Today it gives me great pleasure to welcome Cinthia Ritchie, author of Dolls Behaving Badly, which released this month from Grand Central Publishing.
I first met Cinthia in a fiction writing workshop at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1997. Her humorous prose made an instant impression on me. Once in a while you meet someone and know in an instant: She’s the real deal. That was my first impression of Cinthia Ritchie.
Five years later our paths crossed again when I applied for a part-time editorial assistant position at the Anchorage Daily News with the paper’s weekly entertainment magazine. I ended up sharing the position with Cinthia, who had decided to work part-time while she finished up her MFA in creative writing. Although I didn’t get to work directly with Cinthia, I’ll never forget how she could make even a brief calendar listing sparkle with humor and wit. (I was always trying to mimic her style while on the job.)
Cinthia really blew my mittens off with Dolls Behaving Badly. (See my review.)
Cinthia really blew my mittens off with Dolls Behaving Badly. (See my review.)
And now, without further ado, let's get on to the main attraction!
Q: Eating can be a very emotional activity (or rather emotionally induced activity). I love the part baked goods play in the story. (Recipes included.) You consider yourself a lousy cook, but a decent baker. How is baking different from cooking (literally and figuratively)?
Interview with Cinthia Ritchie
I was a single mother working two jobs and was tired all the time. One night after my son fell asleep I sat in the bathroom and read Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (which I love, by the way), and it suddenly occurred to me: What does this woman (the protagonist) have to complain about? She’s married! She doesn’t have to worry about money! She has a housekeeper!
I started to write a letter to Kaufman, to both let her know what it’s like to be a single mother in Alaska while also thanking her for her book , which had gotten me through so many hard times (read Diary of a Mad Housewife if you have the chance. The pacing and humor is extraordinary), and it morphed into a type of story. As luck would have it, I was attending graduate school at the time and needed to hand in a piece of fiction. I had nothing ready and hurriedly turned in the pages I had written to Kaufman. I was expecting criticism but instead my instructor, Jo-Ann Mapson, said, “This sounds like a novel.”
Reading it over later that night, I realized that it was a novel. And so it began, seven long years of writing and agony.
Q: Carla Richards story is so personal as to give the book a memoir-like quality. What are the biggest differences between you and your main character? Similarities?
I wanted the book to sound like a memoir and worked hard to maintain a distant but confessional tone. Of course, anyone who knows me will notice vast similarities between Carla and me: We were both single mothers, both waitressed at Mexican restaurants, both had gifted sons, and both were struggling to make it in the creative world. (Oddly enough I wrote the entire first draft before realizing that Carla shared my initials, isn’t that funny?)
I suppose in the beginning, Carla was me, or at least a shadow of me. The more I wrote, however, the more she became distinctly herself, and soon she was directing the book, not me. Each night I sat down at my desk with a sense of excitement, a type of wonder: What will Carla do next?
I think Carla is the person I wanted to be, my ideal self, not in her situations, which were messy and scattered and completely her own, but in her strength and her determination. I wanted to be that strong, that giving, and I wasn’t. Yet the more I wrote, the more I slowly took on Carla’s strength. I learned so much about myself, and my strengths and weaknesses, through my own character.
I don’t particularly like to cook and basically live on stir-fry, which is absurdly simple: Chop the veggies and throw ‘em in the pan, and that’s that. It’s not easy to mess up a stir-fry, though trust me, I have found ways.
But baking! That has to do with time and patience. It has to do with measuring and mixing and hoping. It has to do with faith. And love. We nourish our spirits when we bake. We allow ourselves to accept sweetness and face it, that’s not an easy thing to do in today’s world.
What I love most about baking is how giving it is. We might cook for ourselves but we usually bake for others. We share parts of ourselves by offering bread and cookies, muffins and cakes. I was raised Catholic, and each week as I accepted the communion host on my tongue I always, always thought of sweets: pies and cream puffs and donuts dripping with sugar.
Baking is feeding my soul.
Q: If Dolls hadn’t been so humorous, I probably would’ve cried my way through rather than laughed. Can you share your thoughts on humor as a form of art and expression?
Well, humor is sadness, isn’t it? We laugh because we need relief, we need to pull ourselves out of our sadness, our despair, the crumbled corners of our own lives. If we were happy all the time, we wouldn’t need to read humorous books—what would be the point?
Humor is an expression of our humanity. It ties us together. Go to a funny movie sometime and look around at the different types of people, all laughing at the same moment. Humor peels away the layers and touches us deep inside. It merges us with people we might not know or even like. It’s a beautiful and strangely solemn thing.
Q: I can’t resist, how did you come up with the design ideas and names of your dirty dolls?
Really, I have no idea. The ideas simply popped in my head as I wrote. Often as I dressed the next morning for my journalism job, I’d flush with shame: What would my editors think if they knew I had spent half the night writing about erotic dolls?
Yet it was also liberating, a way of snubbing my nose at the conservative atmosphere of my day job. It was titillating. It was part of who I really was, a part I normally kept hidden. It was, I suppose, the outrageous meeting the ordinary.
Q: On a personal note: Carla Richards, the artist, struggled to achieve her dreams while raising her son Jay-Jay. Cinthia Ritchie, the author, raised a son (now in college) while pursuing her writing dreams. What was your son’s reaction to his mother becoming a published novelist?
I know! My life has ended up mirroring my novel—how strange yet cool is that? My son graduates from college this year and he’s pretty excited about my book, though I doubt he’ll read it: Would you read a book written by your mother that features naked doll legs on the cover?
I think he’s proud of me. He was there through the process, witnessed the struggle and saw me forsake sleep and social time. Sometimes he’d wake in the morning to find me asleep at my desk, my head plastered to my keyboard. If anything, I hope that my writing and publishing Dolls Behaving Badly has taught him the importance of following his dreams, of going against the grain, of putting his passions before convention and knowing that the only thing he needs to succeed in life is by being himself.
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Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist and Pushcart Prize nominee who lives and runs mountains in Alaska. She’s a recipient of two Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards, a Connie Boocheever Fellowship, residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Hidden River Arts, and the Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Memoir Prose Award, Sport Literate Essay Award, Northwest PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award, Drexel Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award, Once Written Grand Prize Award and a Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Finalist. Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, Literary Mama, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Wicked Alice, Ghoti, Stirrings, Women of the Web Anthology, Nerve Cowboy, Conspire, Clean Sheets, International Journal of Erotica, 42opus, Little White Poetry Journal, damselfly press, The Boiler Journal, Miller’s Pond, Gloom Cupboard, Sugar Mule, Breadcrumbs and Scabs, Third Wednesday, Writer’s Digest, The Quivering Pen, 49 Writers, and over 25 other literary magazines and small presses. Look for her upcoming work in Evening Street Review, Cactus Heart Press, MARY: A Journal of Writing and Alaska Magazine.
Her debut novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.
To read an excerpt, click here.