Hi Corabel! Your book for middle grade readers – Almost Paradise –reminded me that a great book is a great book, no matter what age its primary audience. I’m thinking of Corduroy and The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Winnie the Pooh and Charlotte’s Web. I believe you have written something beautiful and timeless and also, very much, of its time; of course time – and luck – will tell. Thank you for stopping in at Bacon today to discuss your debut novel!
First, I’d love share the bio from your website, a work of art in itself:
Born in the early ‘50s as the youngest child of whimsical parents, Corabel Alexander Shofner was raised in a family of judges, farmers, and colorful women.
Brought up amidst formal tea parties and debutante balls of Jackson as well as the conflicting world of her wild Delta grandmother – who flew in the face of all convention – Corabel never learned to navigate the world of alcoholism, delusions of grandeur, and blatant paradoxes of her childhood. Somehow she missed the import of the civil rights movement which was happening right under her nose – in the middle of the social upheaval, at the age of 17, she simply hitchhiked away. After traveling around the world she landed in Manhattan, the first restful place she ever lived.
In the late ‘70s, after dating every single person in New York City, she enrolled in Columbia University and, though she had been a dismal student, a bright yellow window opened in her mind. She graduated with honors (magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) after studying English Literature and Arabic.
She met and married a wonderful architect, Martin Shofner, who loved her exactly as she was.
They moved to Nashville, Tennessee where she did well at the Vanderbilt University School of Law and reentered (more or less) “proper” society. She and Martin have three children. She likes to say that she took her retirement first and that is why she loves her ordinary life in the suburbs: she knows she’s not missing a damn thing.
Thank you so much for stopping in at Bacon today, Corabel! Almost Paradise is a marvelous caper about a spunky kid, Ruby Clyde, who’s had to take care of herself and her fragile mother practically since the day she was born (her father was shot and died that day). There’s a road trip, a gas station robbery, a mother in jail, a no-good boyfriend, and an ornery aunt – a nun at that – who just might save the day.
Ruby Clyde is a 12-year-old heroine in tune with our times – an underdeveloped girl who is sometimes mistaken for a boy. One might say she has a “gender fluid” identity. Girl and boy readers both might see a bit of themselves in her. Why did you choose to situate her in this specific gender territory?
Ruby Clyde is a family name and I’ve always enjoyed the way it sounds. Since it is a girl name paired with a boy name the invitation for her to play both sides whenever she wants is a way for her to claim power in her chaotic life. Obviously she is a tomboy, literature is full of tomboys. Gender fluid is a modern term for an old truth. But I didn’t really set out to catch that wave. I certainly hope that boys as well as girls and LGBT+ of all ages will identify with the ‘brave and wise’ Ruby Clyde.
One of the most memorable characters is her stepfather, Carl, whom she secretly calls “the Catfish.” He’s loving and obnoxious and a risk-taker and a glad-hander and gives Ruby the best birthday present she ever got. Yet she still kind-of hates him. How did you come up with him?
Every time a certain man would come on television, my mother would say, “he looks just like a catfish.” After a while a good number of people began to look like catfish to me and they were all rascals. And you really can’t look like a catfish and be anything other than a Carl.
One of the things I like best about this book is that it’s a page-turner, yet the language is careful and arresting. An example (during the robbery):
The next moments stretched in time like elastic then snapped back with the sound of gunfire. I knew it when I heard it. Strange, since I had never heard a real gunshot before. Dull loud pops came from inside the building. Gunshots. My throat was full of cement.
This makes me wonder: who are your favorite authors of middle-grade fiction – and otherwise? Do you consider any author or author (or book or books) a particular inspiration?
You are so kind. I wasn’t much of a reader as a child so I am catching up on kid lit now. I like Lois Lowry and Meg Rosoff, strong and contrary women. The Bible is supercool. Eudora Welty rocks gently. I love the liveliness of Barry Hannah and John Irving. Reynolds Price breaks my heart. Alice Munro stories get in my head like my own memories. And David Sedaris, well, I love him. Totally love him. My inspiration is that these writers are all so different from one another and seeing that frees me to be different from each of them.
I love the way this book straddles childhood and adolescence. It is exactly where kids are at a certain point in their development, in that semi-awful place where there are lots of questions without good answers.
Do you have very powerful memories of this time in life?
I have spotty memories of growing up, some exceptionally clear, others fuzzy; but mostly I have very powerful emotions from the chaos and turmoil of growing up in an alcoholic family in Mississippi during the 60s. As to unanswered questions, I do remember lying in the grass and getting kind of sick trying to decide if the sky ended or not. Ruby Clyde doesn’t look away, she calls out questions without answers.
Why did you decide to write a middle grade book, rather than a YA book or a children’s book or a book for adults?
I just wrote my story. It turned out to be middle-grade in the eyes of FSG. I joke that I wrote a literary pulitzer prize winning masterpiece, then FSG told me it was for ten year olds. I never thought of the target audience except as human souls. That said, I am delighted to be in the kid lit world. These are my people, all of them: teachers, librarians, booksellers, writers and of course the children. Who knew? This is exactly where I belong.
I think it’s quite dangerous to start talking about other books in the middle of a novel. It is often clumsy. I think you pull it off. Ruby is reading Oliver Twist to her pet pig…
All I cared about was poor old Oliver. (He was a nice boy, but he wasn’t like me. He didn’t know how to get things done. Adults had to do it all for him. But that kind of luck only happens in storybooks. If there was one thing I had learned it was that you have to take care of your own self.)
Sone kids have to take care of themselves from Day 1. Other kids have parents who micromanage them. It seems like we’ve got a lot of both in our culture right now. Who is the kid you’re writing this book for?
Some people ask if I am Ruby Clyde, but the answer is no. Ruby Clyde is the child I wish I had been. Upright and courageous. Clear headed. Bravery is contagious. That said, I have always been concerned about children who take on the role of an adult and lose their childhood. It is so damaging. I never did that but my sister did, and it never ends well. That’s why my story is a reverse coming of age story. She finds adults she can trust and by doing so reclaims her childhood.
You know that thing about having a book within the book. I can’t remember why I got onto Dickens, probably Ruby’s fear of ending up in an orphanage, but Dickens quickly began to enhance certain plot points and then to shape the ending. A pre-reader just e-mailed me that she dropped the book on page 239 when she realized – well, we will leave it at that. Oddly, it keeps happening. I am writing a story with Charlotte’s Web and another with Peter Pan. (Which may be the best book ever. Forget the movie and stage play, the book is breathtaking.)
I don’t want to give away the ending, but I have to ask you about Sister Eleanor, the nun – Ruby Clyde’s aunt. I love the way she becomes a model of self-sacrificial love. I love the way you are able to bring a few Bible stories and references into the text without being preachy. Did your editor or publishers give you any gruff about it?
No, no. Not at all. Originally the book was a comedy about a little girl whose mother is on death row but I had to change that before they bought the book. Religion was fine. There was a small point: Ruby Clyde hears Eleanor praying over her ‘Rosemary Beads’ and thinks she is saying “Hell Mary full of paste.” That’s out. I liked it but I let it go.
Taylor Kitchings wrote in his review “Though she is not particularly fond of church, Biblical references and religious imagery are woven deeply into Ruby Clyde’s story”.
My editor loved Ruby Clyde’s religious observations as she remembers pondering the same things as a child. You know it won’t be preachy when Ruby Clyde starts out saying “I knew from the Bible that when somebody got a name change, God was about to let it rip.”
Since I am a Christian, I did worry a bit that some people of faith might feel disrespected but a very conservative religious reviewer concluded that she “would definitely have no qualms about recommending the book to Christian families.” Whew.
Ruby’s voice and references to Dickens helped me make the ending believable. I was relieved when Kirkus wrote “it is Ruby’s distinctive voice that shines in this debut novel and makes even the most far-fetched twist seem trustworthy.”
Why did you write this novel?
I was in bed, having just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Full of steroids and uncertain of the future, I began writing. A child marched into the room and while bouncing on the bed she announced:
“My name is Ruby Clyde Henderson and I am not stupid. What’s more, I look like a boy, even at my age – I am skinny, and as my mother says, ‘flat as a pancake.’ So when I want, I tell them my name is Clyde, and when I don’t want, it’s Ruby. Some don’t even believe I’m a girl, with my hair being so short. It’s funny, people tell you not to lie, but they hardly ever want to hear the truth. If you try to tell it, they call you a liar. Liar, liar, pants on fire. But if you lie, they believe you.”
Ruby Clyde is a self-proclaimed healer. I believe writing can heal and I believe that my good health, despite a dreadful disease, is in large part due to writing Ruby Clyde.
I would like to end this interview with one of my favorite passages in the novel. From Ruby…
Finally, for the first time since waking up in Hot Springs, I felt harmony. How did that happen? We had healed. All of us from different wounds.
I believe places can heal. I believe science can heal. I believe God can heal. And I believe my hands can heal. It is best to use all of the above to get maximum results.”
That is my editor’s favorite line too. I don’t remember writing that, but it is classic Ruby Clyde – she makes a declaration and then tangles herself up trying to make sense of it. But everything is always so obvious to her.
Of course I’m also quite fond of the pet pig. “There are certain advantages to being a pig” and all…
Awww, we do love a pig, yes we do. Was he stolen or was he freed from the indignity of being a performance animal? I also liked that Bunny grows bigger along with Ruby Clyde and that Ruby must, in the end, do what is best for him. Did you see how Bunny took over the cover? What a little piggie.
What is your favorite passage? Or – your favorite thing about the book?
Well, honestly, my favorite thing about the book is that it sold at all, much less to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Doesn’t get much better than that. My favorite passage is the one I quoted above because that was when I met the child who would come to mean so much to me professionally and personally.
I loved the time with you today, Corabel! Thank you!
Thank YOU Jennifer. And thanks for your great blog. Everybody loves it. Just one tiny thing. Don’t tell Bunny we are talking about him on something called Bacon.
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Corabel will launch her novel and celebrate its release at Parnassus on Tuesday, July 25th, at 6:30 pm. All ages welcome!
Please click here for more information: http://www.parnassusbooks.net/event/author-event-corabel-shofner-author-almost-paradise
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Thank you so much, Kate Satz, for introducing me to Corabel.
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Link to catfish photo here.