Ruby, Ruby

  • Aperture: f/7.1
  • Focal Length: 17mm
  • ISO: 400
  • Shutter: 1/59 sec
  • Camera: NIKON D1H

Columbus, Mississippi

Everyone has their own interview style and mine begins with a nosedive and ends with a crash landing. I don’t write questions beforehand, and I don’t follow a set list. Never have, not when I was a fumbling cub reporter, not in college when I was trained to do things The Right Way. There’s a formula and a basic plan, but people aren’t plug and chug equations. I keep my interviews loose and let whatever happens happen, even if it makes me look like an idiot for a little while.

Near the middle, I hit clear skies and it’s all good from there. I’m reading my subject and they’re oblivious to me; I’m out of my head and they’re lost in theirs. When it works, the alchemy can be breath-taking, hypnotic. It’s hard to come back to the surface. I choke and flail on re-entry.

Hence the last question: Is there anything you’d like to tell me that I haven’t thought to ask?

It rarely yields anything useful. For the most part, it’s a throwaway, a mark of insecurity on my part. But occasionally, it takes everything I thought my story was about and turns it upside down. With some people, it can be a powerful moment — a moment where everything they’ve never said, every hurt, every fear, comes spilling out. I know those broken places all too well. It hurts sometimes to re-break them.

Last night though, standing in a kitchen in Columbus, Miss., I got an answer I’ve never heard in 18 years of writing professionally. I was interviewing the 11-year-old in today’s image — Ruby Jane Smith, Mississippi’s top fiddler and winner of a wall full of awards. More striking than her accomplishments though is a unique blend of poise and authenticity. What you see is what you get, and what you get is a pre-teen who is studying Latin and Greek for fun, working her way through Shakespeare for the challenge, criss-crossing the country to play for packed houses, and piling up in bed with her mother on Saturday nights to watch movies and eat greasy Chinese food.

As I stammered and stumbled, trying to find my exit, she leaned against the counter, gazing at me with a level smile, rocking back and forth on her suede boots (tasseled, of course.) Awkwardly, I retrieved my notebook and pen from the floor where I had dropped them, fumbled with some loose pages that had scattered. Finally, I threw my question, not expecting anything at all. Certainly not expecting what I got.

“No, if I’d wanted to tell ya somethin’, I woulda just told ya straight-up,” she said, flashing a gap-toothed grin. “I wouldn’t have waited. That’s just not how I am.”

Goodnight ladies and gentlemen. Our insecure resident writer is leaving the building now.

Music: Jack the Ripper by Morrissey (lyrics)

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