Sunday, August 16, 2020

Q&A with Jeffrey Michael Ruby

Jeffrey Michael Ruby is the author of Penelope March Is Melting, a middle grade novel for kids. A writer and editor at Chicago magazine, his work has also appeared in a variety of other publications, including Esquire and GQ. He lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Penelope March Is Melting?

A: The idea was born in my freezer. It was the hottest day of the summer, and we didn’t have air conditioning in our apartment, so I was miserable. I stuck my head in the freezer to cool off. I had my head in there, breathing in and out when I opened my eyes and my face was inches away from the ice tray.

The first ice cube I saw looked like some kind of weird planet, filled with cracks and craters and swirls. An idea popped into my head: What if a whole world was in that ice cube—people and animals and schools and hockey teams—and that world was melting? And the only person who could save it was a kid?

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I didn’t know. The characters went their own ways, especially the ones I really liked. And I just let them. There was a lot of experimentation along the way. All I knew was that the hero would be Penelope, a shy 12-year-old girl, and an evil shapeshifting sea monster she had to defeat. And that there would be penguins involved somehow.

But all the other elements, like submarines and chainsaw art and volcanoes and magical cookies, all that good stuff, just sort of popped up along the way. I kept thinking: What would I want in a book when I was 11? I wanted horror and humor and heart, and some kind of goofy adventure that seemed impossible in reality but easy to picture in my mind.

Q: Your mother, Lois Ruby, also writes novels for kids--do the two of you discuss your works in progress?

A: All the time. We share manuscripts and have for years. She has entrusted me with so many of her works-in-progress, even back when I was in college before I was anywhere close to being a professional writer.

Her creative process is very different from mine; she writes an outline and does loads of research before ever writing. I noodle around and edit as I go, and I research on the fly. But it works for us.

I’ve found her so helpful. She is extremely smart and pragmatic about characters and plotting, and endlessly open-minded and curious about the world. That is the ideal person to exchange ideas with. I trust her deeply with my writing.

What’s fascinating is: She is my mom, and good moms are genetically programmed to root for their kids, so you might think she’d just tell me everything I write is wonderful. That’s not the way it works for us. She knows how to be honest and helpful while also encouraging and cheering me on. That’s a tough balance to strike—for a mom, or anyone else.

And, on a personal level, it’s just cool to have a mom to talk about writing with. We bond over it.

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

A: I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay every few years, and it always breaks my heart. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is the most accurate and heartbreaking children’s book ever written. I have a thick, magical book of Ray Bradbury’s short stories that has more ideas on any single page than most entire books have.

More recently, I finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and fell in love with the characters and the writer.

I’m always amazed by books that can make me laugh out loud, like Catch-22, or Straight Man by Richard Russo. At the other end of the spectrum, I love horribly bleak stuff like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. All depends on my mood.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It’s a manuscript about a kid growing up in the shadow of a serial killer in the 1980s. Good clean fun.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love your interviews. They make every book sound like something I want to read.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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