Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Sandra Ruttan, Author of The Spying Moon

Sandra Ruttan is a walking disaster. She has been hit by a car, had a foot partially severed, fell down a waterfall and survived a car crash in the Sahara Desert. There is absolutely no explanation for how she's managed to stay alive as long as she has. Ruttan has five published mystery novels, including Harvest of Ruins, What Burns Within and Suspicious Circumstances. Her next book, The Spying Moon, is due out September 2018 from Down & Out Books. Get the latest news from her author Facebook page @sandraruttanauthor or her website

That’s the official bio. The Sandra Ruttan people meet in real time is a tireless supporter of writers on multiple levels with no mean level of talent herself. How she finds time to do all the things she does is imposing enough, but she still found time to sit down with me and talk about The Spying Moon.

One Bite at a Time: First, welcome to the Down & Out Books family. I hope you enjoy working with Eric and Lance and everyone as much as I have. How did you get together with them?

Sandra Ruttan: Sandra Seamans posted on her blog about Down & Out being open for submissions a few years ago. I took the deadline as a challenge and submitted. I got an offer for publication and it’s been a fantastic experience. Really wonderful working with people who are committed to the genre and making each book shine.

OBAAT: Give us the meat and potatoes of your new book, The Spying Moon, in a hundred words or less. (And I will count.)

SR: Constable Moreau is stuck on an assignment she doesn’t want, with a bunch of colleagues who want nothing to do with her. Even the case she’s supposed to be working is hijacked by the death of a local teen. When everyone seems to have an agenda or a bad attitude, it’s hard to know who to trust, and that already isn’t easy for Moreau. As an orphan she’s been isolated her whole life and she has to learn to trust her instincts, as well as some members of her team, to solve this case. (Editor’s Note: 94 words. Well done.)

OBAAT: The Spying Moon takes place in a small town in southern British Columbia. You’re a Canadian expat living in the United States now, but I believe you’re a Toronto native. What made you choose this location?

SR: I’m not quite a Toronto native. I grew up in Muskoka, which is a district north of Toronto. It’s cottage country. Sixteen hundred lakes in an area that’s 2500 square miles. Most of my life I’ve been a rural girl. As an adult, I moved out west. I spent three years living on a Gulf Island, several years living in Calgary, and I also lived in the Greater Vancouver Area for a few years. I’ve driven through British Columbia many times. It’s such a great province, but it has some unique challenges. Weather, mountains, First Nations land… There’s also a rich history of smuggling across the 49th parallel. British Columbia makes a little more sense than Alberta for that type of story because of the ports and proximity to Seattle. Think about when the G8 summit was in Kananaskis. I love Kananaskis. One of my favorite places to go hiking, between Banff and Calgary. But they were able to shut down protesters because it’s harder to get to a place like that without going through airports. British Columbia has a long coastline. And a history of feet washing up on shores without bodies. How can I not set crime fiction there?

OBAAT: The Spying Moon’s protagonist of RCMP Constable Kendall Moreau. She’s the child of a white father and an Aboriginal mother who raised Kendall along until she disappeared and the child was whisked into a series of foster homes. Where did the idea for her come from?

SR: I went to school with kids who lived on what we then called Indian Reservations. One of my best friends in high school was part Native. There’s a lot of prejudice and a real lack of understanding about Native cultures and communities. Did you know that the most at-risk group in Canada is Native women? Nobody is more likely to be murdered than they are.

The fact that so many have disappeared or been denied justice because of indifference to the issue is Canada’s shame. It’s also a motivation for Moreau. Her mother disappeared on BC’s Trail of Tears. It’s a real place and real problem, although Moreau’s mother is a fictional character. The fact that anywhere from 19 to 40 or more women have gone missing or been killed there and there has only been prosecution in one case is staggering. The police can’t even verify all the potential victims. And we’re wondering why First Nations people might not trust the government? The list of injustices is too long to cover. We can’t fix everything from the past, but we can stop perpetuating the injustices in the future. If we don’t do that every apology is just words.

With Moreau, I wanted to be able to touch on these issues. At the same time, I wanted Moreau to have her own alienation. Her father (a white man) raped her mother. She doesn’t know him. Her very origins stem back to the abuse of Native women.

Then there’s the whole residential school issue. Native children were stripped from their families and lost their sense of identity and cultural heritage. Moreau isn’t taken in the same way, but when her mother disappears she’s lost in the system. This book is very much about her starting the journey of finding out who she is. In no way would I ever be so arrogant as to say I understand what Native children who were residential school victims went through. Moreau can only highlight how being denied your history and heritage can damage you. Think about it. We’re sending our DNA to Ancestry and searching for long-lost relatives to connect. These people lost their lands, their families, their cultural identity. It was stolen from them. In her own way, Moreau is lost and she represents things in my own life in a symbolic way. She’s the protagonist I feel closest to, of all the ones I’ve written, and yet she’s the hardest to know because she’s been victimized in a way that cuts right to the core of understanding who she is as a person.

Sadly, Moreau’s state at the start of the novel means that I don’t get to use her as a conduit for referencing great Aboriginal music. While I’m listening to A Tribe Called Red, Susan Aglukark, Iskwe and others, she isn’t. Yet. I’ve got Prolific the Rapper with A Tribe Called Red Black Snakes playing right now. Burn Your Village To The Ground is next. Iskwe did a song called Will I See that was a response to the murder of a 15-year old First Nations girl. ( It feels like this should be in the background, but it would be a cheat because Moreau has only thought of finding out what happened to her mother for her whole life. She’s held on to what little she remembers about Willow Moreau and the kind of person Willow was raising her to be. She hasn’t been able to let anything else in. This is why she puts her personal issues aside and focuses on the case, and it’s really hard to get much insight into how she thinks and feels because she isn’t putting on music or talking about movies or friends or sharing personal details. She just buckles down and focuses on work. Her whole life has been about one thing. What happens if she never gets the answers she seeks? Can she survive that?

OBAAT: Cultural appropriation is a hot topic lately, especially in Canada. What concerns did you have and precautions in writing did you take when writing a protagonist who is First Nation?

SR: "The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture." That's how the Cambridge dictionary defines cultural appropriation. I think the key starting point here is with the definition. Moreau is mixed race, which puts her in a slightly different category. The other consideration is intent. If I have a mission, it's to raise awareness for how Indigenous people have been mistreated and the issues that are facing Indigenous people. And what I lack in understanding I hope I make up for in respect.

Cultural appropriation can be a real issue. It can also be a deterrent that keeps people from including characters of different ethnic backgrounds in their works. I would never say that a man can't write a story from a woman's perspective. Some men might betray some of their own... misunderstandings about women, but that's down to how an individual man deals with the issue. Same with women writing men. We don't live in androgynous, monochromatic worlds. In order to truly represent society we need to be able to incorporate people with different backgrounds.

With Moreau, I'm coming at this from a place of wanting to know more. When I researched one of my novels 13 years ago, one of the RCMP officers I was able to learn from was part Native, part French. I've been fortunate to have people talk to me that could help me prepare to write different characters. The biggest issues I see are with writers who bring in Indigenous people or people from different ethnic groups to make them the obvious bad guy, or people who write about different ethnic groups with a clear bias against them. I've been fortunate enough to travel widely. I've been to over 25 different countries on four continents. I've tried to maintain a respectful attitude in those travels. If it was offensive to the local people to show your knees then I made sure to wear a skirt that covered my knees. I never traveled with the attitude that I was there to stuff my culture down anyone's throat. You travel to learn and experience different things.

Stories are another way of traveling. We can go places we might not otherwise visit and experience things that aren't part of our everyday experience. In my travels I've been fortunate enough to visit the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territories and Alaska. I've been to Tuktoyuktuk. I've seen beluga meat being stripped and smoked to prepare for winter. Do I understand what it is to live there year-round? No. Can I enrich someone's understanding of different cultures and customs by sharing about what I've seen or learned?

I really, truly hope that I write my characters in such a way that it honors Indigenous people. I hope we see more Indigenous crime fiction authors we can enjoy. We do have a tendency, as a society, to commercialize cultures and limit them. Ask Adrian McKinty how he feels about leprechauns and Lucky Charms representing Irish culture. Ask a Canadian how they feel about being mistaken for being American. (I have to be honest - most Americans can't tell with me.) Ask a New Zealander how to they feel about being mistaken for being Australian. I met a gal once and I'd recently been traveling and inside of a minute I put out my guess on her accent and she was shocked that I didn't say Australian first. It really pleased her that I recognized where she was from.

I think... I hope... that everyone feels positive when someone is trying to present their race positively and with respect. It's like kids with Cabbage Patch dolls, wanting to adopt one that looked like them. I hope people feel they can go into a bookstore, pick up a book, and identify with characters that are in the story. That they don't pick up book after book and see that all the characters are white. If we really believe in diversity we have to use our platforms to support it.

Also, initially I thought about doing this as a series that switched protagonists in different books. It was going to be tied to cross border policing. That would mean having American cops as well as Canadian cops. The trouble is, Moreau is so compelling for me that I don't feel her story is finished.

I may be at equal risk of backlash over a short story I wrote called Crossing Jordan. Jordan is a post-op trans woman. I am not. Part of the reason I wrote the story was because I have a member of my immediate family who identifies as a different gender than the one they were born with. Fiction gives us a chance to see the world through different eyes. I can be braver than I am through a heroic character. I can be down and dirty and break the law with a criminal protagonist. I can step outside the limits of my own life experience and step into someone else's shoes. I take the philosophy that at the end of the day, we're all people. Everything after that is degrees of differences. Not all Scottish people think the same way. Not all Canadians share the same views. Not all Americans voted for... Well, you get the idea. While cultural appropriation can be a legitimate issue, my fear is that if people stop incorporating different characters in their works then we're imposing fictional segregation.

OBAAT: Among the things I liked about The Spying Moon is that the investigation that dominates the book is peripheral to the putative reason for Moreau to be in Maple River, which is as part of a drug task force. It’s a nice bit of misdirection and shows how cops never get to work just one case at a time like they do so often on TV and the movies. Was that something you planned from the outset, or did things just go that way? Either way, was it hard to keep things balanced?

SR: I have such a strange mind that I’m always connecting random things and thinking big picture. I have a system for trying to keep track of my storylines. In truth, this is the first book I’ve written that has one single POV character. The challenge for me was making sure I only put things on the page that she was supposed to know at that point in the story. My idea had always been to start a series, and putting in this other case that ended up being in the background to some extent originated from that plan. The thing is that big cases with task forces don’t get solved in short periods of time. They’re the type of investigations that can go on for months or even years. Moreau wants to be done with it, so she hopes it can be wrapped up quickly, but other cases get in the way of making any progress at all. She’s stuck with Duncan on one case and McIver on another and isn’t happy about any of it. Everything in the story mirrors her isolation. She’s shut out by most members of her team. She’s shut out from the actual investigation she was sent there to work on. She’s facing roadblocks in town and derailed by construction inside and outside of the police station. She drives down a road as part of her investigation and it’s blocked and closed. She wanted to investigate her mother’s disappearance and was barred from doing that. It’s obstacle after obstacle in this story.

OBAAT: You’ve had a long-time presence in the short fiction/review/magazine realm, first with Spinetingler and now with Toe Six. Where did the idea for Toe Six come from, and what does the name mean?

SR: One of my favorite books is The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. In this post-apocalyptic world, anyone who isn’t made in the image of God, with five fingers and five toes etc. etc., is a mutant and must be sterilized and cast out. When it’s discovered that David’s new friend Sophie has six toes, all hell breaks loose, and that’s not even the worst of it.

The sixth toe is the catalyst. It’s the discovery of that toe that kicks the story into high gear. That’s why I went with Toe Six. There has to be a reason for a story. And nobody else was called Toe Six Press. I want to keep publishing short fiction and also start publishing novels. I’m working on it, and hoping to take things to the next level very soon.

OBAAT: Does the Hamburglar still haunt your dreams?

SR: My husband just bought me a retro glass with Hamburglar on it. The family got me a stuffed one years ago. I hide clowns in their rooms and they inundate me with Hamburglar. There’s no escape. Honestly, he’s creepy. The real question is why he doesn’t cause more kids nightmares.

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