Struggling Writer's Debut Novel Gets Coveted Oprah Winfrey Nod

Feb 23, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 6:53 pm

Oprah's Book Club has turned unknown authors into superstars. Her latest selection is the novel Ruby. The book is set in an all-black hamlet called Liberty Township, in East Texas, and is part of a planned trilogy by first-time author Cynthia Bond.

Ruby Bell is a beautiful woman whose beauty has attracted terrible things and people to her. The experiences have driven her mad. "She wore grey like rain clouds, and wandered the red roads in bare feet, callouses thick as boot leather, her hair caked with mud, blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night," Bond writes in the first page.

There are racial tension, sexual violence and human trafficking in this book, bleak stuff encased in hauntingly beautiful language. Oprah Winfrey says by the end of the first page, she was hooked.

"Who doesn't want to know who that is?" she says. "I just went: 'Who is that, and who writes like that?' "

Bond does, drawing on memories of her own experience as an abuse survivor. Other inspiration for Ruby came from a whispered family story, of a gorgeous aunt who was murdered by white vigilantes because she had a white lover.

Her killers were never brought to justice.

And some of the book's graphic sexual violence was influenced by devastating tales Bond heard when she conducted writing workshops with abused and runaway children. The work took a toll, but it also had a silver lining.

"I got so burned out at one point that I had to take time off, and I was on disability for a stretch of time and that's when I got the first draft," she says. With encouragement from her writing group, Bond finished a manuscript. Random House published Ruby in 2014 in a modest print run of 15,000.

Like a lot of writers, Bond has scrimped and struggled while trying to complete her work. For years, as a divorced single mother, she'd try to figure out how to stretch her grocery money, buying plain-wrap items as her 9-year-old daughter pleaded with her to buy name-brand cereal. Then came the call from Winfrey, and suddenly, there was money for groceries.

This, even though Winfrey herself wondered if Ruby would be too tough a read for some of her book club fans. "I gave it to a couple of people whose opinions I trust, and I asked them to read it," she says. "They said, 'This is pretty harrowing.' And I said, 'Yeah, it is, but these things happened.' "

Winfrey says she stepped out on faith and made the commitment. The Book Club paperback run is 250,000.

Because today's market is much more segmented now than when her original book club began, Winfrey is personally promoting Ruby in her magazine, on her cable network and in interviews. She knows the book will be hard for some readers to take. But she says they should recognize it was difficult for Bond, too.

"If she can write it," she says, "we can read it."

Bond says the sexual trafficking of children and teens is a grim reality that she wants to make visible to the rest of us. "I know that there are girls in little rooms right now that are being abused," she says. "And some of them will never make it out of those rooms."

Bond wrote Ruby to bear witness for the girls who can't escape the torture. And to encourage the girls who do to believe that even after such dark experiences, there can be light — maybe not immediately, but eventually.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we turn to a woman who rates books. Oprah Winfrey's Book Club continues turning unknown authors into superstars. And her latest selection is the novel "Ruby" by first-time author Cynthia Bond. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Like a lot of writers, Cynthia Bond has scrimped and struggled while trying to complete her work. She says for years, as a divorced, single mom, she tried to figure out how to stretch her grocery money, buying plain-wrap items as her 9-year-old daughter pleaded with her to buy name-brand cereal. Then she got a phone call from Oprah Winfrey, and suddenly, there was money for groceries and the future of a cherished childhood tradition was assured.

CYNTHIA BOND: I wrote this song after the book (laughter) after they decided to publish it, and it was "The Tooth Fairy Ain't Broke No More," you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BOND: It was like (singing) Tooth fairy ain't broke no more, she got money when she flies in the door...

(LAUGHTER)

BOND: ...Because it was like...

BATES: Bond is celebrating with the four women who make up her writing group. They're in Bond's pale-yellow house, about an hour outside Los Angeles. Laptops are open on the big dining room table, and Bond's handsome, black cat, Prince Paws, carefully picks his way among the power cords that sneak across the floor. This is the first time the group has met since Bond was named the next Oprah author, and she's taking a little heat from keeping her good news from them.

BOND: And I couldn't tell you guys.

(CROSSTALK)

BOND: That was the thing that was so hard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How did she keep this from us?

BOND: Anybody...

BATES: Well, her mom and that was about it. Bond's debut novel, "Ruby," is part of a planned trilogy. It's set in an all-black hamlet called Liberty Township in east Texas.

BOND: (Reading) Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high.

BATES: Ruby Bell is a beautiful woman whose beauty has attracted terrible things and people to her. Her experiences have driven her mad.

BOND: (Reading) She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet, calluses thick as boot leather, her hair caked with mud, blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night.

BATES: There's racial tensions, sexual violence and human trafficking in this book - bleak stuff encased in hauntingly beautiful language. Oprah Winfrey says by the end of the first page, she was hooked.

OPRAH WINFREY: Who doesn't want to know who that is and where she came back from New York City? And she's walking barefoot in the red clay, and she's, you know, naked and mud's in her hair. I just went, who is that? And who writes like that?

BATES: Cynthia Bond does, drawing on memories of her own experience as an abuse survivor. Other inspiration from "Ruby" came from a whispered family story of a gorgeous aunt who was murdered by white vigilantes because she had a white lover. Her killers were never brought to justice. And some of the book's graphic sexual violence was influenced by devastating tales Bond heard when she conducted writing workshops with abused and runaway children. The work took a toll, but it also had a silver lining.

BOND: I got so burned out at one point that I had to take time off, and I was on disability for a little, you know, for a stretch of time and that's when I did the first draft (laughter).

BATES: With encouragement from her writing group, Bond finished a manuscript. Random House published "Ruby" in 2014 in a modest print run of 15,000. Then came the Oprah call - this even though Winfrey wondered if "Ruby" would be too harrowing a read for some of her book club fans. So she tested the waters.

WINFREY: I gave a copy to a couple of people whose opinions I trust, and I asked them to read it. And they were like you, Karen, this is pretty harrowing. And I say, yeah, it is, but these things happened.

BATES: Winfrey says she stepped out on fate and made the commitment. The book club paperback run is 250,000. Because today's market is much more segmented than when the original book club began, Winfrey is personally promoting "Ruby" in her magazine, on her cable network and in interviews like this. She knows the book will be hard for some readers to take, but she says they should recognize it was difficult for Bond, too.

WINFREY: If she could write it, we can read it.

BATES: Cynthia Bond says the sexual trafficking of children and teens is a grim reality she wants to make visible to the rest of us.

BOND: I've watched this. I've seen this. I know that there are girls in little rooms right now who are being abused, and some of them will never make it out of those rooms.

BATES: Bond wrote "Ruby" to bear witness for the girls who don't make it out and to encourage the girls who do to believe that even after such dark experiences, there can be light, maybe not immediately but eventually. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.