Q&A with Cynthia Bond

Q&A with Cynthia Bond

Former actress (“Def By Temptation,” “Higher Education”) Cynthia Bond has a new book out called “Ruby,” a well-received debut novel about abuse and redemption.
“A powerful literary force, a writer whose unflinching yet lyrical prose is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s,” raves O, The Oprah Magazine.
Says Library Journal: “A dark and redemptive beauty. Bond’s prose is evocative of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, paying homage to the greats of Southern Gothic literature.”
News-Gazette staff writer Paul Wood caught up with the daughter of ground-breaking former Parkland College President Zelema Harris, who will sign her book at 7 tonight at the Champaign Barnes & Noble (65 E. Market View Drive).
Your book has great advance reviews. Did you expect such success for a first novel?

I'm still holding my breath! It's a very odd thing sitting in before the soft glow of a laptop screen for years into years, crying into my cappuccinos while writing in coffee houses, holing up in libraries, typing quietly at the dining room table after my daughter has gone to bed only to see my book materialize, to hold it in my hands!

A dream held for over a decade somehow, miraculously came to weighted life. Then, to see it in papers, websites, magazines, with interpretations and analysis of the work — it's as if Ruby and Ephram and the entire cast of characters have quietly said goodbye and are walking into other people's hands, their homes, their bedside tables. Of course I hope the people they meet will be kind to them. So far the trip has been wonderful; hopefully, the folks in the next county over will feel the same.

Will you become a full-time writer?

Yes, but I will also always teach. When I write it feels like I am sitting in a cradle that was crafted just for me. I am at home. It's a crazy, painful, scary home at times, but home nonetheless. However teaching fulfills me in a way that nothing else can. For years I worked with homeless youth on the streets of Hollywood and now I work at an amazing treatment center for adolescents. However lately, with rewrites and edits and more rewrites, then all of the pre-publication work, I have had to spend far less time facilitating writing groups. I had been absent for two months and when I returned I remember sitting with the small group of young people. They were fighting through addiction, pain, tremendous self-doubt, and they began writing. The thoughts and truths that filled the room were incredibly powerful and inspiring. Life has changed a great deal for my daughter and me — I can now support us as a writer! But I will never, never stop teaching.

How long have you been writing?

If you ask my mom, I've been writing since the fifth grade when I drafted a very serious eulogy/essay about our pet. I believe it was called "The life of Arnold W. Guinea Pig." It chronicled the "majesty" of his life, his red eyes, white fur and pink ears. My mother was convinced I was a writer after that, and insisted, much later, that I attend Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I had grown up with my father directing plays and teaching speech and drama at the University of Kansas.

I was captivated by the words spoken and by the dog-eared scripts my father carried home. So after attending Northwestern, I escaped to Manhattan, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and soon after began working off-Broadway in New York. It was an amazing experience, garnering me a picture in the New York Times and steady work as an actress for years.

Acting took me to Los Angeles, where I did television and worked with the Shakespeare Festival L.A. But my own memories of abuse yanked me out of that world and lay me flat, unable to navigate much of my life. With little money, and after appearing on television and feeling as if I had a bit of stardust on my shoulders, I took a job as a waitress.

My pain brought me back to writing. Sitting in a free writing class, I began pouring out my heart. I'd been wearing a voluminous gray shirt for days My first line was: "She wore gray like rainclouds." I've been writing ever since.

Did your mother inspire you as a child?

Inspire isn't a strong enough word. She galvanized me, motivated and emboldened me to risk everything and reach for my dreams. Of the many amazing qualities my mother has, courage and honesty are the two that have stayed with me, and they are what I aim for in my own life.

Some of my first memories are listening to my mom tell stories about her childhood home in the small, all-black East Texas town of Liberty Community. She grew up on a small farm.

As beautiful and polished as she is today, she has a collection of tiny scars on her body that illustrate her journey: stepping on a rusty nail and having to wear a slab of salt pork wrapped around her foot for an entire summer. The elbow where a teacup was hurled at her as she bolted out of a door. As children, my sister and I would point to each of these scars, these "chapters" in her young life, and say, "Tell us that story." And she would, in the most illustrative and fascinating way.

In many ways, this is how my novel began. I grew up with her town being infused into my spirit.

She also told us how she set her mind on going to college, when the possibility was as far away as the moon. And she went, with a full scholarship.

My mom's life has been and will always be an inspiration to me.

How old are you, to create a frame of reference?

Well, if I had had any inclination to lie about it, the May issue of O Magazine put that promptly to rest! We were SO excited to see the magazine when it hit the stands, with "Ruby" as one of the featured books. It was a dream come true! Under the heading of "Rising New Stars" was the line, "Although 53-year-old Cynthia" Eeek! Not only is the cat out of the bag, it is trussed up and preening on glossy pages all over America!

Did you ever live in Champaign?

No. I had already moved to New York when mom moved to Champaign. But I've visited so often if feels like home. I grew up in a college town. My dad was an instructor at Kansas and mom worked for the university as well. So I feel a kinship to hubs of education. For that reason, and many more, I love this city. When Mom moved away, it broke my heart. No more Cafe Kopi whenever we visited or sojourns to Parkland to see what new project mom had supported and facilitated.

And the people who worked at Parkland felt like family. Nancy Willamon, Jan Simon, Jim Ayers, Fay Rouseff-Baker, Dale Ewen, Lin Warfel and so many others.

How do you like living in L.A.?

Well, if you ask me while I'm driving on the 405 freeway during rush-hour, with interminable, ever-present freeway construction, (in front of) an angry BMW driver who keeps honking his horn when I don't bulldoze into the car stopped in front of me well I'd say, no. BUT, when I'm running beside my daughter while she's riding her scooter to school in December when I drive by the beach or put my toes in the ocean, or get high enough on a mountain trail to really see the "purple mountains majesty," then I'm incredibly happy to be here. All of the cliches are true: fake tans, blinding white teeth, superficiality—but the opposite is true as well. We've met the most amazing people who have become like family. My brother Jay lives here. It's where my daughter was born. It's our home.

Was it a difficult experience to write about abuse?

Incredibly difficult. It truly is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, because I lived and breathed every scene. I experienced it viscerally. I wish I could be the kind of writer who views a horrific scene and chronicles what they see. For me, I walk into the door, sit on the bed, see the red weeping eyes of the man beside me and feel when his anger is unleashed. It's always been this way. Conversely, I am lucky enough to feel joy and healing washing over me as well. Love seeps into my pores and I feel it on my lips. There is so much beauty and hope that vibrated through me as well while working on "Ruby." This surprises me every time it happens, but for better or for worse, that is how I write.

Did you ever get discouraged in the decade of conceiving this?

Oh my gosh, yes! I believe that discouragement is part of the recipe that makes a writer. There are times when you are sure no one will ever see your words, but you continue on in that shadow, that uncertainty. I think it builds up the muscle you will need to continue. I think that the only way to not complete a book, is oddly enough, to stop writing it. If you keep working, in fits and starts, sometimes in 10 or 15 minute bursts, in despair, then in hope, then despair again, you will finish. I wrote an essay once about the process of writing a book, and I had an image of many writers standing in front of a flag; that flag fluttering above each one was the pages of the book. Writing is like pledging allegiance to that flag. Sometimes you've got to defend it, even from your own negativity, but I know that you can win.

Who are your favorite writers?

Janet Fitch has such stunning prose and emotional grace that I am constantly captivated. Edwidge Danticat steeps me in her world so completely, with such beauty that I often forget where I am! Junot Diaz is like an acrobat, I am bounced around like a ping pong ball, but thrilled and excited to take the ride. White water rafting has nothing on him! Colson Whitehead's "The Noble Hustle" made me burst out with such loud laughter, that, when in public, I often garnered disturbed looks from people around me. Octavia Butler, John Rechy and Barbara Kingsolver. Of course, there are my dearest treasures. They are the literary gems of my life. James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.

Did any one book especially influence you?

Yes. Although it has been discovered and rediscovered, Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" remains the seminal book that changed my life, certainly my writing life. The sense of defeat, the blazing, joyous love that soaks the pages and has filled my heart again and again. I've read it so many times it is beyond dog-eared.

What was it like being an actress?

Odd. It is a very strange life. I started out, after being trained classically, as a fake trumpet player wearing a skimpy dress in a hip-hop video! Next a seriously pained, jilted woman in another video. I acted for free in many shoe-string budget plays until I landed in the Negro Ensemble Company, home to such brilliant actors as Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, Ruby Dee and many more. I was able to work with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller and stayed for many years in a wonderful, supportive, environment, officially a professional actress. I did film and television and was wooed by my agents in LA. With high hopes I landed in LA, and in the beginning it was wonderful. As I mentioned I joined the Shakespeare Festival, and appeared on television shows including "thirtysomething" and "In the Heat of the Night." Then a wave of roles crashed down upon me. Maid uniforms and a variety of stereotypes were handed to me at the same time memories from my childhood surfaced. It was a combination that took me to great depression and despair, and forced me into a waitress job, where I saw actresses and directors I'd worked with in the past. It was humiliating to say the least, but I got help, joined support groups. I'd never stopped writing while I was acting — plays, poems, essays, now, as I shared before, it was writing that ultimately saved me.

Do you have a favorite role?

Yes, the princess in Shakespeare's "Love's Labours Lost." I grew up with my dad quoting Shakespeare constantly. Shylock from "The Merchant of Venice" was his favorite. Although my sister Narissa and I cried out for him to stop, I suppose it stuck. I've always loved the music of language.

Has the writing process given you insights into raising your daughter?

That's such a great question! I believe that I've been able to share how important it is not to give up, even against formidable odds. That you can face rejection time and again, and still keep pushing for your dream.

Even though my daughter has had to put up with her mom writing sometimes instead of playing with her Littlest Pet Shop toys or sewing dresses for her dolls, I believe that seeing her mother succeed has done far more for her than any words I could ever say. I've been working on this book for her entire life! She's 9. When we discovered that it was going to be published by Hogarth Press, a division of Random House, she said, "Mom I never thought you were going to finish that thing!" But she is so excited! Ecstatic. I think when daughters see their mothers achieving their dreams and being happy, whether it's being a hard working stay at home mom, or an out of the house working mom, children, especially daughters, learn that joy is possible. Even kids with a mom who sits at her computer clicking away in what her child assumes is a presumed folly. Even those daughters can gain a belief in themselves when their mother succeeds.

Can you speak about how autobiographical "Ruby" is?

"Ruby" is a bit like a pot of gumbo. There are moments, spices, that have been stirred in slowly — from my life and from the stories of others. My mother and her hometown of Liberty Community are the roux. The heart of the stew.

In addition to hearing about my mother's life on the farm, as my sister and I grew older, my mother also told us about our aunt who was murdered by the sheriff and his deputies for being romantically involved with a white man. I remember her telling how she was picking blackberries, and her friend pointed to a hill and said, "See that hill up there? That's where your sister Carrie was killed." Mom grew up wanting to tell, to write that story. Once "Ruby" was published she said, "Now that you have told this story, I don't have to write it. I just wanted the story of her murder to be told."

As I grew older and became a woman, I gathered my own stories — visiting my grandmother in Beaumont, Texas, traveling to Galveston. Sitting through Church of God in Christ revivals that she had taken us to that lasted late into the night.

My own history of abuse informed this novel as well. While I did not wander the red roads of East Texas like Ruby, I did drive around L.A. in my Ford Fiesta, pulling over to weep. It took "Ruby" 11 years to find love and support. While I had dear friends, my healing took almost that amount of time as well.

When I began working with homeless youth, I set my writing aside. All of my energy, every ounce of it was poured into those young people. While running a writing and education program, I helped my students write their own stories. Again, there were young people who had run away from horrific situations. The stories I heard broke my heart into pieces. These stores of degradation and abuse are woven into this novel as well.

Healing and love is something I found as well. Hope after crushing pain is part of my story as well. The fact that it is possible to heal from absolutely anything is what I learned from each strand, each piece of the braid that became "Ruby."

Topics (2):Books, People