Pure Imagination and Possibility: Interview with Ruth Barshaw

I don’t think it’s possible to describe Ruth Barshaw. Anyone?

It would require a whole lot of adjectives, and I suspect some of them would appear to be opposites. She’s tremendously loyal and supportive and hilarious and crazy, in really good ways. Absurdly talented in ways that sometimes make other people (my hand’s raised) writhe with jealousy. I don’t think I have ever seen her without sketchbook in hand. How cool is that?

That picture of me all the way to the right and up a bit—that’s a Ruth Barshaw sketch that she graciously allowed me to use in place of a photo on my website.

You may be familiar with her books and if you’re not, fix that. The Ellie McDoodle books are awesome and rich and fun and funny and maybe provide a tiny window into the author’s psyche.

Ruth Barshaw is someone you could spend a long time getting to know—and you’d enjoy every minute. A good place to start is her website, where you’d find this quote, among others: “Sometimes this job is solitary and the only friend I have is the character in my head whose adventures are directing my imagination. Other times this job brings me close to lots of great people who remind me of all that is good in the world.”

Can you talk about that dichotomy? Do you miss your regular, daily life when your only friend is that character in your head?

No — I don’t miss anything from the real world, because the imaginary world feels so real. I recognize that there are other things going on back in the real, real world, and I sometimes get forcibly pulled there (like if there’s bad news or a scheduled obligation) but mostly I just stay in the gauzy, fake-real world of my characters and am happy there while I’m there, because it’s creation time. It’s pure imagination and possibility.

Do your family and real-world friends recognize and/or accept this “only friend” aspect of the writing process?

I don’t think most of them know it exists, until they try to converse with me and I actually say to them, “I can’t find words right now. I don’t have my words.” That’s such an odd part of the process: I get to where I can’t use words. Everything becomes imagery, and so I can sometimes even see the words I am thinking, on an imaginary page in front of me, but I can’t access the words in my head. I can write them but can’t articulate them, except with real effort.

The toughest time for this is when I’m doing school visits. I’ll stand on stage and draw, putting together a story out of elements the kids just brainstormed. I’m always racing against the clock. I’ll get engrossed in the story, the art, the goal and the deadline, and invariably a kid asks a question that requires other-brain thinking. I come up with an answer in my head, but then the words disappear and I’m stuck with just images. I can shake back into reality and find the words, but I have to work consciously to do it. Otherwise I’d be in that weird Wonderland-like place, where reality is twisted.

This no-words place only happens at a certain time in the story-writing/illustrating process. Thank goodness, it’s not continual. At first it scared me. Now I think it’s kind of neat. (And btw I rarely drink and I don’t do substances. It’s just my weird brain.) I’ve talked about it with my husband and kids, so they recognize it and don’t think I’ve gone off the deep end. I’m quite sure they think it’s odd. Teachers and librarians seem to find it amusing.

Do you have difficulty making the transition back to citizen-of-the-world when the solitary part is over?

Not at all. The only part I have trouble with is realizing time has passed, emails have gone unanswered, and busy schedules are coming; life is going to speed up, and I have just a little time to get the most important things done before the whirlwind. I go from dreamy creation state to batten-down-the-hatches;-storm’s-coming! in a matter of minutes. I don’t love the whirlwind of deadlines, author-visit schedules and my busy family life, but it all has value.

With four books written, I’m guessing you know Ellie very well. What are some of your favorite things about her? Brag like a proud mama who has never heard of modesty.

I like that she’s courageous and strong–two things I felt I wasn’t, as a kid. She isn’t afraid to share her art (I usually hid mine). She’s willing to give almost anything a try. I became somewhat territorial, growing up — especially as an older teen. I wanted to make my own path through life. I didn’t want anything handed to me and especially didn’t want to be directed. Ellie stands up for herself. She takes her own path but isn’t afraid to share it with others. She doesn’t label herself. She confronts the demons of creative life. She is adventurous. She is curious. And she has a loving and supportive family who will let her fail, but they won’t let her stay down, and they definitely won’t kick her when she’s down. I love that she’s big on nature. And I love that she inspires kids to journal – I get letters about that all the time. If that’s the legacy Ellie McDoodle leaves, I’ll be very pleased. Because journaling is extremely valuable, for anyone.

I practically died of envy of the great friendships in the books I read as a kid. Were there any friendships you especially envied or admired or appreciated?

I liked how, in THE HAPPY HOLLISTERS, the kids always got along well and they had each others’ backs. Same with in Peggy Parrish’s THE KEY TO THE TREAURE: The siblings were best friends. What a fantasy!

I loved The Little Colonel series, where Lloyd invited friends for a house party and they became “chums,” close friends for years. I wanted to transport back in time 75 years and host a house party. I liked that, in LITTLE WOMEN, best friend Laurie ended up marrying a sister (but was disappointed it wasn’t Jo). I liked that Pippi Longstocking could always pick up her friendship where it had left off. And I loved all the characters of Beverly Cleary, especially the friendship in Ellen Tebbits. I longed for a friendship like she had: Two girls who remained friends even after a big fight. I actually had a great friendship, a girl who lived down the street, Janet Oswald. I loved her dearly. Tried to do everything together. She was one year older than me. There was another girl my age who I didn’t get along with so well, who lived halfway to Janet’s house. We were a triangle and I had to share Janet. We moved when I was 8. I never saw Janet again. She sent a card when my dad died, when I was 12. She died young, I think at 19, after some tumultuous teen years, and I didn’t hear about that until long after. I’ve tried to find her family. Fail. For a while I was convinced that if I became close to someone, they’d die. I’ve lost a *lot* of best friends over the years. A lot of people died too young. And a few beloved people have stayed with me for decades. In the balance, I’m lucky.

What fictional character would young-you have liked to be friends with?

Young me would have loved Buffalo. He’s strong–I’d have felt safe (I often did not feel safe as a kid). I’d have felt protected. He’s an advocate for the arts; we’d paint together, or he’d play drums while I played clarinet. He’d have been a lovely addition to our school band or the Codd Cousins band, my cousins, siblings, and young aunts and uncles, who played music together at our family parties. Bonus, he’s a big pillow.

That picture! In case you weren’t sure, that’s the buffalo on the left, with young Ruth, Ellie, older Ruth, and Ben-Ben. I heart that picture with all my heart. I bet Daniel Jennewein does, too.

You can get a nice, big dose of Ruth by visiting her website.

About Audrey Vernick

Audrey Vernick writes books for young readers.
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8 Responses to Pure Imagination and Possibility: Interview with Ruth Barshaw

  1. elisa says:

    What a wonderful interview! I can’t wait to read Ruth’s books. I’m sure I’ll wish that Ellie were MY friend.

  2. Mary Z says:

    I so relate to your words, Ruth, especially: “I just stay in the gauzy, fake-real world of my characters” and “I get to where I can’t use words.” Yeah, gauzy. I’m so relieved that I’m not the only one who gets into that trance. I tend to write on weekends, and after two days in the fake-real world, I have such a hard time speaking when I’m back in the office on Mondays. Whew, I thought it might be early-onset dimentia.

  3. Mirka Breen says:

    Ms. Barshaw is a treasure. Most writers can relate to her ‘real world’ avoidance because we write stories where we can make worlds that we can sort of manage, or make sense of.

  4. Natalie Dias Lorenzi says:

    I love this interview, because Audrey and Ruth, you’re both special people. From the moment I met you both, I felt like I’d known you for ages. xoxo

    And that illustration! Only Ruth would think to put her younger self and present self together. I love it. 🙂

  5. Jean Reidy says:

    Okay, I love this interview. A cherished few minutes with two women I so admire.

  6. Thank you for your kind comments! I feel seriously lucky to have become friends with so many great writers and illustrators.

  7. shuttaCrum says:

    Cool interview, Ruth & Audrey!

    I love the stuff about going into your own place in your mind!

  8. Lori Mozdzierz says:

    Thanks fo the terrific interview, Audrey and Ruth!!

    It’s amazing what happens when we transcend into our “alternate universe!”
    Real-time hours pass without notice. Isn’t it great?! 😀

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