Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Read this book: Diamond Ruby

Joe Wallace is one of the literati twitterati I hang out with on twitter. He's funny, smart, and his first novel Diamond Ruby is a grand slam, featuring a feisty heroine with a pitching arm that could rival Babe Ruth's. Of course I wanted Joe to answer questions here. (Thanks, Joe!) And if you scroll down, you can see me wearing the way-cool Diamond Ruby baseball cap Joe is using in his book promotions.

Diamond Ruby is filled with thrilling historical cameos, from Babe Ruth to Jack Dempsey. What kind of research did you do for the book and what was the process like for you?

I loved researching Diamond Ruby! In the microform room of the New York Public Library, I paged through half a dozen newspapers covering every day of the spring, summer, and fall of 1923, when most of the novel takes place. It was fascinating seeing history (the opening of the Coney Island Boardwalk, the death of President Harding, gun battles between rum-runners and Prohibition agents, all the day-to-day tumult of life in the big city) covered from so many different angles. It made those times seem three-dimensional to me, as if I were living inside them.

The decision to include real-life characters like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey was not an easy one. I tend to be wary of books that get inside the heads of real people, so I chose not to. Babe Ruth especially strides across this novel with all the self-assurance he had in real life, but he’s always seen through Ruby’s eyes. She stands in for us, seeing him as we would if we’d been lucky enough to be in his presence.

Ruby is based on real life Jackie Mitchell, the girl who struck out Babe Ruth and was banned from baseball. What interested me was that I had never heard about this. Is this because I somehow missed it, or is it because people wanted a story like this buried? And what happened to the real life Ruby?

Before I found a photograph of Jackie Mitchell at the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’d never heard her story either. It’s not completely lost: There have been a couple of picture books about her, and you can find brief biographies easily on the Internet. I think the story is little known, though, because Jackie’s career came to such a quick end when she was banned from baseball by Commissioner Landis. Jackie was just a teenager when it happened, and never got the chance to have a real career, one with an arc that might have made her truly famous.

I don’t know much about what happened to Jackie after she was banned. I purposely didn’t look too deeply because, after all, my Diamond Ruby Thomas shares very little with her inspiration other than a strong throwing arm. I did read that Jackie later barnstormed with an independent (men’s) baseball team, before quitting because she felt humiliated by the way she was displayed as a kind of sideshow attraction. Her treatment is still a scandal and a shame.

Diamond Ruby is your first work of fiction—what surprised you about writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction?

What surprised me about writing fiction is how emotional the experience is. I’ve loved writing nonfiction, especially meeting fascinating people and getting to tell their stories. But Ruby and the other characters became real to me too, and so it became incredibly important that I succeed in communicating my views of them to readers. I felt I would be letting the characters down if I didn’t succeed in portraying them as I imagined them.

What I loved about the book was that it had this rich, A Tree Grows in Brooklynfeel, coupled with some John Irving like moments. Who do you feel your literary influences are?

It is, of course, an incredible honor to be compared to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (one of the best of all American novels, I think) and John Irving’s extravagantly imaginative books. My literary tastes have always been all over the place, ranging from mysteries and thrillers to an ongoing devotion to Latin American novelists and other writers who experiment with form and structure. Recent favorites include Haruki Murakami’s boggling A Wild Sheep Chase and David Mitchell’s equally ambitious Cloud Atlas.

But the strongest influences on Diamond Ruby have been novels featuring tough, strong young female protagonists. I still remember loving Joan Aiken’s young-adult novels of my childhood (Nightbirds on Nantucket et al) featuring a plucky young heroine named Dido Twite. More recently, Laura Lippman’s superb What the Dead Know and Kate Atkinson’s Case Historiesand When Will There Be Good News? also helped point the way to Ruby Thomas.

It may be hard to see at first, but the late Dick Francis’s mysteries were also a huge influence on me. Yes, Francis’s protagonists were 1) male; 2) adult and 3) fascinated by horses, none of which exactly call to mind a teenage girl trying to survive in 1920s New York. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll see all the characteristics my young heroine shares with Francis’s heroes: They never stop thinking, never admit defeat. People underestimate Francis’s heroes—and my Ruby—at their peril.

What are you working on now and how is it obsessing you?

I’m currently midway through the first draft of my follow-up to Diamond Ruby, tentatively titled Ruby in Paradise. (And, yes, I’m obsessed!) It’s set in Hollywood in 1926, three years after Diamond Ruby. The leap forward in time poses me a series of challenges: Ruby is a young woman now. She’s away from her home turf of Brooklyn. She’s in a town that prizes physical appearance above all. Her family is fracturing. How will she react? Will she be as strong and resourceful facing threats to herself and her loved ones as she was back home?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I’m not sure, but I did want to say something about the revolutionary effect that social media—Twitter, facebook, blogs—have had on my career. I spent more than twenty years as a lone wolf, venturing out only to do research or interview experts for some book I was writing. Now, because of the online world, I’m part of a sprawling, supportive community of writers and readers. It’s a golden feeling.

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