CanLit Fridays: A Chat with Nicholas Ruddock on His New Collection Set in Newfoundland

An Ontario-based author with a Newfoundland connection, Nicholas Ruddock is best known for his highly original novel, The Parabolist (Double Day, 2010), as well as his prowess with short fiction — Ruddock has published more than twenty pieces in literary journals, and is a Journey Prize Anthologee. Breakwater Books just published his new collection.

Tell us your Newfoundland connection. You came here for med school, yes? Was that full of memorable experiences?

There was no medical school in Newfoundland then. I graduated from the University of Toronto (1969) at age 23. I applied for an internship in St. John’s and was accepted. The plane landed over a stormy sea and that was it for me. I was in town for 2 years before going to Fortune Bay as “District Medical Officer”. The south coast was then accessible only by boat. Being incapable of living on my own in a practical way, I was pretty much adopted by Tom and Martha Keeping of Belleoram for the next two years. He was the singer in the local trad band. To say Newfoundland was full of memorable experiences would be an understatement. “How Loveta Got Her Baby”, the book, has a strong sense of community that springs directly from those times and places, but it has no medical content. Well, there’s one or two scenes told from the point of view of a patient . Otherwise, it’s love stories going up, down or sideways.

There are a handful of notable Canadian authors who are also doctors. What if anything do these professions share that might appeal to a doctor like you?

I always wanted to be a writer but it took a long time before I found the voice. So I think (Oh Chekhov) that the writer might be attracted to medicine rather than the other way around. It’s a life full of all the trying moments from birth to death, so you get to learn a lot. Particularly about bravery and optimism, qualities shared by the fictional characters in the book. Writers try to get to the “heart of the matter”; doctors can be there day after day if they pay the right kind of attention. So they go hand in hand, the two professions. But so can waitressing and taxi-driving and staying home with the kids and reading books.

Duane Andrews played at your launch, you seemed like old friends, how did you two meet?

My wife and I have known Duane since 2006 when he played his extraordinary guitar on several albums by the American singer, Kate Schutt. Our daughter Jesse (a.k.a. Koko Bonaparte) co-wrote the lyrics for the albums and Patrick Boyle of St. John’s was also involved, on trumpet. We’ve followed Duane’s career since, trying to catch his performances when we’re in town.

Your story, “How Eunice Got Her Baby,” was a finalist for the coveted Journey Prize. If that’s the title of your acclaimed story, how did the book come to be called “How Loveta Got her baby” instead of Eunice?

Actually, “How Eunice Got Her Baby” wasn’t on the shortlist for the ultimate Journey Prize, due to another one of those jury mistakes we’re all familiar with. But it was in the anthology. “Eunice” subsequently developed a life of her own through film but I’m a special fan, myself, of Loveta Rose Grandy, her mother, the welding boy, the Camaro, the imaginary-erotic-foolish sweetness of that story.

How did Eunice (or Loveta) get their baby?

Eunice, Loveta, and Kiziah (“How Kiziah Got Her Baby” is the third “baby story” in the collection) all get their newborns in unusual ways, but it would not be fair to these girls or women to publicly disclose, outside the book itself, exactly how it happened. Very differently for each.

And the story, “How Eunice Got Her baby,” has been produced as a film, is that correct? Have you seen it? Is that the ultimate compliment: someone spending all that time and money on something you wrote?

I have seen the film and it’s been shown twice in St. John’s, at the Nickel and the Women’s Festival. It’s a short film, twenty minutes long, narrated by Gordon Pinsent and starring the excellent Kate Corbett of Holyrood. Directed by Ana Valine, whom I respect a lot as a director. I have seen the movie. It was done by the Canadian Film Centre, and part of their program is to hand the story over to scriptwriters. These “writers” touched it and changed it so much that it’s unrecognizable to me except for the opening and closing lines, and the title. So it was a mixed blessing for me, after the initial ultimate compliment.

There’s several very, very short stories in the collection? How did you decide to do that?

I love the completeness of the single sentence. Sebald, Naipaul, Joyce, Beckett. I started out trying to emulate such sentences with my daughters, exchanging them by email, in what we called “The Sentence of the Week”. As I stretched my new sentences out in length (commas, the odd semicolon) they became richer and more suggestive. For example, “Shuffle”, in this book: anyone who’s been to a dance with a girl should be able to finish this very story on their own. My wife suggested I enter some of these sentences in contests, they won prizes, and that encouragment got me started in the writing life.

The stories are somewhat linked, yes?

They are linked, yes, but not like sausages, directly. More like dancers bumping into each other in the semi-dark, uncertain of the steps, separating, coming back together.

What else can you tell us about the collection?

Although the stories are set in very particular locations (Middle Cove, Signal Hill, Barter’s Hill, the Battery, Hwy 10) they’re universal stories that should hit home in Mississauga and Calgary, if they get that far. Stylistically, there’s some risk taken in this book, particularly the three stories that are 99% dialogue with unnamed speakers. So it’s a postmodern book clothed in a classical prose and structure. Straighforward writing, but a lot unspoken.

You’ve had more than 20 stories published in reputable literary journals. That’s quite impressive. What is it about the form you’re so drawn to?

I have about 50 stories (enough now for another book,  more “international” in its setting) but my rejection list is far longer and more impressive than my acceptances. I’m pleased about that; it shows perseverance. I don’t give up on a good story, because somewhere there’s a kindred spirit. The story that won the Bridport Prize in England had been rejected here two or three times. Same with “Eunice.” The short form was initially daunting for me after starting out with just those single sentences, but I’m learning to control the focus so it comes to a natural stop/crash/slide somewhere between 2000 and 7000 words. I’ve actually written more in the novel form (The Parabolist, Doubleday 2010, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award) and I have a St. John’s novel also finished, waiting in the wings. “The House on Prescott Street”.  But the attraction for the short story is the tight focus and the quickness, the intensity of the reading experience. I remember Mavis Gallant stories in the New Yorker, never wanting to see the black dot that meant: the end.

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