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Interview With an Author: Marie Rutkoski

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Marie Rutkoski and her first novel, Real Easy
Author Marie Rutkoski and her first novel, Real Easy. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Born in Illinois, Marie Rutkoski is a graduate of the University of Iowa and Harvard University. She is a professor of English literature at Brooklyn College and a New York Times bestselling author of books for children and young adults. She lives in Brooklyn with her family. Her first novel for adults is Real Easy and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Real Easy?

About twenty years ago, I worked as a stripper in two different clubs, which helped pay off debt from my undergraduate education and make it a lot easier to attend graduate school. One night, a dancer was so high that we all thought someone had slipped something into her drink because it had the hallmarks of a date-rape drug: she was happy but sleepy and pretty much incapacitated. She needed a ride home from work and I felt I should offer, but I was also afraid, partly because I’m terrible at directions (this was in the late 90s when we had very basic cell phones and no GPS) and she clearly wouldn’t be able to give them to me. It was maybe 3 a.m., spooky and dark and empty outside, and even before that night, I worried about being followed home by someone who came to the club. I didn’t offer to drive her home. Someone else did, they got home safely, and everyone was fine. But the idea for Real Easy began with this question: What if something like that did happen, a dancer needed a ride home and another one offered, and it all went very scarily wrong?

Are Samantha, Georgia, Holly, Victor, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

This book has a large cast of characters, but the main ones are three women: Samantha and Georgia (both dancers) and Holly (a detective). Something that makes Samantha special is her relationship with her boyfriend’s daughter Rosie. Samantha loves her deeply, and considers Rosie her own child. This was inspired by seeing how my sister-in-law (named Rosie) cherishes and legally adopted my brother’s son from a previous marriage, and how my own partner loves my children from a previous marriage. I don’t see a lot of this in books: how stepparents or partners form profound bonds with children who might not be biologically related but are theirs.

In your acknowledgments you thank your brother and sister-in-law, for their service as police officers and for facilitating your speaking with their colleagues. Did you also speak with dancers and/or club owners? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Real Easy?

Not very long! I did talk with a friend who is a former dancer I worked with and asked her to read a draft, and I interviewed a club owner to see what things were like from a managerial perspective. The world of the club I already knew quite well, so the majority of my research time was spent on detective work and police procedures. I did a ride-along with my brother and asked him and my sister-in-law lots of questions. My brother also brought me to the station and introduced me to other detectives and an accident reconstructionist. My brother and sister-in-law work in Illinois, where I’m from and where the book is set, but I also spoke with a detective in Manhattan (whose wife is a former stripper) just to get another point of view. I knew Holly (the book’s main detective) would ask Georgia (a dancer) to help her investigate the crime, but I wasn’t quite sure why Georgia would agree or how a CI (Confidential Informant to the police) would be compensated. I had the idea that maybe Holly could offer to write Georgia a recommendation letter for college, and it was helpful to go to the detective and ask, “Is that possible? Is that something you would ever do for a CI?” (the answer was yes). Something he said about cops and clubs and casinos that stuck with me is that there’s more of a crossover than you might think, because cops keep strange hours and are already part of what you might consider the night-time world.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I spoke with a forensic pathologist about how the bodies of murder victims are examined. The conversation reminded me of the TV show Bones. I learned things that were pretty disturbing. I would not have the stomach for a job like that!

Having written for children, young adults, and adults, do you now have a preference regarding the audience for which you’re writing?

I love writing for all three. The book I’m working on now will be adult, but I’m not done writing for children.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m currently reading The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. I loved her first two books in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I’m a professor of Shakespeare at Brooklyn College, and while the time period of the trilogy is a generation earlier than the one I study, I’m still very into it. Next, I want to read Brown Girls, by Daphne Palasi Andreades; Dava Shastri’s Last Day, by Kirthana Ramisetti; Holly Black’s Book of Night; and drafts by writer friends.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Is there anyone who did NOT sneak their mother’s romance novels? Harlequin romances, Regency, historical books set in Scotland…I hid them under my bed. My mother somehow never noticed I was reading them and Stephen King, and instead focused on banning Judy Blume’s novels, which of course I read anyway.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Long Bright River, by Liz Moore. The Likeness, by Tana French. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Those are perfect covers. Also just incredible books.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The Very Nice Box, by Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett. I’m biased because Eve is my partner and Laura is a friend, but it’s also just an incredible book: a fun page-turner about scams and romance, and a moving portrait of grief and the desire to change. Also, Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. The twists! It is so cleverly written. But it was also the first novel I read that centers on gay women. It was affirming to read a book with a happy ending for two women in love. I’m a fool for love! Even though Real Easy is a thriller and can be dark, it also has some romance in it. I’m not sure I’ll be able to write a book without at least some romance. Another favorite book that I read recently was Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. I cannot get over it.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Maybe Pride and Prejudice. Aside from what I reread to teach, Shakespeare’s plays, that book is what I have reread most. I read it in junior high. I read it when I was in the hospital, after giving birth to my first son. When I was sick with the flu. It’s a perfect book and a great pleasure.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The movies Moonlight and Minari. They are both beautiful. Even their sadness is beautiful.

Book cover for Real Easy
Real Easy
Rutkoski, Marie