By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK — From the very first sentence, Oprah Winfrey loved what became her latest book club pick.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is so good I have to wait until I actually have the time to absorb the language,’” said Winfrey, during a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press, of Cynthia Bond’s novel “Ruby.”
“I put it down and waited until I was in bed with the flu to start reading it. I found the language and descriptions so vividly compelling that sometimes I would have to take a breath and repeat the sentences out loud.”
Winfrey’s choice, coming out in paperback Tuesday and announced to the AP, is a debut novel published last year to positive reviews and moderate sales. Bond’s publisher, Hogarth, understandably expects that to change and has commissioned a paperback printing of 250,000 copies. The hardcover currently has 20,000 copies in print, according to Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available as an e-book.
By late Tuesday afternoon, “Ruby” was in the top 50 on Amazon.com and in the top 10 on Barnes & Noble.com.
Winfrey also has acquired film and television rights for the novel through her Harpo Films. Her interview with Bond will appear in the March issue of “O’’ magazine, which comes out Feb. 17.
Bond’s book is set in the author’s native Texas and tells a fierce and poetic tale of a worldly, beautiful black woman, Ruby Bell, and her struggle not to be destroyed by her home community of Liberty Township. Bond sets the scene right away, for Winfrey and, presumably, for many others: “Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high.”
Bond’s novel is Winfrey’s first choice in just over a year, when she selected Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings.” Fans may wish she announced picks more often, but Winfrey’s success and staying power is in part because of her reluctance to recommend a book until she finds one that excites her.
“’I thought, ‘Gee, I wish I had a book club so I could tell everybody about it and do it without pressure,’” she said.
During a recent telephone interview, Bond said that she worked on the novel for more than a decade and that it will likely be the first of a trilogy. She had written 900 pages for “Ruby,” but decided to separate it into three books after her mother, then her agent, suggested it.
“Ruby” draws upon stories Bond has heard while working with at-risk youth in Los Angeles, and was also inspired by a horrifying event in her family’s history. In the 1930s, Bond’s aunt was shot repeatedly by the sheriff and his deputies, all rumored to be members of the Ku Klux Klan, because she had been involved with a white man. Her body was dumped in a sack and thrown onto her grandfather’s porch.
“This has impacted our family so much and was the base from where the story (of ‘Ruby’) started,” Bond said.
In praising the book, Winfrey compared it to works by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, authors that the 53-year-old Bond cites as influences. She and Winfrey have had much to say to other. Bond, like Winfrey, has known difficult, despairing times. She was sexually and physically abused as a child and says writing helped her cope with near-suicidal depression. They also share a connection to Maya Angelou, who died last year. Bond is the daughter of a literature and theater professor and met Angelou as a child. Winfrey knew Angelou for decades and often spoke of the poet as a mentor and mother figure.
“If Maya had been alive I would have called her before I finished this (‘Ruby’) and said, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve got to read this book and finish it with me,’” Winfrey said.