A Love Letter Back
By Ilie Ruby
Years ago, while working as an editor at a publishing house, I came to see that writers are a strange breed of human, the sort that will cross miles of dry desert for one reader that understands their book. This is because for writers, every word, every page, is proof of the heart. Much like the wild geese in Mary Oliver’s famed poem, words on the page announce “your place in the family of things”.
During a particularly hectic week of my first book tour, amidst a flurry of reviews and readings, I received my first letter from a reader. Most writers remember theirs. Mine was from a young girl who said that my book had changed her life. New to the business or not, I hadn’t expected a letter like this. I felt incredibly humbled by this reader’s candor and courage. The letter made me remember the books that I, myself, had held onto for dear life. I was grateful The Language of Trees could be that for someone.
I’ll admit I folded it up and placed it within the pages of my tattered ARC that I used for readings. I never forgot about it, for it reminded me of why I chose to become a writer. Much like my father who’d kept a letter I’d once written to him folded in his wallet for 30-something years, I kept it with me. A letter like this is the reason writers recover from writing, even from the nail biting sorrow, year after year, of not having one’s own book to hold in one’s hands.
After I read it again in my office I began tapping away at my computer. That night, I read what I’d written aloud to my husband. It went something like this:
To All the Girls that Ran Wild At 17
To all the girls who ran wild at 17, who let their hair grow long and flung it boldly in the rain, who dyed their hair, who snuck out of windows and stayed out too late, who drank and smoked and danced on tables, to those who may have hurt themselves, who may have snuck off in the darkness with boys they didn’t love, who suffered under judgmental glares and secretly prayed for invisibility, to those girls who jumped off bridges into cold rivers and swam as though their lives depended on it, who wore too much eye-liner, who fought, who loved, who fell, who made mistakes, and got up again, and ran away, untethered, to where and to what they couldn’t have known, to all of you I implore you: Take heart, you who have passion, you who will ultimately prove your place in things, you who will ultimately bring magic and change to the world.
I had long wanted to write about this. I had only needed a reason to write it, a someone to write it for. Now I had one. And I was certain there were more out there like her. I wanted to thank the young girl for her letter, but gratitude seemed inadequate. The only way I could thank her adequately was to write a new novel.
It has been said that what we want most is for the heart to be known. Being published doesn’t prove your place adequately, though you think it will. Having 300 people attend a reading in your hometown proves it for about a week, tops. But then you realize you still have a kitchen floor to mop, and that you are utterly alone with a blank sheet of paper. In the end, what allows a book to become something beyond proof that you achieved your dream? The answer lies in the heart of a reader that has been moved, changed, or helped by your words. If you look, you might find a new story within a reader’s letter. You might realize that there are still teenage girls out there whose story you’d like to tell. You remind yourself not to write with intentionality. Still, if someone says your book saved her life it is a lovely humbling thing, certainly worth all the prayers and years of work and more. I didn’t have to write a love letter back. But I wanted to. I wanted to toss into the universe a hundred thousand glorious words of thanks for a note that had been written by a little girl that loved my little book. This love letter back evolved into my forthcoming novel, The Salt God’s Daughter. It was written for those girls that run wild at 17, and for those that, at some point, grew up and became women, all with wild stunning spirits, still.
Ilie Ruby grew up in Rochester, NY and spent her childhood summers on Canandaigua Lake, the setting for her debut novel, THE LANGUAGE OF TREES. She is the winner of the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction, chosen by T.C. Boyle; a Kerr Foundation Fiction Scholarship; and the Phi Kappa Phi Award for Creative Achievement in Fiction. Ruby is also a recipient of the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference Davidoff Scholarship in Nonfiction and the Kemp Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship. She has worked on PBS archaeology documentaries in Central America, taught 5th grade in Los Angeles on the heels of the Rodney King riots of 1992, and written two children’s books, MAKING GOLD and THE LAST BOAT. In 1995, she graduated from the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she was fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology. Ruby is a painter, poet and proud adoptive mom to three children from Ethiopia.