Smoking With Max Ruback

Read the Story March 15, 2007
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The missing limb and Iraq. They’ll be forever linked in the collective unconscious of America, yes? What does the war and the lost limb say to you?

My original inspiration for this story was to steal Hemingway’s “A Soldier’s Home” and make it my own. Unlike Krebs in Hemingway’s story, who came back from the war emotionally wounded, I wanted to see what my characters would do with the effects of the mother /son relationship when her son comes home legless. How does a mother deal with that? How does the son deal with his new life? I took notes and thought about this story for months. Then I wrote, and I discovered something early on, which was that when I said little, when I kept the story to a flash, it had a real sudden impact. Of course, I fought it, and tried to write more and after more pages that felt useless, I decided to keep it as a flash fiction and see what happens.

As far as the war goes, I am unsure and bothered by what is happening. Information is full of distrust. We send young men and women to fight, and because they fight, bad things happen. Death, bloodshed, life changes for soldiers when they come back home. It is all part of the human condition, and that is why writers write about it.

“Good boy” resonates long afterwards. Talk to us about endings—about their echoes and how this ending came to be.

For me, endings are a feeling. What are you leaving the reader with? When that reader finishes your story, what is the impact? I want to scar the reader, in a way. I want them to remember it, say, months and years from now. Truth is, this seldom happens. But when I write, I usually know when a story has found its last line. When I have written it, I just know. It hits me. And it is usually unexpected. As it should be.

Tell us all you can about your just-finished collection, The Kindest Light.

Well, I have finished the collection (or so I think I have) and find myself in the process of finding representation. Most of the stories have been published. The stories deal with themes of love and loss to racism and drugs. In one story, Picnic, I have a narrator, a foster home kid, who is on his way to a picnic to be looked at by prospective adoptive parents, but he knows he is a little too old now and not cute enough and is black, which causes much frustration. In another story, Pretty, (it’s a flash) a blind girl deals with the issue of what pretty means, about how a boy who once had sight really knows what pretty is compared to a boy who never had his vision. And one last story I’ll tell you about is called, A Temporary Heaven, a boy travels around with his heroin addicted mother when he finally has to make a choice about their lives together. He has witnessed things that have had a traumatic effect on his being, and he knows something has to change.

Hey Coach. How’s the boy’s basketball team doing this season? Did you ever wish you could scream at your English students as you can at your team? “You call that a sentence? That isn’t close to a sentence. That’s a freakin’ fragment, dagnabit!” Also, do you ever get all “literary” with the team?

Well, the season just ended, and we finished 11-8, and I am beginning to gather my steam for next season. Of course, coaching basketball is a year round activity, especially because you have to stay on top of the players and their grades. As far as my English students go, they are seniors, and they have to listen to me talk about the real world, and how they are months away from being in it. In between those lectures, we read British Literature. They deal with it, for the most part. I do try and get them writing. We write journal prompts every day. I want them to save their journals and open them up years from now and see who they were, way back when in Mr. Ruback’s English IV class.

Literary with the team? (I shake my head) I give them basketball related articles to read. If it isn’t basketball related, I’m climbing a slippery wall.

At the recent AWP conference, a number of writers talked about their old flames, books that have influenced them during a formative time in their lives—and ones they return to for lessons in writing and, of course, life. Discuss your old flame, both what it meant to you then and what it means to you now.

The book that got me wanting to write was a usual suspect, A Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger. But I seldom go back to that book for writing inspiration. Whenever I need a little something, a kick or a drive or a bit of inspiration, I just go to literary magazines. It amazes me how much good work is out there. Sometimes, I just shake my head at the beautiful stories being published. And I wonder what happens to these stories, a year later, five years later? Why wasn’t that story made into a film? Why didn’t that writer ever write a collection? Where did that writer go? Is this going to happen to me? I guess, sadly, it is easy to get lost in the lit mag world, very frustrating to break through, and I wish that more people would read literary magazines, not just to support them, but because so much of the work shines briefly and is forgotten, because I think most of the people who read them are the writers themselves.

About the Author:

Max Ruback's fiction may be found in Descant(Canada), Zing Magazine, Zone 3, Hobart, Rainbow Curve, Crab Creek Review, Illuminations, Quick Fiction, OysterBoy Review, elsewhere. Nonfiction/Reviews in Thought, The Writer, Turnrow, Carolina Quarterly, and Main Street Rag. He lives in West Palm Beach, Florida and can be reached at