Outrunning Illusion: A Q&A with Ruth Galm

Article by keaton

There is something about the desert that has fascinated writers and philosophers for decades. The desert is a symbol that reveals the emptiness of all others. In its monotonous nothingness, its endless expanse, stripped of all the structures and definitions of humanity, the distracting baubles and vertiginous novelty of modern society, all that remains must be the truth. It must be the Real.

The protagonist of Ruth Galm’s debut novel, INTO THE VALLEY, sets out to uncover this truth for herself. The young woman, known only as B., is a person out of time and out of place. Caught between the oppressive strictures of her mother’s tradition and the degenerate hippies invading the city that horrify her even more, she can no longer ignore the dread feeling creeping in on all sides—what she calls “the carsickness.” On the verge of panic, B. opts to reject everything. She flees with nothing but a brand new Mustang and a purse full of counterfeit checks in search of something she can’t explain—something that invariably pulls her inland—toward the valley and the desert.

Signaling the arrival of a startling new voice in American fiction, INTO THE VALLEY simultaneously explores personal, social and existential themes through one relentless character study. It tackles profound and unsettling ideas in restrained, taut prose. And in the end it is a story not soon forgotten.

Brazos Bookstore: INTO THE VALLEY fits within a tradition of American literature—one that includes works by writers like Joan Didion and Richard Yates, among others—where a psychologically distraught protagonist withdraws from the oppressive facade of society only to face a kind of emptiness. Many of these novels were written in the 1960s, the decade in which INTO THE VALLEY takes place. However, those works were set in the time in which they were written, whereas INTO THE VALLEY is technically historical fiction. So my question is: Why this novel? Why now?

Ruth Galm: Before I jump in, I have to officially say what an honor it is to be picked as a #BrazosBest. I am deeply grateful.

So why this novel. The novel itself began as a collage of my obsessions, just some pieces of writing I was messing around with that I didn’t know would become a novel. Exploring this specific era within that collage was just as selfish, a bit of navel-gazing and a desire to time travel. The books you mention are among the books I love, and so I think I wanted to crawl into an era and ethos that vaunted landscape and setting, existence and meaning, as critical elements of compelling fiction. Also, I was born in 1971, and my parents met in California in the late sixties, so it was a tangential way of examining my own provenance. Then, as I began shaping these pieces into a draft and understood (terrifyingly) that I was writing a novel, I chose the year 1967 very deliberately for the watershed feel of that year, a year where it was clear there was no going back to girdles and wash-and-sets, and that this change might not feel as much of a birthright to a 30 year old as it would to a seventeen year old.

But then the 1967 factor became irrelevant, and that is the “why now” answer. The more I worked with the story, the more I realized that the scripts and narratives for women and the pressures for a cleansed “femininity” that B. struggles with do not feel all that changed to me. I think we smugly point to 1967 and consider ourselves so evolved from that era—from the 1950s of B.’s molding especially—but society still does not know what to do with a single (and unkempt) woman. To have her at large, driving aimlessly on her own with no plan—even to mention her fingers on a tampon—still feels in 2015 like a radical act to me. So that era became a mirror I wanted to have to hold up to our own.

BB: Branching off from my first question, INTO THE VALLEY has been compared quite favorably with Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, not only because of the psychological quandary your protagonist—B.—experiences, but also due to being set in the desert inland of California. Many writers from Didion to Jean Baudrillard, and now you, have seen this area as a kind of metaphor for the inherent meaninglessness of existence that society, with all its novelties and traditions, tries unsuccessfully to keep hidden. What is it about this American wasteland that you find so intriguing?

RG: So I would make the slight correction that the northern part of the Central Valley that B. travels—the Sacramento Valley—is originally more grasslands than desert. Although it does get extremely hot in the summer and effectively has no rain from April to November.

The funny thing is that I actually consider the Central Valley not a wasteland so much as an endlessly fascinating “other,” probably even ascribe it some kind of nobility in its otherness that it does not deserve. I started driving this region on my own before I began the novel, I think in awe and curiosity that a place so foreign to this Bay Area native is in fact a majority of the state, and yet never what California is known for. So I think there is an intrigue with outrunning illusion that your question is right on about, a reverence for a land that feels less immediately pretty, less able to soften and hide things in rolling hills and turquoise water; a desire to get at something more “real.” For all the sirenic geological drama that draws people here, the reality of much of the state is flat, dry, and hot, which seems a riveting example of the bait-and-switch of the American West to me.

But I would say that neither B. nor I see it as a wasteland. For me, there is a captivating beauty in the way a eucalyptus break stands against a flat alfalfa field, a yellowed grassland runs under the bleached sky, the dirt of a peach orchard crumbles in sun. And for B., I think she sees the land more as the “tabula rasa” mentioned in the opening pages. Yes, she is constantly drawn to the heat and dry and derelict aspect to things, but because it erases what she’s known, what’s been programmed for her, and allows her a freedom she can’t get elsewhere. I am embarrassed to say that I haven’t read Baudrillard—thank you for introducing me to him—and when I found this quote from America, I was amazed at how he sums up exactly what I was feeling writing the novel: “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia . . . This form of travel admits of no exceptions: when it runs up against a known face, a familiar landscape, or some decipherable message, the spell is broken . . .” That is the tabula rasa B. is desperate for and finds in the landscape of the valley.

I think ultimately my favorite kind of fiction uses setting and “scape”—cityscape, landscape, mindscape—as a way to get at a character’s point of view. For me, that sensory detail is where I’ll find the heart of the story.

BB: Was B. always a doomed character for you? If so, is her fate more a result of some fatal flaw within her or the society in which she finds herself to be a woman out of time/place?

RG: B. was never doomed to me because she is so desperate to feel better and find the place she belongs. She’s full of hope, and a crazy unwitting kind of courage to abandon everything she knows (because she has no other choice psychologically); in that there is strength and truth-seeing.

To me, she is the canary in the coalmine. It’s true she is not built for the changes of the era, she’s too sensitive, but I think her spiral comes from the fact that, subconsciously, she’s asking more from society than it’s offering in these “changes.” The shifts of her time and place are undoing her because maybe she is hoping for a revolution that society and she have not even conceived yet.

BB: You have no idea whom we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

RG: Is there anything outside the written word that you find strongly influences your work?

BB: Speaking of, Benjamin Johncock, author of THE LAST PILOT, wants to know: What did your father teach you?

RG: My father taught me his love for words. He was an English professor, and a poet, and he revered words and rhythms and imagery and passed that worship on to me. He (and my mother) also taught me to “look it up.” Meaning get off my butt and go look for a word I didn’t know in the dictionary, and by doing so, make it my own. (This does not work in pixels, sorry; you must put your hands on that really thin paper.)


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Into the Valley Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616955090
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Soho Press - August 4th, 2015

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