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Meet Journey Prize winner Naben Ruthnum

If you don’t yet know Naben Ruthnum, you probably will soon. His novella “Cinema Rex”, about a young man’s obsession with film in colonial Mauritius, was a deserving winner of The Malahat Review’s 2012 Novella Contest and recently named a finalist of this year’s Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. (Update: Naben was named winner of this year’s Journey Prize at the Writers’ Trust Awards on November 20th.)

I met Naben recently and let him know I’m a big fan of his work. In particular, I admire how he weaves some weighty subjects – class, race, postcolonial history, film history-into a masterful, engaging narrative that moves seamlessly back and forth through time. Naben recently agreed to answer a few questions about “Cinema Rex” and his current projects.

Naben Ruthnum lives and writes in Toronto, and has previously published in Riddle Fence, Joyland, Qwerty, The Malahat Review, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His pseudonym, Nathan Ripley, recently completed a thriller called Scrapbook. He’s currently working on a novel based on the characters in “Cinema Rex.”

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Congrats on being shortlisted for this year’s Journey Prize, Naben. What’s it feel like, at this point in your writing career?

Well, real good. You were in the Journey collection last year, so you know—it’s gratifying to be collected on a bookshelf with peers I respect and really enjoy reading. There’s also the fun suspense of the endgame, which Eliza, Doretta and I have previously spoken of in the ruthless terms of a Street Fighter II Tournament. (I’m Dhalsim).

Were you surprised to be included in this year’s anthology, and then by the shortlisting?

Cinema Rex was the best piece of writing I’d done at the time I completed it. When I first sent it in to The Malahat Review, I thought it had a fair shot at going somewhere, but I had no feeling of certainty. There’s a confidence that’s necessary to making the hundreds of small decisions that come with writing, and that also attaches to my attitude toward a piece when I’ve finished it—I know if it’s good, okay, or worthless. Rex felt good when I finished it, but I’m still surprised and gratified that judges and readers have responded so well to it.

I hear Kris Bertin may be in town for the Writers’ Trust Awards. Should Toronto be worried?

That visit is either going to look a lot like the closing minutes of John Carpenter’s The Thing or a middle-period Crüe video. Time will tell.

Tell us more about how you came to the writing life. Did you a write at a young age? Any secret journals? Do you remember the first thing you wrote?

I started with the usual adolescent poetry. I had a high school infatuation with a girl who, very justifiably, wanted little to do with me, so I desperately flung my ego at her in awful, now long-destroyed poems, both handwritten and typewritten. (Yes, on a typewriter. I would love to Terminator-transport myself back and crush my younger self’s fingers with that romantically old-timey machine. There is no one in this world I want to bully as badly as teenage Naben).

The first real stabs at making something readable were screenplays I wrote in my spare time, during undergrad. They weren’t very good, but it was a structured sort of writing that forced me to improve.

I loved “Cinema Rex”, and thought you do an exceptional job capturing this particular period in the history of Mauritius. How much research did you have to do to get it right?

The research came largely from an ongoing conversation with my father and mother that’s been happening since I took an interest in movies and in their pasts. My dad grew up next door to a movie theatre, which spurred the initial idea behind the story, and I took various other tellings of moments from their childhood through the meatgrinder of fiction.

I should emphasize, though, that a stickler for historical accuracy would notice many complete inventions and distortions. The only scenes that are completely accurate are the descriptions of films. This would be a good place to add something about the nature of fiction, history, memory, etc., but hopefully the story itself did that work for me.

Written beneath the story are the complexities of class, race, and religion in an emerging post-colonial state – so lots going on. But essentially it’s also a story of childhood longing and creative ambition. Can you talk more about what drew you to this particular tale?

Trevor, I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t try to plumb the depths of my soul here. Jesus. Leading Questions Corkum tries to break me like a Dr. Phil guest, but I’m not allowing it.

You use footnotes to construct a parallel future-casting of the adult lives of the narrator and his friends. This is no mean feat, and you pull it off without it feeling gimmicky. It reminded me of the early work of Yann Martel. Why the footnotes for this story? Did you know they’d be part of the equation from early on?

I knew I wanted to exceed the colonized-coming-of-age story structure somehow. The footnotes started as little jokes, insights into the movie-watching life of the characters in the future. I think heavy doses of time-travel science fiction were what made me recognize that creating a two-threaded story would allow me to do what I wanted to do in Rex. Apparently a major part of my intended effect is lost in the e-reader version; having to shuttle back and forth from footnote to text disrupts the story’s unfolding in a way that seeing both on the same page doesn’t. Rex is a firmly twentieth-century story, though, so I suppose this is appropriate.

You’re a man of many writing talents. In addition to your more literary work, you also write under a pseudonym. Why the decision to split your literary identity in half?

I think that a lot of people who may enjoy my crime fiction wouldn’t enjoy something like, say, the novel version of Cinema Rex. And vice versa. It’s a way to usefully divide one’s writing life and also to alert a potential audience as to what they are about to look at. Iain Banks / Iain M. Banks did just that, and did it well: his writing under both names was excellent (and one could argue that Use of Weapons, one of the novels published under his sci-fi name, is his most ambitiously complex), and cultivated two different audiences with generous overlap.

You have the chance to spend a weekend at a castle with three historical writers. Who do you choose? What would you do?

Hm. Fun answer: Patricia Highsmith, the early-sixties incarnation of Kingsley Amis, Doug Kenney, cocktails.

Dour, I’m-a-serious-student-of-literature answer: Lovecraft, Poe, and Michel Houellebecq for a calm salon-style discussion of the crucial role of racism in early American horror.

What’s next for Naben Ruthnum (& Nathan Ripley)? Any new projects coming down the pipes?

Nathan has to finishing revising the latest draft of Scrapbook, a thriller that my crime-fiction agent should be sending around in early 2014. As for my other stuff—I’d like to have an agent for this half of my career, and I’d really like to put out a book of short stories soon. I’ve been working on turning Cinema Rex into a novel, and it’s going well.

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This year’s Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize will be awarded on November 20 in Toronto. To learn more about Naben (& alter ego Nathan), visit his website.

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