This September, Ruth Joffre, author of Night Beast, officially stepped into the role of prose writer-in-residence at Hugo House—metaphorically speaking, given that since the coronavirus pandemic upended the world, she hasn’t actually stepped through the doors yet.
We caught up with Ruth via email to ask her a few questions about her work as a writer and as a community organizer, how to cultivate expansiveness in your writing (even when you’re stuck inside!), where she writes, and what she’s most looking forward to about her writer-in-residence term.
You’re one of the co-organizers of Fight for Our Lives, which is a performance series that advocates for communities targeted by divisive politics and systemic oppression. How, if at all, does your work as a community organizer inform your writing?
Organizing, like writing, is an educational process. You engage with others, either through reading or conversation, and in that process you learn, grow, and challenge your own ideas. You connect with others and listen to their point of view, and you share what you know and what resources you have with others so that they can become better at what they do. For me, becoming more active in politics and in the community has only helped solidify how essentially political writing—and the craft and teaching of writing—is at its core.
During your time as writer-in-residence, you’ll be working on a collection of flash fiction. Can you tell us more about it and what drew you to writing flash fiction specifically?
Perhaps my first experience of flash fiction came in college, while I was attending a summer program in Rome for which I took out entirely too many student loans. We studied several examples of the form, including some Lydia Davis, whose work I have been reading ever since. My collection is an experiment in variation, I would say. How many different stories can you write titled “A Girl…”? How many ways are there to be a girl? More than I can possibly write about, which may make it hard to know when the book is done!
In your application, you wrote that you believe in expansiveness and “experiencing as much of the world as you can, writing as much as you can and as often as life allows, reading voraciously, studying people carefully, and constantly updating your writing toolkit.” What advice do you have for writers who want to have that expansiveness but feel constrained by the current state of the world?
First, I would say that it’s valid to feel constrained right now and it may not be possible to experience all the expansiveness you might want. That’s okay. It’s more important to be safe. Then I would say: if you can, focus on finding ways around those constraints. You may not be able to travel, but you can watch documentaries and read books about places you meant to go. You can learn the language. Attempt to cook the food. Attend an online event, if possible. Thankfully, reading and writing can happen anywhere—when we’re not consumed by anxiety or screaming into the abyss. For that, I say: vote! Organize!
What are you most looking forward to about being Hugo House’s prose writer-in-residence?
Helping others. I don’t see this role as being about me. It’s about using this platform to benefit others, particularly underrepresented communities and writers.
When we can gather together at Hugo House again, you’ll have the writer-in-residence office to use as a workspace. In the meantime, what does your current writing space look like?
Here’s where I have to admit I mostly write in bed, swaddled in blankets and surrounding by cups of tea and bottles of water! It’s not very glamorous, but it is very comfortable.