Deborah Goodrich Royce, RUBY FALLS

Deborah Goodrich Royce, RUBY FALLS

Zibby is joined by Deborah Goodrich Royce, owner of the Ocean House Hotel (the site of the Moms Don’t Have Time to Travel Retreat!!) and author of the new novel, Ruby Falls. The two discuss Deborah’s career —from soap opera star to script story editor, and finally to novelist— and where she found inspiration for her latest book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Deborah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It’s so exciting to have you on.

Deborah Goodrich Royce: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Zibby: I just finished Ruby Falls, which is so good. Lots of twists and turns. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I didn’t see a lot of it coming. It was really great and beautifully written. I read Finding Mrs. Ford which was about Rhode Island and Watch Hill and the Ocean House as I was in the Ocean House, which was the coolest thing. I’ve never read a book where I’m actually in the exact spot where it takes place. That was really cool. Congratulations on both of your books.

Deborah: Thank you. That’s a fun place to start. When you talk about place and book, it’s one of my favorite things in fiction, if I recognize places, so I tend to prefer real places inserted in fiction.

Zibby: I actually flipped to the front and I was like, this is a novel, right? Then I realized it was a fictious house, or is it one of the houses next door? Then you reference the Ocean House in the book.

Deborah: It’s actually our house. It’s where we live. My husband, who is not an architect — he’s in the financial world, but he has this great passion for beautiful buildings and history and things like that. He and his very eccentric builder friend spent six years building that house. When I met him over twenty years ago and I walked into that house, I thought, I would love to see The Ghost & Mrs. Muir reset in this house. Finding Mrs. Ford is not a rewrite of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, but it has threads of — you know at the beginning that her husband is dead. It isn’t The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, but his presence is felt in the house. I do think that there are feelings in places. I wanted to write that house in that place. I don’t know if you went around that area of Watch Hill. We have a porte-cochère with this beautiful arch that you drive under. You might not have gone in that way. You go through a gate house to get to the main house. People are always photographing it and putting it on social media. That’s the house of Mrs. Ford.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Great, I was right there and maybe I didn’t — maybe I’ll go back. I’m telling you, I might just head up there this weekend. I’m obsessed with the hotel now. You described the whole neighborhood really well too. You just are really, really good at creating worlds. Even if I hadn’t been living there, it would’ve made me feel as if I were, which is why I was sitting in bed that night being like, it’s like I’m being watched. Here I am in a book. Let’s talk about Ruby Falls for a minute. Would you tell listeners what Ruby Falls is about? Also, what inspired you to write it?

Deborah: Ruby Falls, in many ways, I would call it a gothic novel. My publisher at a certain point said, “Why are you using that word? Don’t use that word.” Nowadays, people think of vampires. It’s not gothic in the vampire sense. It’s gothic like the books you read when you were a teenage girl. It is like Jane Eyre or Rebecca or The Woman in White. It’s really a homage to that genre where you have something of a damsel in distress. You have a male figure who may be benign, may be malevolent. You don’t really know. You spend the book trying to sort out what’s what. Ruby Falls takes off from there. It goes to, I think, a spookier and stranger place. I want to tell you how this book started. I was sitting in this room. This is a conservatory where I write. It’s kind of a garden room. The first two chapters of the book downloaded into my little brain one day several years ago. I thought, what? That’s not the book I was intending to write. The whole beginning where this child is abandoned in a cave in Tennessee scared me witless. Yes, I was in Ruby Falls Cave when I was a child. My family did not leave me there.

Zibby: I figured.

Deborah: Completely fictionalized. I thought it was such a scary place to start a book. Then the second chapter, you go to the girl, now a young woman — she’s an actress; she’s been written out of her television show, which is an American soap opera, almost a disappeared genre — twenty years later. She’s been fired. You don’t know why. Something’s not quite right. Ends up in Europe. Marries a mysterious stranger. They’re about to go in the catacombs of Rome when she has a big attack of claustrophobia and thinks, maybe I should tell him about this thing that happened to me as a child, but she decides not to. She begins this marriage to this handsome stranger with a secret. That’s what came to me in a flash. Then I spent a couple years trying to figure out a book out of it. I loved the premise because in Rebecca, the secret about her is her name. You never know her name. That is such an interesting conceit to use in a book. I play with names because her name is Eleanor Ruby Russell. She uses Ruby as a child and then just Eleanor as a young actress. All of those things came into the mix.

Zibby: Wow. You had so many other hilarious and interesting characters too. I feel like this would be so much fun to cast if I were a film casting director. You have Howard, the agent who’s the father figure, and Dottie, the crazy lady across the way, and Mindy, the neighbor who may or may not be tempting her husband, the film directors. It’s such an eccentric cast.

Deborah: Everybody’s somebody. I was an actress back in the olden days. I was on a soap opera called All My Children. Then I went out to LA to have more of a film career. My agent was this extraordinary man, Howard Goldberg. He died in the early nineties, one of the, not the earliest, but people who died of HIV/AIDS. He was really an incredible man. I did not have the intimate relationship with him that Eleanor has with her Howard, but that character is really a little bit of an homage to that special person. Dottie, the crazy cat lady — I did live in the Hollywood Hills. I did live across the street — her name was Kathy. She had, what I remember — you’re in the mom stage. My children, I had one little baby. Kathy the cat lady lived across the street. She had dozens of cats. She invited us over for dinner. I had a pause. I thought, I don’t know if I can carry this brand-new baby into that house. I didn’t have a nanny or anything yet. We did go over there. She was a very sweet lady. I guess she rattled around in my head.

Zibby: I felt like the cat scene, there was a moment where I was like, I just can’t look at a cat right now. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the cat. Then of course, not knowing what reality really even is in the book and you’re so unmoored because what you think is true, is it true? Is it not true? Do we believe her? Do we not believe Ruby? What’s with the dad? What happened? All these questions, it makes you keep reading and trying to dig deeper and deeper into it. After you figured out what to do to make this into a book, what did you do then? Did you plot out the whole thing? Did you figure it out as you went? What was that part of the process like for you?

Deborah: I do two things. I do plot out somewhat, but I don’t do a chart. I do a couple of things. I keep a calendar. If you’re writing a chapter from July of 1979 or August of 1987 or whatever you’re picking, you can download those calendars. I make my notes on the calendars. I make my notes just on a Word document that’s separate. My first book is very nonlinear, so those calendars were extremely important. I go back and forth in time twice. Ruby Falls, that doesn’t happen so much. I think it’s very important to have a fix of what’s happening on a particular day so you don’t mess it up. Then from there, I write. That becomes the point when the characters start to change the story or things are added. Ruby, as you know, she’s obsessed with what happened to her father after he abandoned her. She’s a bit of, what we would call now, a conspiracy theorist. She goes down the rabbit hole of so many things that were going on at the time she’s abandoned in the 1960s. She thinks about the Kennedy assignation and Jack Ruby — is that why she was named that? — and this whacko thing called the Dixie Mafia, which is real. I read two books on it. She looks at Cuba and Russia and all this stuff. The book was just optioned for either film or a TV series. The producer was saying, “What would you feel if this became now, if it were contemporary?” The tricky thing is taking a story like that and making it now because a conspiracy theorist now, wow, with the internet, can go very far down different rabbit holes that I think might be too distracting. It would be interesting to see, if that’s what they choose to do, what options they would come up with. Also, the lack of a cell phone is a very important device to keep that kind of thriller moving forward when you don’t have that option of calling the police or 911, whatever.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s exciting that it’ll be a — you could see how it’s going to play out. I can’t wait to watch it as well. That’s exciting. What about even all the international elements of this book? There’s so many European influences. I feel like this is a jaunt across the globe. I can start in, perhaps, Italy. I can go to Zurich or all these places. Tell me about having that be an influence too. It’s very LA centered. I love that it’s the Chateau Marmont beginning and all that. Then you have these other influences. Just tell me about the landscape of it.

Deborah: The first two chapters just came to me. The thing in Italy just came to me. I have no idea where it came from. I have been to Rome. I have been to the catacombs. I am a little claustrophobic. That was that. This idea of identity — who are people? Who do they tell you they are? Who are they really? What do they reveal? What do they conceal? That’s a puzzle that is endlessly fascinating to me. In this part of Ruby Eleanor, who is she? What is she really showing us, the reader? The international element became interesting. Also, the husband, I loved the idea — he’s Anglo Chinese. He’s handsome. He’s exotic to her. He has this British accent. I’m picturing Henry Golding in Crazy Rich Asians. I see him as that character. To me, he typified that remove, that distance, that exoticism. There’s something about him that she doesn’t fully understand. She’s a girl from the Midwest with Southern roots. She picks this man who embodies something glamorous and different. I would say that is why the whole European connection.

Zibby: I love when Howard laughs out loud when she’s like, “Oh, no, he’s from the aristocracy and British royalty and Montague,” or whatever. He’s like, “Don’t you see how much of a joke this is?” She’s like, “What?” Very funny. Let’s go back to your earlier career if you don’t mind. I love how you have to say a soap opera called All My Children. I’m in my forties. That was on in my house a lot. To be honest, my housekeeper watched it every single afternoon. General Hospital was on every day when I got home from school. What has happened with the soap opera genre? I’m not even sure. Tell me about going from being an actress to being a writer and how your earlier experiences have influenced your writing.

Deborah: It was an interesting journey. My college major was French and Italian literature and history, but I was a dance minor. I went to a miniscule Midwestern college. Because it was so small, I acted in plays. I could go in and out of the theater department without being a theater major. The summer before my senior year, and I’m not kidding, this sounds so hokey, a movie came to town, a United Artist picture with Frank Langella and Tom Hulce called Those Lips, Those Eyes, which sounds maybe a little salacious. It wasn’t. It was about summer stock theater a hundred years ago. “Those lips, those eyes” is a piece of a lyric from an old song. I was cast as a background dancer in this movie which gave me probably the false impression that it was very easy to be cast as a dancer in New York City. The choreographer of the film was the in-house choreographer for the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. Annie started there, A Chorus Line, all of these. It’s a musical theater in Connecticut that still exits. I didn’t know what it was. I was from Warren, Michigan. I thought, that sounds kind of fancy. He was friendly, shall we say. He kept saying, “You should come to New York and audition for me.” As a good Midwestern, I was extraordinarily literal. I thought when he said, “Come to New York and audition for me,” he meant, “Come to New York and audition for me.”

I finished college. I was back in Michigan. I didn’t have a concrete plan. I had this vague, amorphous idea that I could maybe go to Georgetown for foreign service, which sounded kind of exotic. I don’t even know if I knew what it was. I finished college early. It was February. I stopped at a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Variety, the theatrical publication. I opened it. In the back, it said, he, his name was Dan Siretta, was casting the summer season of the Goodspeed Opera House at the Minskoff Theater in New York City. I thought, well, I’ll just call him because he told me. I’m making myself sound almost half-witted. I wasn’t really so stupid, but I was very naïve. I called the Minskoff Theater. I told the man who answered, “Hi, this Deborah Goodrich. I’m calling Dan Siretta.” He’s like, “Uh, he’s in auditions right now.” I said, “Will you just tell him on the phone?” Finally, twenty minutes later, he comes to the phone. He is, as you can imagine, very cool. He’s like, “Yes?” I said, “Hi. You said I should come and audition for you.” He’s like, “Yeah, I can’t guarantee you anything.” So I moved to New York the next day, which sounds like a big deal. I was twenty years old. I packed two suitcases. I stayed with the widow of the head of our theater department from my college. He had died young. She was in New York. She lived at 95th and Riverside. I stayed with her. I auditioned at the Minskoff Theater. I was not cast in this Goodspeed Opera House summer season.

Up and down Broadway at the time, there were dance studios everywhere, upstairs, downstairs. I took class every day. I auditioned for everything. I got close to the finish of everything. I auditioned for Agnes de Mille herself. I got so close to everything. After a year, I realized I wasn’t good enough. I thought, I will give acting a try before I go to Georgetown. Georgetown didn’t know anything about me, by the way. This was all in my mind. Then it was a very short passage of one year from putting my hat in the ring as an actor, getting an agent, getting a ton of commercials. I actually danced in a couple commercials, a Coca-Cola and bacon-flavored Cheetos, which was a failed product. It was terrible. That was the era of fame, so we were dancing up and down the corridors of high schools in New York City. After a year, I got All My Children, which I thought I would do forever, which I didn’t. I was written out after a year. I played Susan Lucci’s sister. She had this very crazy sister, Silver, which was based on All About Eve, the Bette Davis, Anne Baxter movie. Did that. Then I flew out to LA to do a project with Christopher Lloyd, if you remember him, Back to the Future, and really worked steadily for a decade. Got married, had two children, and moved to Paris with my first husband who grew up there.

That was, oddly, the beginning of my transition of writing because I was hired by Studio Canal Plus, which is a French film studio. They were looking for native English-speaking readers. A reader is the lowest level piecework, freelance position at any studio. Studios keep a stable of readers on. You’re the person who reads everything that comes in the door. You read it. You write a synopsis and you write a page of notes. In the film business, you always write comps. This is a cross between Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, or whatever you say. What is this? What does it compare to? I did that there. Then my first husband was hired by Julia Roberts to run her production company. She had a deal at Disney. I was hired by Harvey Weinstein to be the story editor at Miramax in New York, so we moved back to New York. That’s what we did when we were in the nineties. As that was all becoming a bit much — my children were very small. Miramax was a wonderful place, but very intense. This was the heyday of Miramax. For me, Miramax was like my writing school because I got to edit the work of the finest writers really in all areas of writing at that time. Then we divorced. I remarried, moved to Connecticut, and kept writing, writing, writing on my own kind of secretly. To tie this back to moms don’t have time to read, write, whatever, I was one of those people who, I did a lot while my children were young. I worked at Miramax, did all that stuff, all the restoration projects my husband and I now do, but the writing, that deep cone of silence and absorption required for writing, I really didn’t get serious about it until the youngest child left the house. Then I felt like I got the real estate in my brain fully back and I could shut out the world and write. That’s a long story.

Zibby: That’s a great story. There should be a movie of your life. You should sell your life rights. Try that next.

Deborah: That’s very funny.

Zibby: Think about it. Are you thinking about it?

Deborah: No, I’m not, but I do put bits and pieces in books, in fiction. I do think fiction is a great vehicle for truth. It’s a way of embedding a distilled version of truth into what you’re saying. I think that’s why we like it so much. We get caught up in a good story. I also think we see something and we say, oh, yes, that, I’ve felt that. I recognize that. That’s the thing.

Zibby: When you got divorced, is that when you left Miramax?

Deborah: No, I left Miramax before that. The volume was intense. You, I don’t know how you do what you do. I’d love to hear that. The weekend read was often twelve scripts and a novel. I would often have to synopsize that for my immediate bosses. It was pretty intense. The commute was crazy. We lived at 77th and Lexington. Miramax was in Tribeca, hardest single — well, leaving Brooklyn out of it, hardest Manhattan commute, shall we say. I loved it. It was a thrilling place. I have a great feeling of gratitude for my years there because I learned so much. It was a huge opportunity. Thank you to my parents that I went to college and I didn’t go straight into acting. That’s one of the things I feel. I feel a woman’s life can be very episodic, to use a television term. You have your childhood, your college years, your young career years, etc. I think we’re used to that as women. We are nimble with that. We’re very nimble. I think men are increasingly having lives like that. They are less adept at that “what am I going to do now?” moment. That door has closed. That chapter has ended. How do I reinvent myself? I think we’re awfully good at it as women.

Zibby: I agree. You have to. Your roles are shifting so often with this whole childbirth piece thrown in. Even women who don’t have kids, there’s just so much required to navigate. You have to. It’s not an option.

Deborah: Right. Men, historically in the wealthy Western world, have had jobs for great lengths of time. Whether they were at the corner office or they were on the factory line, there was some stability expected. I don’t think that’s the case anymore for them either. They should take a page out of our books.

Zibby: I have to say also — I don’t know if I emailed this to you or not. When I was researching, I realized you were in Just One of the Guys, which was one of my favorite movies growing up. My brother and I watched that one all the time.

Deborah: I’m still in touch with Joyce Hyser. She’s great. She’s fabulous. She does a non-for-profit in South Central LA called the Ubuntu Foundation. She works with children. She’s wonderful. I’m in touch with Toni Hudson. She’s writing and acting. Who else? Clayton Rohner a little bit. I did my first two movies with Clayton Rohner, Just One of the Guys and April Fool’s Day, love interest in both movies. We never dated. We need had anything romantic. I thought, this is really weird. Are we just going to do movies together forever? It didn’t turn out that way.

Zibby: On the writing front, are you working on a new project now?

Deborah: I am. My mother’s best friend was murdered savagely when my mother and this girl were twelve years old in Pittsburgh in 1948. It is an unsolved crime. It’s had a big effect on my mother’s life. I’ve always been interested in this concept of an act of violence and the ripple effects it has on people who were not part of that act of violence. If you think of Mystic River by Dennis Lahane, the book, and then the movie that was made with Tim Robbins, it very much examines that premise. Something happens to a child. Then it plays out the rest of his life. I’ve thought about this incident. I’ve been able to research it more. A year ago when the pandemic started, I happened to be on book tour in Florida and ended up staying in Florida when everything was cancelled. It is turning into a complicated book with two sections. There’s a fictionalized version of a writer who’s researching the murder of her mother’s best friend, unsolved crime. She’s writing almost a film noir kind of story of a woman in Palm Beach who is about forty who’s married to an Argentine. I just love those international men.

Zibby: I know. I guess so.

Deborah: Married to an Argentine. The pandemic kicks off, and he disappears. He gets the last plane to Buenos Aires with the two children. She can’t follow him. The pandemic offers a lot of constraints that don’t exist normally. It offers the face mask, which is a very good one. It offers the closing of air travel. So he disappears and you start following this writer who’s — I don’t even know if it works. It might be terrible. The writer is going off in these tangents about this idea of violent crimes and people who become obsessed with violent crimes like Dominick Dunne, completely obsessed with violent crime after the murder of his daughter, and the one in California, the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara who was obsessed with violent crime after something happened in her childhood. The writer is off on these tangents, but she’s also writing this story. You don’t quite know how it’s going to thread together, but it does. I have a draft of that now. It’s called Reef Road for now. Reef Road is a street in Palm Beach.

Zibby: Oh, Reef Road.

Deborah: Reef Road. I like that title right now because it sounds a little bit like Cape Fear or Lookout Mountain, spooky place name.

Zibby: That’s great. That sounds amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Deborah: I do. One, I would always keep your hope alive. I’m a woman of a certain age, let’s be honest. I think there’s a false belief that we have to do everything when we’re young. We don’t. We can keep having those sequences in our life. The other thing I would say is find your time and your pattern to make it work. There are people who are so dogmatic. You have to write in the morning. It has to be the same time every day. For years, I couldn’t do that. In the pandemic, I’ve been able to do it. I have a busy life. I sit on boards. We’re doing restoration. What I did with the trusty iPhone is I would block out three to five-hour blocks every day, some time. When it became sacred, I would go into the room without my phone and just do it. Find your schedule that works for you. Don’t be browbeaten by people who say you have to do this or you have to do that. Also, just know that, if you’re lucky, there can be more time than you think. I know there isn’t always for everyone. You kind of have to find that balance of living your life as though there isn’t but also as though there is so you don’t fall into the sloughs of despond because you didn’t do everything in a single day, which is a young mom thing, that despair at the end of the day, all the things you did wrong, because you will.

Zibby: I had one of those days yesterday. Thank you so much. This has been great. Thank you for the enjoyment of Ruby Falls, which was fantastic. I can’t wait to watch that show or movie after. Keep in touch. This was fantastic. Thank you.

Deborah: The pleasure was mine. Have a great day. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

Deborah Goodrich Royce, RUBY FALLS

RUBY FALLS by Deborah Goodrich Royce

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