A Life of Books with Catherine Adel West, author of Saving Ruby King

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is about the beauty, grit, and violence of Chicago. When the titular Ruby’s mother is killed in her home in Chicago’s South Side, she knows her father is at fault. Yet, she must still live with him as she mourns, grapples with his violence, and comes-of-age.

The author is was born and raised in the South Side of Chicago. Though the book is fictionalized, the black community and church is pulled from autobiographical memoirs.

Below, Catherine Adel West answered Debutiful‘s “A Life of Books” questionnaire.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
Charles Dicken’s “Great Expectations” is one book that completely defined my childhood. I remember reading it, being completely stunned when I found out Pip’s benefactor was The Convict and not Ms. Havisham. I think I drove my Mom slightly crazy talking about that book over and over. “Great Expectations” taught me what a plot twist was and how to incorporate it so subtly that you lull your readers into a false sense of confidence when it comes to the answers they’ve already set themselves on. It’s truly humbling to be completely deceived and devastated by a book and then come back wanting more. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I think with a slight bit of guidance I’d be fine with my children (when I have them) or any of my young cousins reading Great Expectations or any other book they’d feel intellectually challenge them. I originally read that book on a dare I’d not be able to understand nor finish it. It propelled me to stretch myself past what I believed possible for me to not only comprehend, but love. And, I also had a Mom (retired principal and English teacher) who ALWAYS made sure I had a dictionary handy because she would not tell me what a word meant. So, when reading classic literature, I didn’t know every word, hence the dictionary. If I truly wanted to know what a word meant, I learned on my own. Sometimes learning and reading require not giving a child the answer but showing them how to access the knowledge themselves.

I think a child would be able to relate to Pip, to feeling alone. Loneliness and the need for it to end by whatever means, even if that means is manipulating and toxic, is something many can relate to and it’s also something we need to learn how to avoid. Books can always be a deep well of information into a realistic depiction of the best and worst of humanity and children sometimes can use books to cope with what they see inside and outside of their homes. I know I did. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
The Scarlet Letter was a book I totally didn’t want to read in high school. I think because Hester Prynne was punished for having her own agency and Arthur Dimmesdale was too cowardly to own up to his paternal responsibilities. It resonated a little too much for me at that point because people, women especially, are punished if we push and breakdown boundaries, that’s doubly so if you’re a black woman. So I wanted Hester to fight more. I wanted her to call “bullshit” on the male-centered view on how she should’ve lived her life. 

Now, I still feel that way to an extent, but I realized that just by existing with her child and living her life, Hester was in her own way free. Now I can appreciate the courage it took to withstand the cowardice of a pastor, stand up to the supposed authority of a husband and defy the narrow social conventions of a Puritanical town. Go Hester Prynne! 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
Romeo and Juliet. I was so enamored with being in love and the fact Leonardo DiCaprio was playing Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic rendition didn’t hurt either. It wasn’t until I was good and into my 20s and also way more enamored with Titus Andronicus I began to break down how hopelessly naive you have to be to fall in love with a dude at a party after one night, a guy who was in love with a chick named Roslyn not even 24 hours prior. Not only that, but because your Dad says this is your enemy, that makes him your enemy. But you defy that (fine) and marry Romeo in secret and then proceed to have your overly selfish and new love completely decimate two families and then kill yourself because Romeo dies. Nah, I can’t go out like that. 

But that Baz Luhrmann movie and the soundtrack is still the stuff of legend in my mind. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
It took me five years to write Saving Ruby King and in that time I didn’t read a lot of books. Awful to say, I know. But of the few books I remember reading, Kindred by Octavia Butler was a book that stunned me with its honesty and depth. The way in which Butler composed Dana’s narrative, her longings as a black woman and the life and death choices she had to make kept me in awe and on the edge of my seat. To have the triumph and tragedy of your heritage a testimony to your strength but to then have your body unwillingly propelled into the past, a constant threat looming over you while you’re a resistant participant, brought out some of the strongest emotions I can remember having reading a book. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
As writers we’re all different. My voice is my voice. So I’ve never wished while reading a book that I wrote it. I did and do look at what the author did to engage me so I can figure out if their process would be something that fits one of my stories or my narrative style.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a prime example of this. The way Yanagihara painstakingly lays out her characters, their motivations, the setting, etc. was achingly bewitching. I took what I learned from “A Little Life” and applied it while making developmental edits to Saving Ruby King. I completely believe Yanagihara’s passion and expertise of craft assisted me in making my book exponentially better than it was prior.

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book year?
I’m planning on beginning Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, then Andre Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches. I don’t read many memoirs and I’m so happy to read this one. After, I’m likely going to read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
A heartbreaking prequel.

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