We talked to writer Cynthia Bond last year after her debut novel, Ruby, was published. For years, Bond wrote in stolen moments from her job helping at-risk youth write their own stories. Like many authors, she was happy just to finally have her book in print. Then, a few months ago, she got “the call.” Oprah, maker of best-sellers, was on the line, effusive in her praise for Bond’s work. A little over a week ago, the secret was announced: media goddess Oprah Winfrey was optioning the film rights to Ruby, and the book would be her latest choice for her now-infamous book club. Instantly, the book soared up the rankings on Amazon from the obscure ranking of 96-thousand-ish to #20, and climbing. We asked Cynthia Bond what it was like to hit the Oprah literary lotto:
KCRW: Where were you when you got “the call?”
CYNTHIA BOND: I was a guest lecturer for a wonderful MFA Writing Program through UC Riverside. My topic was “The Talent of the Room,” which was the title of a Michael Ventura LA Weekly column that I’d read over a decade ago. Basically, the premise of the column (and lecture) was that a writer can be brilliant at dialogue, plot, character, descriptions etc… but if they can’t sit in a room alone and write, they can never finish any writing project. Reading that years ago is what helped me to finish my novel. I had just wrapped up when I got a phone call. I answered and heard, “Hello Cynthia?” “Yes?” Then, “This is Oprah.” I literally screamed like a contestant on a game show. Everyone stopped and gave me strange looks. I shuffled off to a corner and she started talking about my book. I was dumbfounded, speechless. You write, for years, decades, alone—yes, alone in a room. When something like this happens it is such a validating experience. A woman who you have admired for over twenty years, who has been a part of your life, who has inspired you with her courage, who has changed the world for so many young women. Receiving that call from Oprah Winfrey meant that life was going to be very, very different, for my family and my work.
What was the first thing you did after you learned your book would be the book club choice?
Beyond the screaming? I asked [Oprah] if I could tell everyone there, and she said no. She said that the news would be released on the same day that my paperback was due to be released. I couldn’t believe it! I asked if I could tell my mama. She said, “Yes, you can tell your mama.” I called her. She couldn’t believe it. My mother has walked with me through so much. I was crying… She was laughing. It was amazing. The hardest thing was that I couldn’t tell my daughter. There was no way I could ask a 9 year old to keep a secret for about two months!
You worked on your book for so long and it’s got deeply personal roots. How has this sudden swell of attention (and readership) impacted you?
Life is much busier! There are so many stories I want to tell in my life. My grandfather was born in 1866. His father was a slave “owner” and his mother had been a slave. He left and started a family at fourteen and had 17 children. My mother was his last. He was a carpenter and a dowser—finding water for most of the people in Liberty Community. There are stories upon stories upon stories. There are so many parts of this trilogy that I had to put on the shelf. What this means is that I will, very likely, get to keep writing for a living. I’ll always teach at-risk youth, as I’ve done for over 15 years, but I will speak to them as a professional writer. I’ll be an example for them that it’s possible to suffer a very difficult childhood, yet still achieve one’s dreams. I’ll be able to provide for my daughter as well. I have a resource page on my website that lists different organizations that fight against human trafficking and those who aid survivors of child abuse… My hope is that with the increased audience that more people will become active and aware about this issue. I have already been getting messages from survivors of this abuse. One woman wrote to me: “I am Ruby.” That makes all of the difference in my life. It’s why I wrote this book.
What happens for you next?!
I’m working on Book Two now and I’ll be doing a reading, Sunday, March 1st at the LA LGBT Center. I’m looking especially forward to that because I worked there in Youth Services for over nine years. There is a book tour being planned right now and other press events. Really, the cool thing, is that I will be able to be a full-fledged, full-time writer and I get to show my kid that it’s possible to have your dreams come true. That’s better than all of the talking in the world.