Ruby on the Outside: An Interview with Nora Raleigh Baskin

Parents in prison. Family behind bars.

With the popularity of the show Orange is the New Black (complete with captivating theme song) and the recent saga of the escaped prisoners in Upstate New York, prisoners have been more on our mind lately. What are their lives like? What do they eat? Is it really like a little day camp with activities and hanging out? Or do they spend almost every waking moment in a small cell?  (Disclaimer: one of my favorite all-time movies is Shawshank Redemption—yes, I read the book first.)

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Prison makes for good drama.

But the more heart-aching drama is played out in the theater of the home—and the actors are those left behind. These are the people who are often forgotten, especially when they are children who have been left fatherless or motherless.

How does a child deal with it? What does she answer when a teacher asks, “Where is your mom?”

What does a child say when a potential new BFF shares about her family… and awaits a response in kind?

These are the things that Ruby has to deal with in Nora Raleigh Baskin’s new Ruby on the Outside.

Add to this troubling mix the drama of living with a not-mom, and then Ruby trying to decide if she really wants to know the whole story of why her mom is locked up. Sure, she has a general idea—and knows about it the way an adult would tell a child. But there has to be more.

Like growing up and doing middle school isn’t tough enough, right?





I have the honor of welcoming Ms Baskins to {Eat the Book} today to talk about Ruby on the Outside. I know you’ll enjoy what she has to share.



{Eat the Book}: I know from reading your bio that you lost your mother when you were three and a half. There are many ways to lose mothers, though. What was the genesis for writing about a middle school girl who lost her mother to prison?

Norah Raleigh Baskins: I got the idea for writing this book when I attended a RTA (Rehabilitation Through the Arts) fund raiser with a girlfriend of mine, knowing absolutely nothing about prisons, prison life, and very little about prison reform movements. I left the event feeling moved, disconcerted, and useless. I decided that perhaps the best thing I could do to bring light to this issue (in particular of children whose parents are incarcerated) was to write a fictional novel but with real life, authentic emotional truths. Since pretty much all of my novels are about girls without their mothers (either because their mom is dead, or serving in the military, or has abandoned them) this was simply another exploration of my own experience. Writing for me has been the path to healing a very, very old wound.

{ETB}: How would you compare having a parent pass away versus losing him or her to prison? Each has its own set of struggles. Is it possible that losing a parent to prison could be worse?

NRB: Wow, that is a very brave question and it’s something I have given a lot of thought to. I certainly don’t think, that for Ruby, this would be the case at all. I wanted to paint a picture of a very good, loving mom who made a very bad mistake. I have often wondered though, if there could be such a thing as having a certain mom that was worse than not having one at all. I am sure there is, but for me, the loss of my mother (by her own hand) was probably harder/sadder than anything I’ve ever written about. The confusion, the shame, and the loneliness stay the same; they are the constants in all my fiction. So short answer, no. I don’t think having a parent in prison is worse than not having one.

{ETB}: Ruby’s mom has been in prison for some time when Ruby on the Outside begins. Why does it suddenly rock her world so much?

NRB: The answer to that question is the same as why I set my books in middle school, at, or around twelve years of age. This is the time of self-exploration, the beginning of separation from adults, of questioning, and searching for identity. In this way, all middle grade books are coming-of-age novels in one form or another. For Ruby, it begins with a true friendship, her pending entry into 6th grade, an emerging self-awareness. This is a natural progression, I believe, that we all go through about this time in our lives. It’s part of growing up. Things that you had accepted all your life, you begin to see in a different light. You open your eyes and make your own judgments, whether it is about your parents, your friends, or the world at large. You begin to look outside yourself and see how you fit in, or not! These are the years when we become who we are to become. And it is exactly why, in my opinion, middle school teachers have THE most important job. Far greater than the information they impart, they can play a crucial role in the development of a human being. In fact, my 6th grade Language Arts teacher saved my life: when he told me I could write.

{ETB}: What was the most difficult chapter or section of the book to write? Why?

NRB: I know this will sound stupid, but when you feel like something is working it’s not hard at all. And if it’s not working and it feels hard, then I usually throw it out.

{ETB}: I frequently discuss with my students the importance of revising—and how even professional writers get their best drafts returned with all kinds of marks and corrections and questions and suggestions on them. Can you share a bit about that?

NRB: You probably can’t imagine how relevant that question happens to be right now. Several (I can’t even bear to tell you how many) errors got through the editing, copy editing, and proof reading of this particular manuscript (they are being corrected for the next printing!) When I discovered it I was mortified—and I’m not using that word lightly. I couldn’t sleep for days. So…I learned a big lesson. AGAIN. I was reminded of how very important it is to check for those tiny errors. The last thing you want is ANYTHING taking away from smooth reading of your story. And as far as the editorial process—YES! Having someone read your work so carefully and thoughtfully as to be able to help you focus your narrative, get rid of extraneous words and scenes, and really draw out the theme is probably the greatest gift a writer can get.

It always feels like a punch in the stomach when you first see your marked up work (every time!) But if you let it sit for a while, you most always see the suggestions are right and your work will be better. But if you really don’t want to change something—after really taking the time to consider the suggestion—then be strong. Follow your heart. It’s your work. Your words. You know best.

{ETB}: What did you learn about the criminal justice system as you prepared to write this book? One of the shocking things from this book is learning that Ruby’s mom get more years as an accomplice than the perpetrator of the REAL crime did…(is that giving too much away?). How did you go about researching a place like Bedford Hills and the process of visiting?

NRB: I tried to learn as much as I could. I read a lot of books. I read online accounts and articles, watched videos. I read newspapers. I visited organizations that help children with incarcerated moms. I watched the documentary Mothers of Bedford. I talked to as many people as I could, including real children with moms in prisons. And then I realized I had to visit the prison myself. It was the only way. That took a lot of doing. It is apparently unheard of for a writer to get inside.

Then as a fiction writer, I had to weave it all into a story. I had to use what I had learned —most of it heartbreaking and disturbing—as the backstory for Ruby without preaching, or teaching, or sending a message about our criminal justice system. I am an artist not a politician and I see my job is not to answer questions, but to raise them. Thank goodness! {ETB: You can Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 11.15.22 AMread  Ms Baskins tell about where the idea for her book originated and her visit to Bedford Hills by clicking HERE.}2013-01-06





{ETB}: On page 128 you write, “I try and tell my outside to stiffen up and protect me, but my inside doesn’t listen and when my mother’s arms are all the way around me, my inside breaks into a million pieces….. Her skin is her skin, is her skin is her hair, is my skin and my hair, and her eyes and her hands, and my heart and her heart.” I reread this part a few times. It is beautiful and powerful. It breaks some “rules” of prose. Can you talk about writing this section?

NRB: Surely it does! And truthfully I think that section needs to be better punctuated. It is missing a comma. But yes, I use a lot of poetic phrasing. I am big fan of the run-on sentence and fragments. Remember, I am writing in first person, in the voice of Ruby, so I balance the natural thought-process, with literary license, with my own love of words. I am very intrigued by the music of language. And this is what comes out.

{ETB}: Margalit seems wise beyond her years. She knows when to dig, when to let things go, and when to quickly move on so as not to make a situation awkward. I’m still learning those things. 😉 Who did you base her character on?

NRB: Well, there is a real Margalit. She is my best friend’s daughter and I’ve known her all her life. There are at least twenty colorful scarves draped over a chin-up bar in her bedroom doorway, and her mother calls her Moochie and Moo. Her mother makes all homemade baked goods and Margalit dreams of store bought cookies. (I really don’t make much up!) And Margalit is truly the most naturally artistic, loving, free-spirited young woman I know. She is a great friend to her many, many friends.

I had a reviewer say that my character of Margalit was a little “too good to be true”. Well, she is. She really is.

{ETB}: Rudy learns to write about what she knows… But for students who can’t grab onto a major life event or tragedy by the age of eleven or twelve, what would you recommend? What is a good jumping-off point for young writers?

NRB: You know there is a famous writing quote about this: You don’t need to have had a tragic childhood to be a writer, you just need to think you did.

I love that. It’s a little facetious but it makes the point. It’s all about perception, not reality. It’s all in the telling- not the facts. Nothing is boring unless you think it is. There is drama in anything you feel strongly about. That is always my advice to young writers: Write what you care about, even if that’s getting your new puppy, or losing your mom in a shopping mall, or forgetting your lines in the school play. Some of the best student writing I’ve read has been about the most simply, heart-felt events.

{ETB}: One last light-hearted question—If you were to come to Buffalo and I took you out for wings, what would you order— mild, medium, hot… or suicide?

NRB: You will be disappointed I’m afraid. Mild. Though I am leaning toward vegetarianism the older I get. It’s that darn empathy thing again.

Thank you so much for these intriguing and evocative questions.

{ETB}: Believe me, the pleasure was all mine! And if you’re really looking for vegan wings, here are a few places that cater to your needs. HAH!

Now get out there and purchase your copy of Ruby on the Outside. Please support your local Indie book store when possible.