Dolls Behaving Badly: A 49 Writers Interview with Cinthia Ritchie

The blogosphere is buzzing over Anchorage author Cinthia Ritchie‘s debut novel Dolls Behaving Badly, set – where else? – in Spenard. We’re thrilled at the chance to squeeze in a few questions here. Mark your calendar for Cinthia’s 49 Writers Reading & Craft Talk on Monday, Feb. 11 at 7 pm. at Great Harvest Bread Company in Anchorage. 

It’s one thing to develop a character, but to love them as it’s clear you do in Dolls Behaving Badly is something else altogether. How does that happen?

I’m not really sure. In the beginning, I didn’t love them the way I did at the end, of course. They were simply devices to carry the story. Yet something happened, and I’m not sure if it’s because it took me so long to write the book or because my characters opened up and revealed their vulnerabilities and weaknesses–how can you not love someone who is brave enough to do that?

I hope I don’t sound a bit mad, talking about my characters as if they are real. Because for me, they are. They exist. They are out in the world interacting and moving through their lives, and so what if they’re fictional. A few of my characters, Barry and Stephanie, for instance, were meant to be included in only a few scenes. I didn’t intend to develop them fully. Yet they insisted. They wouldn’t stay put. They kept appearing and reappearing, and I kept deleting them out until finally I thought: Wait, they must have something to say. And so they did.

I didn’t know what my characters would do or say ahead of time. I wrote blindly each night. I didn’t follow an outline. I simply sat down and let them speak. Over and over they surprised me. Before long they touched something deep inside me, a facet of my personality, a composite of my longings and needs. More and more I think that by loving my characters the way I do I learned to love myself a bit more, too.

While you’ve published extensively in the literary market, Dolls Behaving Badly has tremendous crossover potential: it’s laugh-out-loud funny, the characters feel almost magnetic, it’s eminently readable, and yet there’s a meta-fictional thread with Carla Richards (who shares your initials) pushing back somewhat unintentionally against artistic boundaries. Tell us how you knew what kind of book this was meant to be, and for what audience. 

I never set out to write a literary novel. I appreciate literary writing and love reading and writing poetry and serious, lyrical essays, yet to me, fiction is for fun. It’s imaginative. It takes you to other worlds, introduces you to minds and lives that may or may not be recognizable.

I intentionally set out to write Dolls Behaving Badly as women’s mainstream fiction. I wanted it accessible to all. I wanted anyone to be able to open the first page and immediately feel engaged. This was extremely important to me. In a way, I suppose, I wrote the book my main character, Carla, might have chosen to read while taking a bath.

My intended audience is women and a few men, but mostly women. I was a single mother, and when my son was young I used to sit in the bathroom after work and read novels. I don’t know why I chose the bathroom; it was so cozy in there, and warm and enclosed—I suppose I felt safe. I’d read books written by women: Margaret Atwood, Mary Gordon, Gail Godwin, Barbara Kingsolver. Books that crossed over from literary to mainstream and back again, and I appreciated this. I admired this. I loved the idea of the same book being read by someone with a PhD and someone who drives a truck.

I had some rough years, and some nights the only way I made it through was by reading. There were books that I carried around with me, books I slipped beneath my pillow like a talisman. And then there were also books that made me laugh: Golden Days, by Carolyn See; Violet Clay, by Gail Godwin, Wifey, by Judy Blume, and a few others. I read these over and over, and they never failed to lift me. When I finally sat down to write a book of my own I knew I wanted to do the same, I wanted to write something that was funny and sad and real, something that women could read over and over and each time feel momentarily better about their lives.

Dolls Behaving Badly is divided into lessons instead of chapters, with lovely, unconventional threads running through – the Oprah Giant, Grammy’s recipes. How did these features work their way into the book? 

The lessons developed organically. Initially they were household tips, but the more I learned of Carla, my protagonist, the more I realized that she wouldn’t give a damn about household tips. That left a void, and before I knew it, the Oprah Giant stepped up and filled it in.

The recipes came about in a similar vein. Gramma spoke so much about cooking and loved food so that it seemed only right to share her recipes. I love Gramma’s Little Brown Chippies, her version of chocolate chip cookies. I think of it each time I see chocolate chips in the grocery store. The strange thing is, though, I forget that I wrote Gramma. I see her as a real person. I imagine her standing in a kitchen, her stockings rolled down to her ankles, the toes cut out of her shoes for bunions, and she’s rolling out dough, the counters littered with flour and sugar. I swear that I’ve been there with her in this kitchen, that I’ve tasted her baked goods.

I wasn’t sure if I should keep these sections, the letters and recipes and lessons. I went back and forth. Yet each time I omitted them, the book felt much the way a room looks if you remove a piece of furniture: Too big and too lonely. So I knew, in some instinctive way, that they were necessary

Grace Paley speaks of being generous with our characters. One way you do this is by allowing each to speak wisdom. Tell us how that happens and why it matters.

I think this happens as part of the writing process. You can’t force wisdom from a character. But if you love them, nurture them and allow them to move and speak freely, sooner or later wise things slide out of their mouths. It’s like raising a child. My son used to amaze me with the simple yet profound things he said. And wisdom is always simplistic in nature; that’s what makes it so startling, that moment of intense awareness inside an ordinary moment.

One of my favorite characters is Stephanie. I hold an especially warm spot in my heart for her. She works so hard to remain optimistic, and the odds are against her. Her wisdom is very naive, very endearing, very raw and true. Where does it come from? I don’t know for sure. Maybe people who live hard lives earn hard wisdom.

Writing a good book takes time – seven years for Dolls Behaving Badly. What advice can you give writers about sustaining interest in their projects over the long haul? 

A book is a long-term relationship, and you have to accept that. You have to be willing to commit. You have to understand that it’s going to get tedious, and ugly. There will be disagreements. There will be fights and resentments and blame. There will be the day you look at your manuscript across the desk and wonder: “What in the world did I ever see in it?”

And you won’t have a clue.

You sustain interest over the long haul because you have to. You have to believe in your book. You have to believe in the truths you are trying to tell. You have to believe in that little voice inside that whispers that your words matter. Because trust me, no one else really cares if you finish your book. Oh, they say they do and they may support you as a writer and love what you’re writing, but they’ll never love it the way you do. They’ll never feel it and live it and bleed it and carry it around inside their veins.

Writing a book is hard, but not writing a book that’s deep inside of you, one that’s begging for release? That’s a lot more difficult. That’s almost damaging.

Cinthia Ritchie writes and runs mountains in Anchorage,
. She’s a former
journalist, Pushcart Prize nominee, recipient of two
Rasmuson Foundation Awards, a Connie Boochever Fellowship and
residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding
Nelson Center

for the Arts and Hidden River Arts. 

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