Capturing the Complexities of Time & Place: Ru Freeman


Novelist/journalist/activist Ru Freeman is a tender-hearted fireball. Her opinion pieces — from 2013 AWP highlights to feminism and gun control — appear regularly at The Huffington Post and her essays can be found in a variety of other journals. Her first novel, A Disobedient Girl, was published to wide acclaim in 2009.

But I met her by way of an early read of her second novel, On Sal Mal Lane, which debuted May 14. The novel begins in Sri Lanka — Freeman’s birthplace — in 1979 and chronicles the years leading up to the country’s two-decade civil war.

I came to the novel knowing, vaguely, where Sri Lanka was on a map. I also knew something about a civil war. But beyond that, my experience of the country, its culture and people, was limited.

That didn’t matter.

A mere page and a half in, I was swept onto the verandas of Sal Mal Lane’s homes, caught up in the games of French cricket children played and hearing the tinkling of a piano drift through an open window. I was, also, all-too aware of the mounting political tension surrounding this small dirt lane and its inhabitants.

I finished the novel — and not without a few pauses to collect myself — with a deeper respect for the human spirit, despite what politics, violence, and loss can do to it.

Here’s my conversation with Freeman on writing On Sal Mal Lane and also what it means to be a writer and activist.

The Millions: Publisher’s Weekly calls you a “social justice activist and freelance journalist.” What does it mean to you to be an activist, journalist and novelist? How do those worlds intersect (or remain distinct)?

Ru Freeman: Everything I write is immersed in everything I live, so in that sense there is no separation. However they remain distinct to the extent that the political journalism that I do is intended to further a cause or agenda that I espouse, whereas the fiction is an effort to create a safe bridge between what I think and what other people might think — a bridge both they and I can cross without fear.

As far as the activism — to live is, for me, to be engaged with the world around me. While I go away to write, tuning out everything, the inspiration for all that I do comes from that world and I am deeply, insanely, completely open to that world. I let it into my head and my heart in every way I can; it stands to reason then that I cannot help but want to assist that world along in whatever way I can, to nudge people this way or that, whether it is through writing or marching or simply having a conversation.

TM: On Sal Mal Lane was initially conceived as a magazine assignment. Though that didn’t ultimately work out, how did you begin to think about the novel as a result?

RF: The novel is much better and it accomplishes what that article never could have done: it brings people, characters into the light and it asks people to live with them for a while, to feel as they might have felt, to walk down that street with them, to be shattered and repaired the way they were. The magazine assignment would have been just another piece people read and forgot, too linear and simplified to ever convey the complexity of a time and place, or to allow a reader to look around them, wherever they are, and see that it is possible to end a war, that there is hope, that reconciliation and peace are possible and within grasp.

TM: You were born in Colombo and experienced the early years of the civil war. Was writing about your childhood memories/experiences of it always something you wanted to do?

RF: Everything a person lives is part of what shows up in writing. Whether it is written about directly, as I have done in this book, or obliquely, as I did in the previous novel, A Disobedient Girl, (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009), there is a part of a writer’s history, their evolution, in everything they write. That isn’t to say it is autobiographical, but that it would be foolish to claim that the autobiographical facts are not a part of what we write. I didn’t set out to write this book or the previous novel or the new one I’m working on now; the stories are just the ones that rise to the surface and seem to resonate with where I am as I begin to write.

TM: What was the easiest part of the On Sal Mal Lane to write? The hardest?

RF: Devi was the easiest to write; she is the quintessential youngest child, adored, indulged, often to her own detriment, but mostly to her good in terms of the way those kids grow up very assured of their place in the world, as able to break rules as they are to trust that everybody loves them. All the others took more work, Sonna more than them all. He is my favorite, and it was hard not to give in to the temptation to wave the magic writerly wand and bless his life. It was hard not to allow him to be no more and no less than what he was.

TM: Tell us how you chose the point of view. Were there any other options you were considering early on, or ones you tried?

RF: I had the prologue, and then I went on to write the story, so there was some essential element of that voice in the book from the start. But, it was in re-working that prologue that it became stronger, the voice that I wanted for the whole book. I wanted to have some distance for myself, as the writer, from the events that I was describing, since I had lived through that time in Sri Lanka, but I also wanted the intimacy of being right there with all those characters. This voice, of the street, worked really well for that.

TM: How did you balance writing the story with the need for some historical/cultural context for readers who may be unaware of Sri Lanka and its history?

RF: I really do not like novels that give us the political-events fillers, that pause in order to point to this or that historical moment in its entirety. I always want what I write to reflect the consciousness of the characters. I feel that if I can tell the story of how a certain time affected fully-realized people, then the reader will go do their own research about the background. There is some detail in here, but it is organic to what is going on, to the interplay of relationships — between Mr. Herath and his children, between Mr. Niles and Nihil, between the children themselves — rather than as A Small Treatise On The History of Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict.

TM: Wallace Stegner has said a writer is a (wo)man in search of an audience. Did you have a particular reader or audience in mind as you wrote On Sal Mal Lane?

RF: I have a responsibility as a Sri Lankan writer, to tell the stories of my country with a clear understanding that mine may be — for many people in the United States certainly — the only voice they hear with regard to those stories. I keep that in sight when I write. I have no wish to whitewash the mess of things, to portray my country as the jewel that it is to me, but rather to say here is a story from this place, here are the people who lived there, here is one tale about what happened to some of them. I also have Sri Lanka herself in mind, what is good for my country, what is good for her people. My words, written or spoken, are always in service to the greater good of the people of my country. To what they have lost, to what they may yet have again.

TM: Were there certain works you read while working on On Sal Mal Lane that helped you with character development, the overall story or, simply, moved you?

RF: There was a moment when I was thinking about this book that another writer suggested I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I don’t know so much that I used any technique or related things from that book, but rather that there was an immersion in a moment in Biafran history that captured my imagination. I felt an “it can be done” sense when I finished reading it. The other books that I read were My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid, and those on technique: Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World, (Graywolf, 2008), and Charlie Baxter’s The Art of Subtext (Graywolf, 2007). If there was something I was grappling with, I’d turn to these texts and read through some relevant section, take notes, and, each night, think about if/how it might apply. The next morning, I’d go back to work.

TM: You’ve talked about how “the exercise of writing both fiction and opinion is reflective of a passionate attempt to contribute to our common human enterprise whether that is quiet, personal, public, political or all of these.” Why is this important to you?

RF: I write and my writing comes from being a human being, from inhabiting my very human, socially inter-connected, inter-dependent world. What else should I be engaged with? To eschew human experience — by turning into a recluse, by hiding from the world, keeping physical, emotional distance — but then to ask that world to read what I have written, hear what I have to say…this isn’t an equal exchange to me. If I lived that way then I fully expect you to consider my take on things to be entirely irrelevant.

I don’t like hierarchies, I don’t like the notion of the exalted thinker/writer who gazes from a distance. I don’t like people writing about worms without spending some time taking in the worm’s view of life.

How do you know what things look like to ordinary people if you don’t immerse yourself in that ordinariness? If you can’t acknowledge your own ordinariness? And if you aren’t putting yourself in service of furthering the well-being of such people, our people — whether it is through health care or a meaningful education or a living wage or access to the arts, or telling the stories of our experience? That is why it is important to me.

The History of Humans is the History of Technology: The Millions Interviews Robin Sloan

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Robin Sloan is the kind of writer/thinker you want to take out for a beer and ply with questions. About writing. About reading. About life.

His novel with the glow-in-dark cover, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, came out in October, though it actually started years ago as a short story on his website. Of course, the seeds for it likely started back even farther, during his years working at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.

I’ve inhaled almost everything Robin has written: Annabel Scheme, a novella; “Fish,” a thoughtful essay in app form; and, of course the new novel. I grew even more intrigued when I learned Annabel Scheme was initially a Kickstarter project (you’ll hear more about that in the interview).

Robin is frightfully creative and incredibly open-minded. He also happens to tell really good stories. Below is our conversation, conducted over email, about stories, technology, and giving up the iPhone,

The Millions: You call yourself a “media inventor” and it’s quickly obvious you have a deep appreciation for history. What’s your belief about what the past has to teach us? Have you always been so fond of books?

Robin Sloan: Yes, I’ve always loved books. I was a kid who spent a lot of time in the library, scouring the stacks for the next installment of whatever fantasy series I was tearing through. But I’ve always loved technology, too: when I wasn’t at the library, I was planted in front of my family’s Mac Plus, writing or programming or slowly surfing the nascent Internet. I’m not convinced that one of those worlds is the past and the other is the future. I think both are vital components of our very capacious future-present, and both have been for a long time. In any case, I’ve always immersed myself in both, side by side. I think a lot of people have.

TM: What’s the order of your writing adventures: “Fish,” the Penumbra story, Annabel Scheme, the new novel? And what’s the single most important thing you’ve learned in that journey?

RS: It goes like this: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” the short story, Annabel Scheme the Kickstarter project, Scheme on Kindle (and free on my website, “Fish” the app, Penumbra the novel. Along the way, going from blog posts to short stories to novellas to novels, I’ve learned how to suppress the feeling that I’ve come to recognize as “the paranoia of the screen” — the creeping sense that your reader is about to lose interest, close the tab, and never return.

TM: You found a community of readers in a rather untraditional manner. How did that happen? (I’m thinking particularly about Annabel Scheme and your Kickstarter project to make a print version of the novella).

RS: I’ve been working in public for years now, sharing inchoate ideas and notes on process along with finished work, and when you do that, you tend to pick up people who stick with you. I’d argue, though, that the manner is not particularly “untraditional” these days. In fact, I think it’s becoming the go-to model for people building new careers and communities.

Twitter is a big part of it; there’s something about the way people find and follow each other over there that seems to support this kind of slow, organic, durable growth over time.

And maybe that’s the key: it has been slow. I started my first blog (Snarkmarket, written with Matt Thompson and Tim Carmody) back in 2003, so, if between then and now, I’ve found just one new person every day…well, that adds up to a lot of people!

TM: Tell me more about your decision to release Annabel Scheme under a Creative Commons license. That’s a big deal for a writer — or any creative. Why did you want to do that?

RS: Oh, that’s easy: because about the coolest thing I can imagine is other people taking my stories and making them their own. In other words: fan fiction. And not just fiction, but creation of every kind: drawings, costumes, games…everything. Now, a Creative Commons license is not strictly necessary; people create things based on copyrighted media all the time. But a CC license can be like a welcome mat — a neon sign that says “open for remix.”

In the case of Annabel Scheme, I was so serious about it that I allocated a few thousand dollars from the Kickstarter project into a “remix fund” to support some of the early projects. For example, a 3D artist named Emily Cooper rendered these postcards from the alternate-reality San Franciscos from the story and got paid to do it. Pretty cool.

TM: Penumbra started with a short story hosted on your website. How did it then evolve?

RS: It was clear, pretty much immediately after posting it, that “Penumbra” was resonating in a special way. It found its audience quickly. That’s a virtue of working on the web, I think: you have access to so much data about how a piece of writing is doing; how it’s being shared; how its audience is changing over time. The data is not the whole story, of course — there are plenty of crappy, cynical blog posts with millions of views — but it does help when you’re a writer just starting out, trying to figure out how to allocate a finite number of keystrokes.

TM: When you’re building tension in a novel — as you did in Penumbra — the stakes get higher in terms of making it worth it for the reader. I was getting nervous but I felt like, in the end, you nailed it. Were you worried about that at all?

RS: Midway through the writing of Penumbra, when the stakes and the resolution were still up in the air, I decided there would be no fistfights; no guns; no deaths. It’s easy to raise the stakes by putting characters in mortal danger, right? And for some stories, it’s absolutely appropriate. But my own life hasn’t featured many gun battles or assassinations, and it has seemed reasonably dramatic to me — so I figured there must be some other way.

Now, judging from the reviews, more than a few people wanted more action. Maybe a darker edge. I’m okay with that; writing would be boring if everybody reacted exactly the same way. Personally, I like the fact that the story’s urgency comes from quieter quarters, with no sniper rifles required.

TM: There are very few people writing, as you ultimately have, about the relationship between humans and technology, even though it’s something so familiar to us. Why do you think people fear it so much?

RS: I think a lot of the fear is based on a misapprehension: that the history of humans (or books, or food, or…) is separate from the history of technology. It’s not. It’s one history, one story — and when you realize that, it tends to defuse the whole debate. So you ignore the “camps” entirely, and turn your attention instead to the figures wandering between them, or better yet, away from them — the pilgrims just cresting the far-off ridgeline.

I don’t mean to sound techno-utopian — I’m decidedly not — but the simple fact is that everything we cherish today was, at some point, a strange and challenging invention. Printed books are no exception. So I think it’s really important that people who have strong beliefs about books, about attention, about life itself, ought to be out there inventing things, and embedding those beliefs in their inventions.

TM: How much research did you have to do on the inner workings of Google and data visualization and complex book scanners? Are these familiar terrains to you? Somehow you made those topics far less intimidating.

RS: I didn’t have to do much special research, because I’ve been fascinated by places like Google and disciplines like data visualization for years. This book was an opportunity to bundle up those fascinations, all those years of scribbled notes, and turn it all into something I could share.

And I’m glad you found it interesting and approachable! That’s one of the best things a book can do, right? Provide a window into an otherwise strange, or even hostile-seeming, world.

TM: You chose not to include Acknowledgements in the book — and there’s a bit of a debate about that in the literary world. What was your reasoning? I’ll say that having the last echo of your book be your last lines (vs. a list of names) mattered more than I expected. Was that your intention?

RS: I’m glad it worked that way for you! Yes, it was definitely my intention. I have nothing against acknowledgments — certainly, there are many people to acknowledge for Penumbra’s creation (and I do that on the book’s web page — but in this particular case, I wanted readers to reach those last lines, and then simply close the book. I guess you could say I was trying to design a moment.

TM: Your book launch for Mr. Penumbra was an all-day event. Tell me how that came about and why you chose to interview the folks you did. You were promoting the new book, yes, but you had a bigger goal, too. Looking back, how do you think it went?

RS: When you write a book with “24-Hour” in the title, I think you’re obligated to do at least one 24-hour event, right? My collaborators at FSG and I all thought so. And there was just something over-the-top and appealing about the idea of a 24-hour livestream; like a strange modern telethon.

So my editor Sean McDonald and I brainstormed a dream team of writers, thinkers, and provocateurs from across a wide range of disciplines, then extended invitations. Almost everyone said yes, I think in part because they were intrigued by the format. Like: “This is just crazy enough to make me want to come over and see what the hell you’re doing.”

There were really two bigger goal behind the 24-hour livestream: First, I wanted to put these people in front of my audience — to celebrate them, and frankly to thank them for the influence many of them had (knowingly or not) on Penumbra. Second, I wanted produce an event that people from all across the world could enjoy. In general, I’m quite frustrated with the limited scale of most book events, so this was a chance to do something that was anchored and site-specific (thanks to the beautiful Center for Fiction in Manhattan) but also open and scalable (streamed online, for all to see).

TM: What are some of your favorite books?

RS: I’ve reread David Markson’s The Last Novel more than any other book. As a kid, I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and I find that they hold up with age (both theirs and mine). This summer I’ve been rereading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s like the unadulterated The Little Prince — the real-life source material from which that story was distilled. Finally, I’m enjoying Aaron Diaz’s strange and beautiful Dark Science, which is still unfolding right now, page by page.

TM: I heard you have an old Nokia phone, which I love. Did you give up an iPhone? And you’re surviving okay?

RS: Ha, yes! I’m not just surviving, but thriving. For me, the iPhone had become a toxic compulsion. It had completed its invasion and occupation of my interstitial time — all those minutes riding the train, waiting in line, that used to be such fertile territory for daydreaming and storymaking. So I canceled my AT&T plan and switched to a bare-bones Nokia on a pay-as-you-go plan.

And sure enough: in the months since the liberation of my interstitial time, I’ve been daydreaming more, jotting down scraps of stories again.

Full disclosure, though: my iPhone does still work at home, on Wi-Fi. I couldn’t ditch the device entirely; I need to be able to try out apps like The Silent History.

TM: What would you say to other writers following in your footsteps — whether that’s experimenting with an online audience or working on making something that lasts?

RS: Two things.

The first: learn a bit of programming. Spend some time with Codecademy or Khan Academy’s programming course. The goal isn’t to become a programmer. Rather, it’s to understand what’s possible, and to experience what it feels like to make things happen with code. In the same way that the (then very new) feeling of the industrial city influenced so much great writing a hundred years ago, I think the (still very new) feeling of the programmable internet should be influencing more writing today.

The second things is going to sound like it contradicts the first, but it doesn’t really: focus on the text. I’ve enjoyed designing web pages and building iPhone apps, but I’m not convinced that any of it will be accessible for very long. That’s just the nature of the internet right now — we’re still in shakedown mode, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Plain text, though, already made it through the shakedown. Invest in text — learn to design sentences and build stories — and it’s a sure bet, no matter what the future holds.

Got an MFA? Need a Job? Consider the Creative Agency

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When I graduated with my MFA earlier this year, I routinely fielded the various versions of What are you doing next? Of course, what people really wanted to know was what I was going to do for a job. Frankly, I’d never considered doing anything other than what I had been doing — planning and creating communication packages at the creative agency where I’ve worked for the last decade. The guys in Mad Men did it. So could I.

High school teacher and poet Nick Ripatrazone recently wrote an article encouraging MFA graduates to consider careers outside the traditional adjunct faculty route — for better pay, better benefits, and better peace of mind. He made a great case for teaching high school. “You have,” he writes, “other options.”

You absolutely do. Teaching high school is just one of them. Working at a creative agency is another.

Agency employees have long been known to write stories and novels on the side. In fact, it used to be a kind of trend — at least in the middle of the 2oth century. Familiars like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) worked at agencies and then wrote in their spare hours. Heller continued to work after Catch-22 was published. Even more recently, writers like Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) and Rosecrans Baldwin (Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down) have used the agency experience as the basis for books. Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) wrote his first book while still in the ad agency world. Suzanne Finnamore did the same (Split).

Today’s creative agencies do a lot of different things: advertising (the Mad Men kind), publications, websites, branding, or communication strategies. Usually, an agency has a niche, but some choose to combine it all. Mine happens to do a little bit of everything so I’ve been able to interview illustrators at Disney, write copy for major fundraising campaigns, and research Africa’s best new authors.

Though agency outputs are different from literary outputs, there’s quite a bit that can be gleaned from the industry. And not just how to drink multiple Old Fashioneds. You don’t even have to be like me, who was somewhat established before I took some time off for my MFA. You can be freshly diploma’ed and still a strong candidate:

You know how to write a sentence. A really good sentence. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that. Clients are constantly telling us they’ll handle the writing for a specific project. More often than not, it’s wordy and dry and confusing and they’ll come back and ask us for help.

You can articulate why certain ideas work and others don’t. Writing workshops have provided great training with this. You can’t get away with saying: Oh, I just don’t like that. You have to figure out why and then communicate it to your fellow writer. That’s hard work and an extremely valuable resource for employers.

You can think outside of a box. You may take this skill for granted, but how often do you have a character stuck in a corner that you must reconcile? Or you’ve got a line in a poem that you really love, you’re just not sure where to go next? It’s uncomfortable but somewhat familiar terrain for writers — figuring out solutions to complicated situations.

With those skills in-hand and a few others, here’s what could be in it for you should you decide to look into agency work — for more than just paid vacations and health insurance.

Jobs: Depending on what you are willing to do, a look at job listings sites shows there are lots of opportunities. Salaries will vary depending on locations, but the median for entry-level jobs is $30,000-$40,000.

Editing skills: Salman Rushdie learned to say a lot in a little from writing ad copy: “You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.”

Nerve: Stephanie Bane has an MFA and is working on a memoir of her time in the Peace Corps. She also works at an ad agency in Pittsburgh. “I’m impervious to insult,” she says. “Advertising is a team sport. Somebody — or several somebodies — weigh in on every word I write. My ideas are edited, altered or outright rejected on a daily basis. When it comes to seeking publication, rejection letters still sting, but my day job makes it easy for me to treat them as a routine part of the business.

Imagination: Joseph Heller felt he’d been trained by the limitations he learned in his copywriting work. “They [ideas] come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination. There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.”

Publishing: Most likely, you’ll get something published in the agency world far sooner than you will in book publishing. Even if it’s just the Dental Association of America reading it, it’s still out there. (And when you come home to yet another rejection from The New Yorker, that’ll matter. A little.)

Discipline: Balancing a 40-hour work week and a writing life takes dedication. Another thing Rushdie tucked under his belt from the advertising world: “…it taught me to write like a job…. You can’t afford temperament, you can’t afford days of creative anguish; you have to sit there and do your job and you have to do it like a job, get it done on time and well. I now write exactly like that. I write like a job. I sit down in the morning and I do it. And I don’t miss deadlines.” Anastasia Edel is a producer at Frog Design in San Francisco. She’s also finishing up her MFA in fiction, which makes for a very busy life. “When you really want something you find the time,” she says. She writes between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Exposure: You’ll likely interact with a lot of different artists — other kinds of writers; designers who will show you a whole new way of looking at the world and will likely give you expensive taste in almost everything; photographers who can argue that a picture may very well be worth 1,000 words (and you might be compelled, at times, to agree).  There’s an energy that can come from this kind of community. Edel recently collaborated with a colleague to lead a creative meeting that explored the heart of the creative process. “If there is a way you can leverage what you’re studying with your lifestyle,” she says, “you’ll get energy from that.”

The agency atmosphere isn’t for everyone. There are bad days and good days, as with any job. You have to set boundaries. You have to work hard. You have to play well with others. And in order to write you have to say no to some things (like going out with your new colleagues for drinks after work) and yes to others (like getting up several hours before work to write). But you just might find that the skills you honed while pursuing your MFA have a much wider range than you ever imagined.


Image Credit: Flickr/photologue_np