Ten Questions Feature

Ten Questions for Renee Rutledge

What inspired you to tell this story? 

My first novel, The Hour of Daydreams, was inspired by the questions I had after reading a Filipino folktale. Why would a woman marry a man who stole her wings? Why would she leave her daughter behind? Writing the novel was my process of uncovering the answers, to explore motivation and tell the story behind the story.

For my first children’s book, One Hundred Percent Me, I wrote the story I wished I could have read to my own daughters when they were growing up, one that includes a character of mixed Asian and Latina heritage like them. When I became a mother, I repeatedly witnessed my daughters being asked the same questions about “what they are” or where they’re from. The main character in One Hundred Percent Me turns those questions on their head to say, “I’m from here; this city is just as much mine as yours; and I am myself and beautiful.”

What did you edit out of this book?

In writing the children’s book The ABCs of Asian American History, it was important for me to make sure it is not stereotypical, but rather breaks down stereotypes. That it doesn’t show Asian Americans as monolithic, but as complex and multidimensional. I included words like “kimono” or “zen” to take them back from Western representations and make clear they have a deep and long history in Asia. Too easily a book like this could have contributed to a generic notion of Asian Americans, but I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce young learners to facts and people they don’t get the chance to read about in school. To open the conversation. To be celebratory while not letting the realities of the Exclusion Act and internment be ignored. And to include a wide range of Asian American ethnicities, from early contributions to contemporary figures. As you can imagine, this was a tall task!

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion? 

Going back to my novel on this one, I learned I like to leave myself breadcrumbs. After completing a particular movement or scene, I write myself notes about what I think is going to happen next and what is running through the characters’ heads before I put the keyboard away. When I come back to the manuscript, I read my notes and they connect me to the current I had been following when I stopped. I also like to edit as I go. I read and re-read. Then I add to what I’ve written, and I re-read again. The ending of the novel was something I thought I was writing toward the entire time, but it wasn’t a moment I could pinpoint. It came to me rather than the other way around. I read and re-read and nothing in the text stopped me. Each sentence rang true in a continuous thread that as a whole became something apart from me, something that could stand on its own, and what I had been writing toward was there. 

What was your agenting process like?

When I finished the third and final draft of The Hour of Daydreams, I decided to go straight to the small press route. I had compiled a short list of small presses that I’d researched, those with a solid distribution channel, willing to take risks, and investing everything they had in innovative literary fiction. I received a response and acceptance upon sending out my first set of queries, and timing-wise, I was just really lucky to have connected with the perfect home for my novel with Forest Avenue Press. At the moment, I’m not agented, but that’s a route I will pursue upon completion of my next book. 

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Taking a book tour to Portland, the press headquarters of my first book, and to electrifying New York, were highlight moments as a debut author. I made a road trip out of Portland, discovering quaint little towns along the way and drinking in the beautiful scenery. Once there, I was able to meet a wonderfully engaged community of fellow Forest Avenue Press authors as well as readers, booksellers, and journalists who continue to be an integral part of my network today. In New York, I read with several women writers whose debut books were also released that year, and meeting them in person for the first time then sharing the stage with them, with East Coast friends and family I rarely see in the audience, was unforgettable. To get there, my family and I took a long detour, flying first to North Carolina to beach hop with loved ones for a few days before driving our rental car to Washington, DC, for some history in the nation’s capital along the way.  

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

On days off I like to wake up early, before anyone else is up, and spend a couple of hours reading, then writing. Workdays are harder. I put away my book editor hat around 4 pm, then spend an hour on my writing. Then I put my computer aside to cook, have dinner with my family, and take a walk together. While my daughter is doing her homework or at volleyball practice, I write for another hour or so. Later in the evening, I write for anywhere from half an hour to a few hours more. Balancing work and family life with writing can leave little space for anything else. I go through streaks when I write every day in this fashion, but for me, that’s not sustainable. I go many days when I don’t write at all. The waves of productivity usually coincide with when I’m completing particular scenes from a novel or working through a short story arc, or when I’m in the thick of drafting a personal essay. 

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

1. Every writer has an inner compass that steers them to what’s true. This is the voice to listen to and trust, above all others.

2. “I don’t have time” is an excuse, because it’s not like writers happen to be the ones with enough leisure time to while away the hours writing. It takes persistent effort to build that discipline—This can mean not scrolling social media, skipping the next show to binge, or maybe waking up an hour earlier—and using the extra time to write. The momentum grows from there!

3. No writing is wasted. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be part of a specific book you hope to write. Write what you feel you want to write at the moment that you want to write it. Then put it away. Look at it again tomorrow, or months from now, and the inspiration or spark of meaning that called you will still be there. Follow it. Never stop following your sparks of meaning. 

What does literary success look like to you?

For me, literary success has been a rainbow of many different things. It has been getting the chance to introduce my parents to a room full of readers. It is getting feedback from a stranger telling me that they have read my book again and again with their child, or their nephew, or their student. Or that a book I’ve written impacted them in a meaningful way. In the end, literary success is not all about getting published but building a life where there is space for writing, when you’ve established consistent productivity that does not get in the way of living a full life but is integral to living a full life.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

My author friends help me feel less alone because most of my friends and family do not understand the challenges of being a writer. I also have a writing group that helps me to stay productive with regular deadlines. Reading their work in progress is a privilege, and talking about the creative process ensures I continue to grow as a writer, as well as fires me up to write.

Who are you writing for? 

I discovered writing on my own as a child, before it became an assignment to complete for someone else. The question makes more sense to me as “Why do I write?” Because the more I do, the more I understand and the more connected I feel.

Renee Macalino Rutledge (she/her) is originally from Manila, Philippines, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her novel, The Hour of Daydreams, won an Institute for Immigration Research New American Voices Finalist award, Foreword INDIES Gold, and Powell’s Top Five Staff Pick. Her children’s picture book One Hundred Percent Me, told from the perspective of a Filipina and Puerto Rican protagonist, celebrates multiracial families, and her children’s book The ABCs of Asian American History has been called a “must-read” by educators and parents around the country. When she isn’t reading next to her tabby cat Storm, Renee loves the outdoors and is always on the lookout for a new adventure with her husband and their two daughters. Find her at www.reneerutledge.com or connect with her on Instagram @renee_rutledge.

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Sherisa de Groot (she/her) is a writer, community builder, and founder of Raising Mothers, literary membership community Literary Liberation, and pens A Home Within Myself. With a focus on intersectionality and social justice, de Groot’s writing explores the nuances of motherhood and the experiences of BIPOC mothers and marginalized genders. Through her work, she aims to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced and create a more equitable world for all. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Kindred by Parents, Refinery 29, Mutha Magazine, and Oldster Magazine and she was a contributor to the book ‘100 Diverse Voices on Parenthood’ by A Kid’s Company About.