Friday, April 25, 2008

Author Snapshot: Sandra Ruttan

Titian hair. A deceptively sweet smile. Arms akimbo. Mystery writer and journalist Sandra Ruttan manages these disparate things easily, seemingly without contradiction.

I say this about Sandra Ruttan the author, but it could all be easily translated to what works about her fiction: Sandra Ruttan looks at things from a connected distance. She assesses dispassionately, beautifully, and with a frighteningly delicate care. And then she brings us along.

With her second novel, What Burns Within (Dorchester), just a few days from publication, the editor of Spinetingler magazine and the heft behind At Central Booking contemplates the path that led her to this place... just remember, please, not to call her Susan.

Crimespree Magazine said this author is “talented in the way that a natural musician is talented, making all the notes seem effortless.” We agree, and hold our breath to see what’s next.

A Snapshot of Sandra Ruttan...

Please tell us about your new novel, What Burns Within.
When I was a baby, my mother was walking in Toronto, with my two-year-old sister by the hand and me in her arms. She lost her grip on my sister, and they got separated. A stranger picked my sister up and took her to a police station. Things like that make you realize it’s down to luck. Anyone could have found my sister, but the person who did was a responsible citizen.

The opening scene for What Burns Within came from there. The book was inspired by a real moment in my life, when I realized that anyone could know I was home alone, but saying more would be a bit of a spoiler. That feeling of vulnerability was the seed, and I started to think about how so many people are at risk, every day, without even realizing it, just like that situation with my sister.

When I worked in education it was my responsibility to anticipate danger and protect the children when we did field trips, and once you start writing crime fiction it isn’t hard to imagine the many ways a person can harm another. It made me think about what could have happened all those years ago.

My ex-husband is also a firefighter, so the three main crimes in What Burns Within -- rape, child abductions and arson -- all came out of personal experience. In the book, three RCMP officers who have a history end up working together when their investigations collide and their personal history may get in the way, with devastating consequences.

What’s on your nightstand?
I’m in the midst of moving and packing, so I don't have a nightstand at the moment. But the books I’m keeping in my suitcase are Paying For It by Tony Black and Russell D. McLean’s The Good son.

What inspires you?
News stories, bits of conversation, personal experiences... everything, in other words.

I was on a plane recently, flying from Dallas to Baltimore, and I ended up sitting beside a woman who does national educational testing in the US. By the end of the flight I had her contact information, a resource Web site link and a new book idea. I do keep an ideas file, but it’s more about technical research and contact information, because I find news stories are sometimes taken down or blocked after a certain period of time. I don’t usually look at anything in the file, unless I need to do research, or get in touch with someone. I just wait to see if the idea takes root and starts growing.

What are you working on now?
A stand-alone book I don't want to say too much about, but it isn’t a police procedural. Although a criminal investigation is a part of the book, the focus is on relationships and the things that happen to a person that shape their life and their choices, and how it leaves their life in ruins.

I am also working on the third book in the Nolan, Hart and Tain series... and in that book readers will finally get the full scoop on the investigation the three were working when they met. It’s a story with intersecting timelines when the past finally catches up with the present.

Tell us about your process.
I usually write in the morning, and in the afternoon, and evening. When I’m working on a book I work seven days a week. I don’t pre-plot, so I keep paper and a pen beside my bed and often write illegible notes in the middle of the night, in the dark. I’m obsessive. That said, I do most of my work on the computer, and it’s almost always entirely freeform, minimal pre-plotting. With What Burns Within, the only thing I knew for sure was the last scene of the book.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
Right this moment, an air hockey table, a plastic child-sized chair, a Hogwarts-designed playroom, my nephew Athaniel talking on the phone to his friend, my two-year-old nephew Dashiell grooving to Tom Waits...

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
As a child, from the time I read The Call of the Wild and The Chronicles of Narnia... I guess around the age of seven.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Working with children with speech delays, or other special needs.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
There are three moments tied for this spot. One was when I got my Publishers Weekly review and they said, “The child abduction and sex crime aspects of the story are handled without exploitation or kid gloves.” Although I’m dealing with heavy subjects, I don’t just do that to manipulate the reader, and I was pleased the reviewer sensed that I wasn’t trying to exploit the crimes in the book for shock value.

The second moment was when Sean Chercover phoned me after reading The Frailty of the Flesh, the second Nolan, Hart and Tain book [coming November 2008 from Dorchester]. Sean told me he had tears running down his face. I knew then that the book had the strong emotional impact for others that it had for me.

The third was when my boyfriend made a remark about Craig Nolan. It was an off-hand thing, but Brian completely understood the character and sensed where I was ultimately going with him. Since we’d never discussed the character or my long-range plans, it was a great moment. It’s very rewarding when someone gets what you’re trying to do with your work, though it probably speaks to what a close reader Brian is more than anything.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
The evolution of ideas. I have so many ideas it would take me ten years to write them all if I started on them right now, and I’d be scared to think of how many new ideas I’d develop before I finished the current list.

What’s the most difficult?
The politics, all the expectations people start putting on you, what you can and can’t blog about, can and can’t say in an interview, review, etc. Some seem to think you should stop being a person and just be a product. If I wanted that, wouldn’t I have set my sights on Hollywood? The pay is better. It seems the best way to survive is to be nothing but a smile, have no strong opinion about anything, never take a stand. And that runs counter to my nature. I don’t do wishy-washy.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Where my ideas come from, I guess, but I don’t mind. Usually something interesting sparked them, and that’s why I wrote the story.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received.

What question would you like never to be asked again?
I appreciate any interest in my work and will answer pretty much any question, but I guess if there’s one question that drives me mental it’s one I get asked in life regularly, not in interviews. For the record I am not related to Susan Ruttan. I don’t know her, I was not on L.A. Law and I don’t find it funny when people call me Susan.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I’m sure a few people know that as a child, I had recurring nightmares about Hamburglar.

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