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Find more The Booklist Printz Interview
Laura Ruby’s swirling, enigmatic blend of myth, magic, and small-town mysteries in Bone Gap captivated readers so much it was awarded the 2016 Michael L. Printz Award. Below, Ruby chats with Booklist about the novel, happy endings (or the lack thereof), and the lucky discovery of a real-life place that inspired the fictional town.
Tell me a little about your inspiration for the story.
RUBY: Most of the time, my books come out of a single what-if question I can’t get out of my head. Other times, I hear a voice that keeps chattering at me, speaking to me day and night, even in my dreams. But Bone Gap came out of many disparate elements that took years to come together.
Around 2007 or 2008, my father-in-law gave me an article about a woman who lost her own son at the mall but couldn’t describe the boy to authorities. I was fascinated with the article and the woman in it, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I set it aside. Around the same time, I was doing a lot of school visits in downstate Illinois, which means I spent hours driving through the cornfields, meeting a lot of amazing kids in small, rural towns. My husband’s aunt, the last in his family to speak Polish, passed away, and after that, my father-in-law. I read about the collapse of bee colonies and what that would mean for the food supply. My own father told me stories about growing up on a horse farm.
All of this seemingly disconnected stuff swirled around my brain, mixing with my feminist sensibilities, my obsession with screwed-up families and inept parents, my baby-goat-video-watching habit, and my fascination with Greek myths, until I finally had a story to tell.
Is the town of Bone Gap based on a real place?
RUBY: I knew the book would be set in a small town in the cornfields of Illinois, but Illinois has a lot of cornfields. As the book came together, I looked at tons of photos, studied maps, searched for farm towns with populations less than 1,000. I stumbled on a tiny little place called Bone Gap. The name was so evocative, and fit so beautifully with my vision for the book—a world with gaps in time and place—that I decided to situate my story there. I’ve since heard from a number of readers who grew up in and around that town, which is wild. But the Bone Gap in the novel is obviously more fiction than fact, unless, of course, the people of the real Bone Gap want to fess up to run-ins with whispering corn, magical bees, preternatural horses, and roaming immortals.
Tell me about your approach to writing about trauma, particularly the kind of trauma that’s entrenched in stories about young women.
RUBY: Because I’m hyperaware of how often the trauma of young women is treated as motivation for male characters in media, I resisted writing about Roza’s past through a number of drafts. It’s true that I wanted to be honest about what had happened—and was happening—to her, and yet, I didn’t want the story to devolve into cliché and I didn’t want to be graphic in a way that would destroy the tone of the book. So part of the drafting process was about me edging closer and closer to the deepest wounds in Roza’s history and heightening the sense of dread in the moment till I felt I had the right balance of honesty and mystery.
But I’m a bit prickly about what we as a culture demand from women who have been assaulted or abused, even what we demand from female characters. We expect their confessions in detail and at length, less to understand them or empathize with them as much as to blame them—“If you hadn’t been walking alone,” or “If you didn’t have such terrible taste in men,” or “What did you think would happen at that kind of party?” (And we treat fictional characters the same way.) So, again, while I wanted to be honest about Roza’s trauma, I was more interested in the effects of that trauma and about her refusal to be defined by that trauma.
What made you resist a happily-ever-after ending?
RUBY: For one thing, all my characters are young, and “ever after” is a very long time. For another, after spending so many drafts trying to understand Roza’s trauma—and Sean’s and Petey’s and Finn’s, for that matter—I realized that there was no way I could make things truly tidy for any of them. Roza and Sean in particular were too wounded. And though love is a powerful, even magical thing, it can’t automatically heal us, especially if we haven’t yet acknowledged how deeply we’ve been hurt. I wanted to give readers the sense that there was a lot more for these characters to do, and that they would live on long after the reader closed the book.
One of the things I love about your novel is how some of the things that seem the most magical are actually based in reality and the things that seem so mundane are really magic. What inspired you there?
RUBY: Certain things in the natural world just seem magical to me—the way bees dance in order to show their sisters where the best flowers are, the way that cats develop particular meows that they use to communicate only with their humans (and not with other cats), the way a chicken can lay a clutch of rainbow-colored eggs, the way that corn can grow a few inches in a single day, etc. I find all of this wondrous, marvelous, despite scientific explanations. I wanted to create the sense that everything in the book was magic and also nothing was magic; I wanted to disconcert and unsettle and surprise, all at the same time. But I believe the magic is a function of the particular rural setting, with its flora and fauna and sluiceways through the corn that lead to gaps in the world. The writer Franny Billingsley said that a book won’t be right until it can’t be set anywhere else, and I think that’s true.
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