Ruth Lehrer On Stumbling Into Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Ruth Lehrer whose debut YA novel, BEING FISHKILL, is set against the stark reality of an impoverished rural landscape, and offers a stunning, revelatory look at what defines and sustains “family.”

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Several years ago my partner’s mother was sick and we were commuting to Queens NY every weekend for months. Up and down the Taconic Highway, several times a week. Both ways you see the exit sign for the towns of FISHKILL/CARMEL. “Wouldn’t that be a funny girl’s name?” I said, “Some deluded mother naming her kid Carmel Fishkill ...”  Once she had a name, Fishkill easily stepped out into the world. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I didn’t really build the plot. I was lucky enough to have the characters, Fishkill and Duck-Duck, knock loudly on my creative door. I wrote the first sentence in the car outside a writing group and then wrote the first couple pages when I went inside. Fishkill and Duck-Duck were fully formed people who walked up and pretty much dictated their story.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

The plot of Being Fishkill shifted in small ways during the process of writing and editing but my second book, which I am in the process of writing, is a squishy slimy animal and seems to change every time I sit down to write. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Poems come to me often, mostly whenever I sit down and let them. (They’re not always good poems, but hey ...) Story/novel ideas are harder to come by. I wish I knew where that particular place was where characters like Fishkill are just waiting to latch onto an author. I seem to have stumbled there once. Maybe it will happen again? 

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Usually I have one main project I’m working on and various stray poems. I don’t seem to be able to juggle more than one novel. I envy folks who can. 

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

No cats, no dogs, no birds, no lizards. Sometimes I write with a human friend, either in person or virtually. I have a drawing of an owl on the wall near my desk.