I’ve been reading a lot of bare bones writing lately, which I’ve enjoyed, but sometimes you start to miss colourful adjectives and complex sentences. This is where Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni came in.
Ruby’s Spoon takes place in the fictional Black Country town of Cradle Cross, in the 1930s. It doesn’t technically involve magic, but it has some mysterious folktale elements running through it that appealed to me (witches and mermaids!).
It’s hard to describe Pietroni’s writing as anything other than musical – her words follow a clear, resounding rhythm and each sentence could be its own little poem (which is why I took a while to get into the groove of reading her). It makes sense that the village kids chant schoolyard songs to taunt Ruby, the book’s lonely teenage heroine. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pietroni was able to so honestly describe her own writing for me instead of jumping on the self-deprecating bandwagon. Oh, and she wrote part of Ruby’s Spoon in a garden shed (see, writers? All you need is a shed!).
What are you reading right now?
Sarah Bakewell’s ‘How to live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ and Jackie Kay’s short story collection, ‘Wish I was here’. I’m also rereading ‘The Secret Garden’ (Frances Hodgson Burnett) and slowly savouring ‘The Gift of Stones’ by Jim Crace.
What’s the last book you read that made you think, “I wish I’d written that?”
I don’t really think that way – I tend to marvel – but if I did, it would be ‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels.
Are there any books you feel you “should” read but don’t really want to read?
Ulysses, James Joyce.
Do you have a favourite fictional character?
I love Dicey Tillerman and come back to ‘Dicey’s Song’ (Cynthia Voigt) whenever I can. She’s stubborn, fierce, loyal and totally engaging.
Are you writing anything now?
I’m in the very early stages of a new story about a family in Severnsea in the late nineteenth century. It’s set in the same fictional universe as ‘Ruby’s Spoon’, but I’m so happy to be writing about the coast after living with Ruby’s yearning for the last few years.
Do you have to write in the same spot all the time?
Not at the moment, because I’m in the very early stages of writing a new story and this part of the process is very fragmented. I like to work where there are people. When my children were younger and I wasn’t getting much sleep, I wrote at a café that sold coffee in a pint cup with two handles. That helped, along with the fact that it’s not polite to put your head down on the table for a quick snooze in a café.
When I’m further into the writing, I like to work in the same place: I wrote much of the final draft of ‘Ruby’s Spoon’ in a shed at the bottom of my garden where there were no distractions, my books and papers were close at hand and I could dash back to the house to fill the kettle when I needed more tea.
Who reads your earliest drafts?
‘Ruby’s Spoon’ was the first extended piece of prose I’d written, and right at the beginning I’d thrust every new paragraph on anyone who showed an interest. When I had something approaching a draft, I showed it to a friend who’s a literary agent, and she and her assistant read and commented on every iteration that followed. When I have a proper draft of the next story I’ll share it with them, but otherwise I’ll keep it to myself.
How often do you come back to rework sentences?
When I first started writing in earnest, I was seduced into thinking that I had to get the words right straight away: it felt easier to labour over a sentence than to do the freewheeling exploratory writing that allows the characters to tell their stories. But later on, I found myself reworking less and less – just a bit of culling. Some sentences spill out and never get touched again. These are incredibly rare and when they appear it feels like magic.
Do you read fiction while you’re writing?
Hardly at all, unless it’s relevant to what I’m writing. I might read something I’ve read repeatedy before (like Sara Paretsky’s fabulous V. I. Warshawski books, or Harriet the Spy).
Do you think you have your own writing style?
Oh yes, whether I like it or not.
How would you describe it?
Lavish and rhythmic. I admire lean prose with clean lines, like Tove Jansson’s writing – her touch is so light and the detail sings – but I suspect I’ll always write about dirt under the fingernails and get excited about metaphor. There is a strong rhythm in my head that can be a bit tyrannical and dictates the number of syllables a sentence must have, but I’m grateful for it.
ABOUT RUBY’S SPOON
This story came out of a writing exercise with the prompt words “spoon, button factory, witch, fire.” Were those really the only words?
My mum suggested ‘sleepy’ as well as ‘button factory’ because I kept yawning, but I rejected that word early on. I still have the piece of paper. I was doing a short writing course and we were given the task of writing the opening pages of a novel by the end of the week. Isa Fly turned up in the button shop in those first pages, and Captin, and Ruby in the chip shop. It wasn’t a fully formed story: it had the title and these characters from the start, but it took five and a half years to get from that little sketch to the final draft.
Which word was most important in inspiring the story?
It’s really hard to pick one out. The four elements were so enmeshed from the beginning. I can’t isolate one from the others. Strangely, ‘spoon’ was the least significant at first – in that first sketch it was just something Isa used for sorting buttons, but in the end it arguably became the most important.
How much did your childhood hometown influence the fictional town here, Cradle Cross?
It was hugely influential. Cradle Cross took on its own shape and identity, but certain elements of Halesowen – the steep hills, the backyard nail-making – found their way into the narrative almost unchanged. When I was growing up there was a cake shop in the town that looked like it was sinking into a hill, and that was the starting point for Maison Hester’s; parts of the Lean Hills can be mapped onto the Clent Hills and I know precisely where Ruby’s house, Hunting Tree, should stand. I consciously chose – and sometimes doctored – names from the area that held some meaning for me. Ludleye, for example, is the old name for Lutley, the part of town where I grew up and where (I recently discovered) my ancestors lived and worked nail-makers, just a few hundred yards from our house.
Cradle Cross is a place in a specific time, and it was shaped more by my grandad’s tales of growing up in the 1930s than by my own experience of the town in the 1970s and ’80s. He was born in a street next to Grove’s Button Factory and his descriptions of the smell of the horn on rainy days set the tone from the beginning.
Can you explain the importance of representing the Black Country dialect and accent?
Once I’d realized that I had to write about my hometown – or at least revisit it to find my way into writing in a more concrete, less folktale way – the characters started to speak this way. I found that I couldn’t compel them to speak differently and I didn’t want to. It’s an idea or suggestion of the dialect rather than a transcription – there is no single Black Country dialect, and it varies from town to town – so I limited myself to a few critical words like ‘cor’ for ‘can’t’ and ‘day’ for ‘didn’t’. My parents don’t speak in dialect but I grew up hearing it and you don’t forget those cadences of speech.
Is/Was the Cut really so dirty?
There are old canals somewhere in my hometown, but I wasn’t aware of them until I started writing Ruby’s Spoon. My sense of the Cut comes from reading about living and working on canals in the early part of the twentieth century, from what my mom told me and from seeking them out as an adult. I know people are working hard to make them thrive again now, but I find neglected canals ominous and troubling, just like Ruby.
Anna Lawrence Pietroni in the Black Country