Ruby Mayer talks about having faith in love and being inspired by a Jewish grandmother’s wisdom.
Ruby Mayer moved to London from the Middle East at six, but returned to Israel in her twenties. There she worked in a war survivors’ charity while learning the 1950s feminist approach to life from her indomitable grandmother, Shulla. These experiences form the basis for her first book, Did Your Mother Never Teach You How to Catch a Man? So, when Jasmine’s crappy relationship with a crappy man falls apart, she goes on an adventure, to Tel Aviv. What follows is a wonderful journey filled with food, love and a healthy dollop of chutzpah. We caught up with Ruby to talk about writing from personal experience and Shulla’s dating tips.
1. What are the benefits and difficulties of writing from personal experience?
One of the key challenges for me was to give the people behind those experiences privacy, by making the characters fictional. The one exception is Shulla. I have remained true to her character for two reasons. She is just too special to be diluted and she has advised countless women on love and marriage! She’s also an open book and in her Tel Aviv, she is something of a celebrity. There’s nothing in the book that she wouldn’t say openly to any woman coming to her for advice.
2. Shulla is such a wonderful character! Can you tell us a little more about the woman who inspired her?
Shulla is an incredible woman who was born in the early thirties to a cleaner and a devout peddler (that’s a whole other story waiting to burst out of me). She grew up in a one room hut with her three siblings in a poor neighbourhood. While mother to four young kids herself, Shulla worked the night shift at the National newspaper, taking editorial dictation from journalists on the road, ringing in their stories. She served as secretary for the very senior editors and stayed to work for the newspaper for fifty years. Eventually, they put her on the switchboard because she was such a permanent ray of sunshine and boy did they need it! She is friends with everyone, from the loftiest editors and ministers, to the bus drivers who drove her to the Carmel food market every Friday. In her home, the radio is always on playing old love songs, the fridge is always full and the hugs are just waiting to be given.
3. Her dating advice comes straight from a 1950s handbook – do you think there are some aspects of this that are timeless? How has she shaped your idea of what it means to be a woman?
Shulla teaches Jasmine ‘how to catch a man’ because there is something about being open to love and available to be loved that is a bit of a lost art these days. I am an ardent feminist, but it took Shulla to help me see that being a strong woman and being open to love were not mutually exclusive. I think a lot of the media aimed at girls today is incredibly confusing: ‘Girl Power’ seems to be about taking your clothes off and being anti-men, whereas neither of those things are conducive to strength, hope or happiness. Women are amazing and that’s what we should be focussing on. We can be amazing and still have a heart.
4. What advice would you give to women going through similar heartache?
This book is all about finding faith in love and I genuinely believe that with seven billion people in the world, one of them is out there waiting for you to find them and hoping that you do it soon. Keep hoping, have faith, don’t give up! Every heartache passes eventually and day-by-day it gets better until one day, it is just gone.
5. I love the description of Tel Aviv in the novel – what do like and dislike about Israel?
What I love about Israel and Tel Aviv in particular, is that it is a melting pot of cultures in an incredibly fast-paced, creative environment. It’s the Manhattan of the Middle East for me. Everyone speaks English and as a result, young people from across the globe flock there. The energy is incredible. I also love the food. Every food stop or coffee vendor, from a road-side falafel van to an upmarket eatery, to the many espresso bars which are everywhere and always open, is extraordinarily delicious and high quality. The Jewish culture is strongly centred on food and hospitality – food is an expression of love, passion or excellence, it is never just sustenance.
What I dislike is the tension. The political heartache across the region chips away at daily life in subtle but persistent ways which can be hard to live with. There is a lot to be said for the resilience of Tel Avivans, they just get on with it, regardless and they will always help you out, stranger or friend. Always.
6. Jasmine is not so well trained in the traditions of cooking and sewing – have you developed your own skills?
I cook a little but actually what I inherited from Shulla is an appreciation for quick, fresh food and a lot of veg. Salad can be mind-blowingly delicious in Tel Aviv, so there is always a lot of that in our home. I can throw together a tabbouleh pretty easily and I can make chicken soup in five minutes, even when almost passed out with flu. Does that count?
7. What advice would you give for other first-time authors?
The advice I would give to first-time authors is to write and to write regularly. It is daunting to stare down a blank page but if, eventually, the words flow, then all you need is a huge amount of self-faith and to sit down often, for days, weeks and months, to make the dream come alive. And perhaps don’t eat as much chocolate as I did, when writing the book.