In the third part of my Secrets of Publishing Series I wanted to interview author Ruth Clare. Ruth is the award-winning author of ENEMY: A daughter’s story of how her father brought the Vietnam war home.
Ruth’s author story is fascinating because she didn’t have a huge platform when she pitched ENEMY but the manuscript was subject to a bidding war. For an Australian author, the advance she received was super high and unusual. Her book is a beautiful example of storytelling from a child’s point-of-view, and I think this is why it stands out so much. She isn’t the adult remembering, she really does take you back to how it felt as she speaks from the child-self point-of-view.
I first met Ruth over 16 years ago at a copywriting class we took. We’ve been friends ever since – at the time I was freelancing for newspapers and magazines, Ruth was launching a copywriting business with her partner, illustrator Matt Clare of Monodesign.
ENEMY is Ruth’s first book, and if you haven’t read it, it’s a page-turning memoir about growing up with a father who was very damaged after his return from the Vietnam war. It’s now an audiobook with Bolinda and won the Asher Literary Award.
It tells a universal story – families bearing the load of a parent’s unresolved war wounds – in an incredibly personal way. Ruth was a huge support to me when I was pitching A Letter From Paris – although the stories are very different, family memoir is incredibly personal and it’s important to have an understanding ear when you’re filled with doubts. Ruth also offers self-care advice for the aspiring memoirist which may seem simple and obvious but in my experience, is easy to forget!
LD: Tell us about the timeline for ENEMY: from beginning a first draft to submitting it to publishers
RC: I started writing the bare bones of ENEMY when I was pregnant with my daughter in 2007, laying out ideas for chapters and writing a few things. But didn’t get very far in. I picked it up again and got serious in 2014. I managed to squeeze in anywhere from 20-40 hours writing time a week for pretty much a year to get it to a decent publishable stage.
LD: What was the hardest part of writing such a personal memoir?
RC: Worrying about the impact it might have on other people included in the story.
LD: …And the hardest part of publicising it?
RC: Self-promoting is so tedious. I constantly face all those internal demons that tell me no one is interested and who do you think you are…?
I hate feeling like a desperado and that is how self-promotion makes me feel. I would much prefer a world where someone does all of the promotion for me!
LD: I remember something you said, once, that really helped me: that a memoir is an argument for or against something. What sort of advice (like this) helped you simplify the gruelling process of attacking such a long piece of work when you’d never written a book before?
RC: I heard that snippet of advice on a podcast and it was so helpful to me! Basically, the idea is that your memoir is an argument you are trying to make and you just happen to be an example of someone who has been through that experience. With ENEMY I had so many ideas and threads to work with, not to mention my childhood voice and adult voice sections. I decided the argument I was making was that if you didn’t care for veterans when they went to war, it was their families that would pay the price. That idea not only helped give me distance, it kept my narrative clean.
I also think, in terms of managing a large document like a book for the first time, the program Scrivener was an absolute lifesaver!
LD: Tell us a bit about the process of submission – did you do a proposal, or a query, or just send sample chapters – and how did you find an agent, and then become part of a ‘bidding war’:
RC: I didn’t really think of the book from a marketing perspective at the start. I just wanted to write the story I wanted to write. But while I was working away on my manuscript, I started speaking to a parent at my daughter’s gymnastics class. I asked what he did for work and he said he was working in a dying industry: the publishing industry. I said I was trying to get into that industry and told him a bit about my book. He told me he thought it sounded interesting and to keep him in mind when I was ready to show it. Each week at my daughter’s lessons he would ask me how I was going. I told him I was still writing. I wasn’t actually ready to show it anyone but I felt pressured to show him.
When I sent it to him, he immediately came back with a very promising response. A friend of mine who was an author said I should also submit it to his agency, which happened to be Curtis Brown. I sent them the unfinished manuscript (after he’d emailed them to expect to hear from me) with a letter saying it was by no means final and even if they couldn’t represent me could they give me any advice about whether I should take the first offer or wait until I was more prepared…? I had a publisher interested at that stage, so it would have definitely played a part in their speedy response.
Curtis Brown read it over the weekend and said they would be happy to represent me, advising me to wait until I was ready, then they handled the negotiations with all the publishers from there.
LD: Curtis Brown pitched the manuscript to a number of top publishers and five then bid on the book at auction. Ruth received a high advance for a first-time author in Australian terms because of this auction. I remember watching the online news with excitement, like you do when someone you know is competing in the Olympics!
LD: What was the most unexpected element of being published – can you share the good and the bad…?
RC: For a start I was utterly blown away that anyone wanted to publish my book. To have five publishers bidding on the manuscript was utterly mind-blowing. People kept telling me how much they loved my work and I felt like Wow. This is it. This is what I am meant to do. I am going to be an author from now on.
Penguin organised great publicity for me. I was on Conversations with Richard Fidler (which was a total life dream). I was reviewed in The Australian and wrote a piece about my book for Elle.
I thought ENEMY would sell like hotcakes! Apparently not.
Before publishing ENEMY I thought my job as an author was to write a great book and the rest would be up to the publisher. But I found out I was meant to find someone to launch my book (I didn’t know anyone so launched it myself), get people to events (how many events will friends go to for you? Surely one is more than kind!), and all of these other promotional things that I had no clue about.
(LD: This is one of the reasons I’m so glad I got a second chance to launch a memoir – I knew all of this by the time A Letter From Paris came around, but I didn’t know this with Love & Other U-Turns. Publicity is a huge part of being an author.)
RC: As someone who didn’t do a degree in creative writing, I was really aware of my lack of contacts and connections. I still am!
(LD: Well I for one was honoured to be at your book launch and the speech you gave still stays with me. I think as Australians we are too humble and reluctant to ‘big note’ ourselves but we need to remember that sharing our work is an act of service to those who love to read!)
LD: What about working with an editor / publishers, what were your favourite / least favourite aspects of this (I know you loved being edited, like me!)
RC: In general, I love a bit of good feedback, so yes, I did love being edited. My editor was very respectful and thoughtful so that part of the process was lovely.
What I least enjoyed was the general lack of communication. Email sent. Crickets. Question asked. Crickets. Hello? Desperate author here having someone look at their work for the first time! From someone who is used to writing to tight deadlines as a copywriter, plus who has a tendency toward extreme impatience, the slowness of pace getting responses was excruciating. It also made me feel out of control which is never my favourite feeling. I think it probably says a lot about how stretched the whole publishing industry is.
LD: Yes, I remember receiving emails back from my editor at Scribe that had a time stamp of 11pm some nights….!
RC: Is there anything you’d do differently, now that you’ve been published and know how short the publicity cycle is etc for new books, or just knowing what you know now?
I would definitely have entered my manuscript into unpublished manuscript awards to try to get that publicity side of things starting early. And done more to develop relationships with other authors. Though having said that I would never want to network with anyone just for my own benefit so maybe I wouldn’t have done that at all! But definitely unpublished manuscript awards!
LD: What are you working on now?
RC: I’m writing a part memoir/ part self-help book aimed at teenagers based on the concepts, tools and techniques that have helped me re-shape my thinking about trauma, shame, boundaries, self-compassion, growth and acceptance. It is still very much in the beginning phases, but when I speak at high schools about ENEMY a lot of people ask me what to do with difficult situations they are negotiating and I would love to be able to give them a whole book of things that might help them
LD: Do you have some self-care tips for memoirists either working on a memoir that involves trauma or publicising one?
RC: I think if you’re writing a memoir and it includes trauma, and you want to be published through a major publisher, there is an expectation that you will be willing to talk about that trauma in some way.
One self-care technique I use is to have a whole lot of statistical information up my sleeve that explains to people why the topic is important. Suicide rates of veterans and others with PTSD. The number of children killed in family violence or growing up in homes with violence. These remind me of the reason why I wrote ENEMY in the first place. It stops me feeling like I’m just talking about my own trauma and makes it a wider issue. Some days though, speaking about trauma, or hearing other people share their trauma with you can feel overwhelming. On those days I recommend a dose of hard-core exercise that makes your heart pound with strength rather than anxiety, followed by chocolate, then a chat with a kind friend.
Ruth’s memoir is a fantastic example of a memoir written from the perspective of the child-self. I highly recommend you pick up a copy! I think I read it in about 24 hours (I’m usually a slow reader). ENEMY IS AVAILABLE HERE.
Ruth gives regular presentations to High Schools, Libraries, Rotaries and has a number of fantastic TEDx Talks you can watch online.
Check out Ruth’s latest talk about the pain of hiding the true self here.