Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Ruth Joffre’ fiction piece, A Girl Attends a Pep Rally
Sommer: I admire how you’ve written the girl’s father in this story. Really bad people can be particularly hard to write well, I’ve discovered, because they have a tendency to inadvertently suck up all the story’s energy and attention. However, in this story, the bad father—who is horribly abusive—becomes rightfully overshadowed by the girl and her loves, dreams, desires, and bright future. It’s a beautiful, awesome thing. The father ends up being nothing to me; the girl, everything. Is this something you were aware of as you crafted this story, or was it more of a subconscious, organic thing? What are your thoughts on writing horrible characters and horrible, uncomfortable truths?
Ruth: I’m glad this was your reading experience, because it was exactly my intent when drafting. With this story, I wanted to demonstrate how abuse attempts to erase our identities and how a support system can help prevent that erasure. One of the writing traps I tend to fall into is focusing on a bad dad and what makes him terrible to the point of letting him take over a story, and with this one instead of letting that happen and revising the bad dad down, I actively worked to undermine his authority and provide the protagonist with an escape. My advice when writing a “bad dad” or any other horrible character is this: don’t give them the satisfaction of sapping your emotional or narrative energy. That’s what abusers want.
And on that note, I wonder if using humor is a way in for you to write about some of these disturbing truths? I found myself chuckling at the girl’s irreverent and very funny asides. Is humor an influence in your writing? How important or powerful do you think it is? And how do you personally know when it’s hitting the mark?
I consider myself reasonably funny in person but not so much on the page, so writing humor and balancing it is a constant struggle. Most often, I turn to irreverence and gallows humor, because my stories can be dark and sad, and they need that uplifting element.
This story is so well done and moving in many ways, but I am particularly taken with the “experimental” nature of it. It’s not every day that we read an opening paragraph that’s been almost completely crossed out! I also love the lack of dialogue quotes for the father, and the homework list of “other people’s problems.” All very funny and essential to the story’s plotline. It’s also clear that you are in control of the rule breaking; the rule breaking isn’t in control of you. What would you tell new writers about when it’s okay to break some of those standard rules of writing, and when it’s maybe not?
Make sure that the way you break the rule is integral to the story. In this flash, the struck out text represents an active editing process the protagonist undertakes to hide her life and its joys from her abuse father. Without this, you wouldn’t know something essential to the character’s inner emotional and psychological life. If you’re just breaking a rule for the sake of it, the only people who are going to be interested are the ones who know the rules.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection? And in what ways do you find the inspiration and commitment to continue writing?
Remember that most editors and readers are volunteers donating their time. Remember that they have hundreds and thousands of stories to read a year. Remember that a “no” doesn’t mean “give up.” Sometimes, it just means there was another submission that edged yours out. Sometimes, it means you have more time to polish your piece until it’s perfect. And sometimes you just have to revenge submit to ten other places to stay sane. I try to limit my submissions to specific days so that the anxiety and frustration don’t bleed into my writing. You have to preserve the sanctity of your writing time as much as you can, given your circumstances.
I love this story. Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!