Ruth is a journalist who discovered long-withheld family secrets about her grandmother that sent her searching for the truth in London’s old Jewish East End.
We discuss how her work with migrants in Australia helped her develop a sense of story amid real-life drama and how her mother’s death spurred her curiosity about their mysteriously troubled relationship.
A few highlights from our interview:
On When She Decided to Write About Her Family
I knew that she’d she died, supposedly, in childbirth. That’s a very curious phrase, “in childbirth,” what does that mean? What was it that actually killed her? And of course, my curiosity kicked in. And I realized that there was something, there was a story here that I needed to get to the bottom of. And it was my story. It was part of my story. So it was going to be very personal.
Ruth’s Advice to Other Writers
I would encourage anyone who is thinking about starting your book, find a support group where you can test out what you’re writing, test it out to a supportive audience. Writing’s very lonely and, you know, you can sit at your desk or your computer and you can bang out your stuff, and you might think it’s wonderful. Or you might think it’s terrible, but you need some feedback that’s realistic.
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Listen to my Interview with Ruth Badley
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every week I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is Ruth Badley, a journalist who discovered long withheld family secrets about her grandmother that sent her searching for the truth in London’s old Jewish East End. Her book, Where Are The Grownups? chronicles her grandmother’s short, troubled life and makes sense of her own family history.
Ruth Badley: Hi, my name is Ruth Badley and I’ll start by telling you a little bit about myself. I’m a freelance writer, and journalist. I was very fortunate in that I had the opportunity to spend a couple of years in South Australia where I used my teaching skills in adult education and I taught mainly Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who are arriving in Australia at that time to hopefully escape to a better life. And I was helping them on their journey, probably the most rewarding teaching job that I had.
Howard Lovy: Now often when I interview authors, they tell me about that one teacher or librarian who gave them the encouragement they needed as a child to pursue writing. For Ruth, there was one teacher who influenced her to set her sights lower. So, encouragement? Not so much.
Ruth Badley: When I was at school, I really wanted to be a journalist. But I had some terrible careers advice, which I’ve actually recalled in my book in that there was quite a lot of snobbery when I was growing up surrounding the kind of school that you went to. There were grand schools, and there were secondary modern schools. And the people that went to the secondary modern schools were considered not terribly academic, not really bound for a career that would be a shining literary light, if I can put it that way.
Oh, I had great ambitions and English was my best subject. But when I was face to face with a career teacher that didn’t think too highly of the school that I was at, she took really told me to think again, because I was setting my sights too high. It was very demotivating and I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve often wondered what happened to that careers teacher. Twenty-five years later, I managed to fulfill my ambition and as a features writer and editor of a lifestyle supplement for regional newspaper group in in Yorkshire, and I really would have loved to have told her that.
Howard Lovy: But her journey as a teacher was a very important stop in her later development as a writer. She went to Australia to teach immigrants.
Ruth Badley: Yes, it was in the early ‘80s. At the time when Vietnamese refugees, known as “the boat people,” I believe, at that time were escaping from Vietnam, following what they called “The Liberation” but the end of the Vietnam War, really. I was in Australia, mainly because I had just married my husband, who was working in oil and gas exploration and you can’t really do that in your back garden. So an opportunity came up for him to go to Australia for a little while and we thought that was a great opportunity for both of us. I had my background in education so I thought, well, I’ll try and get a job over there.
There was a lot of funding being put into adult migrant education in South Australia at that time, and they were looking for teachers. So I found it fairly easy to find employment. It was a new challenge, a different experience, a different country, different education system, different age range. And it was just so fascinating to get to know these people and what they’ve been through, and how, you know, hear about their dreams and their aspirations and help them somehow on a little part of their journey
Howard Lovy: In Ruth’s later career as a journalist, she channeled her exposure to these cultures into her work as a travel and food writer. But for her first book, there was something else that needed to be written. And for that, Ruth had to go back home to England. It was when her mother had a stroke and was on her deathbed.
Ruth Badley: My mother and I didn’t have a very conventional mother-daughter relationship. It was unsatisfactory. for both of us, I feel I always got the impression even as quite a young person that there was something she wanted from me that I wasn’t supplying. I wasn’t quite sure what that was. And I never really did get to the bottom of that. And there was much that she wasn’t supplying to me that I really needed, which was support and encouragement and mothering, really, but I knew very early on that her mother had died and she’d been adopted. And it was clear to me that there was a huge gap in in her emotional life. She hadn’t had mothering herself. So how could she give it to me?
I really did think about these things at a very young age, which sounds unusual, but that’s what it was and I drew on many of those memories to write down the first part of my book because it is a memoir, but it’s part memoir. So obviously, the part that I’ve lived through is my story. But it’s also about my mother’s childhood and the grandmother that I didn’t know.
Although we didn’t have a very good way of communicating all through our lives, suddenly when she was struck down with a stroke, and she couldn’t really speak in what we would recognize as proper language, we were communicating in ways that we couldn’t have done before. I understood what she was trying to tell me. And I understood what she wanted when nobody else did. And it made a big impression on me. And she was in hospital for a week and the doctors told us that she wasn’t going to survive.
And I started to think about what had gone wrong, really, between us then and when I sat down to think about it, some very vivid memories came back, which I wrote down and I wrote them down, really, to try and make sense of things myself. At the same time, when a parent dies, one of the worst things you have to do is to sift through their possessions, sort them out, and give them away, do whatever you have to do. And it was during that process that I came across a photograph that I’d never seen before.
A black and white photograph, a very startling portrait of a young woman that reminded me of myself. There was something about her face that had similarity to mine around the eyes and the mouth and I didn’t know who this was. I looked on the back for a clue. And it simply said in my mother’s handwriting “My mother.” Now, I knew her name. I knew this was Rose. She was from a Dutch Jewish immigrant family.
That’s all I knew, really. And I knew that she’d she died, supposedly, in childbirth. That’s a very curious phrase, “in childbirth,” what does that mean? What was it that actually killed her? And of course, my curiosity kicked in. And I realized that there was something, there was a story here that I needed to get to the bottom of. And it was my story. It was part of my story. So it was going to be very personal.
Howard Lovy: Her book is the story of three generations.
Ruth Badley: Well, I had a challenge, really, because I had several generations that I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about my generation, my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation and my challenge was how was I going to make this interesting and coherent for the reader? As I was looking at the material I had, it suggested to me that I could do this in three parts. And so I had a basic structure where I talked about in the first part, my childhood, and my mother and I wanted the reader to be curious at the end of part one about why is the situation like this, what has made these people like this, what’s happened to this mother to make her like this?
And then in the second part, it’s about my mother’s childhood and her adoption, and why that came about. So the second part is really my mother’s childhood and what happened to my grandmother and my grandfather who was widowed with a new baby at the age of 24 years old. Somebody asked me the other day, “how did you get the emotions of these people down on paper?” And I thought that was a really interesting question.
I have two sons who are in their 30s now, but I remember vividly what they were like in their 20s. And I just really thought of them at the age of 24, losing their partner and having a newborn baby to care for. And I could tap into that. I could understand that, you know, if you can equate the emotional life of your characters to something in your own life, then I think you’ve got the key to being able to write it down. And I did cry. I cried a lot while I was writing it. So I guess that’s a good sign.
Howard Lovy: The key to a memoir is not only to purge your own demons or to make yourself cry, it has to be relatable in some way to the personal experiences of your reader. This is what Ruth tried to do in her memoir.
Ruth Badley: I want readers to walk away with perhaps an echo that they recognize from their own families. Although it’s a very personal story, I think some of the family dynamics that I’m writing about, some of the challenges that we face in family life are very universal. And I’m hearing people tell me, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that in my family. Yes, I had a similar situation to that.”
And there’s a lot in the book about the way of life in past times that people say they recognize from their own childhood or their own memories. It triggers something that they’d forgotten about, and certainly people are identifying with some of the dilemmas and choices presented to the people in my story. There’s a second thing I’m aiming to do as well, which may sound a little grand, but it’s very meaningful to me.
My grandmother had a very short life. It was over at 25. And in writing this book, I think I’m giving her a longer life than she was allowed. I heard the other day that there’s several libraries in London that are now stocking copies of my book, and I don’t think, she came from a very humble background, she was a cigarette maker in the East End of London. So she worked in a factory, and I don’t think she could ever have dreamed that her short life will be the subject of a library book. So I’m proud to have done that as her granddaughter.
Howard Lovy: The name of her book is Where Are The Grownups? But what does that title mean?
Ruth Badley: The title of the book refers to the people, the grown-ups that are missing in the story. And there are several that are missing at various times, or the grown-ups that are finding their way towards adulthood somewhat painfully. And I think that really was the situation for both my parents. And to an extent, many of the other adults that were influential in their lives too. We often find that people creep towards adulthood, somewhat painfully, we get there eventually. I can include myself there.
Howard Lovy: Ruth’s advice to other writers, “Don’t be a lone wolf. Find other writers to critique your work.”
Ruth Badley: The thing that I think was very, very helpful for me at the beginning, I mentioned that I was living in Dubai when I started writing, and I’d joined a writers group, there were about half a dozen of us and we used to meet once a fortnight and we’d take a chapter of what we’re working on, everyone was writing or aiming to write a book. So they brought a chapter each time that we would share and critique. And that was immensely helpful for me, really helpful. And some of these people gave me great encouragement and made my writing much better.
I was, although I was a journalist, I knew how to write, but it was a very different style of writing and I learned so much from that and so I would encourage anyone who is thinking about starting your book, find a support group where you can test out what you’re writing, test it out to a supportive audience. Writing’s very lonely and, you know, you can sit at your desk or your computer and you can bang out your stuff, and you might think it’s wonderful. Or you might think it’s terrible, but you need some feedback that’s realistic.
You don’t want somebody to tell you “Oh yeah, this is fantastic.” You want somebody that’s actually going to look behind what you’re doing, and give you a clue to how you can move forward and make it better, make it tighter, make it more interesting. It’s perfect if you’re starting out to just have that, every so often a little guiding light to put you on the right track.