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Talking With the Author:: Martha Sherrill: Resurrecting the Ruins

If “beauty is truth and truth, beauty” then Martha Sherrill is one up on James Frey. In the midst of working on a memoir about her flamboyant, womanizing father, Sherrill realized that exposing all of his secrets would hurt too many people. A few years later, still determined to tell her father’s story, she released herself from the rules of nonfiction to bring readers a breathtaking fictional account of California in the 1970s, grounded in an emotional truth only fathers and daughters can bring out in each other. Ruins of California is a chronological saga, narrated in the first person by Inez Ruin, a young girl shuttling between her mother Consuela’s house in Van Dale (Glendale) and her father Paul’s apartment in San Francisco. Sherrill points out, “originally the book was told in many different voices. It opened originally inside the head of Paul Ruin commenting on his children, and then it flashed, it went back, there was a chapter inside Marguerite’s head, it moved around. I had a very hard time collecting the story, the story that I knew I wanted to tell, and it just wasn’t focusing. I realized I’m just going to have to tell it through this girl’s point of view. Because it’s really her story.”Having returned full circle to the memoir style she’d previously abandoned, Sherrill drew inspiration from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon, which opens from the perspective of a young girl on a plane. Like the girl in Fitzgerald’s novella, Inez’ story begins with a solo plane ride. In creating Inez, Sherrill says “The difficult part was to make a precocious nine-year-old girl smart and wise and honest, you know she’s telling you the truth about what she’s experiencing, but not having her be so precocious that she’s like an old lady or scary or irritating the way a precocious child can be.”As she matures, Inez experiences every facet of 1970s California, including the music, the clothes, the hair and even Werner Erhard. “I talked to people about the 70s,” says Sherrill, “I realized there was a certain amount of embarrassment about the decade. People want to pretend they stayed home for it. Nobody wants to admit they wore those clothes and danced to that music, although the music was pretty great. I realized it was an incredibly innocent time, and I think the embarrassment about the 70s was ‘Oh, how naive we were.’” Although Inez is the same age as the author in the 1970s, she is a fictional character. According to Sherrill, “[Inez] captures the feeling that I had growing up, and that is really about it. Aside from capturing a feeling of a time and a place and what it was like to shuttle between these two worlds, the only thing that is taken from real life is the father character. Paul Ruin is my attempt to put my own father in a book as true to life as I can without having to stick to the facts. It really is his personality and lifestyle and attitude. More than half his letters to Inez are real letters my father sent to me.”Inez’ father speaks openly with her about sex, drugs, and living without preconceptions or boundaries. Like many teenagers in the 1970s, Inez goes with the flow and begins to experiment. “I drew on my own friends and family,” explains Sherrill, “and what I saw myself growing up-which is that people wander into drugs…without thinking about it, really. They’re bored, other people are doing it. There are a million reasons that people wander into it.” When asked if Inez’ broken home and irresponsible parents are what cause her to act out, Sherrill replies, “I don’t try to explain [Inez’ drug use] in the book because I don’t really know the answer to it either. It’s almost politically correct for a book to give you a pat reason why somebody did what they did.”“I think it was a very confusing time to be a parent. It was parenting without bike helmets and car seats and airbags. People didn’t know anything about addiction. Kids were, in a good way, left to grow up on their own without the kind of overprotection and monitoring that goes on today. But also the parents were pretty naive about what the kids could be wandering into.”Similar to her deft, nuanced writing style, Sherrill revels in the complexity of people and their relationships. Earlier this year she wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the James Frey controversy. While she feels it is a bit unfair that he used fiction to improve a nonfiction story, she hopes “Frey’s readers might come to realize the fictional bits were some of the best moments in his book — that without those thrilling embellishments it would have been just another true story.” Indeed, in the hands of a writer as talented as Martha Sherrill, Ruins of California becomes a better kind of memoir, not only because some of the facts are true, but because like any beautiful work of fiction, it rings true.

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