BLOOM: Have you found that having a novel published after the age of 40 differs from what you know of the experiences of other novelists?
Bee Ridgway: That’s a terrific question. I don’t think I could have done it earlier. I did it because I had to, because I desperately needed to have fun, to find joy, in a way that I never could have felt or accessed as a younger woman. And then it turns out that while publishing is amazing and a privilege and incredibly fun, it’s also really difficult. People you’ve never met have opinions about what you’ve made! You have to have a thick skin. For me it went from being this very private, very personal thing to being insanely public, almost overnight. I don’t know if I could have gotten over the whiplash in my twenties.
BLOOM: What has been the most surprising thing about publishing fiction?
BR: First, how passionate the readers are. I know I’m passionate about what I read, and I know my students are. But I’ve never experienced that passion centering on something I’ve written. It’s INTENSE! Second, I honestly never knew anything about how big the publishing industry is, and how many different people are engaged in it. I’ve had this journey through its many different kingdoms, and it’s been fascinating. Did you know that there are people in the major cities whose full time job it is to drive visiting authors around and make sure their visit goes smoothly? I met a wonderful man in Chicago who has met literally every major and minor author of the past 35 years. He even fell in love with and shacked up with an author who was passing through, and now they’ve been together for decades!
BLOOM: I love that you considered The Bechdel Test (a benchmark originated by cartoonist Allison Bechdel for use in determining gender bias in fiction) when writing The River of No Return. While your character Julia becomes quite powerful and willful in her own right, Alva is my very favorite character because of how unilaterally she can act as a courtesan. She seems well-seasoned and strong-minded. What was the inspiration for that character?
BR: Like so many of the supporting characters, Alva just turned up and took over. I think my unconscious knew that I needed a seasoned, wise foil for Julia, who is on a journey of discovery. I needed a woman who has already made discoveries. I don’t care for plots that are centered on competition or hatred between women. The innocent girl vs. the “bad witch” who is jealous or competitive. I don’t enjoy those plots, but I can see what it achieves. It makes action that isn’t centered on the romance. I wanted to see if I could get some of that energy into the plot with a “good” witch kind of figure.
BLOOM: You’ve spoken before about literary citations layered into The River of No Return, some of which are incredibly obscure. How did you decide on what to include, and can you give us a hint as to your most obscure reference?
BR: Yes, there are tons of little snippets in there! The idea was that if the novel is about time travel, it should have a secret thread of actual time travel woven throughout. Moments when you’re reading along and you get a sense that maybe another voice from another time is speaking through the text. As a scholar of literary history and a professor, I have lots of those sorts of snippets just floating around in my head. I let them bubble to the surface of my memory as I wrote and just shoved them in! Perhaps the most obscure one is a little bit of Poe, in the description of the crowd scene. There’s also a lot of popular music in there. A lot of people have noticed and gotten a kick out of the reference to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, “Ohio.” And one extremely nerdy Dylan fan noticed just three words that I lifted from “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
BLOOM: You’re currently at work on the sequel to The River of No Return. What is your advice for how to balance writing/plotting/editing with your teaching duties and your personal life? Has your writing process changed between the first and second novel? How is your fiction writing process different from your academic writing process?
BR: My advice is everyone else’s. Ass to chair. Anthony Trollope says of writing novels, “It’s not the head that does it—it’s the cobbler’s wax on the seat and the sticking to my chair!” It was easy for me to write the first draft because, as I said above, it came roaring out of me. It was the most joyful, most uninhibited thing I’ve ever done, and I did it in secrecy. I didn’t care what people thought. It’s harder now. The first book is published. Even the readers who love the book and are clamoring for a sequel are distracting! You MUST tune them out. Pretend you are only writing for yourself. That’s what I’m struggling with now.
BLOOM: I’m sure your teaching career must help as a distraction from the pressure. I’ve heard you teach a class in time travel at Bryn Mawr. What books are on the syllabus? Which is your favorite and why?
BR: It isn’t really a time travel class. It’s a class on contemporary American Indian literature that happens to be mostly time travel novels. If you’ve never read it, please run, don’t walk, to the bookstore and buy Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen. It’s amazing. Also Sherman Alexie’s far better known novel Flight—the ambiguous ending of that novel had my students in an uproar for weeks! Another great one is Philip Red Eagle’s diptych of two time travel novellas dealing with the Vietnam War, entitled Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey.
BLOOM: It seems as though your real identity is an open secret (or not much of a secret at all). Why did you opt for a pseudonym, and how long did it take you to settle on a name?
BR: You know, I never dreamed I would write anything under a pen name, but I absolutely needed it in order to write. I am an academic, and, using my birth name, I write in a completely different mode. I think I literally had to rename myself in order to find my fiction-writing voice! The pseudonym was the first thing I wrote. It was my talisman that allowed me to trick myself into writing the novel. There used to be an old cartoon on TV, called Simon’s Magic Pencil or something. In it, this kid Simon had a magic piece of chalk, and the things he drew with the chalk came true. It was like that name was my magic piece of chalk, and I could just draw a door in a chalkboard, then open it and walk out into a new world, into a new personality. In choosing my pen name I didn’t stray very far from my real names, though. The first name, Bee, is an old family nickname for me, and it doesn’t feel like a “fake” name. As for the last name, “Ridgway,” I went back to an old identity. My grandmother, Lelah Fern Ridgway, only had an eighth-grade education and that gained in a one-room schoolhouse in the Ozarks. But she was one of the most brilliant, widely read, ferociously inquisitive women I’ve ever known. She did not lead a happy or a fulfilled life. She was a complicated person, in many ways an unfulfilled person. She even wrote a novel once, but an editor ripped out all the colloquial, Ozark language and really wrecked it. My grandmother threw it away after that. I hope that, in using her name, I’ve managed to pay a little bit of homage to her.
BLOOM: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
BR: Damn the torpedoes. This was a writer telling me not to read reviews and to just keep writing. I do read reviews, but I think the sentiment—just write through everything, write across all moods and weather—is the point.
BLOOM: Last but not least, please tell us what you’re reading right now.
BR: Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair. It’s awesome!
Click here to read Nicole Wolverton’s feature piece on Bee Ridgway’s debut novel The River of No Return.