Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Elizabeth Ruth

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March 1, 2013 - Elizabeth Ruth is Open Book: Toronto's March 2013 writer in residence.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Matadora.

Elizabeth Ruth:

Matadora is a work of literary fiction set in 1920s and 1930s Spain and Mexico. It centres on a female bullfighter, and like all good books about bullfighting, it’s really not about bullfighting at all. This book is about ambition, passion, art and politics. At its heart it asks the question: if you were forced to choose between your greatest passion — the thing that makes you who you are — and the person you love most, how would you choose? I am always interested in writing and reading about strong female characters that defy or reject social conventions. A female bullfighter, attempting to become a matador-de-toros at a time when it was illegal for her to do so is a fabulously interesting character to follow. It was not the practice of bullfighting, per se, that interested me in writing this book, but the determination of a girl to do something forbidden. Her struggle mirrors the struggle of anyone who has ever tried to rise above his or her circumstance.


What drew you to write about the Spanish Civil war?


My interest in Matadora began one Saturday morning six years ago when I was in my kitchen frying eggs. The radio was on, and I heard the broadcaster mention a 16-year-old girl in Mexico who was fighting bulls. Immediately intrigued, I thought, why would a girl want to become a bullfighter? Why would anyone choose to do such a violent and dangerous thing? All at once, a female matador became my next obsession. During that same period in my life I was reading Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays. Her work made me think about European fascism, resistance and women’s rights. Her politic melded, in my mind, with the notion of a female bullfighter. Suddenly I decided to write a book set in Spain, using the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for a female bullfighter so that I might explore my own thought about ambition, passion, politics and art.

So, I did set out to give readers the experience of being transported to a far away place, but Matadora is not actually about the Spanish Civil War, nor is it, strictly speaking, a work of historical fiction. It’s true the book takes place in the past, in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, but it’s not about the war. The war comes in only at the end. However, 1920s and 1930s Spain provided me with a perfect backdrop against which to explore class issues, class oppression and one woman’s attempt to rise out of poverty and win love. The political divisions within the Left during that time period, and the rise of the Right echo today and thus created an interesting mirror for our times.


Can you tell us about the research you did for your book?


I spent years researching Matadora. So much so that I now feel I have the equivalent of a doctorate in bullfighting! To begin my research, I reread Hemingway, including Death in the Afternoon, his book on the subject of bullfighting. I’d always admired Hemingway’s short, declarative sentences. Now we shared a literary passion. I read Orwell, A.L. Kennedy’s, On Bullfighting, and a trunk full of other fiction and non-fiction books related to bullfighting, Spain and Mexico and time period, to the Spanish Civil War. I read Lorca’s poetry, articles about the surrealist movement of the time, about fascism, anarchism, about Normal Bethune’s mobile blood transfusion units. I learned about the experience of Canadians who volunteered overseas to resist Franco. I watched films, including a fabulous documentary about female bullfighters by Kathryn Klassen, entitled Out of The Shadow and Into the Sun. I read what little has been written about female bullfighters throughout history.

Then, I spent six weeks in Spain, first in Madrid, Cordoba and mainly driving throughout the southern province of Andalusia, where Flamenco and bullfighting originated. I visited a ganaderia (bull ranch), often returning to the beautiful city of Ronda for the annual festival at the Real Maestranza bullring. The festival is where Hemingway, Orson Welles and others before me attended performances by some of the greatest bullfighters in history. In fact, in downtown Ronda there hung a huge photograph of Hemingway standing next to his idol, the legendary matador Ordonez. The more research I conducted, the deeper I fell into the technique and philosophy of toreo, and the more passionate I became about my protagonist. It is no exaggeration to say I fell in love with her.

People often ask whether I actually attended bullfights. The answer is, of course, yes. I attended many. I am a character driven writer and I cannot write my characters authentically unless I fully understand their internal worlds. To understand them internally I need to learn how they behave externally, and why. Having chosen a female bullfighter for a protagonist, I was duty-bound to get as close to her experience in the bullring as possible. If I could have found a way to enter a bullring myself I would have done that too.

Having been a vegetarian for 18 years because I didn’t believe it was right for human beings to kill other animals, you can imagine that I didn’t undertake my research lightly. I studied what I saw, took extensive notes on the practice, the crowds, the various players in the arena, my own emotional and psychological responses to what I was seeing and hearing, and more. I took a lot of photographs.


Tell us about an ideal writing day for you.


I would wake alone, and no one would be permitted to speak to me. I prefer to come to my writing with no voice in my head other than my own. I would wake knowing the entire day was mine, and my sole responsibility was to my story. No dishes, laundry, dog walking, childcare, etc. I would unplug the phone (I often do) and not respond to email (also part of my writing routine.) I would work facing a window, looking out at old trees. I would be able to look up from my keyboard and see the world outside my office, and not feel isolated from it. I would dive into whatever writing project was on the go until I was hungry. Then, I would wander into the kitchen and find something delicious already prepared for me, ready to be eaten.

I would spend the rest of the day fiddling with what I had written in those first few hours of the day. I would be productive because I knew I had space and time without interruption, but if I were very lucky my partner would also be working from home that day. She would be in her office, doing her thing, and never interrupting mine. Knowing there is someone else near, but not in my creative space, makes me more productive. I would write an entire chapter and not feel one word had been forced. I would be filled with that rarified feeling that the story is running through me.

As I wound down, in late afternoon, I would find a hot bath waiting for me, slip in and mull over what I had written. I would consider what was working or not, tease out solutions. When I emerged from the bath, dressed, I would find that the mail had arrived and that I had been awarded a large grant for my work in progress. Dinner would be on me, at my favourite Ethiopian restaurant. And, if it were my ideal writing day, I would spend the two hours before I went to bed working in my office so that the last thing I thought of as I drifted off to sleep was my writing project. I wouldn’t set an alarm clock.


You teach creative writing and professional development to writers. How does your teaching influence your writing?


I’ve been teaching and mentoring aspiring writers for over a decade — at the University of Toronto, George Brown College, through the Writers In Electronic Residence (WIER) program, which partners middle and high school English students from across the country with established writing mentors, and finally, with the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program. I’ve also worked as a writer-in-residence for three public library systems. I find it inspiring to watch students surprise themselves with what they can accomplish. Having a regular public forum for articulating my own writing practice is very useful to me. I am sometimes forced to convey to a class what I have not been able to understand for myself, about how I write. Making my own writing practice transparent in lectures forces me to understand better how I function as a writer, and what I need to bring a given project to fruition.


What are you working on now?


I’m doing the final edits on a novella I wrote for Good Reads Books entitled, Love You To Death. Good Reads Books publishes short works for adults with low literacy levels. Love You To Death is a psychological thriller and I had a lot of fun writing it. I’ve also been tinkering with poetry for a while, but doubt I’ll show it anywhere. I am ruminating on a few ideas for another longish project. I don’t talk about works in progress though.

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