What's in a Page: Maurice Carlos Ruffin on writing his legendary hometown
The author answers our burning questions about his new short story collection, The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is very proud to be from New Orleans. In his new short story collection The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You, he sets out to pay homage to the elements of a city that most people think they know well — but few actually do. He follows a father and son after the former's return home from prison, a family home in peril, residents scrambling to prepare for Hurricane Katrina, and more tableaus of the off-off-Bourbon Street variety. Here, in EW's author series, the Pen/Faulkner Award finalist explains how he got his start with the written word and what the new story collection means to him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
MAURICE CARLOS RUFFIN: I feel like as a small child I was more of a producer than a writer. I remember loving an animated series called Kidd Video. It was about a bunch of girls and boys who are transported to an alternate reality and turned into cartoon characters. They had to find a way back to the real world. They had this ship that looked like a humongous tabby cat! I decided to make a version more to my liking. So I recast it with my all my friends as the main characters. We were on an Earth that was mostly flooded. And our mission was to use our yellow cat hovercraft to find dry land and start a new life. I worked on that idea during recess for days and days, but it was only in my head. I never actually wrote it out! It's kind of a dark idea in retrospect, but the main thing I remember is that the characters were so hopeful that they would find a new home.
What is the last book that made you cry?
Full disclosure: I'm far more likely to cry listening to music or watching a film. But Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi had me all in my feelings. Also, The Handmaid's Tale and Orlando get me every time. I've read them both thrice. The last movie that had me bawling was Imitation of Life (1959). That funeral scene got me. The last song that made me cry was Joanna Newsom's "Sapokanikan." She's doing the most. That song is so dense it casts a spell.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
It's not out yet, but I have an advance copy of Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow that I'm very excited about.
Where do you write?
I like coffee shops. I love my big dinner table at home. I spent a year in a house John Grisham donated to the University of Mississippi. It had a great big table that was my favorite writing spot of my whole life. It's the standard by which I'll measure every place I write in the future.
Which book made you a forever reader?
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I believe I read at age 12, showed me how good a book could be at depicting a life in all its complexity. I read all the follow-ups she wrote too. But if I'm being totally transparent, my love of books started with comics. I loved reading Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men in the '80s and early '90s. No one was better at writing stories that were so romantic in every sense of the word. The lady who owned the comic book shop I went to every week always said that all her young customers became college-goers and lifelong readers. It was true of me, for sure. I tip my hat to Ms. Pauline.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Too many! It depends on where I am, but my favorite are bran muffins because they look healthy, but they're really just cake that I don't feel guilty about eating. A lack of guilt is very helpful when sitting down to write well.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I would give a free copy of my short story collection to every teenager in America.
What is your favorite part of The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You?
It's kind of unique. There aren't that many short story collections by African-Americans coming out of New Orleans, which is weird considering how legendary my hometown is. So I feel like the book is at the vanguard of a movement I hope will happen. I want to see books flooding out of New Orleans. We have so many stories to tell!
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
I wrote a story called "Rhinoceros" set during the pandemic and George Floyd protests in New Orleans. It was challenging to write something so in the moment. After all, the pandemic isn't over yet. But it was also a lot of fun to write.
Write a movie poster tag line for the book:
Get New Orleans.