In January, online instructor Naomi Benaron‘s first novel, Running the Rift, hits bookstores. The book, about a young Tutsi athlete during the Rwandan genocide, has been generating a buzz since Naomi won the 2010 Bellwether Prize. Most recently, she landed on the Publishers Weekly “Fiction First Timers” list for debut novelists, and Michael Schaub, a frequent contributor to NPR.org and a columnist for Kirkus Reviews, says that Naomi “writes with self-assurance, intelligence, and a rare musicality that keeps the reader glued to what’s understandably wrenching subject matter. She is a breathtakingly compassionate writer, one who doesn’t fall into the trap of condescension that befalls many Western authors.”
We chatted with Naomi recently about her writing, Rwanda, and—surprisingly!–marine geology. Her experience is an inspiration to all writers!
Writers’ Program: Your forthcoming novel, Running the Rift, won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for novels that address social justice issues. Kingsolver herself has an amazing ability to capture a time and place (and such a variety of both) as though she is a native. When you were writing Running the Rift (about a young man’s experience during the Rwandan genocide), how did you go about writing such a specific place and time?
Naomi Benaron: First of all, I traveled to Rwanda several times for extended visits. I stayed with local people and learned their customs. I made many lasting friendships, and I will be forever grateful. I took lots and lots of photos and wrote pages and pages of journal entries. I have a beautiful book of photographs–Rwanda Nziza (Beautiful Rwanda)–and when I was writing back in the States, I would find photographs that were appropriate to the scene I was working on and use them for inspiration and guidance. I found that by staring at them, I could imagine myself there. My Rwandan friends were also very helpful; if I got stuck about something, they were always just an email or phone call away.
WP: You have a background in geophysics and marine geology. What drew you to writing after working in the hard sciences?
NB: I worked in the profession for many years, but then my father became terminally ill, and I took time off to care for him. By the time I was ready to go back to work, the technology had passed me by. At that point, truthfully, I was pretty much done with the profession. I still love science, but the stress of working in the profession was too much. I decided to jump off a bridge (figuratively, of course) and try doing what I have always wanted to do in my heart, which was to write.
WP: Who do you look to for inspiration when you’re feeling drained? Do you have any “go to” authors that get your creative juices flowing? What are you reading right now?
NB: My inspiration changes as I discover new books. I don’t have the time or patience to read books that don’t make me spring up to write a line or a paragraph of what I am working on. Currently, I’m reading The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Some of my favorite books to “get my creative juices flowing” are Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I also get inspired by poetry, and I usually start my writing day by reading some poems. My current favorite poets are Mahmoud Darwish, Marie Howe, and Lucille Clifton.
WP: What are you working on now? Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
NB: I am working on a novel about three generations of women: a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. The grandmother is a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz, and the novel deals with how “survival” trickles down through the generations. My main advice to aspiring novelists is to never give up. Write from the heart, and keep writing, and don’t let rejection stand in your way.
Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Online) and Events.