Bodhisattva. A Buddhist term that dates back thousands of years, a bodhisattva is an individual devoted to helping others find freedom and happiness. The journey of a bodhisattva is fueled by compassion.
IN HER JOURNEY to healing and enlightenment, activist and author Cynthia Bond might be called a modern day bodhisattva. Before her bestselling novel Ruby was published and chosen for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 in February 2015, Bond was a social worker who had taught writing to homeless and at-risk youth for more than 15 years.
She is also an outspoken advocate for many causes, such as ending human trafficking and childhood prostitution. Part of writing Ruby, says Bond, was about bringing such global problems to a larger stage.
At the start, Bond’s debut novel was about a woman’s journey through sexual abuse and trafficking, and how she finds her way back to her humanity and to herself. It evolved into a love story between the protagonist Ruby and a humble man named Ephram. Both characters have demons they need to conquer before they can be together.
Taking a closer look at the book’s thematic DNA, the reader sees that Ruby‘s genes originate partly from Bond’s family history: the true life story of an aunt who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and Bond’s own personal history of abuse.
Still other strands are pulled from the 53-year-old author’s experiences as a writing teacher and social worker for at-risk youth, which she told me about when we spoke over the summer. With some very rough story lines, her multi-generational novel depicts human trafficking with children – as young as 6 – as prostitutes.
“Somewhere along the way, living with my own abuse, and hearing such stories of pain and torment,” Bond tells readers in a Q & A at the end of her book, “I thought, If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”
As a teacher, Bond came to know that writing could be a tool for change and enlightenment. She presented the creativity of writing as a seed that could take root and create a different life. In many cases, the community service of a writing class led homeless kids to come off the streets for food and housing.
Bond never dreamed Ruby, a personal project that began as a writing exercise, would enjoy such robust success. She’s currently finishing the Ruby screenplay for Oprah’s Harpo film studio and editing what will become the second installment in the Ruby trilogy.
The Texas-born author says it was easy, in the years she worked as advocate and teacher, to open up and share with peers and students about her own life. But since Ruby gained attention and intense media coverage, she’s had to draw new boundaries.
Early on, Bond, who has been outspoken about her past abuse, wondered how much to share, how much to withhold. Ultimately, she is quick to caution, Ruby is a work of fiction, and the story belongs to its fictional hero.
Writers may find it tough to love antagonists in their stories, especially when they are violent and evil. But Bond cultivated compassion for her characters who do harm. “I do have empathy and I do feel what they feel,” she says.
And yet the violent scenes were not easy to write. Bond had to learn to set boundaries with her more malevolent characters. Writing the violent scenes required a special setting: a church.
In addition to creating vivid characters, Bond has a lyrical prose style. Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, and Bond met about 10 years ago at a dinner for Bond and other PEN Emerging Fellows. Fitch said after seeing a galley of Ruby, she knew Bond was unique.
“Some people write a story. Other people really write. They write the sentence; they give you a gift every line. That’s what it’s like reading Cynthia’s lyrical prose. She gives you something moment by moment, in a beautiful metaphor, a simile, new-minted language,” says Fitch. “It’s where writing moves from utility to art.”
Edwidge Danticat, National Book Award-winner for Brother, I’m Dying, loved Ruby because it works on many levels. “You have a powerful story. You have amazing language, and you really care about these characters,” she says.
With Ruby, Danticat felt like she was reading a classic, a book from another time and place. “The book felt so real and timely, yet it also felt like a story that had been nurtured and protected for decades,” she says. “As a writer, you can see all the layers, and if you try to break them down to study them, you say to yourself, ‘I wonder when did that part come in?’ Or ‘I wonder when these characters became fleshed out that way?’”
“There are so many things I wanted to ask her after reading the book – not because I wasn’t satisfied with the story,” she adds, “but because I really wanted to know how she managed to do so much. I was also really hungry for more.”
Some authors enjoy writing a novel with a cause, feeling a sense of obligation to bring readers important issues, as Bond did. Others will avoid the incendiary. “I think it’s up to the novelist to decide,” says Danticat. “I don’t think the novel should have the burden of being a tool of activism, though.”
Danticat says nonfiction can serve activism well. “But there are novels that show us realities so stark in such a compelling way that they inspire us to act. Ruby is not a preachy novel in any way. Far from it,” says Danticat.
Bond’s advocacy for victims of human trafficking, especially with forced prostitution, is central to the book. “What I am writing about are things that are happening in this world,” says Bond, “and about finding a path to some kind of freedom. I think it would be good to have more of an awareness.”
“It’s a delicate thing,” says Fitch, of activism in novels. “The difference between real fighting and stunt choreography. Stunt choreography telegraphs the punch. There’s the huge windup, the close-up, the spectacular kick. In real life, they’d be massacred. Real fighters don’t show you what they’re doing. They’re just standing there and suddenly you feel the blow. Great fiction writers conceal the ‘lesson’ or the ‘moral’ or the ‘purpose’ inside the events of the story, so that it naturally occurs to the reader – the sense of a justice/injustice, the outrage. Otherwise, it’s pamphleteering.”
Bond ultimately leaves the impression that the work of writing a book and of healing the past is rife with possibility. While the recollection of traumatic history can be frightening, for the sake of collective healing, we can bear witness to each other’s stories.
Bond insists on poetry and beauty in her writing. To our conversation, she added honesty and humility about herself and her work.
Do you get emotionally attached to your characters and, if so, how does this affect your writing?
Yes, I definitely have a very closely woven attachment to my characters. Some characters just come to me. It’s almost as if you see a pair of shoes and then just start describing those shoes. The characters really do present themselves. Most of them have come to me that way.
I fall in love with my characters, and so it’s very difficult for me to let them go. I rewrite and rewrite, and that’s why, I’m sure, it took so long for me to give my book to an agent. I’m overly attached. I still have two more books to spend with these characters, and I’m so grateful for that.
And I also have a real belief that there’s a round table, and everyone there gets to pull up a seat and have an equal voice. The villains, antagonists, they all have an equal spot at that table without any judging of what they say. I’m even attached to the antagonists – they walk with me when I’m working on a book and that can sometimes be difficult.
Do you like your antagonistic characters? Do you develop some kind of empathy?
Some, I do. I see where their lives are. I see all the different ingredients that go into making that fallen “cake.” I do have empathy, and I do feel what they feel. I do believe, however, that in each person’s life there’s a moment of making a choice, even if you come from horrific abuse. I believe there are choices. And for the antagonist in my book, that moment came and the choice was made and that choice was to cause harm. But I try not to judge them in my writing. I want to give them free rein. And I also have to be very careful because the stronger, negative characters tend to want more space and take over.
You mentioned developing boundaries with your characters. Tell us more.
I have one character, the Dyboú – this character is a very negative ghostly entity in my book. When I first started writing some of his dialogue, I had to make sure I wasn’t in my home near my daughter.
I had recently been selected as a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow, and I met these talented, cool people. One of the women wrote in a church office. I was looking for an office, and she offered up the space to me. In retrospect, I thought it was weird that I was writing it in a church, but I wasn’t very conscious of that choice at the time. But I think we all have that survival instinct and it all needed to be contained in that space.
It worked out really well. When I look back on it now, that’s where I was supposed to write that section – in a space where people prayed and had a sense of love and there was a very positive energy there. It was a sacred space. The location just fell into my lap.
I was glad I was not at home. Because I felt that character so close to me when I’d leave the church. I’d feel it walking just behind me, and I had to say, “No, you can’t come with me.” The bargain was this: “If you want your story told, you have to stay here, because you’re not going to be in the same house with my kid.” So that’s how I wrote that. It’s a wild thing, this process of how characters come through you, how they haunt you.
There’s violence in your book, including rape. Do these scenes affect you psychologically? How did you prepare yourself in advance?
The period of the time I was in the church was only about a month. Most of the time I was working in a coffee shop, my house or a library. Those characters and those scenes were devastating to write. They were very difficult.
My grandfather was born in 1866 and was a dowser. He found water with a divining rod. After he found it, he would lower my mother down in the well, and she would fill the bucket with dirt. And one time the water rushed in and she almost drowned. So I’ve felt like that, too. That’s what writing some of these scenes felt like – going down in the bucket, digging out the dirt, with the water rushing in too fast. It’s like being in that hole.
Then you have to rewrite it and rewrite it. And so you take this part of you that has experienced the pain of writing it initially, and then this other part of you, right-brain-left-brain connection has to come in and do all of the technical things to give it impact.
I told someone during the final rewrite: It’s a bit like doing surgery on yourself with no anesthesia. It hurts, but you do it because you want it to be the best story it can be.
Did you have to negotiate with your editor on some of the more intense scenes?
No. She didn’t really ask me to cut anything that was difficult. She asked for some clarifications. I worked as a social worker for more than 15 years. I know I’m asking a lot of the reader because there are some difficult scenes in this book. I cut out things that were much more difficult. The stories I heard and saw were far worse than what I wrote. And these people didn’t have the solace that Ruby had. None of those things existed for so many of the young people I met.
Do you write and edit as you go? Or get it all down and edit later?
I’m a combination. I go back and forth. There are times when I can be stuck on a word for 30 minutes. But there are other times when the scene is very vivid in front of me. At the end of every writing day, I put everything down, then I start the next day, going back about 10 pages or looking at what I wrote the day before, and making minor edits to reacquaint myself with the work. I always do that. And then I’ll do some minor polishing before I move on to the next section.
From the very start of Ruby, you work with a lot of magical similes and metaphors. How important are these tools as part of this particular story? Do you write this way all the time?
Because I’ve been working on Ruby for so long, it’s hard to say if I do this with everything. I think each character in this book has a different rhythm and a different way of expressing themselves. I found when I was writing for Celia, her rhythm is not so melodic. There aren’t as many similes or metaphors, but there are in Ruby’s world.
I believe very strongly in trying to weave poetry through a novel. The primary thing is story and telling the best story that you personally can tell. While there are tough moments, it’s important to remember that Ruby is, first and foremost, a love story. It is the thread that runs through my book. There is also a very liberal sprinkling of magical realism and lots of Southern food: blackberry cobbler, gumbo, fried chicken, white layer angel food cake.
All woven through that, I’m trying to create beauty. Even in the most difficult scenes, it’s important to have some form of beauty resonate.
It’s hard to make beauty happen in the more evil scenes, right?
That’s what we do as human beings. We’re always looking for a way to survive, in any trauma. The mind wrestles to find something to hold onto, something that offers some hope. And so that’s what a good metaphor or simile written in a difficult scene can do; it’s something for us to hold on to, something that offers hope. That’s what you push towards, that light. As I write, that’s what I think I’ve tried to do. And you do the best you can with the tools you’ve been given and get better with every book you write.
Do you write linearly?
No. With Ruby, I wrote in a lot of notebooks, then I put each scene on a Post-it. I have two pillars in front of my desk. I put a clothesline over my desk and lined up the scenes. I moved them into the order I thought they should be. Eventually, I created an outline. Many things I’d written could not be used. So I ended up with a lot of writing that will never be used in any one of these three books.
With that in front of me, I did have some structure. Sometimes in my outline it might just say, for example, “Something happens to make Celia mad.” Something happens that performs this function. And sometimes I’d just be sitting there and an image might come. I work with images and an outline. But I rarely write in a linear fashion.
Ruby took 10 years to write. Were there breaks along the way?
Yes, and it was actually longer than 10 years from when I first started working on Ruby. It was originally 900-plus pages, until my agent had me break it into a trilogy. But in the beginning, I’d finish a draft and then sometimes not work on it for a year, or more. Life would intervene. But I think sometimes when we’re not writing, we’re writing. I needed that story to settle in me. I needed to learn more things to make it a better story. So I wasn’t writing straight through.
Some of Ruby reflects your personal experiences. As a writer, how do you safeguard your own privacy during some of the more revealing scenes, or do you?
You don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve taught writing to at-risk and homeless youth for many years and had my own experiences. You’re in a cloistered world as a teacher and a writer who has not been published. You’re talking about things with your writing group. You’re sharing things with your students, and you’re getting feedback. It’s a very intimate thing.
And then you go out into world, and people see it. In the beginning, I was completely lost with, “How much do I share?” and “How much do I say about my own story?” I was clueless and think I made some mistakes.
This is a work of fiction. And I want the work to stand for itself. I don’t want anyone to think, “Did she say that happened to her?” No. It’s fiction. If at some point I want to write about my experiences, I would do that.
What I am writing about are things that are happening in this world, and about finding a path to some kind of freedom. I think it would be good to have more of an awareness.
What writers influence you today?
Zora Neale Hurston. Her writing has touched and influenced me greatly. James Baldwin, as well – I love him. Edwidge Danticat. Junot Diaz. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alice Walker. Janet Fitch.
Is there someone you liken your style to?
I hate to do that. Everyone has [his or her] own fingerprint. The one thing that I aspire to is how Nora Zeale Hurston writes about emotions. It really feels that you’re a string instrument, and you’re being played, as if she is playing a song through you. That level of honesty is something I aspire to.
What advice can you give to writers who are gearing up to submit their very first novels?
If you’re about to submit something, make sure you’re really ready to submit it. There can be this urgency to publish things and have them seen. You need to first make sure it’s your very best work. Don’t hold onto it for too long. But make sure someone you respect has read it and given you feedback. And more than one person. If you can afford it, hire a copyeditor. Otherwise, try your best to make it a really strong piece of work.
You have to be fearless. And you have to know if you produce and put out the very best work that you can, that it’s going to work for some agents and for some not, and that doesn’t say anything, necessarily, about the level of your work. Look and see what authors resonate with your work and then find out who represents them. That’s what I did. Also, I didn’t want to write a letter. I thought it would get lost in the slush pile. So I just called people and gave them my bio.
But the first thing is to finish the novel – which might sound like a simple thing. Michael Ventura wrote a great essay on the subject called “The Talent of the Room.” I’ve spoken about it in classes and workshops I’ve taught. The nutshell is: You can have all the talent, be wonderful at prose, amazing characters, great dialogue, descriptions; you can knock it out of the ballpark; but if you don’t develop “the talent of the room” – all of those other talents are worthless. And that talent is the ability to just go into a room alone and sit down and write. Without that talent, you can never finish anything.
Julie Krug is a regular contributor and lives in WA state.