3 min

In print: Transformations

Our fragile, mutable sense of self

SMOKE IN YOUR FACE. Elizabeth Ruth's second novel, Smoke, is a story about the stories we inhabit.

Who are you? Does that person always match up with the image you present to the world? Would you change things so the two were the same? Could you?

These questions come to mind reading Elizabeth Ruth’s second novel, Smoke.

Set during the 1950s in a fictional southwestern Ontario town called Smoke, it is the story of a young man, Buster McFiddie, whose life is changed one night because of too much liquor and a lit cigarette. Horribly disfigured by fire, Buster forms a friendship with the physician who works on his burns, Doc John. Originally from Michigan, the doctor keeps Buster enthralled with tales of the Purple Gang, the Detroit mob.

Like Ruth’s other writing, Smoke is about people who are outsiders.

“I see Smoke as a coming-of-age tale about Buster McFiddie,” says Ruth, “but I mostly see it as a coming-of-age tale for our generation in terms of issues around sex and gender – transformation.”

Ruth’s personal tale begins in Windsor. Raised by a single mother, they moved around a lot, even living in Colombia for a while. She says the nomadic lifestyle was a result of both money issues and her mother’s sense of adventure. Ruth earned a BA in English literature and an MA in counselling psychology from the University Of Toronto. She began writing her first novel, Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, while still working in mental health and social services. She was at the Humber School For Writers in the late ’90s and realized that she needed to write full-time, so she gave up her job.

Ten Good Seconds Of Silence was published in the fall of 2001. It is the story of Lemon Boot, who is searching for her father and looking to carve out her identity. Her mother, Lilith, has psychic visions and a history in a mental health facility. It was a finalist for the Writer’s Trust Of Canada Fiction Prize and a City Of Toronto Book Award, among others. Ruth is also the editor of Bent On Writing: Contemporary Queer Tales, an anthology of work from Clit Lit, the monthly queer literary series that she founded and curated from 1999 to 2002.

She began working on Smoke the day after Ten Good Seconds Of Silence came out. She was doing research on Oxford County and southwestern Ontario because that’s where her mother and family are from. She came across a footnote about a person with a carefully guarded secret in a history book and began imagining what that life would be like.

Smoke’s narrative unfolds chronologically, which is also how she wrote it. Ruth knew how the novel was going to end and wrote to that; she didn’t work from an outline. She spent a lot of time researching before and during the writing of Smoke. Her research led her to interview workers who grew and harvested tobacco before automation took over the industry. She also took boxing classes.

Normally, she starts writing by mid-morning and spends the afternoon editing. She once had fantasies about finding time for writing, going to the gym, seeing friends and doing more of the housework in the home she shares with her partner Shannon Oliffe, but now realizes that she’s “not balanced and won’t be.”

She had offers from publishers two years ago, but she knew the book wasn’t ready, and opted to work with Penguin because the publisher had the time and resources to dedicate to a lengthy editing process. She thinks that the book has much to say about queer issues and it was important to her that she not back down from some of the book’s more challenging ideas.

“Can you present yourself as you are?” she asks. “Do you have to change your physical appearance to claim an identity? Or can you claim an identity and still look however you want to look? Those issues really interested me.”

They are also ideas that she deals with personally.

“I think I’ve always been frustrated with how I’m read,” she says, adding, “I dress a certain way – even if I wear a suit and tie I still look like a femme in a suit and a tie. I don’t look like a man – which is fine, I don’t identify as a man.

“It’s very easy to pass as middle class in Canada if you have nice clothes and you have an education, but I’m not and never have been middle class. I feel also that I come from a family where there’s a lot of madness and chaos, if you want to use those words, and I present as quite normal.

“I always feel like I am watching myself interact with the world in a way that’s passable in a lot of ways, but knowing in fact that I fit very much outside of that.”

The launch for Smoke is Thu, Sep 29. She then has appearances scheduled throughout much of the country, including Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg, that will last to the end of year. Ruth is also working on a collection of short stories and started another novel about a year ago. She’d also like to write some nonfiction.

“I’m interested in pushing boundaries,” she says. “So whether that be in the subject matter that I’m writing about or the characters that I’m writing about, I’m just not interested in the same stories being told.”