Tuesday, February 14, 2017

An Interview With Ottawa Author, Ruth Latta


What started your writing career:


As a child I loved stories. Growing up I wrote stories and poems and had the occasional one published, but writing essays for school took much of my time. 


My writing career got a huge boost almost forty years ago when I married my husband, Roger, because he has supported it in a great many ways.


How did you start writing historical fiction?


I studied history at university (M.A., Queen's, as Ruth Olson) and I've always been interested in how the past has shaped the present.  Actually, though, Grace and the Secret Vault is the first novel I have written about historical figures.  My two earlier young adult novels were historical only in that they are in the 1950s. Most of my fiction takes place in the present or recent past and involves characters that are primarily the product of my imagination.  I have written three books that fall into a broad definition of history, but they are non-fiction.



Why is writing so important to you?


It's part of human nature to create, though we don't all want to create the same things.  At my age, writing has become a way of life and a pleasure because I've gotten reasonably good at it over the years.


Do you keep a diary? If the answer is yes, does it help with your writing and how? If the answer is no, why not?


I don't keep a diary but I sometimes write "Morning Pages" as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way. Morning pages are a way of sorting out one's thoughts and concerns at the beginning of the day, and they often lead to an idea for a story or poem.


What works best for you - typewriters, etc.?


I start out in longhand and at some point get it onto the computer.


When did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a writer?


As a young child I liked making up stories. When I learned to read and write I liked writing them out in little booklets.



What inspires you to write?


Often other writers' work delights and impresses me and I'd like to think that what I write may have that effect on other readers.


When Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women was first published, I was inspired to get back to writing fiction.  In making everyday small-town women's lives the substance of literary art, Munro affirmed that I had material around me that could become the starting point for fiction.



Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?


I write every day but the time of day or the amount of time I spend depends on how well the idea is working out and what other things must be given priority.  It isn't an ordeal for me to sit down and write because I'm doing it to please myself.


I try to write at least three 8 1/2 by 11 pages in longhand every day but don't always do so. Sometimes I write more. Other days I type things on the computer and revise things.


What do you think would constitute an important attribute to remaining sane as a writer or as an artist or as both? Or do writers and artists really want to remain sane, if such a condition even exists?


The experience of getting absorbed in the process of creation and feeling the excitement is what keeps most writers positive and sane.


What inspires my writing and my stories?


My fiction often begins with a seed of actual experience and then blossoms into something beyond the original incident or observation that inspired it.



The hardest thing about writing?


A good idea that fizzles out for whatever reason.  Other people who think I've been wasting my time.


The easiest aspect of writing?   


The pleasure of working through a puzzle and getting absorbed in the process of creation.



Why historical fiction?


Grace and the Secret Vault is my first work of historical fiction that involves real-life characters/historical figures. (The other two Y/A novels, set in the 1950s, involved completely fictional characters.)


I decided to write Grace and the Secret Vault following the death of a friend and collaborator. Joy Trott and I co-authored a biography of Grace MacInnis which was published in 2000. It's now out of print. When Joy died a couple of years ago I remembered the fun we had doing the research for the biography. Then I realized that I could revisit part of Grace's life, the story of a pivotal event in her childhood, and make it a young adult novel.



In Grace’s story, you focussed the plot development towards a climax of establishing the ‘secret vault’. Why did you choose this particular story, which from your Afterword, you reveal that it is a true story, as the focal point for your story about an historic figure? Did the ‘secret vault’ in some way define who Grace was and who she became later in life?


The secret vault doesn't have any symbolic meaning. It's not a metaphor for anything. It's just a term used by the two young girls in real life.  I tried to choose a title with a hint of mystery to entice readers.


Grace's experiences when she was thirteen going on fourteen had a profound impact on her views, and pointed her toward a life in politics, although she had other plans for her life at the time.


You wrote in the Afterword to “Grace and the Secret Vault” that “As a student at Queen's University during the early 1970s, I admired Mrs. MacInnis…” What was it about this woman that you so admired? Was she one of your professors? A guest speaker? Did you have a special academic or personal relationship with her? Tell us about your connection to this amazing woman.


I never met Grace. As a student at Queen's in the early 1970s, I would often see her on the news on TV.  She was a Member of Parliament and was outspoken and progressive on so-called "women's issues", which included such things as consumer matters, pay equity, child care, educational opportunities and freedom of reproductive choice. Not only did I agree with her views, I also was astonished and delighted that a woman of her generation, especially one who looked so sedate and proper, would have advanced views. (At least, they seemed advanced in the early 1970s!) I admired her for having the courage of her convictions.


In writing Grace and the Secret Vault I was in touch with one of Grace's nephews, who was a helpful source of information.


It may seem a bold act to interpret a real person in fiction, and it's a challenge to stay true to what you know about her while shaping a story. But authors do it all the time. For instance, Paula Maclean, in The Paris Wife, for instance, wrote about Ernest Hemingway through the heart and mind of his first wife. Young adult author Kit Pearson wrote a wonderful book called A Day of Signs and Wonders from the point of view of Emily Carr at ten years old. So I'm in good company.


How important is research to you when writing a book?


Research for this particular book was very important, but I had done most of it already for the biography of Grace written by Joy Trott and myself.


Most of the domestic anecdotes that I have included in Grace and the Secret Vault are stories Grace had already told in her biography of her father and other papers and speeches. An essay by one of Grace's brothers, which her nephew provided to me, was the source of more childhood information.


Do you have a favorite story amongst all that you’ve published? Why this one?


My favourite novel is always the one I'm working on. My collection of short stories, Winter Moon, stands out for me because it won the 2011 Northern Lit Award from Ontario Library Services North.



In the age of increasing technological advances in the methods of entertainment, where do you feel your books fit? Do you believe that the growing number of non-readers is a threat to the book industry? Are you concerned?


I worry about the growing number of non-readers. Too many people are missing out on the kind of engagement with another consciousness that we experience when we read. It can't be good for culture or civilization if reading becomes something people do merely for work or to gain information.


On the other hand, I much prefer the computer to the typewriter, I couldn't do without email, and love certain TV series. I published one of my books on Amazon Kindle. I have read books on Kobo although I prefer a traditional book, printed on paper.



What advice would you give to a would-be writer of this age when readers are becoming fewer and fewer by the day?


Write for children and young adults. People want children and young people to read to develop their skills, so kids/YA books are still in demand.


Write non-fiction.


Write part-time while making a living in other ways. Writers have been doing this for centuries and some have produced great works of literature.



How are your books published and why did you go that route?


Three of my books were published traditionally. One was completely self-published.  The rest have been published by a P.O.D. company in Ottawa. 


Like most writers I would prefer it if my books were being published by one of the five (or is it three, now?) big multinational publishing houses. When that doesn't happen, a writer has to consider other options.


I like print-on-demand because of the do-it-yourself element, including the choice of cover art. I have used my husband's paintings in the cover illustrations.


If I were a young writer, however, I would start out on the traditional route and try to find a publisher who would pay for all aspects of the publishing adventure. I would set a time limit, say ten years, and after that, if I hadn't made it into the major leagues, I'd consider some form of self-publishing.  E-books may be a good idea.

Grace and the Secret Vault (Ottawa, Baico, 2017 ISBN 978-1-77216-092-5 is available for $20 from Baico Editions, Ottawa, ON, info@baico.ca  and from Ruth Latta at ruthlatta1@gmail.com.

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