I am very happy that our first interview will be with Lynda Rutledge a highly successful writer and novelist whose most recent novel, West With Giraffes, is a major literary hit. Her novel has received over 46,000 ratings on Goodreads and has an aggregate rating of 4.45 out of 5 stars.
Lynda Rutledge Bio:
A professional writer for over 25 years, Lynda has worked as a copywriter, restaurant and film reviewer, book collaborator, nonfiction author, travel writer, and freelance journalist. She’s petted baby rhinos, snorkeled with endangered sea turtles, hang-glided off a small Swiss mountain, and dodged hurricanes to write articles for national and international publications, such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Poets & Writers, Houston Post, San Diego Union-Tribune and many more, her travel photographs often appearing with her work. She’s also crafted book-length nonfiction for famous organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the San Diego Zoo Global (for which she’s shown below doing an interview with one of her favorite animals that inspired her new novel West with Giraffes.) Follow Lynda at https://lyndarutledge.com.
You became a professional writer about 25 years ago, what did you do prior to that and what inspired you to become a writer?
I’m a bit of a literary late bloomer. I really wanted to see and experience the world and did so as a travel writer all through the ’90s on the strength of my pen (which you’ll see all over West with Giraffes, I bet; I love a good road trip), while I was writing nonfiction books for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the San Diego Zoo. But I always had literary pretensions once I realized that all those books I’d been reading were written by actual people, not gods. And, if I learned the craft and kept reading, maybe I could do it, too. Lots of writers will tell you that they wanted to be a writer from their elementary school days. Not me. I wanted to be the first girl shortstop for the New York Yankees in grade school, play tennis at Wimbledon in high school, and then by college I wanted to be an artist. But I found out I was better at being a failed artist. So finally it hit me that It was the creativity I loved, really, and since I was good with words, perhaps I could paint with words. I’m told my writing is very visual, and that makes me happy.
Who were your influences and do you have any favorite “go to” authors whose works you enjoy reading?
As my website’s bio explains, when I wasn’t trying to break my little tomboy neck, you could find me grabbing every Superman comic book from my dad’s drugstore, and every Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew mystery in my small town’s Carnegie Public Library––all of them leading me to Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and then to the study of American Literature through college and beyond. At some point, I had to ask myself: “What do books do for us?” Any writer knows that to be a writer you need to love reading, but any reader knows the answer, too, even if they don’t know they do. As Mark Twain said, “The man [or woman] who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man [or woman] who can’t read them.” But it’s more than that. From books, we learn not only to see the world through others’ eyes, but about universal truths which have the power to shape the type of deeper, more well-rounded people we become, be they from 1950s Superman comics, 1830s Charles Dickens, or 1930s Katherine Anne Porter. (Plus…you never know when your knowledge of, say, James Fenimore Cooper finally comes in handy as you saw/ will see in West with Giraffes).
You had an active career as a journalist, what made you switch to novels?
Actually, I went into my freelance journalism career from the back door. I had two degrees in English, a BA and an MA, having only a journalism minor with my MA. I thought I’d become a college professor. But then, in my late 20s, after being told that there were far too many PhDs in English for the jobs available, did I realize that perhaps I could make a living with my pen if I tried. And the more success I had with that, the more I believed that, one day, if I kept honing my fiction craft, adding another degree, an MFA this time in creative writing, and I didn’t give up,
I might create the kind of novels that I loved to read.
Your first novel, Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, was very popular and eventually was turned into a French movie. Did you assist in writing the screenplay, and did you feel the movie was faithful to the book?
I’m not a screenwriter, although it would have been fun to try. Being a French film, for a French audience, though, it definitely needed a French flair, and did it ever have one. And that made for many plot points that had to be nudged. My book was very Texas-centric, set in smalltown Texas where the richest lady in town heard the voice of God tell her to pull all her expensive antiques out of the front lawn for a garage sale because she thinks it’s the last day of her life. As you might imagine, chaos ensues as the townpeople get wind of it. An antique gun, for instance, is central to one of the central subplot dealing with a tragedy that happened 25 years earlier, a gun made in Texas for the Confederate war and found in a nearby riverbed (not at the garage sale), and that works for Texas or America. But it didn’t work for France. Instead, since the grandmother’s life of the female director was eerily similar, complete with mansion and antiques, the film was shot in that small French town and used a nearby quarry for the tragic event. Watching the film was surreal to say the least, as one thing would be changed, and then half a dozen things would not be, including using some of my best lines (in closed captions, of course), which had me all but guffawing every time. Such an insane experience.
What gave you the idea for West With Giraffes?
As I explain in the Author’s Note at the back of the book, I have known about the true story “West with Giraffes” was based on since 1999. Back then, I was doing deep dives into the San Diego Zoo’s archives for a project when I stumbled on a batch of yellowed newsclippings chronicling the kind of story that captures the imagination and never quite lets go: In September 1938, on the orders of the Zoo’s famous female zoo director Belle Benchley, two giraffes survived a hurricane at sea to be driven cross-country in little more than a tricked-out pickup truck. Over 500 newspapers carried the story day after day as the giraffes saw the U.S.A. from their sky-high windows to become the first giraffes in Southern California. But I wasn’t a published novelist yet, so after a doomed search for any diaries that might have been kept of the trip, I had to let go of the idea for a nonfiction book about it.
Then, in 2012, after I’d had my first novel published, the San Diego Zoo CEO asked me if I’d like to write the history of the Zoo for their centennial in 2016. Even though I wasn’t doing nonfiction anymore, I of course said yes, and in doing so, I revisited all those old news-clippings and began to imagine what it might take to fill in all the gaps with fictional characters. The “rest of the story” you know.
What was more challenging, developing the plot or your characters?
Both. Here’s a link to the white board I worked on for over a year, attempting to get everything where it needed to be, geographically, historically, and character-wise, in place before I jumped into writing it.
(Scroll down to THE MAKING OF West with Giraffes-white board)
I had a basic stack of facts, but not enough—not even info about their route or obstacles they encountered. So, I had to flesh them all out via my imagination. I only had one of the main characters, the Old Man, although I didn’t have much about him, so I based him on all that I knew about zookeepers during that era, rough and tumble guys, many of whom had backgrounds with circuses and farms. And my main character, Woody, needed to be from Texas so I could not only use all my knowledge of Texas to inform the story and the character, having grown up there, but also use the Panhandle Dust Bowl accounts to make his own story come to life as well as the Dust Bowl story itself that had to be part of any cross-country story in 1938. But the characters and the plot all had to come at the same time. My head was a very busy place during that time!
Augusta Red was a fascinating and mysterious character, was anyone the inspiration for her character & was there anything autobiographical about her?
I guess my background as a travel writer and a photographer who grew up with LIFE magazines in my house, and, I suppose a bit of my own personality (definitely the stubbornness and drive), informed Red.
As for Red herself, I knew, for balance, I needed a woman on the road somehow with them, a “scandalous” character who would be traveling alone (horrors!) and embody the social situation for women in 1938. The story had to have a female character as much as it needed the Dust Bowl and the “Green Book” sort of racial situation at the time as well, all done with a light, adventure-focused touch, if I could pull that off.
What source materials were you able to find for the cross-country journey? And how long did the research take for the book?
As mentioned in the Acknowledgements, I leaned heavily on half a dozen books about the era, including “The Worst Hard Time” about the Dust Bowl and the original “Green Book,” which Blacks had to use to travel in those days safely. Do see the “Acknowledgements” for more if you’re interested. The research took years and while I’m not the kind of writer who can get lost in research to the point of delaying the writing, I did with this one. For instance, there were amazing oral histories just about the 1938 hurricane that the giraffes were caught in before landing in New York was the worst until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
This book is also a coming of age story for Woody Nickels, and at age 105 he writes and reflects on not only the giraffes but his own hard life and lives in the Dust Bowl. Did Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath help in your vivid descriptions of life during that time period?
Of course. I skimmed that classic again before jumping into writing, to help inform the Dust Bowl and “Californy” part of the novel.
As I read this book I kept thinking that it would be a wonderful movie or TV series, is there anything like that in the works?
There have been several nibbles so far. We’ll see!
Last question, what is next for Lynda Rutledge? Any projects you can tell us about?
I have another coming out in Feb. 2024, this one set in 1964 and inspired by my own experiences growing up during that time of immense cultural change as many of your readers know from living memory. But it also, I hope, speaks to today as well, framed as it is from the Summer of 2020. I’m told my style is humorously serious. I like that. A good story, the kind that stays with you and gives you food for thought, packs a velvet punch––so it must have some gravitas to it, but it should be delivered lightly and with a dash of joy. That’s what I’m aiming for in all my novels, the past ones and the ones still to come.
Lynda, again, thanks for taking time from your schedule. You wrote a wonderful book that has touched so very many readers.
You are very welcome. The fact that West with Giraffes has been loved by so many and continues to be loved as word keeps spreading (and almost all of its success has been by word of mouth, by the way), is a writer’s dream.