Career Achievers: Laura Ruby on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Laura Ruby is a successful author with a long, distinguished career.

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My first book—a middle grade ghost story—was sold all the way back in 2001 and was released in 2003, when I was blissfully ignorant of almost everything, including how lucky I was. My little middle grade book was published to good if not stellar reviews, nominated for some state lists and awards, sold in the Scholastic Book Club, etc. And I was thrilled with all of it.

HarperChildren’s, 2003

But I was unaware that the book business can be the worst sort of roller coaster, seemingly designed to make writers feel out of control—rattled and unmoored by sudden dips and turns. I had to change agents because the one who’d sold my first novel wasn’t interested in the short stories I was writing for adults. And despite the (admittedly modest) successes of my first middle-grade novel, my publisher didn’t want a companion novel set in the same universe; they didn’t want to “pigeonhole” me. I ended up selling them two fantasies very different in tone.

The problem was that the readers who enjoyed my first book weren’t necessarily the ones who might enjoy the new ones, something that never occurred to me and something I didn’t prepare for. And then I also sold a contemporary YA novel to the same house.

At the time I thought it was the best book I’d ever done, but it was marketed as commercial—when it wasn’t—and the reviews were disappointing. I was devastated.

By 2007, I’d sold seven books—three middle-grades, three contemporary YA novels, and one short story collection for adults—but I didn’t feel successful. All I felt was scattered and tired and misunderstood. And then my YA/MG editor was laid off in 2008, and the new editor I was assigned didn’t want anything else from me.

The last YA novel in my contract came out in 2009, and the reviews for that one were the best I’d gotten since my very first novel, but I fell into a depression. I was working on the book that would become Bone Gap (HarperTeen, 2015), but no one seemed to know what it was. I didn’t know what it was or how to make it work.

The years between 2009 and 2012 were extremely difficult. I wasn’t sure I had anything left to say, or, at least, anything that anyone wanted to hear. I started looking for copywriting jobs (what I did before I became a novelist).

Then, I got extremely lucky again. First, my friend Anne Ursu asked me to run a workshop with her at the Highlights Foundation, where we focused on writing fantasy literature. Second, I was hired as faculty by Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult’s program.

Before that, I never imagined I’d end up teaching, and the learning curve was steep. Still, I thought that even if I didn’t have any more books in me, I might have something to say to other writers.

Being a brand new teacher was agonizingly stressful but it also stretched me, forced me to think about what I did and how I did it, and the best ways to communicate that knowledge. It also got me out of my own head, pulled me out of a self-defeating and self-pitying (and rather pathetic) malaise. Helping those who loved to write for children and teens reminded me why I wanted to write for young people in the first place. I rediscovered my love for the work. And I resolved to write the kind of book that I really wanted to write, the kind of book that truly reflected my worldview, whether someone wanted to publish it or not.

I went back to Bone Gap and stayed as true to my vision as I could. With that manuscript, and with an offer to write the trilogy that would become the York series, I once more changed agents and editors. My new agent, Tina Dubois, and my new editor, Jordan Brown, both seemed to understand what I was doing with Bone Gap and both helped me to make the book more of what it wanted to be.

The reception of readers and critics after its publication in 2015 was thrilling and gratifying. Someone—I’m not sure who—once said that people become writers because at some significant point in their lives they were not heard. And I think that’s true for me.

I felt truly heard for the first time.

Of course, life is its own roller coaster. Not even a year after I gave a speech at ALA accepting the Printz Award for Bone Gap, right after I’d handed in a draft of Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All (HarperTeen, 2019), I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. Treatment—two surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation—kept me from teaching for eighteen months, and kept me from writing anything longer than a poem.

I expected that the treatment would be exhausting and painful, but I didn’t know it could change the way my brain worked. Instead of hearing stories unspool in my head the way I had since I was a child, my mind was strangely quiet.

Again, I had to face the idea that perhaps this was it, that I might not have anything else to say, or rather, I might have lost the ability to say anything. But the brain is magical.

Though I wasn’t thinking in words the way I had before, I was thinking in images. I took a failed novel and turned it into the text of a picture book coming out in 2021. And I’m currently working on some scripts for graphic novel projects.

I’m enjoying the challenge of tackling something brand new to me, something that requires practice and more practice, something that I might be truly bad at, at least at first.

Trying something new requires a certain openness, a lack of expectations that I find freeing emotionally and creatively.

So, if I’ve defied the odds of success over time, I’d say it’s a combination of luck—those things you can’t control—curiosity, and some sort of innate stubbornness. I write because I cannot not write. And I always want to try something new, even if that makes me a marketing nightmare.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I used to obsess and agonize over every single review, every single social media mention, every email. I wasted so much time when I could have been working on the next book (or just binge-watching my favorite show, or hanging with friends, family, or…or…or…).

If I had to do it all over again, I would do my best to stay in the present, to live in a more balanced psychological space where I could be grateful for what I had and hopeful for what might come without getting too attached to any particular outcome—starred reviews, prizes, best-of lists, whatever.

Even good news can mess with your head. And bad news can level you if you let it.

Case in point: I recently got some hate mail in which the writer gleefully told me that though my cancer was in remission now, it was just biding its time and it would come back.

I read this and thought: Well, what’s your point? I mean, the email was cruel, sure, but the world is full of cruel people who send bonkers emails. My cancer might come back; tell me something I don’t know. I can’t be bothered to agonize over it, or bonkers emails, because I know how precious time is.

In short, I would keep my focus on my work from the get go. And I would seek out a writing community so much sooner. My fellow writers, particularly women writers, have kept me sane, have kept me writing, kept me challenged, even kept me alive. I don’t know how I ever survived without them.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

A lot has changed since I started, but I think the most significant changes are the explosion of different formats—verse novels, graphic novels, illustrated novels, graphic nonfiction, all sorts of hybrid projects, and the fact that writers aren’t discouraged from writing across age categories and genres, which gives them more opportunities to keep fresh creatively and to make a living.

Most significantly, in the last few years, we’ve seen more books published by and about underrepresented folks (though we could be doing much, much better on that score). And though the discussions about representation can be painful and fraught, they’re necessary and overdue, and can only make our work stronger. And I have to say, as a white, cisgender, generally able-bodied person, asking myself if I’m the right person to tell this or that story, interrogating what it means to have privilege in a world that brutalizes so many of us is vital to me as an artist, and vital for the kids that pick up any book I’ve written. I owe them this kind of effort.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Oh, lord. I’d say so, so much:

—Don’t quit your day job, not because you’ll never make it or because no one will ever love you, but because having some kind of paying job will keep financial pressure off your writing, and free you to write the kind of books you really want to.

(Also, it might keep you from rattling around in your own house like a disgruntled ghost 24/7, wondering why the cats won’t answer your questions.)

—Stop worrying so much about being adored or famous and ask instead if you’re being open and brave, real and true. The writer Erin Bow recently posted this on Twitter that I think sums this up:

—Celebrate every small accomplishment. Yay, you wrote a beautiful sentence! Yay, you finished a chapter! Yay, you sorted out a plot problem!

—Do the best work you can, stretch as much as you can, be authentic to yourself and your own vision as much as you can, but don’t waste too much time looking for outside validation. You can be disappointed, and you will be, but mourn it and let go. And focus less on being heard than in listening, especially to young readers. They’re the ones who need to be heard.

—If you screw up, don’t whine, apologize, then do better.

—Also, never Google your name and never go to Goodreads.

—Really, never go to Goodreads.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers and readers, looking to the future?

I’m hoping that the conversations that we’re having around diversity, inclusion and representation will become more open and honest, more natural, less fraught over time, and that these conversations will bring real change within the industry, so that more people of color, more people with disabilities, more queer people, more neurodivergent people will be working in literary agencies, publishing houses and serving on prize committees.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I want to keep challenging myself by writing across categories and experimenting with form. I want to talk with more young readers and students on a more regular basis, I want to hear what they have to say. I want to continue to mentor newer writers. I want to try stuff that I’m bad at.

I want to practice practicing: drawing and playing piano and singing and baking and sewing and making and whatever, just for the sheer joy of it all. And I’d like to keep writing books for as long as I can, however long that is.

And now that we’re talking about it, I totally wouldn’t mind another kitten.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Achievers Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.