Q & A

I would be delighted, if you would like to get in touch with me to ask a question or to tell me how you like my books. My e-mail address is ruthkporter@gmail.com and my home phone is 802 229-0691.


Name three of your favorite books.
There are so many books that I love, and for so many reasons, that as soon as I started to answer this question, I was flooded with other answers. But it’s an important question, because if you know what books I love, you will have a good idea about whether you will like my books or not. So here are three that I have loved in recent years—Plainsong by Kent Haruf, The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark, and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I have read the first two twice to myself and once to my mother, and I’m now reading Olive Kitteridge for the second time.
Why do you want to write, or to be a writer?
Those are two very different things in my opinion. You want to write to make something. You want to be a writer to be something. I don’t particularly want to be a writer, but I do have things I want to write. I ask myself why, and I can’t really answer. It’s very hard. It takes an enormous amount of time. You have to give up quite a lot to have enough time for writing. The only real reward I know of is the pleasure you get when you do it well. (Of course, I might give a different answer if I got a lot of attention or a lot of money from my books.) There are those rare times when time and space disappear and you drop into your story, and it just pours out, and the next day you read it over and it’s as though someone else wrote it. Those moments are wonderful. But I don’t think that’s why I want to write. I think I want other people to feel what I have felt, to experience what I have experienced. That might be what I do it for.
What is the most important thing to do if you want to be a writer?
The most important thing is to write as much as possible, to teach yourself to pick up the pencil or sit down at the computer and begin without hesitation, without judgment or worry. The closer you can get to the state of mind you are in when you are asleep and dreaming, the better the writing will be. You can teach yourself that with practice, lots of practice.The second most important thing to do is to read as much as possible, particularly the kinds of books you would like to write. And you can’t let yourself enjoy the magic tricks. You have to try to catch the magician at work, so you can see how the trick is done. That means you have to teach yourself how to read like a writer.
What is the book that has most influenced you as a writer. And why?
One of my favorite books, a book I have read over and over ever since I was a child, is a book called Wild Lone by a man whose pen name is BB. It is one of those books, which works for children and for grown-ups. It’s the story of an English fox, but the writer tries to sense things the way a fox would, rather than making the fox sense things the way a human would. He says that as children we hear and smell and see the way an animal does, although to a lesser degree. He has tried “to guess from childhood memories, how vividly a fox must live.” It is that sense of the present moment and the sensual surroundings that has always fascinated me about that book that I have always known I wanted to imitate.
Do you recommend taking courses in writing?
I don’t really know, since I have only tried to take one course, and I quit after a few sessions. There are two dangers that I see. One is that your writing can start to sound like everybody else’s. I always notice that when I read the literary magazines put out by writing courses. The other danger is that it’s so easy and gratifying to put someone else down, and if people put you down, it’s so hard to get up again. It’s hard enough to keep believing in yourself, without having those damning voices drowning yours out. I think if you had just the right teacher, who was gentle and encouraging and controlled the class, if that person could make you feel like working harder and daring more, then it could be wonderful and make you do more than you believed you had in you. But if the teacher wasn’t like that, I wouldn’t stay. In the class I took they started talking about how everybody cried when it was their turn to be criticized. That was when I left.
What books on writing do you recommend?
After my grandfather died, Scribners put together a book of his letters, Editor to Author, with his advice to writers. The letters are in chronological order, so you have to browse around to find the help you want, but there is lots of good advice there if you look for it. Another book that is very helpful is Little House in the Big Woods, or any of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I’ve always thought if I were going to teach writing, I would make people read one of those books at the very beginning. She describes things so clearly and vividly and simply. She learned to do that by describing things for her sister who was blind. She wanted her sister to see what she saw. She takes the most ordinary stuff of life and makes it so bright and interesting. After reading what she wrote, everyone ought to believe that they could do it too.
How does living in Vermont affect you as a writer?
I don’t think I could write about a place I wasn’t in. I need to see things and feel them so that I can write the way I want to, full of sensual detail. I want to give readers an experience. The best is if later on they aren’t sure whether it was something they read or something that happened to them. For a different kind of writing, it might be an advantage to live somewhere different than the place you are writing about. Besides, I love Vermont. It’s the place I want to explore and to tell people about.
How do you get your ideas of what to write about?
It comes first as an idle thought, something unimportant. My first thought about The Simple Life was that there were wonderful old-time guys around, and that nobody was telling about them. Then that first thought gathers others and keeps working in your mind until you decide to do something with it. Who knows how many other thoughts just disappear.
How do you proceed when you have an idea of what you want to write about?
When I am clear enough to tell myself that I’m going to start working on a book about something, I start writing every day for whatever time I can manage. For a long while I try not to control it. I try to write whatever comes into my head, sensible and not so, and little by little, characters and what happens to them begin to arrive in the pages in between the wrong turns and the doubts and the boring things. The good things tend to stay in my mind, and other things get added to them, and sooner or later I begin to think in chapters.
What advice do you have for writers who have not yet been published?
I can’t give much advice about finding a publisher, since I wasn’t able to find one for myself. I do think I could have found a small press to publish my novels, if I had been willing to make the compromises I would have had to make. Any publisher would have wanted to cut my novels, maybe almost in half, since books all seem to be about 250 pages these days. No one would have wanted the added expense of photographs taken by an unknown. I knew what was right for my books, and I wasn’t willing to turn the control over to someone else. Anyone can do what I did. Anyone who wants can use the Bar Nothing structure to publish his or her own book, and we will be glad to help all we can. It’s a lot of work, but when you finish, it’s all your own.