Please welcome Bee Ridgway to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The River of No Return was published on April 23, 2013. You may read Bee's moving Guest Blog here.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Bee: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Bee: When I was six or seven my mother went back to school to get an MFA in creative writing. She cleared a bit of the basement and she sat down there banging away on an electric typewriter. After she got her degree she started teaching creative writing workshops in my hometown, and I often sat in on them, all the way up through high school. She is a brilliant teacher, and I owe a huge amount to her and to her courage in pursuing her art. I stopped writing fiction after college, though, and didn’t start again until a week before my 40th birthday, when I sat down and began writing THE RIVER OF NO RETURN. I thought a lot about my mother and that old electric typewriter as I worked hour after hour on my nearly silent laptop. She dedicated herself to writing when she was in her early forties . . . maybe I just needed to live a big chunk of my life before I knew what I wanted to write.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Bee: If I don’t start writing by 10 am I won’t write all day. But if I do start by 10 am I can write all day and into the night.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Bee: I am totally and completely a pantser! Every day I make myself write until I don’t know what happens next. So in other words I write until I reach some sort of emotional or action-based cliff-hanger. Then I go to sleep and usually when I wake up I know how to continue. It’s not that I know what happens next, exactly, but I know what the next move needs to be.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Bee: Staying healthy while I’m in it. While I was writing my novel my health regime went to pot. I didn’t exercise, I ate too much, I skipped haircuts . . . it was intense! I turned down invitations from friends and stopped reading, going to movies, going for walks. Since only two people in my entire life knew what I was doing, everyone else thought I had fallen into some sort of pit of despair. In fact I was having more fun than I ever thought humanly possible. I’m trying to balance things out more as I work on the next novel.
TQ: Describe The River of No Return in 140 characters or less.
Bee: A Georgian lord jumps in time & thinks he’s stuck, but “The Guild” helps him return. True love, swashbuckling & hints of apocalypse ensue.
TQ: What inspired you to write The River of No Return?
Bee: There are several answers to this question, since I wrote the first scene seven years before the rest of the novel came spilling out, and it sat buried deep in my computer’s hard drive, slowly building pressure. But what caused me to sit down a week before my 40th birthday and start writing a novel that then came out in a rush, like water bursting a dam? I think the answer is that I was unhappy and I didn’t even know it. I love my job, my city, my family. But I had lost the sense that I was living my life creatively. Actually, to be honest, I had lost that sense years ago, but I didn’t know it was gone and so I didn’t know to miss it. But some part of me must have known, and must have pushed me into the deep-end of writing. I describe it that way because the decision to write was not a conscious decision at all, but more like an irresistible physical impulse. One day I was living my old life, and thinking that I was content, and the next day I found myself hunched over a laptop, crashing through a big, fun, fast-paced adventure novel. Before that first day (July 23, 2011) was over I knew that my life had changed.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The River of No Return?
Bee: Since I am a scholar of 19th century literature, a lot of the history I engage was already familiar to me. And since I am a reader of genre fiction, the various genres I engage were also familiar to me. But my characters have to dress and move around in space and speak and eat and otherwise engage a detailed world of minutiae that wasn’t so familiar to me. I did a lot of research into the quotidian details of everyday life in Georgian Britain. But I also decided early on that, since this was a time travel novel, I needed to find a way to make my reader feel the uncanny nature of time. I decided to imbed dozens of little references to the literature I study and know so well throughout the book. My friend Kathy describes them as “Easter eggs” hidden throughout the text. But although some of them are very obvious, I would rather that most of them go by completely unnoticed, except perhaps to make the reader feel an almost unconscious pull backward through the prose itself. A sense that there are some little currents in the prose, whispering from other times and other voices than my own. In order to achieve that, I had to research, I had to return to texts I read long ago, and I had to work hard to make sure the seams between my voice and the voice I’m borrowing are almost invisible.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Bee: Nick, my main male character, was the easiest. He was the one who turned up in my head seven years before the rest of the novel arrived, and he led the way through the story. He is a jovial companion, easy to get along with. His self-doubts never crippled my writing, and his insouciance helped me keep going when I was tired. The person who was difficult was Julia, my main female character. In the first draft she was – to be perfectly honest – an airhead. She really was almost obnoxiously dim. I revised every single sentence that she speaks, or that describes her, at least twice before she finally sprang up and joined the rest of the characters in complexity. For the final few revisions she was a delight to work with, just like Nick. But my early difficulties with Julia really surprised me. I am an intelligent woman, I teach at a women’s college, I teach literature by and about women. My sisters and my mother and my female friends are all perfectly brainy. In fact, it’s rare to meet a woman making her way through life, making choices and keeping body and soul together who isn’t at least reasonably sharp and interesting. I’m constantly meeting fascinating women in real life. And Nick is an intelligent character who wouldn’t want to shack up with a dim bulb. So why was Julia so stubbornly shallow at first?
I have a rather long answer to that question. Let me begin by reminding you, or perhaps informing you, of “The Bechdel Test.” The Bechdel Test is cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s guide for how to choose a film to watch, and the horrifying thing is, very few films pass the test. Here are the criteria a film has to meet in order to pass the test: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
The reason I bring this up is because many, many very good movies and very good books do not pass this test. Movies and books I love. And they don’t pass this test because even though the novel as we have inherited it from the 18th century is a form that is all about inventing the middle class woman and therefore the story of the middle class itself, you don’t need more than one or maybe two women in a novel for action to be instigated by her and to proceed on her behalf or in her name. The good woman, the bad woman, the woman in danger. Stuff happens to her or around her but really, all she has to do to start a story going is walk on and stand there with a sign around her neck that reads “Virgin” or “Whore” or “Mom” or “MILF” or “Dead Girl” or whatever. For many plots – good plots, plots we love -- a woman is absolutely necessary, but she doesn’t have to do very much. She is like the rising agent in a cake. Essential, but you shouldn’t taste her.
So I knew that about novels and women. I’d noticed it in many books and films, I’d laughed about the Bechdel Test, I’d read countless student papers that critique shallow female characters or get excited about complex ones. And yet, when I sat down to write a novel that moved among genres and that needed to be plot driven, I wrote a shallow woman to begin with. Making Julia have flavor, and more than that, have character that could and should and would move action, was hard. It was also very fun, and a real awakening for me about how genre works, how plot works, and how hard it is to do the thing we’re always critiquing other writers for not doing. I’m very happy with Julia now, and I’ll always be grateful to her for teaching me what she did.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The River of No Return?
Bee: My favorite scene is one of the last I wrote. I’ll call it the paper airplane scene. You’ll know it when you reach it. I like it because it feels like my two main characters are simply at home in themselves. I’ve just told you how hard I had to work at making Julia herself. It was a pleasure to write this late-comer of a scene when she was really in place and fully fledged. It’s actually not a scene in which she does much! But I knew who she was and that was great.
TQ: What's next?
Bee: I’m hard at work on the sequel to THE RIVER OF NO RETURN. Its working title is BROTHERS AND SISTERS. It stays in the world I’ve created for the first novel, and like the first novel it is centered around a love story. This means that Julia and Nick become secondary characters, and a new pair of lovers move into the foreground. So far it’s just as much fun to write as the first novel, and since I learned so much from working on THE RIVER OF NO RETURN, some things about it are much easier.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Bee: Thank you. It is such an honor to be invited.
About The River of No Return
The River of No Return
Dutton Adult (Penguin), April 23, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 464 pages
In Bee Ridgway’s wonderfully imaginative debut novel, a man and a woman travel through time in a quest to bring down a secret society that controls the past and, thus, the future.
“You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.” Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life's advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman.
In 1815, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather, an earl who could play with time. On his deathbed he whispers in her ear: “Pretend!” Pretend what? When Nick returns home as if from the dead, older than he should be and battle scarred, Julia begins to suspect that her very life depends upon the secrets Grandfather never told her. Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance.
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