Sarah Ruhl is an author, poet and playwright. Twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Award Fellowship for Theater and Performing Arts in 2006, Ruhl attended Brown University, where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts. While at Brown, she studied closely with Paula Vogel, 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for her play “How I Learned to Drive.”
Max Ritvo DRA ’13 was one of Sarah Ruhl’s students in her playwriting class at the Yale School of Drama. They met in 2012. Over the next four years, while Ritvo struggled with a recurring form of pediatric cancer, Ruhl and Ritvo exchanged letters, in which they spoke candidly about the mysteries of life, art and poetry, among other topics. With Ritvo’s help before his death in 2016 at the age of 25, Ruhl compiled their letters together, adding narrative and pictures, resulting in her new book, “Letters from Max,” published on Sept. 18.
Ruhl’s most successful works include “The Clean House,” a romantic comedy centered around a Brazilian cleaning woman who really wants to be a comedian. The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an award granted to notable English-writing female playwrights. “The Clean House” debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2004.
Ruhl also penned “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. The play looks at grotesque Victorian beliefs about female sexuality, revolving around the early days of the vibrator, originally used by medical professionals to treat women for “hysteria.”
Ruhl has written many other plays and authored a collection of essays entitled “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater.” Ruhl has sat on the executive council of the Dramatists Guild for three years. A Chicago native, Ruhl currently lives in Brooklyn with her family. She is a professor in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
Q: You write a lot of plays and a lot of poetry. A lot of authors try to find their writing niche and then stick with it. How is it transitioning from playwriting to poetry?
Ruhl: I see the craft of writing as one big ocean, and they try to divide us up into genres. But truly, I think poetry has so much in common with my writing. Playwriting has so much in common with short story writing. And if you love sentences, you’ll probably love working in more than one genre.
Q: What was your path to becoming a writer?
Ruhl: I wanted to be a writer and a teacher, actually, from the time that I was about five. I know because I saw an interview they did of me in my kindergarten class. They interviewed all of us and talked about what our dreams were for the future. And I said I wanted to be a writer, an artist and a teacher. So I guess I knew that all of those things were important to me from a young age. When I was little I wrote mostly poetry and then some fiction and nonfiction. Finally, it was at Brown that I found an incredibly important teacher to me, and that was Paula Vogel, who really convinced me to write plays. But poetry is actually my first love.
Q: That segues me into my next question: At these early stages of development in your career, what and, or who were your greatest influences?
Ruhl: I think my top five influences would be Paula Vogel, who was an incredibly important teacher for me, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Mansfield and Shakespeare. And because we’re talking about teachers and students, I would add Max to that list. I think that our students impact us as teachers, and we impact our students. And that is an incredibly generative cycle that goes on infinitely.
Q: “Letters from Max” is truly touching. I can only imagine it was difficult to put together. How did it feel to compile the letters together? What was that whole process like?
Ruhl: In a way it was a grieving process, and I think writing the book was a labor of love and an act of memory and a way of processing that this friend was gone. When Max was alive, we talked about making our letters into a book, and it didn’t quite gel the way we put it together in his lifetime, and he gave me permission to finish it. It was Milkweed’s [the publisher’s] idea that I add commentary and reminiscence and prose passages to frame it, to give us some sense of chronology. So it was hard, but I think that most art that reaches toward something is hard. Most of it costs something.
Q: Max seemed like a great person — exuberant, full of life, even during those hard times. What was your goal in relating how he was as a person to the character Max in the book?
Ruhl: To give you an example, I did a reading at the Strand Book Store last week and Mary-Louise Parker was reading with me, and she’d never met Max. She loved his poetry, and she was sort of enraged that she hadn’t met Max. As we were going home, I asked Mary-Louise’s daughter, who came to the reading, how she felt about it. I think she couldn’t quite articulate how she felt, and I said, “You know Max a little bit now,” and she said “Yes.” So I think that was my goal — for people who hadn’t met Max to give them a little bit of context, to give them a sense of his temperament and character. I think, as readers, to unlock poetry, to unlock writing, sometimes we like to have a window into the author. So I was partly hoping just to give people the sense that they knew Max a little bit more.
Q: How did you decide upon the structure of the book?
Ruhl: The only book I can think of that I feel this book has a kinship with is Ann Patchett’s “Truth & Beauty,” but that was Ann Patchett’s memoir of her writer friend who died. It has some letters, and it has some memoir. That one is clearly more Ann Patchett’s work rather than being a collaboration. I think “Letters from Max” is more a deep collaboration between me and Max. I was partly interested in something that resisted genre because letters are a dying art form. I wanted to not have it be a dry compendium of letters, but also be a living, breathing document. So I think it’s a portrait of our friendship, as well as being two people sermonizing about the afterlife or sermonizing about religion or sermonizing about death.
Q: As compared with other works in your anthology, how does “Letters from Max” relate?
Ruhl: I think the closest analog would be my play, “Dear Elizabeth,” which I did at the Yale Repertory Theatre. It’s an adaptation of the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Max came to see it at Yale and said, “Oh, I felt like you wrote that play just for me.” I think in Bishop and Lowell’s case, it was a friendship that spanned decades, while for Max and me, we were friends for four years after he graduated from Yale, up until his death when he was 25.
Q: As an educator, have you found other students at Yale who exude a deep kinship with you?
Ruhl: I think Max was like a comet. He’s one of those students that come through a teacher’s life once every 20 years. I have really profound friendships with a lot of my students who have graduated, particularly those who have graduated from the Yale School of Drama, who have become profound friends and colleagues. I think that there was such urgency with Max because he was dying. We pretty much knew he was going to die within the last couple of years of his life. So there was a real urgency to talk candidly about the things he was thinking about, the things that were on his mind. And I think not many friends talk about that sort of thing, you know?
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org