ELIZABETH RUTH launching and reading from her novel Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, tonight (Thursday, September 20) at Lava Lounge (507 College), 6 to 8 pm. Free. 416-516-7101 ext 3.
elizabeth ruth is ready for her close-up. She’s made her plan, acted on it and now, on the eve of the launch of her debut novel, Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, she’s craning her neck to find the spotlight.”I’ve pulled every contact I have to sell this book. I’m going across Ontario and out west, to every small bookstore I can find,” she says as she leads me on a tour of her house in the west end.
Every room is devoted to her projects. The kitchen is crammed with boxes of file folders filled with notes for her debut book and her second novel-in-progress. Both offices — even the one used mostly by her partner — are decorated with bulletin boards charting her promotional course.
“I sent this book to every publisher I knew about. This board used to have all my rejection letters posted on it. I’d put them up saying, “Fuck you. Next time you’ll see.'”
Confident? You bet. Arrogant even? You got it. She’s even developed a series of questions for future book club discussions. Thing is, she knows exactly what she’s got going for her. Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, set to launch tonight (September 20) is an exceptional first novel that is going to make Ruth very big on the literary scene.
Using a sophisticated structure and lucid style, the book double-tracks through the minds of Lilith and her daughter Lemon. Lilith is a psychic. When she’s young, her visions so panic her parents that they put her in a psychiatric facility, where she’s abused by an orderly and made pregnant.
Lemon, 18 years old as her story begins, loathes her mother and her idiosyncracies and desperately seeks her father. Her troubles deepen when she starts having visions, too.
Lilith, in the meantime, works for the Toronto police force tracking down missing children.
These sound like gruesome themes, but they don’t define the book’s sensibility. Lilith spends more time at Allan Gardens, where her telepathic gifts intensify, than she does envisioning tortured kids. And the book questions social normalcy more than it plays the thriller game.
Though Ruth’s an out lesbian — she’s the organizer of Toronto’s Clit Lit reading series and sits on the board of Fireweed — and there are queer threads to the story, this is not a slice of dyke life.
“The truth is,” she says, sliding piles of papers around the living room’s coffee table to make room for a platter of fruit, “being a lesbian is not a troubling issue for me. I’m troubled much more by labelling, by illegitimacy, by issues of psychic versus psychotic.
“There are paragraphs in this book where you could substitute psychotic for psychic and they’d make sense to some people. What’s normal, really? It’s only a matter of a few letters.”
For Ten Good Seconds Ruth drew on her experiences working within penal and mental institutions in Vancouver and Toronto. That comes through in what reads like inside information about what happens within the walls of psychiatric facilities and in the heads of their residents.
“I enjoyed being around people who had been incarcerated,” she allows. “They walk around in altered states, talking in metaphors about God and aliens. Oppression seems to breed these kinds of metaphors for people’s pain. At first I thought these metaphors were creative, but after a time they began to sound the same.”
She left social services and committed herself to her writing for the past two years, but she hasn’t been able to leave the people behind.
“I identify with freaks and outsiders,” she says. “I was always moving schools, moving countries.”
Her mum took her to Colombia for what was supposed to be a two-year stay but couldn’t take her daughter out of Colombia without permission from the father. Since her mother was unmarried — and the word “father” did not apply in the family — she had to seek help from the Canadian embassy. It’s one of those blasts from the past that explain Ruth’s preoccupation with issues of single motherhood and illegitimacy.
She does not, however, write only to work out her personal stuff. For one thing, she’s absolutely driven, compelled to compose for at least eight hours a day regardless of what else is going on in her life. For another, she can write about things she knows absolutely nothing about.
Lilith and her dad bond over the garden they grow together and that she eventually drowns, and Lilith as an adult spends hours in Allan Gardens seeking inspiration. Throughout these scenes Ruth’s descriptive powers are put to gorgeous use, each flower described meticulously, even lovingly. I look around the apartment for signs of a green thumb.
“The truth is,” shrugs Ruth, “I can barely keep a cactus alive.”
As evidenced by her relationship with mentor Timothy Findley, though, she’ll have no problem nourishing her career.
She attended a workshop he gave at Humber College, and she credits Findley with giving her confidence in her writing. (Actually, she cajoled, pushed and finally forced her way in.) He immediately responded to her work and, along with Dundurn’s Barry Jowett, looked at drafts of the novel over the past two years.
“I knew I was going to get 15 minutes alone with Tiff,” she says, getting back into her ultra-focused mode. “For seven days straight I planned the questions I was going to ask him. I was ready. But then, I’m always prepared for the right moment.”
Don’t say she didn’t warn us.
Ten Good Seconds of Silence by Elizabeth Ruth (Dundurn), $19.99 paper, 414 pages. Rating: NNNN
Lilith Boot, the main character in Elizabeth Ruth’s first novel, Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, wins the prize for this year’s most unlikely superhero. She’s a psychiatric system survivor, single mom and psychic who locates missing children for the Toronto police force.Lilith’s definitely not the kind of mom who keeps up with the Joneses. She’s obsessed with a little boy named Benjamin who went missing years ago. Despite regular visits to Allan Gardens, where her psychic ability is strongest, she’s been unable to find him. She’s not interested in men, and maintains that her daughter Lemon is the product of immaculate conception — Lemon grows up without knowing a single thing about her father.
Our heroine’s most anti-stereotypical asset is her rather large girth, which is constantly increasing due to the junk food she unapologetically keeps stashed in her purse. The larger her body mass, the more powerful her special powers. Lemon isn’t sure what to make of her mother’s abilities until she begins to experience visions herself.
Ten Good Seconds zigzags back and forth in time in order to follow the progress of a loving but conflictual relationship between mother and daughter and their parallel struggles for self-awareness that take place decades apart.
A mixture of Girl, Interrupted and The Edible Woman, this oddly magical novel has a breathless feel.
Ruth explores the things that make us tick with an attention to detail that never completely bogs down the plot’s momentum. We quickly come to root for Lilith the survivor and love the scrappy Lemon’s adolescent mistakes.
This first novel forecasts a unique talent.
by Emily Pohl-Weary