She’s got chutzpah
“Life can be a joyous encounter with the possible.”
— Ruth Wire
“Writing is not a lonely profession,” says Ruth Wire. “My characters keep me company.”
The characters in the Ashland resident’s first novel have kept her company since the early 1950s when she was told that her 30- page autobiography — penned for a writing class — should be fleshed out into a full-length piece of fiction.
Although Wire insists “The Night Birds Still Sing” is fictional, there are fragments of her own childhood scattered throughout the novel. Protagonist Phoebe Feldman’s mother and father resemble her own parents, whose game of emotional tug-of-war stretched her tender heart to the point of breaking. And, there are lively composite sketches featuring the starlets, jazz musicians, con artists, long-suffering writers and Holocaust survivors drawn from her memories of the boarders who walked the hallways of her mother’s 10-room boarding house in Hollywood, California during the 1940s.
“The Night Birds Still Sing” will be in the spotlight during an author’s talk and book-signing Wednesday, Dec. 1, at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave. The evening program begins at 8 p.m. and will feature Rogue Valley voice actor Pam Ward reading excerpts.
At age 90, Wire has proven you are never too old to realize your dreams.
The novel published last spring, she admits, is a dream come true, but she quickly adds with a chuckle, “I never thought it would be an opus.”
Published by Rosalind Press in Medford, “Night Birds” is the first in a series of novels that follow pre-pubescent Phoebe, an aspiring writer, into her teens and later catches up with her as a young nursing student in the 1950s. Soon-to-be-released are the next installments: “Saddle Shoes and Stardust” and “Phoebe Rising.” She is currently working on another episode in Phoebe’s life. It too is a patchwork of memories stitched together with diary entries, poetry and scenes from her days in nursing school.
Hilary Jacobson, Wire’s editor and publisher, discovered the novels-in-progress in 2014 at a meeting of Wire’s HayWire Writers’ Workshop. She writes that the novels are filled with “dreams, flaws and dilemmas” and written from “a lived experience.”
The title “The Night Birds Still Sing,” Wire says, comes from Phoebe’s mother’s take on Hollywood. She hates the “upside down” town “where good is bad and bad is good; when day is night and night is day.”
And, like the birds who sing all night, Elaine thinks of the wannabe stars and starlets as “night birds who don’t know when to shut up.” She complains each night about the birds singing and interrupting her sleep.
“Shut up you cochkas,” she yells. Yet the night birds still sing.
“Cochkas” is one of several Yiddish words sprinkled throughout the story. At the end of the book, Wire included a glossary of translations. Yiddish is used, she says, because “the words are the only words that fit” a particular situation or sentiment.
The cover illustration of the “night birds” and those on the opening page were done by Tom Romano, an Ashland illustrator and children’s book author.
Wire started Phoebe’s story some 70 years ago, and every once in a while she would pick it up and work on it a bit. Most “writing” consisted of notes jotted on scraps of paper and stuffed into her purse.
“I was busy living,” she says.
She raised two sons and a daughter, had an off and on career as a registered nurse, and attended college and earned a Bachelor of Science degree. She also delved into as many writing workshops as she could, especially after moving from quiet South Pasadena to Mar Vista, where she discovered the nearby colorful arts community in Venice Beach. There she developed “a manic desire to suck out of life all I could.”
She thrived during her foray into the literary world, winning a poetry slam and having her work published in Poetry & Prose magazine.
Wire moved to Ashland in 1975 and enrolled in writing courses taught by the noted poet and writer Lawson Inada. She has since become an award-winning poet and screenwriter, a produced playwright, a published short story writer and a published lyricist.
She created a Writers’ Faire and two theaters: the New Playwrights Theatre with Bradford O’Neil, and Studio X Experimental Theatre with Scott and Peggy Avery. In 1995, she started the HayWire Writers’ Workshop.
She currently serves as president of the Ashland Contemporary Theatre board.
Wire says she finds her greatest joy “in the time I can write.” She often gets lost in the “zone” — an inner world where imagination and melancholy take her back 80 years on a sentimental journey to a time when a young girl is vying for her mother’s affection while thwarting her father and stepmother’s attempts to transform her into a Jewish American princess.
“My mother was always fighting battles. … I was just along for the ride,” she recalls. “The only compliment I ever remember her giving me was when she called me her ‘right hand.’ I threatened to go live with my father and stepmother to see how she could get by without her right hand.”
The novel is dedicated to Wire’s mother, Irene Rodgers.
“It’s really not a memoir,” she says. “Some things really did happen, but many things did not.”
Like Phoebe’s mother, Irene was a new divorcee when she moved her two daughters into a grand old home in downtown Hollywood and took in boarders to make ends meet.
“My mother was a pioneer buying her own home and running a successful rooming house. She was independent, courageous and fierce.”
Her father, like that of her protagonist, was an emotional man who made his living as a furrier, creating extravagant apparel for the glamorous women of Hollywood’s “Golden Era.”
There, the similarities end, Wire says.
“Night Birds” is funny, melancholic, full of longing, anger and despair, and driven by the hopes of Phoebe’s young mind.
“Phoebe is better than me,” Wire says. “She is feistier than I was. ... She says and does what I was afraid to say and do.”
Phoebe fantasizes about the lives of the boarders — actors she thinks of as “gods.” She longs for her absent father and unconsciously seeks him in the men who pass through her mother’s life: the jazz musician, the no-good and the con-man. And, yet, she knows that if she had lived with her father she would have never met these men or the other boarders who captivate her. She writes of her experiences in “My Life with Mother’s Boarders.”
Wire still remembers vividly the characters who paraded through her own mother’s Hollywood rooming house.
“I had a lifetime’s worth of education compressed into the three years we were there,” she says.
“The Night Birds Still Sing” is available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.
Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at email@example.com.