EXCLUSIVE AUTHOR Q & A
Freshman year of college is a life-changing experience, and returning home afterwards can seem entirely surreal. With so many changes in such a short time, it’s difficult to explain this time period, but local Atlanta writer Zoe Fishman does so in her new book “Saving Ruth.”
Returning home after a year of college, main character Ruth faces many challenges and is forced to discover more about herself as she leaves childhood behind.
In an interview, Fishman described the inspiration behind the book and how she imprints her own life in the pages of her work.
Atlanta Jewish Times: Your latest novel, “Saving Ruth,” was released this May. Did you set out with a plan on how to write the book, or did it evolve as you were writing?
Zoe Fishman: I am a big outliner, so before I write anything, I sit down and plan out what’s going to happen in each chapter so that I have a reference while writing. Every once in a while, the characters will take on a different direction organically or my editor will ask me if I want to change something.
But for the most part, the first draft I write stays pretty much according to the original plan just because I spend so much time trying to plan it out before I dive in.
AJT: In “Saving Ruth,” a Southern girl moves up North to go to college. That’s really familiar to readers, especially myself. Is your move from Alabama to college in Boston reflected in Ruth’s move up North?
ZF: [It’s] very, very similar. I had never really left home before, so when I went to Boston, I had never visited the school, just decided to go there at [the] last minute.
When I got to [Boston University], I met tons of people from different parts of the country, my eyes were opened up, and it was similar to Ruth. That first summer home was very strange for me.
AJT: While writing the book, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
ZF: The book is personal to me. Ruth is very much like me, and we have very similar stories. Her family and friends are not my family and friends, but you write what you know, so it was very difficult for me not to expose people against their will.
As a writer, you have these relationships, and it seems almost unfair to bring people into your stories without their permission. I tried to be very conscious of not doing that.
AJT: As a college student, I felt drawn to this book. Who was your intended audience?
ZF: My dream for this book was that people my age – 35 and older – would read it and say, “I remember being 19,” and [the book would] strike a really endearing chord. To hear from you that you liked it and to hear from book bloggers who are around my age like it means everything to me.
So the crossover, getting both the older and younger women to appreciate it, was my dream and goal.
AJT: Part of what I love about “Saving Ruth” is how tangible and relatable she is. How did you create her character?
ZF: One of the pleasures about being a writer is that you can expose yourself as much as you want on the page. I just really channeled who I was at 19, to be honest.
Also, I suffered from an eating disorder, much like Ruth, and not too severely. I wanted to portray that realness of an eating disorder, but also being rational enough to know that you need to stop.
AJT: Are there aspects of yourself that you placed in Ruth without realizing it?
ZF: The last time I read the novel, there was such a sweetness about Ruth. She’s on the brink of figuring out who she wants to be, and there is this sweetness and innocence behind that sarcastic, smart-ass persona she’s created for herself.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that same behavior in myself, and reading about Ruth made it even more obvious that beneath the toughness was a boiling pot of insecurities.
AJT: I really enjoyed reading about the other characters, like Khaki, and how those people shaped Ruth’s life and influenced the book, especially her brother David. Who is your favorite character?
ZF: I really like Khaki. I could just see her so clearly as I was writing her.
I had such love for everyone in the book because it was so personal for me. As I was writing, I was kind of back in that moment of being 19 years old, so everybody to me is loved. I don’t think there is any character who I dreaded writing about.
AJT: I thought it was interesting how Ruth’s parents seem to avoid and turn a blind eye to her eating disorder. Why did you choose this behavior for her parents, or were you saying something more about society?
ZF: I chose that behavior because my parents didn’t know how to confront my eating disorder. I liked portraying the way Ruth’s mom deals with Ruth’s eating disorder because part of her brain is wired into society and that image determines someone’s worth.
She’s struggling with these problems as a 55-year-old woman, and I think it’s very interesting that she was worried but also thought [that Ruth] looked great and would get out of it.
AJT: In the novel, you combine themes of racism, body image and coming of age. Why did you choose to highlight these issues in a young woman’s life?
ZF: I chose those issues because, growing up as a Jewish girl in Alabama, thsoe were the issues that were most prevalent to me.
Racism wasn’t everywhere, but there was always a slight undercurrent and friends of mine definitely were outwardly racist. Because Ruth knows she’s Jewish and different, I think that fed directly into her body image issues because she looks so different from everyone else and doesn’t consider herself attractive.
Once she gets to college and is around other Jewish people or [others] from the Northeast who have dark, curly hair and they look like her, all of the sudden she is attractive. All of those issues in the book are rolled into one for Ruth.
AJT: If a college-age girl reads “Saving Ruth,” what do you hope she will gain from the book?
ZF: I hope that she will read the book and be able to relate to Ruth. I think that having confidence in who you are and knowing you’re on a journey to figuring it out is really important.
I think that what you will or will not tolerate, what you deserve and how you should be treated depends on believing in yourself before you expect anyone else to believe in you. Confidence and patience are my two hopes for college-age women.
AJT: What do you hope to accomplish as a writer within the next 10 years?
ZF: It would be amazing to publish a book every year and a half and increase my fan base as much as I can. I would love to take some time to devote to writing the kind of novel that goes beyond my immediate experience and that I really have to research and focus on.
I love writing things that are close to me, and I feel blessed that other people can relate to these stories, but to be able to take a story and put it in another world would be a great dream of mine.
AJT: When did you move to Atlanta?
ZF: I moved to Atlanta last August after being in New York for 13 years.
AJT: How do you like the Atlanta Jewish community?
ZF: I like it a lot. I’m excited to forge my family’s own path and figure out what makes sense for our son and us.
I definitely am impressed with and amazed by the depth of the community. It was a much smaller community in Alabama and in Atlanta it’s very prominent and close knit.
By Jessie Miller