Rules are made to be broken . . .
When I began doing interviews for The Romance Reader, I made a personal rule that I would not attempt to interview an author until or unless I had read all her work. This interview is the first of two exceptions to that rule.
Eva Rutland published her first book, The Trouble With Being Mama: A Negro Mother on the Anxieties and Joys of Bringing Up a Family in 1964. She has written, plays, radio scripts, a musical and more than a dozen romances for Harlequin. Mrs. Rutland is in her 80s and has been blind throughout most of her writing career. However, she remains one of the genre’s most prolific authors. Her first mainstream novel, No Crystal Stair, is a semi autobiographical work that is being released this month to coincide with Black History Month.
I first “met” Eva Rutland in 1996 through her novella, “Guess What’s Cookin’” in the Sisters anthology. I enjoyed the story and wondered what else she had written. I began scouring her backlist and am halfway through it. My favorites thus far are No Crystal Stair, A Child’s Christmas, Million Dollar Marriage, Foreign Affair and No Accounting for Love.
Last summer I was pleased to meet Mrs. Rutland in person during the Romance Writers of America convention in Chicago. She was open, warm and friendly. Despite her busy schedule, she graciously agreed to this interview.
Please tell us about your background.
I was born in Atlanta Georgia, in a house my grandfather -- a former slave -- built four
years after the end of the Civil War. I attended private elementary schools and the public Booker T. Washington High School. I graduated from Spelman College. We had a large loving extended family. I had two older brothers. Mother was a school teacher and daddy was a pharmacist.
You said you were born in the house your grandfather, a former slave built. What can you tell us about him? Did you know him?
His name was Isaac Westmoreland. He died when I was about three years old. He had a shoe repair and boot making shop in downtown Atlanta on Whitehall Street. He had
eleven children and the nine who survived all finished college. We were mostly Atlanta University people. He would bring flour and sugar in by the barrel full but he’d have to lock it up to prevent my grandmother from giving it away to the poor people. My grandmother’s maiden name was Emma Love.
When did you begin writing? What was your first book and how long did it take to get it published?
I wrote magazine articles about rearing children with the thought that if white mothers and Black mothers could talk to each other we’d understand that we want the same things and have the same problems with children. The articles were published in the fifties in Redbook, Woman’s Day and Ladies’ Home Journal. Later I compiled these articles into a book and sent these query letters to a list of publishers I found in the Writers Market. The second publisher I wrote to, Abingdon Press, bought it. My first book was The Trouble With Being a Mama.
What did you learn from the experience?
What I learned was that we did have the same experiences. Other mothers, Black and white said it was like I was looking over their shoulders. And I thought it was a wonderful way to communicate with people. I learned that it was easy to get a book published.
Print has not been your only medium. You’ve had skits produced on radio and television and even written a musical comedy. Can you tell us about these projects?
The skits that I wrote were when my children were in elementary school in Sacramento, California. As a PTA member I wrote plays for the PTA’s Fall Luncheon. One, “PE (Parent Education) Pills,” was produced at 32 different schools and on radio. I wrote a series of 13 skits for a woman working on her Master’s thesis on parent education. These also were produced on radio. My musical comedy, “Pride, Prejudice and Pollution” was produced by a small amateur theater group in Sacramento.
You began to lose your sight from macular degeneration about the time your writing career began yet you remain very prolific. Will you describe the process you use in your writing? Do you dictate? How do you make revisions?
At first I used a tape recorder and typewriter. Sometimes I’d be typing, not realizing I’d run out of paper. I had a marvelous writing critique group that met at my house. Someone else would read my offerings and I would tape the comments and make revisions. I’d have to type the whole thing over again. It was very tedious until my daughter finally introduced me to a computer and a voice synthesizer. That was after three or four novels. I have two computer consultants. They sold me the computer with 90 hours of instruction and must have given me 900 hours over the years.
When did you begin to write romance novels? Why? What is it about the genre that appeals to you?
I began to write romances the early 80s. I think my first sale was in 1985, A Report of Love. It was an inspirational romance for a line that was later discontinued. I sent my next proposal to Harlequin as a sweet romance. They bought it and have been buying my work ever since. They also bought the two Regencies I’d already written. I like the romance genre because they are filled with love and laughter and the good guy always wins.
How did your relationship with Harlequin begin? How many romances have you written for them?
It began when the inspirational line was discontinued and I sent my proposal for To Love Them All to Paula Eykelhof at Harlequin. I have written 17 sweet romances, five of which were regencies. I’ve also written a mainstream -- No Crystal Stair -- and two
novelettes. One was included in an anthology, Sisters, published by Signet. The other was published in Girlfriends, published by Harper Collins. Anita Bunkley and Sandra Kitt, authors of the other two stories in Girlfriends, and I have all been nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
Most of your romances feature white characters. Are the readers you meet often surprised that you are an African-American writer?
I don’t know. I do remember that on one occasion at a writing conference, a lady noticed my name tag and said “You are Eva Rutland. I love your books!” Then she added, as in great surprise, “and you’re Black!” “Yes,” I said, laughing, “and I’m also blind.”
What I really regret is that we have white romances and Black romances. As a novice writer I was afraid to change that segregated tradition. In No Accounting for Love I wanted to make Maggie, a supporting character, Black. But a friend advised me “Don’t tamper with success!” I’ve always regretted following that advice.
You have written historicals, regencies, contemporaries and inspirationals. Which form do you prefer?
I love the regencies.
A Child’s Christmas is one of my favorite Eva Rutland novels. Was it difficult to manage such a busy plot with three romantic relationships?
No. Because, I liked the story and was able to put a lot of my own philosophy in it. It’s easy because my characters seem to take over for themselves. Once you get to writing, your characters surprise you sometimes.
What is your favorite Eva Rutland book?
In my regencies, I like The Vicar’s Daughter. In my romances, I like No Accounting for Love.
Are there common elements in your work?
I don’t like anything sad. I’ll tell you that. I hope my stories are always upbeat and with as much humor as I can get into them.
What are you working on now?
I’m stumbling. I have several plots in mind. My agent would like me to write another mainstream, but the light humorous stories continue to circle in my head but haven’t yet landed on paper. I do have a sweet romance, Almost a Wife coming out some time this year.
“No Crystal Stair” is a semi autobiographical novel. What were the challenges of writing a work of fiction based on aspects of your life?
I guess the biggest challenge was to make it interesting. What I wanted to do was to write about the Black people I had known. So much emphasis has been placed on the Black poor and deprived and mistreated, I wanted to present us as I know us. Just like other people, with the same faults and virtues and desires and abilities as anybody else.
How did you meet your husband? How long have you been married?
I met him in Birmingham Alabama at a friend’s house where I was rehearsing for an amateur play. I was playing the part of a blind girl. I have been married 57 years.
In No Crystal Stair, Ann Elizabeth Carter marries Robert Metcalf, a Tuskegee Airman. I understand that two of your cousins were Tuskegee Airmen. What were they like?
Both were fine, handsome young men and college graduates as were most of the Tuskegee Airmen. Both were killed somewhere over Germany in World War II.
The title of your book is taken from “Mother to Son,” a poem written by Langston Hughes in the 1920s. Why did you select this poem? Does it have any special meaning for you?
The title seemed appropriate to the theme, epitomizing the struggle that Black people have to go through just to live an ordinary life.
How was the decision made to use this vehicle for your first mainstream fiction?
I love the phrase “No Crystal Stair,” an image of strength and elegance and struggle.
In your jacket notes for No Crystal Stair you are adamant that “there is no such thing as the Black experience.” What did you mean?
People are different. The circumstances under which they are born are different. There is no person on this earth who is exactly like you. Each person is different and has a different life experience. “The Black experience” is as varied and as complicated as the white experience. I am not a spokesperson for the Black race. My experiences are far too limited for that. I can only tell my story and the story of my family as I experienced it.
What do you want readers to come away with after they finish No Crystal Stair?
I would like them to understand that all people are alike, that they might have the urge to live, love and let live, free from the grip of yesterday’s wrongs and that divisive taint of ethnic pride that is causing so much havoc and bloodshed throughout the world.
You attended Spelman College. For those who don’t know, what and where is Spelman College? Can you describe your experiences at Spelman?
I actually attended Spelman College in the 1930s, graduating in 1937. Spelman is a Black woman’s college located in Atlanta, the sister school to the famous Black men’s college, Morehouse. My experience at Spelman were much like Ann Elizabeth’s as described in No Crystal Stair. I was a member of the University Players, a theater group. I majored in economics and minored in English and Drama. Famous Black scholars like W.E.B. DuBois were on the campus at that time. Faculty members were both Black and white. Daily chapel services were mandatory. I hear some of the most wonderful lectures there each morning.
Is it true that the cover of No Crystal Stair includes a photograph of you taken when you graduated from Spelman?
I was 19 at the time the photograph was taken, a year before I graduated.
Have you ever been back to the campus since graduation? If so, what were your impressions at the time?
I went back for my 50th reunion in 1987. I was blind at the time. There were so many new buildings around that I felt closed in. What seemed to be the same was Sisters Chapel, Rockefeller Hall and the Quadrangle.
Philosophically, who are Ann Elizabeth Carter and Robert Metcalf? How was their marriage shaped by historical events unfolding around them?
They are typical of any middle-class Black couple of that time, affected by the prejudice and the changing racial climate of the time. They are the ones that Langston Hughes describes in his poem -- they kept climbing and struggling on, reaching landings and dealing with life as best they could.
A lot of your fans might be shocked by the realism in the language in No Crystal Stair. What do you think?
I wrote it as I heard it. I assume you are referring to the frequent use of the term “Nigger” in the book. In the Black homes in which I grew up, it was often a term of affection, meant to mock the racists, not denigrate a “brother.”
You have written two novellas with African-American heroines that were published in anthologies -- Sisters and Girlfriends -- with works by Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley. How did these projects come about? Are there plans for others?
My agent, Denise Marcil, arranged both projects. I don’t know if there are plans for others.
Your stories in both Sisters and Girlfriends deal with issues of class and the notion of marrying for security. Why?
Those are real issues for Black women. Black women frequently attain educational and economic status beyond that attained by Black men. In both books, my heroines chose Black men based on their worth and character, not based on social status. They were lucky to find such men.
“Choices,” the story in Girlfriends, ends on a somewhat ambiguous note. The relationship between Becky Smart and Carl Saunders is unresolved. What happened to them?
My “choice,” as always, is that they married and lived happily ever after.
What authors have inspired your work?
Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Edna St. Vincent Milay.
What do you read when you’re not writing?
I search for any good book I can find. I use the talking book library. I prefer fiction.
Can you tell us a bit about your family and your life outside of writing?
My husband has retired after 43 years as a civilian with the United States Air Force. He’s a wonderful, supportive, editor and proofreader and cook. My four children are all grown. My eldest daughter is married with an adopted daughter and is a social worker in Oakland. My son is also married, has three children and is a successful lobbyist with offices in Sacramento and San Francisco. My youngest daughters are twins. One is a lawyer in San Francisco and she has two sons. And the other is an editorial writer for a Sacramento newspaper. (She’s the person who’s reading your questions and typing the answers for me.) She is married and has one daughter, my namesake. I am very lucky to have happy, supportive, loving children.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep sending your manuscripts out.
How can readers contact you?
Readers can contact me through my publisher.
225 Duncan Mill Road
Don Mills, Ontario,
M3B 3K9, CANADA
Thank you very much, Mrs. Rutland.
February 7, 2000