By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Alaska writer Cinthia Ritchie’s debut novel Dolls Behaving Badly, released Feb 5 by Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, in NY, has just hit the bookstore shelves. Ritchie was the Seward Phoenix Log’s reporter and editor before the paper changed ownership and returned to Seward. Ritchie wrote much of her novel in her spare time, mostly evenings after covering Seward City Council meetings, interesting local feature stories, walking her dog, and training for the Mt. Marathon Race. She loved writing and editing the book on her laptop at the Seward Community Library while living here for 19 months.
Single mothers, or those who want to try living in their shoes for a while, will especially enjoy and appreciate this book. It’ s about Carla, a divorced waitress who lives in a trailer and works at an upscale Anchorage Mexican restaurant while raising her precocious eight-year-old son Jay-Jay, and caring for her pregnant married sister, ex-husband, teenage neighbor, dogs, and various other friends. Carla’s efforts to survive financially includes creating erotic, anatomically-correct Barbie dolls, a lucrative market that helps pay down the bills while providing some personal satisfaction. Meanwhile, she’s trying to make it in the snobbish Anchorage art scene with her painting.
The name, “Dolls Behaving Badly,” could either refer to the actual dolls Carla makes, or to and her friends, who don’t necessarily let their lack of romantic feelings get in the way of a good time.
I enjoyed several of the situations arising in this book. After all, what mother couldn’t relate to Carla, who learns after work one evening that her son needs a home-sewn corn cob costume for school the very next day, or empathize with the emotions of fear and pride that go with watching their child compete in the Alaska Spelling Bee?
I also remember too well the lonely tsores of my single days, the struggle to find the right man, while not remaining celibate in the process. Maybe that’s why I found reading about those intimate details of Carla’s mostly loveless sex life, and those of her friends pretty depressing, as well as the details of Carla’s unpaid bills. They’re too close to real life for an escapist reading experience. But I perked up for latter part of the book when everything comes together, and Carla and her friends find love, or rather allow themselves to love and be loved by the men in their lives, and realize the value of just having one another.
Wednesday, Feb 6th, the day after her first novel, which she spent seven years writing was released, Ritchie was still feeling elated at the accomplishment. She likened the experience of having a book published to having a baby. Once it’s out, after all the work of pregnancy and birth is done, you’re a mother, and your life has been permanently changed. It’s an exciting feeling of an author’s dream realized, yet still a little odd, she said.
“I’m happy about it, I’m ecstatic, but it’s not like the money’s rolling in. It’s a myth that you’re going to magically make a lot of money, or that your life will be easy. It’s not that changed. There’s still bills to pay and I still have to walk the dog. The morning after the book is published, I’m still changing the cat litter box!” Ritchie said.
And with being a published novelist comes new worries and responsibilities such as how to publicize the book, all the book signing events to attend, wondering if it will sell, how it will be received by reviewers and readers, and also whether those close to her who might see themselves reflected in the characters she described might feel hurt by her portrayal of them.
“Whenever a writer writes, he or she is in the book. It’s unavoidable,” Ritchie said. “As a writer you’re constantly stealing little bits of everyone’s life. You can’t just make it up. Every piece is people you’ve known, or seen.” But the characters and their conversations also have to be larger than life to keep the reader’s interest, she explains. “I think though the main thing is you write the person you wish you were. Fiction allows us to be more than what we are.”
Like Carla, Ritchie lives in Anchorage, is a single mother, and has waitressed for a living. Without even realizing it, Ritchie gave the main protagonist Carla Richards her own initials, but still was surprised to have that pointed out to her after the book’s first draft was completed.
Writing fiction also allows the writer to reflect back on things that have happened in their lives and change or fix them. Thus the writing process can help heal old wounds, she said. “And I think I kind of did that in this book, and I didn’t even realize it.” Readers have commented on how realistic and how sweet Carla’s son Jay-Jay is, and how memorable the way he talks is. Ritchie began writing the book when her own son Christopher was in middle school. As she wrote it over the years, she always had that sad knowledge that he would soon be leaving her, so she now believes she soothed herself by writing him tenderly into her novel, through Jay-Jay.
Ritchie has returned to Anchorage to live, and is well into writing her second novel of three, pre- accepted by her publisher. She promises that they will all be quite different from one another.
Dolls Behaving Badly is available at Cover to Cover Books in Seward, and in Anchorage bookstores. You can view it online at Grand Central Publishing: www.hachettebookgroup.com
Visit Cinthia Ritchie on the web at http://cinthiaritchie.blogspot.com/