of outer space silence. When somebody hates your book, it still does hurt, even if you don't know who they are. For me, the endings are really important. How do you want a person to walk away from your book?
Bond: I knew there was going to be some sort of baptism, but I didn't know what it was. I wanted people to feel that it's possible to break free of the things that bind you, this past, these demons, that you can break free and be washed clean. I didn't want Ruby and Efram to be hugging, it was about sensing each other. ... It really was about hope.
Fitch: I'm such a stickler for a good ending. Right now I hate the ending that I've got on my book, and it's not going to be wrested out of my hand until I like it. There are two things I want in the ending of a book. One is, I want the feeling of soul satisfaction, that this was a complete, beautifully prepared, perfectly timed, nutritious thing to be savored. Also, you want a feeling like a big bell has been rung, and you can hear it fading out. That's the ending. That's what I'm always looking for, and your book has that.
Bond: You are so supportive of other writers. You have a lot of space in your heart for other writers; there is a graciousness about you. And the way you support PEN USA, the Emerging Voices program.