Publishers Weekly calls Ilie Ruby’s debut novel, The Language of Trees, “A haunting, lyrical story of love, loss, and second chances….” And her story of how it came to be published is a story of second chances, too. Enjoy! – Meg
Remember “Are you there God?It’s me Margaret?” by Judy Blume? Recall earnest Margaret, who was always praying her heart out to hurry up her life? Well, that was me—at 11, at 16, at 25, 35 and at 40. I always felt that things should happen faster in my life. Consequently, I learned to work very hard in order to catch up. But life had other plans for me.
I married my husband at 39, became a mother at 42, and an author at 43. These were all things that were supposed to have happened in my 20s. But if age has taught me one thing it is this: there is such a thing as perfect timing. And a little magic and synchronicity don’t hurt either. And sometimes if you are very patient and lucky, things happen all at once.
I have a stubborn nature. I inherited my Depression-era grandfather’s hard-headed work ethic. Don’t dare stop until your work is finished. I knew I wanted to be a writer early on. When I was 5, I wrote a letter to the tooth fairy in which I was gunning for a typewriter. I actually tried to convince her to raise her payment for one of my front teeth so that I could buy a blue plastic typewriter I had my eye on. It seemed like a fair deal to me. After all, it was a front tooth. Prime real estate. I started my first book when I was in 2nd grade and worked on it consistently until I was a senior in high school. I still have those pages locked in a box in my office, a testament to a sticktuitiveness that would help me muscle my way through the jungle of burgeoning writers.
When I was 26, I enrolled in The University of Southern California’s Professional Writing Program, where I became fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology. It was all going swimmingly until one fateful day in a writing workshop I had a short story ravaged by wolves. When I left, barely able to speak, a friend suggested that the best revenge was revision. I dotted some i’s, crossed some t’s, and stubbornly decided I was happy with it as it was. I tossed the story into a box marked “contest”, (not knowing what contest it actually was). A few weeks later I received a phone call: “Congratulations, your story has just won the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction chosen by T.C. Boyle! The biggest award at USC.” I received a huge prize, a small amount of satisfaction, won a few other awards after that, and gained the attention of my agent, Sally Wofford-Girand.
I began writing my novel, The Language of Trees, when I was 32. At that point, I asked myself, could a writer really have more than one consuming love at a time? I didn’t think so. And I vowed to put my plans for my life on hold until my book was published. Love, work, children, all would have to wait. I wrote the book quickly, and edited it laboriously. It began with the voice of the spirit of little boy, Luke Ellis, who had drowned in Canandaigua Lake. The story followed the journey of a Seneca healer who had just come off of a divorce and now, with the help of the spirit, was drawn into the frantic search for a missing teenage girl. I wrote this book in a language I understood and that resonated with me. The narrative voice of Luke Ellis, the spirit, took over the story as nature and the spiritual realm intertwined. I made it through 150 pages or so with this character running rampant throughout the town of Canandaigua and taking me through his spirit world. I wrestled with the character until I realized that I wasn’t so much interested in creating an imaginary world of spirits than I was in creating a real world that was innately spiritual.
I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the first half of the book. I cut 50 pages. Luke was still very much a leading character, and he still had a voice—just not a predominant one. But as I cut back his character, suddenly his ethos infused every page. Suddenly things started to click. The vernacular evolved into one of magical realism and began to affect the language, the plot, and the atmosphere. The trees, the grass the landscape all took on a mystical quality. As Isabel Allende says, if you are aware of the magical occurrences in everyday life, the unexplainable coincidences, the synchronicities, the power of dreams and nature, then it comes through naturally in your writing.
I finished the book and sent it to my agent. She loved the book, compared it to Alice Hoffman (one of my literary idols) and sent it out. But after several close calls and glowing rejections, we were back at the drawing board. Magical realism was a hard sell in those days. Still, Sally encouraged me.
I wrote and rewrote in isolation. I created version after version. Then, for the first time in my life, I stopped writing. I put the book aside and focused on getting my life back. I found a new love and married him. We bought a house, settled in and planned to start a family. I had always been interested in Africa, and began doing charity work there. I fell in love with the country and the people, flying back and forth three times in six months and making plans to adopt. Once back at home, while unpacking boxes in my brand new office I uncovered several old versions of The Language of Trees and set them on my desk. The sheer volume of paper was daunting. Then something miraculous happened. A friend from my writing program came to visit me from Manhattan. I showed her my office, in particular my coral colored walls and new walnut floors. But her eyes locked on something else: my manuscripts! “Is that the book?” she asked, with a wild look in her eye. “Yes, but…” And that was all she needed to hear. She grabbed a manuscript, tucked it under her arm, ran down the stairs, and out the door. She jumped in her car, and drove off, back to Manhattan with me running after her down my driveway. I stood there for a moment, feeling bereft.
Two weeks later, she called me. “Ilie, this is a beautiful book. Get it to your agent right away. It needs to be published.”
I began editing this version with painstaking care. I knew there was magic at work here.
I called Sally, my agent, wondering if she was, in fact, still my agent. And she was. It had been years. But she told me to send her the book right away. She adored it. She loved the constellation of love stories, the mysticism, and the grounded, relatable characters who were both confounded and saved by difficult choices and ultimately love. But by the time Sally sent out the manuscript, I was back in Africa. I was busy making other plans.
My husband and I made the decision to adopt 3 children from Africa. Then, not three weeks after, I received news that my novel had been accepted for publication by Avon Harper Collins. That little girl who had prayed so long and hard for things her life to happen couldn’t have imagined that they would happen all at once! I became a new mom to three and a new author within just a few months. My children arrived in February of 2008 and soon after I started working with my editor, Lucia Macro, at Avon. I finalized my book while sitting in the bleachers at my daughter’s soccer practice, on the bench at the playground, and between my littlest one’s feedings. In hindsight, I couldn’t have written this ending, or beginning, any better. – Ilie]] >