Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Mentorship Matters: 7 questions for Elizabeth Ruth

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I first met Elizabeth Ruth in 2005, a few weeks before her second novel, Smoke was to be released. At the time, I was an utterly frustrated aspiring writer, having received multiple rejection letters for my Stealing Nasreen manuscript. A friend in common suggested I speak with Elizabeth and introduced us.

It was the first time I’d ever been invited into a real writer’s home and I recall being both nervous and shy. Elizabeth was a gracious host and offered straightforward advice on getting published. She candidly shared her experiences of a world I so desperately wanted to enter.

A year later, after getting an offer, I consulted her about my contract. I contacted her a couple of times after about various writerly questions. Not only did she become a role model for me as an author, but she taught me about the importance of being generous with new writers. Since then, I’ve played this role with others who’ve had questions about publishing, book promotion and editing.

Elizabeth Ruth takes her commitment to helping new writers seriously. She’s been a writer-in-residence (WIR) at the Toronto Public Library, the Oshawa Public Library, the Kitchener Public Library, and she is currently an Electronic WIR for aspiring writers in Northern Ontario. I interviewed her about her experiences.

1. Can you share a little about what you’ve done/do in WIR positions?

In all these positions I hold office hours, create and deliver 4-6 writing workshops/panel discussions, read hundreds or manuscripts submitted to me, and finally, meet individually with each writer to offer constructive feedback on their writing.

2. Why is it important for there to be WIRs? What are the benefits for you and emerging writers?

It's critical to any culture for its professional artists to make themselves accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to benefit from our experience and knowledge. I am especially proud of the work I do in partnership with public libraries, for they are able to run free programs. I believe that to participate fully and meaningfully in your own life and in society we must be able to communicate our thoughts and beliefs effectively. Creative writing is an art form, yes, but it's also an issue of literacy.

3. Do you get enough time for your own writing while being a WIR?

I am the kind of person who can only do one thing really well at a time. So, if I'm working on my own writing then I am doing that. If I agree to be a WIR, then I know I will be devoting most of my time for the duration of the contract, to that role. I do manage to carve out some time for my own projects, as that's normally part of the requirements of a WIR contract, but generally I work on research, rather than writing. I remember very well what it was like to be an aspiring writer, and how rare and inspiring it was for a professional writer to give my work time and attention. I want to be one of those rare people for someone else.

4. Can share a “best of” WIR experience?

There have been so many along the way. Some of my youth writing workshops have been personally rewarding and I have several great memories of working with folks with major mental health issues, helping them find the best words to convey their realities. Recently I worked with a lovely writer who was blind. She was building a vivid and detailed fictional world out of her feelings around her blindness. Her determination to make her manuscript as good as it could be, despite having no home computer, and having to use clunky voice-activated software through the library, was truly inspiring.

5. How about a “worst of/challenging/funny” WIR experience?

All that comes to mind right now is that several times I've encountered aspiring fiction writers who declare that they do not read fiction. I suppose this falls into the absurd category more than it does the "worst of" or "funny" categories. I have to say, and I do tell them, that it is profoundly arrogant to expect someone else to read your work while you do not extend the same generosity. More than this, there does seem to be a common idea floating about in the ether that beginning writers should not let themselves be "influenced" by others. This couldn't be further from the truth. Please be influenced I find myself saying too often. Read, learn what other writers do and how they do it, absorb styles and technique just as aspiring painters or dancers let themselves absorb the work of those who came before. Once, a young man told me (with a compete lack of self-awareness) that he hates Canadian women's fiction.

6. Any words of advice for writers considering being a WIR?

Block off a chunk of time, be kind, remember how scary it is to show your work to someone who has published. Offer something concrete by way of manuscript development and provide a referral to a class or school that is a good fit for this individual, so they can continue along the path you've cleared for them after your residency is over.

7. What are you working on now?

I've recently sold a third novel entitled, The Matador, about a female bullfighter in Spain (and Mexico) during the 1930's. So, I'm starting to play with ideas for a new novel, and writing some poetry on the sly, which I'm likely to never show anyone. I'd like to write a few children's stories as well.

Elizabeth Ruth is the author of Ten Good Second of Silence, Smoke, and the forthcoming novel, The Matador. She teaches at the University of Toronto and mentors through the Humber School for Writers. For more info visit her website

2 comments

Thanks KC. "Ten Good Second of Silence" amazed me too. So did "Smoke". I can't wait to read "Matador" when it comes out in 2012.
Farzana

What a wonderful writer she is. "Ten Good Seconds Of Silence" was my favourite book of the year when it was published. Thanks, Farzana, for doing this interview. Always love it when two writers I admire interview each other...
Love love to both of you!
KC

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based author and the recipient of the Writers' Trust of Canada's Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an emerging gay Canadian author (2011). Her first novel, Stealing Nasreen, received critical acclaim and earned a devoted readership upon its release in 2007. She is currently touring her second book, Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn 2011).

Go to Farzana Doctor’s Author Page