Saturday, July 10, 2021

Michelle Ruiz Keil

Michelle Ruiz Keil is a writer and tarot reader with an eye for the enchanted and a way with animals. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, All of Us With Wings, called "...a transcendent journey" by the New York Times and "...a fantastical ode the Golden City's post-punk era" by Entertainment Weekly, was released from Soho Teen in 2019.

Keil's new novel is Summer in the City of Roses.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My second novel was a hard book to name. I wanted a title that was nostalgic, a little dreamy, that somehow held the liminal and the ordinary at once. I like the contrast between "city' and "roses" and the way that combination tells you about a city that might be something like a garden. I also like the way "summer” lets the reader know the scope of the story--one significant season. There was another title originally planned for the book. The only word that remains from the original is "in"--and that's an important one for me. I'm aiming for immersion in my mythic nineteen-nineties Portland summer--and a sense that one summer can change everything.

What's in a name?

Names are a significant part of my worldbuilding. I don't usually start knowing the meaning of a name. That's something I look up after the first draft is done, trying to discover what subconscious clues I've given myself about the people I've created. In Summer In The City of Roses, though, the significance of my protagonists' names was obvious from the start. I like to say my stories' bones are made of fairytales and in this case, I was working with two--the Grimm tale Brother and Sister and Greek myths about Iphigenia and Orestes, siblings of the house Atreides. Because my characters have Greek heritage on their dad's side, I named my sister and brother Iphigenia and Orestes, usually called Iph and Orr. The stories attached to the names led me to many of the elements that make up the book. Iph must be saved from peril by a feminist rescuer who is fond of dogs. In the myth, it's Artemis-- but in my story, it's a bicycle riding genderfluid dandy with a mini-pitiful sidekick. Mythical Orestes is chased by avenging goddess called Furies while my Orr meets a band of angry girls in a punk band with the same name.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Teen me would have been equally delighted and shocked by Summer In The City of Roses, especially by Iph, who embodies some of my deepest teenage secrets. Iph is queer and out--something that did not seem possible in my suburban school in the 80s. Iph is also aware of the racism she experiences in a way that I never allowed myself to be. Back then, "color-blindness" and "multiculturalism" were the fashion. Pointing out racism was seen as ungrateful or impolite. Most of all, though, I think that voracious book-lover teen-aged me would have felt seen by Summer In The City of Roses. I hope some of my readers will, too.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are by far the hardest to write. I revised the first fifty pages of Summer In The City of Roses at least twenty times. Probably more! I rely on rhythm and feel, and need to read my work aloud to edit it. It takes a while to find that in a book. Once I do, things come much more easily.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I'm not educated as a writer but as an actor. Even with characters who are morally repellent, I find some kindred element to write from. The magic of stories is their ability to build empathy. My biggest hope as a writer is to shine a light on the gray areas where things are not morally tidy and easily explained. If we can go there in fiction and understand a villain or have compassion for a character's mistakes, maybe we have a bit more empathy and nuance in our real lives, too.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My books are like a big blender. I do tons of research on the things that fascinate me about the time, place, and people I'm writing about then throw it in and hit “crush". I make playlists, watch films, read biographies and memoirs, and dig deep into whatever mythic or fairytale material I'm using. I listen to music and make endless playlists. For Summer In The City of Roses, there were a few beloved 1990s films that made their way into the story--The Secret of Roan Inish and My Own Private Idaho--plus the entire oeuvre of Marilyn Monroe. I lost myself in research about ancient Artemis cults (lots of bear and bee imagery) and oral histories and memoirs about Pacific Northwest grunge and Riot Grrl bands. I dove into early Portland DIY publishing and Zine culture, 1990s sex work activism, and researched Portland's shameful past treatment of Japanese Americans and its exclusion of Black people from its borders. I also read about depth psychology, sympathetic magic, and alchemy. Finally, I read all the deer myths I could get my hands on. I will admit to being slightly obsessed!
Visit Michelle Ruiz Keil's website.

--Marshal Zeringue