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Interview with Naomi Benaron

January 25, 2012

Running on Hope

Although dizzy with a bad case of vertigo, Naomi Benaron met with me before her Powell’s reading to talk about her debut novel, Running the Rift. It won the prestigious 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction before it was even published. In the book, Benaron follows Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. The backdrop for the novel is the ravaged country of Rwanda and its supporting characters are the Hutu and the Tutsi people who were involved in a genocide that resulted in hundreds of thousands of their deaths. Benaron’s Running the Rift is a heartbreaking yet hopeful novel that explores the story of a country’s unraveling as seen through one young boy’s eyes.

What was it like to win the Bellwether Prize before you were published?

That was pretty amazing! On April 17th, I was sitting at my computer. I had been kind of waiting and anticipating and every time I picked up the phone it was not Barbara Kingsolver. At this particular time, I was messing something up on the computer and wasn’t even paying attention when the phone rang and I picked it up and this voice said,  “This is Barbara Kingsolver,” and I about went through the roof. I was talking to her for about 45 minutes and I had to keep putting the phone down to scream. I was so excited. It’s really been one of the seminal, if not the seminal, moment of my life. It changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.

You’re very accomplished in many fields and have degrees in earth science, massage therapy and writing. You’re also an Ironman triathlete. When did you decide to write a novel?

I’ve always loved writing. I wrote my first story when I could just barely read and write. I wrote a story about a luna moth. So I’ve always written, but I was afraid to try it as a living because I was afraid of failing. Also, my parents are doctors so it was expected that I would be a doctor, so I went to school in the sciences. I became a geophysicist and then after my father died (1996), I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I really wanted to go to medical school but at that point it was too daunting, so I went to massage therapy school and started writing again.

How did you come to write Running the Rift?

There’s a large African refugee community in Tucson, and I started working with them and became fascinated with people who had survived war. Then my dog trainer was going to Rwanda, so I went with her (2002). I was so touched by the country, by the landscape, and by the people. I’ve never seen people with such beautiful smiles. When I was on the shores of Lake Kivu, my foot hit a bone and I saw that it was a human bone. Then I got down on my hands and knees and I was in the sand and there were bones everywhere. At that point, that told me that I needed to write the story of the bones.

Did you know you were going to write this story when you went to Rwanda?

Kind of, sort of. I was writing a story about Burundi and I’m a very pig-headed person. I just thought that I’m writing this story about Burundi, so I’ll go to Rwanda to see what Burundi’s really like. Then I started talking to people, and people started telling me their stories. When I got back and was still trying to write the story about Burundi, I thought, “You’re really a moron. You’ve just been to Rwanda. You’ve had this incredible experience holding these bones in your hand. This is the time to make the leap.” So that’s how it started.

This book is full of darkness, but there’s also a lot of hope. Is that something you pulled from your personality: you see the dark side, but you also see the bright side? Is that your gift – or curse?

I think so. In my own life, my childhood wasn’t the easiest. My mother suffered from bi-polar disease most of my growing up years. She was much more on the dark side than the light but when she was manic she was pretty hysterically funny.

Was it difficult to write this book?

It was very difficult at times, especially reading the testimonials of what people had been through and seeing some of the movies – not Hotel Rwanda – but real movies about Rwanda. Especially when I connected with people and they became close friends and they would tell me what they had been through. It was difficult, but I always saw that they had had the hope and the courage to persevere.

How long did it take you to write it?

I committed in January of 2005. I started it at Antioch University in their low-residency MFA program. I thought I was done when I won the Bellwether in 2010, but it’s a condition of winning that you agree to edit the manuscript with an editor. Being published by Algonquin is also part of the prize. You get the prize money ($25,000), and an advance from Algonquin, and you also have a publishing contract.

How does one win the Bellwether Prize? Does your agent submit it?

No, I submitted it. It’s for an unpublished novel of social justice. You have to have a small, credible publication record, but you can’t have a major publication. I had a book of short stories with a small press, so I had sufficient publications. I submitted it and I was really lucky because usually Barbara Kingsolver has someone else judge the contest, but this was the tenth anniversary and she felt it was important for her to be the judge. I have the satisfaction of knowing that she picked me personally.

Did you have an agent?

I did not. I had been rejected by many agents until I got the Bellwether and then they started writing to me. It was interesting.

What do you think readers will take away from Running the Rift?

Two things really. First of all, I want people to understand what happened in Rwanda. It was not just two tribes rising up and fighting each other. It was a complicated and very well orchestrated event. Someone one once said to me, ‘Don’t you feel silly writing fiction about the genocide in Rwanda.’ I said no, because I think that when you identify with a character, some part of you becomes that character, so I want people in some way to live through the genocide as much as a foreigner can live through it. The other thing I want people to take away is the hope. Here is a people who lived through the most horrific of events and yet they came out the other side. As scarred as they were, they survived. They picked themselves up and they looked forward. That is so much what I love about the country of Rwanda.

Are you working on your next book?

Yes, I’m writing a novel of three generations of Holocaust survivors. It takes place in the present. The grandmother is the actual survivor. She was in Terezin and Auschwitz. She has her daughter and her granddaughter who live with the legacy. The grandmother was told early on not to talk about it – just forget it. So she said okay, nobody wants to hear my story so I won’t tell it. She lived with this repressed horror all her life. She was a dancer and the granddaughter is a dancer. The grandmother survived by dancing. When she came out of Auschwitz, because she felt like she had been dancing on people’s graves, she said that she wouldn’t dance again. But then it’s like all of those genes of creativity went to the granddaughter who is a hip-hop dancer, and then she decides she wants to tell her story in a hip-hop production.

Was that a story you heard from someone?

Yes, there’s an opera called the Brundibar opera – it’s a children’s opera and it was produced inside the Terezin concentration camp. Terezin is a crazy story! The Nazi’s used it as a showcase camp. They built this fake city on the outside of the concentration camp and they paraded the International Red Cross through there. They had all these musical productions, like Verdi’s Requiem and this opera, Brundibar. My nephew was the student producer of Brundibar when he was in high school. We discovered a survivor who would go all around the world to speak about it. She had played a cat in the opera in Terezin. So that’s what gave me the idea for the novel.

Algonquin Books, 2012

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