“Every time Gunnar punished me with his homemade elixir, the insides of my cheeks and lips would swell an’ tell for a week or more.”
Teenager RubyLyn is grateful that she has a roof over her head and is living with family, but her uncle’s ideas for the righteous raising of a child regularly cross over the line. It’s more than just how his discipline includes pouring a bitter potion into her mouth. So RubyLyn dreams of a better life for herself and for Rainey, the field hand she’s grown up beside and grown to love. But it’s going to take a lot to get out, considering the prejudice faced by interracial couples and the poverty that’s all around her in the town of Nameless, Kentucky, in 1969.
Kim Michele Richardson returns to bookshelves with “GodPretty in the Tobacco Field.” Her second novel is a bildungsroman in which grit and faith, along with a love of the land and maybe a bit of fortune-telling, are up against a grinding day-to-day and episodes of absolute heartbreak. Richardson first made a name for herself with “The Unbreakable Child,” a memoir recounting her harrowing years in an abusive orphanage and the path to forgiveness and legal recourse. With “Liar’s Bench,” Richardson turned her talent toward novel writing, and the results were very well received. LEO recently caught up with the local author as she was preparing for a tour of events celebrating the release of “GodPretty.”
LEO: You’re known for your activism. How has that fit into your schedule in recent years?
Kim Michele Richardson: I have survivors of abuse that I’ve been working with. In the last few years, I’ve partnered with the Navy on awareness of domestic violence/abuse. When I have time — and I haven’t this year — I still like to build with Habitat for Humanity. Right now I’m just finishing up my fourth book.
LEO: Your writing work habits: do you work with note cards? Do you outline?
KMR: My husband bought me a big bulletin board, a real nice dry erase board. He hung it up in my office, and … I don’t know, it just crippled me a little bit. So I have a thousand million sticky notes everywhere. My agent, she likes me to do outlines — and I hate it. You don’t want to lose your creativity, but it can show you where you’re going.
LEO: The very first word of the title — you coined that phrase! Did you get any push back?
KMR: When I got the contract for two books, I had ‘Liar’s Bench’ ready and I had to get to work on ‘GodPretty,’ and the publisher said he loved the title. But he didn’t know what [it] was about! I was getting in the mind of the character [RubyLyn], and she was going, ‘This is a God-ugly thing.’ And I thought, ‘Why not be Godpretty’? We often don’t have control over titles, but I’ve been lucky with mine. I wanted something different, and I wanted something curious.
LEO: Part of most abuse situations — including yours, I understand — is lying. The truth not coming out. And here you’re now writing fiction. You’re telling tales. Do you ever feel conflicted about this?
KMR: No. I said what I needed to say in ‘Unbreakable.’ I gave something to the victims and to myself out there. I didn’t necessarily say that’s going to have to define me for the rest of my life. I’m not going to have put on my gravestone ‘The Unbreakable Child.’
One day I wrote a couple of paragraphs, and it was fun. My friends encouraged me to keep writing — and that was ‘Liar’s Bench’ and it took six years. It wasn’t like ‘Unbreakable,’ where you sit across the kitchen table from someone and you tell them your story. In a lot of ways, fiction is extremely hard because you’re creating a whole world with new characters — whereas in a memoir, there were real people. At the orphanage, I used to write letters to Walt Disney — lots of letters. But they were never mailed. They were always torn up or come back to me. But I would always write him and ask him to take me away. Crazy, I know! But I guess I liked writing even then. •