Sadly Myrlin Hermes was too busy to be interviewed in May, but this month we have the lovely Ruth Sims–author of novels “The Phoenix” and “Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story”
Speak Its Name: Welcome Ruth and thank you for taking the time to be interviewed.
Ruth Sims: You are welcome and thank you for letting me waffle on!
SIN:How long have you been writing? What inspired you to pick the pen up one day and create characters that capture the imagination?
Ruth Sims: Actually it was a stubby yellow #2 school pencil with a chewed on eraser, not a pen. Hey, I come from the days before ballpoints! I don’t remember a day when I didn’t have made-up characters in my head. For a long time all my characters had four legs. Nor do I remember when it dawned on me that I could actually take a piece of tablet paper and write down what my fictional dogs and horses were doing (and thinking and saying, of course. Black Beauty was the first novel I remember reading.). I was in third grade when I wrote my first novel. It was ten pages long, as I recall, and it began: “It was spring. The sun shined. There was a horse…” Alas, the rest of that amazing tome is lost. I was in high school before I decided that people were more interesting to write about than horses, about which I knew nothing.
SIN: What is the most memorable and most forgettable moment you’ve encountered on the writing path?
Ruth Sims: There have been so many! But I suppose if I had to choose one it would be meeting the handsome, dashing tuxedo-clad Sasha Alyson (founder of Alyson Publications) in the mid-1990’s at the Lambda Awards banquet in Chicago. He was my then-publisher, and he took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “I think we’re going to see great things from you, young lady.” Of course, I was older than he was, but never mind. He was a Publisher. More than that, he was My Publisher.
I have to add something to that particular memory. Earlier that same day, I had met and been hugged by Dorothy Allison (“Bastard Out of Carolina”) and poet Jewelle Gomez. Neither of them would have any reason to remember it, but I’ll never forget. Both of them were gracious and warm women, and so much more accomplished than I, and I was in awe.
The most forgettable moment was … I don’t remember.
SIN: LOL! Good one! Are you a full-time writer? What other jobs did you have before becoming a writer?
Ruth Sims: I was a legal secretary (not a particularly good one), and a librarian (I wasn’t particularly good at that, either) until health issues forced an early retirement. So I was more or less forced into working at something that used my one and only skill: stringing words together to make a story.
SIN: What was your first published story?
Ruth Sims: If you mean the first-ever, out of everything I’ve written, it was a short story called “Sojourner” in a little literary magazine (now defunct) called Romancing the Past. It was the fictionalized true story of a free New York black woman named Isabella, whose five-year-old son was illegally sold away to the south, and the years-long effort to fight the legal system in court to get him back. Talk about a tough battle! A poor black woman fighting a rich white man in a white man’s court in a day when women, even white women, had few legal rights and a black woman had none! She won. Eventually she took the name Sojourner Truth. She’s my hero, a mother who fought for her child and would have continued the fight until she died.
SIN: Which of your story characters do you love best and why?
Ruth Sims: Lord, what a question. Kit? Nick? Dylan? Laurence? Geoffrey? … I suppose I’d have to say Dylan because he’s so vulnerable. Mule-headed, quick-tempered, tunnel-visioned Dylan who sometimes can’t see how much he’s loved or how much he loves.
SIN: Do you have a writing routine that you follow?
Ruth Sims: I wish I did. I’d give anything to be organized enough to have a routine. I’ve tried all my life to create one I’d stick to and have never succeeded. That’s why it takes me forever to write a book. I’m missing the Organizational Gene that other writers seem to
SIN:Out of all your books, do you have a favourite? If not, then which one is closest to your heart?
Ruth Sims: Beyond a doubt, Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story. It was actually written before The Phoenix, but The Phoenix (called something else at the time) sold first.
SIN: When did you first decide to submit your work? Please, tell us what or who encouraged you to take this big step.
Ruth Sims: I had a close friend who was also a hopeful, novice writer. We were both self-taught but helped each other. We got together once a week, or sometimes oftener through the mid-and late ‘80’s. We read and critiqued each other’s writing, did a lot of giggling and silliness, and in general, kept each other going.
SIN: What five books would you have to have with you on a desert island?
Ruth Sims: How can I choose only five!? Do my own two count? I’d want them, of course. Oh, let’s not count them; I’ll smuggle them in hidden in my bikini. Let’s see. It would be kind of a stressful situation, so I’d want something amusing, something complicated, something with lots of stories, at least one very long novel, and one memoir.
For amusing: Ruby Sweetwater and the Ringo Kid
Complicated: John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet
Lots of Stories: Complete Works of Jack London
Long Novel: Gus the Great
Memoir: Spine Intact: Some Creases by Victor J. Banis
Those are all books I’ve read multiple times so it would be like having a bunch of friends with me on the island. I would never get lonely.
SIN: Have you ever been nervous over reader reaction when a new book come out? How much does reader response mean to you over your books? What do you hope readers get from your books after they read them?
Ruth Sims: Nervous? Never! Never!! No way!!! (Did I convince anybody?) The only thing I can compare it to is watching my child compete on two different instruments for a full college music scholarship to a top music school. I thought I’d throw up if they didn’t realize how good she is. Same with a book. Even though pre-publication comments have been phenomenal and they are from people I respect, they are also from people I know. Seeing a review pop up from someone I don’t know will be … well, before I read it I wonder if I’ll feel like throwing up or dancing. This is especially true for Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story because I’m so close to it.
Reader response (GOOD reader response, anyway) means everything.
SIN: How long does it take to write a book for you? Is there much research involved in your stories?
Ruth Sims: It takes years. I’m notoriously slow. Put it this way: if the Creation story was true, and I was God we’d still be at the “without form, and void” stage of Creation. The Phoenix and Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story were both begun in the mid-to-late 80’s. My other w.i.p.s were begun in the mid-to-late 90’s. I have to research everything. My own life has been empty of travel, metropolitan living, meeting lots of people…just about everything interesting, really, that no matter what era I write in I have to research it.
SIN: Can you tell us what you are working on now? What are you plans for the future?
Ruth Sims: My current efforts are varied. “Mahrime” is my last Victorian/Edwardian era story about English Rom (Gypsies) but I’m spinning my wheels on it. “Quinn” is set in the violent period of organized labor’s beginning in the American coal fields. “A Bit of Earth” is set in the US from 1915- 1930, and is the story of a wildly mismated interracial couple (Half-Choctaw man, white woman whose father is a racist). “Rain Dancer” is my only contemporary, and is about a young gay man searching for the hate-crime murder of his partner. “Whom Gods Destroy” is closest to completion, a Victorian/Edwardian story of a psychotic serial killer who makes Jack the Ripper look benevolent. A short story version is due out in an anthology next year. “Hamilton’s Wife” is the story of Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton, one of the most complicated relationships ever. I think that’s it. My plans for the future are to finish at least one before I go to my reward. At 71, I’m racing the clock…but slowly.
SIN: What makes your characters so vulnerable yet strong? Can you describe them to us? What do you do when characters stop talking to you when writing?
Ruth Sims: My characters never stop talking to me. I wish sometimes they’d shut up. They tend to talk to me the most when it’s two o’clock in the morning, I haven’t been to sleep yet, and have to get up at 4:15! I think what makes them vulnerable is the same thing that makes us all vulnerable: we can’t deal with life all by ourselves. We need help, and love, and support, and encouragement. Without them, we flounder.
SIN: What is your writing process? Do you outline, fly by the seat of your pants or a combination of both? Do you use mood music, candles, no noise, when you write?
Ruth Sims: Like being organized, writing from an outline is a dream for me. I wish I could, but I can’t. I tried working my candle but the computer didn’t work as well on candle power. Stupid thing didn’t work at all no matter how many candles I lit. I like music when I write, and since I write mostly late 19th-early 20th century music, and that’s the era of music I like the most, it works well. When I was working on Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story, I played a lot of Bartok and Liszt, and the soundtrack from The Red Violin, and anything performed by Josh Bell. When I was working on a particularly emotional part of the book, it was Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
SIN: What do you feel is the most important aspect for all new authors to remember when writing or creating their own stories? Any advice for aspiring authors?
Ruth Sims: Never underestimate the power of revision. Nothing you write is written on tablets of stone. Don’t be afraid to consider all criticism; take from it what helps and forget the rest.
SIN:Talking of that – the editing process is an important aspect of an authors’ life. How do you define the editing process for any of your books? Do you have a routine you follow when in editing mode?
Ruth Sims: Oh, there’s that damn word again: routine. Do you delight in torturing me? I don’t edit so much as I constantly revise. If I start editing, I’ll change a word or a comma, then that will change something else, which will make me wonder just what else I can tinker with…and I wind up revising just because it’s fun. (I like revising. I’m weird. I revise until the thing is in print.)
SIN: Did you ever expect your books to be so popular and receive such great reader response when you first started writing?
Ruth Sims: I never expected to see anything in print, other than what I printed out for my friends. It has been a lovely surprise to hear from readers. Just two days ago, I received a letter from a young man who had read The Phoenix, and who then tracked me down through LiveJournal, thence to my website. I’ve made many friends that way in the past few years. Readers should never forget that authors LOVE to hear from them. It keeps us going. God knows most of us aren’t in it for the money!
SIN: What do you think is the level of sensuality/heat in your books? What can readers expect from your books with respect to sexual content and sensuality?
Ruth Sims: I suppose that depends on what their expectations are. One man accused me of writing “dirty books” when The Phoenix came out. An online reviewer said it would have been a good book if there had been some steamy sex in it. Go figure. I write to my own comfort level and no more. I know my characters. They’re real people to me. I wouldn’t write a graphic sex scene showing close friends (three-dimensional ones, lol) having sex or describing their (as my mother would say) “private parts”, so I’m not going to do it with my characters. I wouldn’t be comfortable with it, and I would do it badly. I’ll leave that to authors who are comfortable with it, and who do it well. I think there is sensuality in my books, but they aren’t particularly erotic.
SIN: If you could be one of your characters – Who would you be? And why?
Ruth Sims: Rama Weisberg. She is a supporting player in The Phoenix, but one of my favorites. She’s hopelessly in love with Kit St. Denys, and he loves her as a dear friend, but the give and take between them seems to be so genuine and affectionate. They talk frankly about the fact that she loves him and he’s never going to feel the same about her. One of my favorite scenes is the one where they hit the jazz clubs in turn of the century New York. And DON’T call her a fag hag, because that term makes me bilious.
SIN: What’s your favorite genre to read?
Ruth Sims: I don’t know if it’s considered a genre, but my favorite reading is memoirs and biographies.
SIN: What do you do on a typical writing day?
Ruth Sims: Anything I can think of to put off doing it. In the olden days we sharpened pencils and rearranged stacks of paper. Now we check email. I know a lot of authors who procrastinate. And yet we love writing. Go figure.
SIN: Can you please give us a sneak peek at any of your upcoming books?
Ruth Sims: My Dreamspinner editor and I spent a couple of days writing the back cover copy. It was harder than writing the book! I’ll give it a test run here.
“At eighteen, Dylan Rutledge has one obsession: music. He believes his destiny is to be the greatest composer of the rapidly approaching twentieth century. Only Laurence Northcliff, a young history master at The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, believes in Dylan’s talent and encourages his dream, not realizing Dylan is in love with him.
But Dylan’s passion and belief in his future come at a high price. They will alienate him from his family and lead him on a rocky path fraught with disappointment, rejection, and devastating loss that kills his dream. A forbidden love could bring the dream back to life and rescue Dylan from despair and bitterness, but does he have the courage to reach out and take it? Will he deny the music that rules his soul?”
SIN: In 5 years, where do you see yourself? – In general and in your writing career
Ruth Sims: Since I’m I my 70’s now, in all honesty, in five years I’ll probably be “the late.” Hey, that’s when artists become famous!!! Don’t-cry-for-me-Argentina. However, if I’m still around, I hope I’ll have at least one more book finished. Hard to say which one it will be. I also hope I’ll have several more short stories out. I’ve discovered that I really like doing them, and since I’ve found a publisher for them (Untreed Reads) I’m having a ball.
SIN: Is there a genre of book you would like to write but haven’t yet?
Ruth Sims: A Biographical novel, such as Stephanie Cowell’s Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet. I started one about Alexander Hamilton many years ago, but could never decide which p.o.v. to use, until recently when I decided his wife would be the perfect one.
SIN: What kind of research do you do for your books? Do you enjoy the research process?
Ruth Sims: I do enjoy it. But as anybody who writes historical fiction…or maybe any fiction, for that matter…knows, research is key. The hard part is not finding the information, but in deciding how much of it to use. My favorite dictionary is the 1985 Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary because it gives the approximate year a word came into common usage. Internet dictionaries are invaluable also. And because (so far) I’ve written in the Victorian era, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of Victoriana sites available. And since (so far) the settings have been in England, I depend a lot on my wonderful British friends, who are also writers.
SIN: Do deadlines help or hinder your muse?
Ruth Sims: I’ve not had many. Mostly I just work at my own snail’s pace. The only deadlines I’ve had were to get edits back and I always got them back quickly because there weren’t that many changes and because of the wonderful Track Changes feature in Word. But since I’m fundamentally butt-lazy, I might benefit by needing deadlines.
SIN: Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how does this help or hinder you?
Ruth Sims: I belonged to two local critique groups over the years, but they rapidly became gnosh-and-gossip sessions and I was the only one actually writing. I belong to an online critique group, but I’m not very active. In reality, I’m terrible with groups of any kind. My intentions are good, but they have a way of being forgotten.
SIN: Do you outline your books or just start writing?
Ruth Sims: No outline. I just write about the characters. Actually, if anybody wants to look it up, there’s a humorous but true blog entry on bookwenches. It’s called, “How to Turn a Straight Civil War Story Into a Gay Victorian Romance In Just Twenty Years”
SIN: How long did it take for your first book to get published?
Ruth Sims: Do you mean how long from first submission to publication? It was remarkably quick. I sent Without Sanction (now long out of print) to Alyson Publications early in April of (I think) 1994 and Sasha Alyson telephoned me three weeks later (no email then!) with the offer of a contract. Six months later it was in print. And six months or so after that, it was gone because he sold the company and the new owners dropped many of books he’d published.
Oddly, history has repeated itself fifteen years later. I sent Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story to Dreamspinner on March 31 and had a contract three weeks later, with publication in July. I think that’s really a strange coincidence.
SIN: What do you think is the biggest misconception in gay romance fiction?
Ruth Sims: That all gay romance fiction = erotic gay fiction with very little story or character and lots of raw sex. It’s the old “if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck” thing. A lot of gay romance is erotic, and why not? If the authors enjoy writing it and are good at it, and readers enjoy reading it and will buy it, more power to them. But for those of us who don’t put a lot—or any—graphic sex in our books, it’s frustrating to be automatically considered erotica just because it’s a gay love story. That leads to disappointed readers, who paid for what they expected to be a sexy read. Nobody wants a disappointed reader! I don’t know if it makes it less confusing or not, but I think of the more erotically charged stories as “m/m” and stories like mine as “gay.” Maybe that just muddies the water. I don’t know. I hate labels anyway.
SIN: How do you know what to name your books or the characters?
Ruth Sims: Good question. I dunno. Characters’ names just seem to come out of nowhere. The only one I remember for certain was Bronwyn in The Phoenix. I heard someone, a stranger, call someone else Bronwyn, and I thought it was neat name. I vaguely remember Kit’s name originally (20+ years ago) being Danny. Can you imagine him being anything but Kit? But since I can’t remember what I did yesterday, that may be faulty memory at work.
SIN: Do you have any bad writing habits?
Ruth Sims: I have no bad habits at all. I’m perfect. You doubted?
SIN: Of all the individuals you have created, do you have a particular favorite? What appeals to you the most about this character?
Ruth Sims: Oh, gosh. Torture. I’d have to say Laurence Northcliff. He’s humorous, generous, honest, honorable, warm, and affectionate. He does have faults, but they’re easily forgiven because his intentions are good. And… well, he’s just easy to forgive.
SIN: Has being published changed you at all?
Ruth Sims: I’ve never had any self-confidence. Through publication, and discovering that yes! People can actually like me (shades of Sally Field!) and admire what I do and think I’m passably good at it, I have begun to develop some self-confidence. About time, dammit.
SIN: What do you do to relax?
Ruth Sims: Watch old-old movies on Turner Classics or one of the dozens of DVDs we have, though the movies themselves are not always relaxing. I belated discovered how good some of the old silent movies were, thanks to TNT. I have DVDs of several TV series of days gone by – Beauty and the Beast, Due South, Hill Street Blues, etc. Or I watch Saturday night Britcoms on our PBS station. My favorite is Last of the Summer Wine, before the actor playing Compo died. Someday I’ll get the DVDs of Fawlty Towers or Monty Python, or the Canadian Corner Gas. About the only current things I watch are Criminal Minds (NOT relaxing!) and The Mentalist. Reading, oddly enough, isn’t particularly relaxing for me; I get too involved in the story.
SIN: What makes a great book to you?
Ruth Sims: I assume we’re talking about fiction? It has to be about people who are interesting and involving, who make a difference in someone else’s life, who are able to survive the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The protagonist(s) have to change somehow; they have to grow inwardly. The book has to have a command of the language, though for a great story I can forgive common mistakes. A misplaced comma or the misuse of lie/lay is not going to make me close the book in disgust. The book has to linger in my memory. It does NOT have to be on an official “Great Books” list. It does NOT have to win the Pulitzer or Nobel or Booker prize. There are a lot of great books that have never won anything and are completely underappreciated.
SIN: If you could go anywhere, be anyone, do anything for 24 hours, what would it be?
Ruth Sims: I would like to spend 24 hours in a talk-marathon with Harvey Fierstein. I have no doubt Harvey could talk for 24 hours. And you didn’t ask, but if I could pick one celebrity to read Counterpoint, it would be Harvey Fierstein. So if any of you guys know Harvey, tell him you know of this wonderful novel…
SIN: Do your family and friends know you are a writer? If so, what was their reaction?
Ruth Sims: They ignore it, while wishing for me to go into a more refined and legitimate career like robbing banks or swindling the elderly.
SIN: How many works in progress have you got going?
Ruth Sims: Six. Though whether “progress” aptly describes their condition, I don’t know.
SIN: On average, how long does it take you to write a novel?
Ruth Sims: Well, the first two took twenty years, working on and off. Some of the others are only 10-15 years old, so I’m closing in. One of them has been around only since 2000. I’m getting better. I figure if I live to be 140, I’ll get them all finished. I have better luck with the short stories.
SIN: Does a hero always have to be good looking?
Ruth Sims: When I was younger, I always liked the hero to be good-looking. And young. Now, it doesn’t matter. They will be what they will be. After all, one of the bravest and noblest heroes in literature was an ugly hunchback. And one of the most romantic heroes ever on television, was Vincent of Beauty and the Beast, who was monstrously masculine and sexy but certainly a long way from handsome? They have to have nice hair, though. My husband of 50 years has gorgeous, thick silver hair and a short beard to match and I LOVE that look. I think as the boomer population ages, so will the heroes of books. Not in my books so much, yet, but in the shorter pieces, the main characters seem to be getting older. The main character of Song on the Sand is in his 80’s.
SIN: I like a book with a story and a plot, not sex on every page – what about you?
Ruth Sims: Amen and amen. I could live without it on any page, as long as it had story, plot, and great characters.
SIN: Where can readers find out what’s new and how can they contact you?
Ruth Sims: I love to hear from readers. Many of them have become personal friends. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org (ruth dot sims at gmail dot com). It may take me a while, but I answer every letter. My website is updated periodically (I’m too dumb to do it, so I pay a webmaster!) and it is http://www.ruthsims.com/ Readers can see excerpts from both books and the short stories, comments from other readers, videos (only one right now, but there will soon be one for Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story), and they can subscribe to my (infrequent) newsletter.
Out of curiosity. I checked my personal mailing list to see how many people have written to me. Of them, more than half have become good friends, some have become time-to-time correspondents and others were one-time-only, but there are140 names listed! I was astonished.
SIN: Do you feel your writing is character driven or plot driven? How do you balance these two elements?
Ruth Sims: Definitely character driven. I’d be completely out of my element writing anything else. Everything depends on the character and how they act or react in any given situation, whether it’s dramatic, funny, or something else.
SIN: Do you have a favorite quote?
Ruth Sims: “Mature women don’t have hot flashes. They have power surges.”
SIN: What is your favorite movie of all time? The one where you can watch it and still get affected at the same spots each and every time?
Ruth Sims: There are a lot of them, but I’d probably have to say “Rent.” I dissolve every time I hear “Seasons of Love.” Partly because it’s a simply gorgeous, moving song and partly because I have lost two friends to AIDS and it always makes me think of them. Both died in their mid-thirties, back in the early days of the plague.
SIN: What did you spend your first advance on?
Ruth Sims:Cosmetic dental work. No joke. I did.
SIN: If there was one thing you could tell the publishing industry and have them take notice, what would it be?
Ruth Sims: Be more willing to take chances on unknown authors instead of putting all your money and energy into the tried-and-true like Stephen King. There are great authors just waiting to be discovered. Before the bean-counters took over, publishers nourished new writers, gave them a chance to prove themselves. Sometimes they even kept a mid-list author in print simply because the writing, though perhaps not selling great numbers, was so well done.
SIN: Thanks Ruth!