A Journey Into a Young Writer's Old Soul

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time is definitely not on Ruth Caster Hubble's side.

It's 5:25 a.m., the beginning of what will be the last day of life for the 88-year-old main character in Kate Phillips' first novel, "White Rabbit" (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

Ruth, who has taken to sleeping in a sleeping bag "because washing sheets struck her as a profligate waste of time," turns up the volume on her old Emerson radio, listening to the same morning deejay she has been hearing for 10 years.

She slips on the light-pink bed jacket she has worn every morning for almost 15 years.

She bends down to pick up the old white pillow she uses for sit-ups, which "had served her very nicely for almost 42 years."

Even her yellow candlewick bedspread long ago "turned brown with age at the top of each tufted cotton ball."

And fast asleep down the hall is Henry, her husband, who, for 36 years, "had been upsetting the fragile order Ruth lived to polish and perfect."

Ruth's body has shrunk with age, her knee hurts and her bony hand reaches for her pillbox four times a day. Doctor's orders.

But don't pity Ruth, whose spunk and caustic wit remain fully intact. Henry is a "moron," a "boob." Even her "breakfast buddy" on the Emerson is "another bonehead." And she's definitely considering suing the book club that keeps mailing her books she never ordered.

It's curmudgeonly humor that makes "White Rabbit" sing as Phillips chronicles the hour-by-hour doings of the cantankerous Ruth, blending the old woman's mundane daily life with memory and fantasy. She has visions of a white rabbit, both a symbol of luck and a reminder that time is running out, and which may actually be the white flashes that signal an impending stroke.

"White Rabbit" is receiving the kind of sales and rave reviews most first-time authors only dream of.

"A deeply affecting meditation on life," says the Chicago Tribune. Publishers Weekly calls it "a perceptive and sophisticated novel [that] deftly balances humor with difficult questions about living and dying." And the New York Times calls it no less than "a remarkable debut."

Phillips, a Claremont native whose novel is set in Laguna Beach, now lives in Boston's Back Bay.

But she is no stranger to Laguna.

Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, she was a frequent visitor to her maternal grandmother's condominium in the beachfront Blue Lagoon complex--the model for the Paradise Lagoon condominiums where Ruth and Henry live.

As she goes about the business of promoting her novel, the question Phillips is most frequently asked is, "How can a twentysomething writer produce such a perceptive novel about a woman six decades her senior?"

"I think the main thing is, I didn't have to spend that much time thinking of her as an old woman," says Phillips, who began writing the novel at 23 and is now 29. "I just thought of her as a frustrated woman at first and only second did I think of her as an 88-year-old frustrated woman."

Many of Ruth's thoughts on the day covered in the novel are of the true love of her life, her first husband, Hale, who died nearly 50 years earlier.

But Phillips says a young woman at a recent bookstore reading asked her why she focused so much on Ruth's past love life: Why wouldn't an old woman be more concerned about how her children and grandchildren are going to fare in life?

"I realized that people are thinking of old people as one entity, that these aren't individual people," Phillips says. "We'd never say all 20-year-olds are obsessed with their love life. My response was really that Ruth is not representing all old people: She's one old person. And she has reason to slip into [those romantic memories] because her granddaughter is having romantic problems fairly similar to her own past problems."

Phillips says inspiration for her novel was sparked by her grandmother Elizabeth Hammond, who died five years ago. Before her grandmother died, Phillips was able to read her portions of the novel in progress.

"I was very close to her," she says.

Although her grandmother's life story in no way resembles Ruth's, Phillips acknowledges that she amplified a few details about her grandmother, who shared Ruth's penchant for speaking glowingly of her late first husband.

Another of her grandmother's traits that Ruth shares "is she had a really charming openness to the new world around her." In the novel, Ruth practices speaking Spanish with her housekeeper and attempts to say "thank you" in Chinese to a Chinese postal clerk.

But at the same time, Ruth is fearful of many of the changes that have occurred in Southern California since she was young and, Phillips says, "She's afraid of her own heart: She doesn't admit what actually happened in her own life, until late in the book."

Phillips says she decided early on to set her novel during a single day, "mostly because I wanted to write about a very ordinary woman--to discover what was extraordinary about her. To have the book take place over a whole year would have gotten tedious."

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1988, Phillips taught English in China for a year. In Beijing, where she witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre, she decided to attempt a novel.

At first, she envisioned writing about China or her other foreign travels. But, she says, "I started to feel my selection of subject had been so arbitrary and the one thing that's not arbitrary in your life is where you're born and where your parents raise you."

She has lived on the East Coast for a number of years, Phillips says, "but I still think of myself as a Californian. I thought the thing I should write about is my home, which is a part of me."

Phillips, who earned her master's degree in English at Harvard, is working on her doctoral dissertation on Helen Hunt Jackson, the author of the 1884 California novel "Ramona."

Phillips says she didn't write a book about an old woman as any sort of crusade, but she thinks that "not enough books are written about old people, who are also underrepresented in the arts."

"Southern California especially is really a youth culture, and people like beauty and action and not age. We don't want to think about the fact that we are going to be old someday," she says.

Phillips began writing "White Rabbit" in the summer of 1989, after returning to California.

She moved back into her childhood bedroom at her parents' house in Claremont and, writing full time, completed a first draft in 10 months. When she moved to Boston for graduate school in 1990, she continued working on her book weekends and summers.

The novel, however, was not an easy sell.

She says she received "nice compliments about my writing" from publishers, "but I was told nobody wanted to read or buy books about old people."

After she switched to an agent with a reputation for handling literary fiction, however, the novel quickly sold.

"It's ironic," Phillips says with a laugh.

"Now that it's out, what people find most interesting and like best about the book is that it's about an old person."

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