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Sandra Ruttan: The OG Femme Fatale

“Here at the Out of the Gutter offices, we like to foster an atmosphere of loving and tolerance,” I say in my best used car salesman voice.

“I can see that,” noted author and philanthropist Sandra Ruttan says as she adjusts in the seat across from me. She’s probably looking at the classic porno movie posters behind me, or the extremely graphic photo stills I bought on eBay from a German horror movie, Der Slaughter Bath Von Berken-splerken part 18.

I lovingly tap one of the stills, say, “The first time I saw that movie I vomited for the rest of the day. Now that I’ve seen it over a hundred times, I only get queasy.”
“I’m more of a romantic comedy gal myself,” Sandra says, trying very hard not to look at the gore-soaked photo.
“There’s a romantic element to it,” I say, recalling all of the post-dismemberment coitus they filmed. “It’s actually pretty sweet.”
“Thanks for letting Brian come along. I’m sure he and Joe will do nicely in the lobby.”
“You’re welcome. God bless Brian.” I say. Brian Lindenmuth, Sandra’s husband, is my publisher at Snubnose Press. Of course I let that dude come along. I know how to kiss ass.
Joe Clifford, another Snubnose Press author and OOTG employee, is out in the lobby getting some much-desired face time with Lindenmuth. Tom Pitts and Court Merrigan will be along soon, each wanting to gush compliments to Lindenmuth on his first-rate indie press, tell him how nice he smells and then drop manuscripts in his lap. He’s published them as well, but still.
“So, let’s do this, huh?” I say, turning on the tape recorder and pulling out my note pad. “Question one, define noir for-”
“Oh my God. No.” Sandra says, looking past me. I turn, and both Joe and Lindenmuth are red-faced, standing scant inches from one another. Fingers jabbing into each other’s chests.
“What the hell?” I say.
“Super Bowl.” Sandra says. “Gotta be.” She stands, hurries out to the lobby.
“Super Bowl?” I ask, following on her heels.
“Yes,” Sandra says, throwing her purse over her shoulder as she goes. “Brian is a huge Ravens fan, and of course Joe-”
“Ah, yes.” I say, remembering how Joe wore his “lucky” 49ers shirt around the office for over twenty days without washing it. Since it was from a San Francisco team, it already stunk like homeless dirt balls, but not being laundered for nearly a month…we all started eating chili and stopped flushing so we’d have a more desirable scent wafting through the office than that ragged filth Joe refused to take off.
“The black-out was at fault for the loss!” Joe was shouting as we rounded the corner.
“Whatever, queef!” Lindenmuth came back. “Face it, the 49ers played hard all season so they could whiff the Big Game! The Seahawks earned that slot!”
Somewhere, Rich Osburn, Seahawks fan extraordinaire, popped up, shouted “Go Hawks!” and disappeared from the scene.
“The Ravens only got into the Super Bowl so the NFL could pimp a brother versus brother game! It was all marketing!” Joe shouted.
“Take that back!” Lindenmuth said.
“No!”
“Yes!”
“No!”
“Yes, damn it!” and Lindenmuth grabs Joe around the throat. “John Harbaugh is Jesus! JESUS!”
Joe swings a haymaker and it’s on like Donkey Kong. Sandra screams as the men roll around the lush carpeting in the lobby—Editor-in-chief Matt Louis spares no expense—smashing furniture to splintered pieces. Joe clambers for one particular spear and jabs at Lindenmuth’s face.
Lindenmuth ducks and Joe gets out from underneath him. Lindenmuth draws a butterfly knife and dances the thin blade out of the split hilt, ready for a poking session. Joe winds up at bat with his furniture spear.
Tom, Court, Paul Brazil and Chris Leek all pile out of the break room and start throwing down dollar bills.
“Kick his ass!”
“Two men enter! One man leaves!”
“Where’s Jean Claude Van Damme when you need him! Bloodsport, bitches!”
“Money on Joe!”
“Joe? No way! Lindenmuth’s got his balls in a bag!”
Joe swings and Lindenmuth jabs. Blood and hollers abound. Joe’s V-neck T-shirt gets torn the middle and his rippling muscles pour out like he was Fabio. Lindenmuth’s head spins on his neck a full six times before his eyes glow red. I can’t tell if he’s demonic or a Terminator.
I look at Sandra. “This just…turned really strange.”
“Wait for it,” she said, digging in her purse.
The two men charge at one another and launch into the air, Manga-style. They collide and a boom claps through the room, blowing back my luscious hair as if I were on the bow of the Titanic screaming I’m the king of the world!
“Oh no, bitches ain’t be fightin’ today!” Sandra shouts and pulls a ray gun from her purse. A bona fide ray gun. “Everybody get naked!” She runs into the center of the room, wildly swinging the weapon from side to side. Meanwhile, Joe and Lindenmuth are brawling into next week. “This is a stick up!”
Mike Monson pops up, cradles his cheeks in his hands and squeals before running away. Sandra aims the ray gun at him—he’s not following orders, after all—and fires. The laser beam hits him square in the back and he turns bright red like magma. Melts through the floor.
Below us is a suicide prevention hotline call center. Monson’s super-heated goo comes sizzling through their ceiling and splashes down on a bunch of people. They scream in Indian accents and die.
“Put your wallets and cell phones in the bag!” Sandra shouts, tossing her open purse into the middle of the floor. We dutifully oblige her. Joe and Lindenmuth bash each other like titans and then Lindenmuth sees what his wife is doing. Stops the fight.
“Sandra, honey, we’re not here to rob them…”
She looks at Lindenmuth and grabs her purse. “Too late. Let’s blow this shithole.”
“What about my interview?” I say. Sandra stops and turns around. Comes back to me, spits on my head.
“Suck it, Sayles.” She starts off again, then stops. “And by the way, your book blows.”
I cry and wish I had a better book.
“Damn it,” Lindenmuth says. He points at Joe, bloody but on his feet. “We’ll settle this once and for all just as soon as my wife lets me. Got it?”
“Sure,” Joe says. “Email me-but do it to my blog’s email. I check that everyday. The other one I’ve really gotten behind on. Cool?”
“Cool.” Lindenmuth says. Sandra shoots out the front window and together they jump through it, fall down four stories onto the parking lot. Get back up on their feet and scram.
Joe and I stand in the wake of the shattered glass, watching them go. Joe wipes the blood from his lip and says, “If this didn’t happen in real life I’d never believe it. Serious. If some idiot wrote this and sent it to Out of the Gutter I’d laugh at what kind of crap this is.”
I watch Sandra Ruttan and Brian Lindenmuth mount a unicorn and ride off into the distance, the mythical animal leaving a glowing rainbow trail behind it.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think it’d be a good story.”
Joe snickers, steps around the melted Mike Monson goop as he walks away from me. “That’s why you’re an idiot, Sayles.”
I cry and wish I had a unicorn.


***

Define noir for the masses, please.

Noir is black in French, and also a topic people argue about the definition of endlessly on discussion lists and blogs that focus on crime fiction with darker tones.  As in, not cat mysteries.

 Don’t tell that to Joe Clifford. If there’s a cat around somewhere that guy is creaming his pants. But, since you commented on cat mysteries, that’s a subgenre of noir which I think will explode very shortly. Have you given any thought to penning one yourself? Please say yes.

Maybe in another life?  I think, for me, in order to do something, I need to be in that mindset.  I'm just not in a cat mystery place.  I don't read them.  I know they're popular, but I can't write something just because it's popular.  I'd feel like I was selling out.  Unless I have a genuine, original, organic idea that grabs hold of me and won't let me go, it won't happen.  That's just how I work.  I work on whatever idea is calling my name the loudest, unless I'm on contract.  Right now, I can't imagine myself writing a cat mystery.  I can't imagine myself writing erotica either.  But never say never.  I mean, I did write a short story where the hit woman uses sex to kill a man.  If you get the right idea, you never know.  One thing I do love is experimenting, and pushing myself outside my own comfort zones, so there's always a chance.

Of course, for you all you know, I'm Lillian Jackson Braun with an amazing make-up job.


Where does your grit come from?

Being tired of being bullied and pushed around by people and treated like a doormat, and having the gumption to know that I deserve better, and also that there are things worth making a stand over.  Even if it makes me unpopular, I'll make the stand for what I believe in, and I don't really care if that means the fence-sitters disown me.
 
What parts of Sandra wind up in your stuff?

My attitudes, at times, and my opinions about some topics.  In The Frailty of Flesh, a lot of Tain's back story comes out because he's working on solving the murder of a very young boy, and it brings back a lot of memories of his daughter, who died as a result of abuse and neglect from her mother.  The reader eventually learns that he couldn't get custody because he would be a single father, and he's Native.  There's still a lot of prejudice against Native peoples in Canada, and against dads getting custody of their kids.  There remains an inherent presumption that mothers are caring and nurturing and dads aren't capable of those things.  In my experience, the outdated, sexist attitudes that courts and schools propagate are damaging generations of kids.  

I know that violence is a part of crime fiction, and when there are tragedies like Newtown, many people try to blame movies for encouraging violence, but in my opinion, one of the greatest things about crime fiction is being able to dissect all the reasons for problems in society.  We have this real problem in our society, of treating symptoms and wondering why nothing changes.  You can only cure the disease if you diagnose it and treat it, and sometimes that means looking at the very darkest parts of the human psyche and our society, and really taking a good, hard look.  

I don't spend as much time writing about the mafia or gangsters or career criminals.  Most of the characters I write about are people who could live next door.  That's something that really comes from me.  I've always had my eyes open enough to see a lot of things going on that other people overlook.  A lot of people live with blinders on.  I worked for a Bible college many years ago.  One of the male students raped a female student.  The girl was told Jesus said to forgive, and they pressured her not to press charges, and made her spend day after day in the same classrooms with the guy who raped her.  In my opinion, that's as dark and evil as anything.  How so-called "righteous" people can justify that to themselves and sleep fine at night is something I hope I never can understand.


How has being a female affected your writing? Even though I’m not female—I’m all man, you hear me Dad?—I find it affects my writing a lot.

 
 I'm not a feminist.  I'm also not big on generalizations.  Not all guys are dogs and not all women are sensitive.  When you start trying to explain how any aspect of yourself has influenced you, the risk is that people take it as a statement for all people who share that characteristic.  It pisses me off that people think because I'm a woman, or Canadian, that I'm down with Shania Twain's 'Any Man of Mine' attitude and treat men like that, so I'm always nervous about questions like this, because I don't want people to interpret anything true of my experience as an absolute that applies to all.  I'm not a girly girl.  I grew up building forts in the woods and playing sports with the boys, but I had Barbies too.  I was just more likely to play camping with my dolls.  


Not me. My Barbies were my best friends. Until I dismembered them, one by one and wore their heads on top of my own.

I will say that I did grow up with the idea that some of my options were limited by my gender, and also by where I lived.  Women seemed to be secretaries, teachers or nurses or work in retail.  From the time I was young, I wanted to be an author, but even a lot of the authors I read were men.  

When I started with what became my first published book, I was nervous writing a male POV character.  I was concerned that I get it right.  I had to remind myself that in the same way that not all women are the same, not all guys are the same too.  Getting external approval from guys bolstered my confidence.

I suppose it's possible that there are general tendencies.  More women probably write cat mysteries and cozies.  I tend to write a bit on the darker side, and that works for me and against me at times.  I mean, I think being female and writing dark works for Christa Faust very well, so you can't say that's all one way or the other.

Beyond that, I try not to pay much attention to it.  I've heard that male authors get more reviews, I've seen the arguments about not enough women being nominated for Edgars.  Part of me thinks that maybe we should just have two categories; Best Novel By A Female Author and Best Novel By A Male Author.  Then everyone can stick a sock in it and shut up.  Frankly, if there's a bias in the business, it's probably more to do with popularity than anything else.  

 
If people could read just one Sandra Ruttan story, what would it be and why?

Well, it would depend on their interests.  I have a soft spot for Harvest of Ruins, and it's original version, Below The Light.  I'm considering releasing BTL.  They're just different ways of telling the same core story.  I think the only thing I've written that might be darker than Harvest is The Frailty of Flesh.  There are no easy answers in those books.  To this day, I think the greatest compliment I ever got was Sean Chercover telling me he cried after reading Frailty.  You want your stories to move people on that level.

 And then...well, I have some questions like you've lived all over the world, how's that affected your writing and how has being a female affected your writing, blah blah blah. The interviews with folks I have a daily report with (like on FB) I seem to have questions which are much more in-depth, and I've found that the people whom I'm actually meeting for these interviews I wind up doing some research, reading old interviews, trying to catch up on their stuff and end up with some generic questions.

Having said that, has the world-experiences with you affected your writing? How about being a woman? I've never interviewed a woman for the series before (if you don't count Brian Panowich) so you're the first.

I've traveled a lot, and I do think that has an impact on my writing, because it affects how I see people and governments and politics and all of that.  I grew up in a small town with a token Chinese family who ran the Chinese restaurant, and there was one black family that had moved to Canada from Guyana, but the kids went to the other public school.  The town was small enough you pretty much went to school with the same 26 or 27 kids in your class for nine years straight.  Everybody knew everyone, and that means if you had a rep it was hard to shake.  So, for me, when I traveled, my eyes were opened in ways I couldn't have imagined.   

My family's been traveling to the US since I was 11.  My aunt lives in Las Vegas and I have a cousin in Nashville.  I've been to North Africa and Asia, Central America, Europe, all over Canada and to 25 States.  I experienced things that are almost still hard to believe, like living in Europe when communism collapsed.  I have pictures of people carving up the Berlin Wall.  I crossed Checkpoint Charlie when they still had you walk between armed soldiers.  

But I think one of the best ways to illustrate how traveling can shape your writing is through cultural and geographic perception.  When I went to Tunisia, I felt the deep appreciation from so many people there.  It wasn't long after 9-11 and even without speaking much English people in the markets would clasp our hands and thank us, with tears in our eyes, for still coming to their country, for not blaming them.  It's an incredible country.  As a Canadian, in Holland, I was treated like gold.  They love Canadians because Canadians were so prominent in their liberation in WWII.  

It would probably surprise people to know that, of all the places I've been, the place I was treated the worst was Alaska.  I was hooked to The Call of the Wild as a kid, and I'd dreamed of going to Alaska.  But the interesting thing is that it's the geography that has such an impact on the mindset of Alaskans.  Alaskans are cut off from the US by ocean and another country.  Alaskans seemed to crave encounters with other Americans, but Canadian visitors weren't that special.  

Don't get me wrong.  I still loved Alaska.  But even being in the Yukon taught me about how geography influences the culture and the mindset.  Alaska's very republican, and the Yukon is similar, and doesn't want the national government controlling their lives.  That's because of the isolation, in part.  

I was mentioning before about possibly releasing Below The Light.  One of the interesting things is that, although the core story is the same as Harvest, there are a lot of general things that are different.  Harvest is set in Canada.  Below The Light is set in Maryland.  For one particular character, in the original, he's Native.  But in Maryland, that wouldn't fit.  There really just isn't much of a Native population here.  The Native population in Maryland is well below the national average.  It never occurred to me until I married an American, because I didn't understand the full history of Native persons in the US compared to Canada.

Sometimes, the setting can be conveyed with such power than it's practically a character in a book, and I don't think I'd have the same grasp of that without my experiences traveling.
 
How has having your husband so involved in the business affected things? 

 
It's a blessing, because I can sound things off him and he's got a lot of knowledge and a level perspective.  He's also more willing to tell someone their writing sucks donkey balls than I am, so he can actually make me seem nice.  And believe me, a lot of the writing students I work with seem to think I'm a real bitch.  We have a lot of writing discussions at home.  That also pushes me to work my butt off, because I know how high Brian's standards are.  He's far more knowledgeable about genres and tropes than I am.  I can tell you why you have to hyphenate joint modifiers and he can't spell for shit, but he can identify subtext and connections and layers of storytelling that most of us miss.  He also wouldn't lie to me about my work, so whenever he reads something I'm scared to death, because if he doesn't like it, he'll critique it.  Between Brian and Al Guthrie as my agent, passing on a manuscript is like having an enema followed by a colonoscopy.  

The thing is, if you're truly a serious writer, you cherish the people who'll push you to your best level.  After the book's finished and released, I'm fine with cheerleaders in the form of readers with glowing reviews, but until it's done, I don't want cheerleaders.  I want butt-kickers making sure I've done my job on every level.
 

What’s up next for you?
 
I have an outline for a thriller that I'd like to put some energy into finishing, and I'm building on an idea for a YA novel.  I had drafted a sequel to Suspicious Circumstances, and I'd also started a fourth book in the Nolan, Hart & Tain series.  In both cases, the projects got shelved due to publisher issues.  Now that I hold the rights to SC, and Thomas & Mercer is publishing and promoting the heck out of the Nolan, Hart & Tain series, there's a possibility of doing something with those projects.

I'm also collaborating with a friend who's an artist, and we're working on children's books.  Those will be published under a different name.
 

What song would play as you enter a room?

Dang, this question is the hardest one you've asked.  It's the way my mind works.  What room?  Who's there?  What is going on?  Wouldn't all of that matter?  I mean, if I'm walking into my day job, it's definitely Authority Song by John Cougar Mellencamp.  That's all we're gonna say about that.

Bry wanted me to pick I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In, or something by someone I know, as in a Deric Ruttan song.  Deric's singles tend to be surprisingly upbeat for country music, and I'm not really chipper.

So if it's about my character, then I'll go with If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot, or Duane Steele.  When I was a kid my mom would put on records at night in the living room that we'd fall asleep to, and she played a lot of Gordon Lightfoot. 
This song really came back to me when Duane Steele recorded it.  Stars on 45 did a version, too.  All the things that were ever on my mind as a kid, about ghosts and castles and heroes and villains and paperback novels are tucked into this song, and it's fitting for any author.  

I do sometimes listen to music when I write.  There are a lot of musical nods throughout Harvest of Ruins.


***

And that, folks, is my publisher’s wife—errr… Sandra Ruttan. The author Sandra Ruttan. Read her stuff. She’s damn good.

Next week—we continue our femme fatale streak with the greatest French-Canadian noir writer ever, a dude named Benoit Lelievre. Dead End Follies, anyone?


One of Sandra Ruttan's most painful childhood memories is of her mom driving her and her sister to the town dump, and her stuffed white lamb being pried from her arms and tossed in the garbage. She was a walking disaster in her formative years. At age eight she was hit by a car while riding her bike home and her head was cut open. Just before her ninth birthday she was running along the beach and landed on broken glass, and her foot was partially severed. The muscle had to be stitched back together, leaving some uncertainty about whether she'd walk again, and the doctor was so fed up with her screaming he told her if she didn't shut up he'd cut her foot off. She went to school with the doctor's son, and forever felt sorry for him. After her tenth birthday she fell down a waterfall and almost drowned. Her later adventures have included being in Seville when they found 4.5 tons of explosives set to blow up the Semana Santa parade and being in a car crash in the Sahara Desert. There is absolutely no explanation for how she's managed to stay alive as long as she has.