To say that Ladee Hubbard has an original imagination is an understatement. Her inventive debut novel, The Talented Ribkins (Melville House, 2017) is wild ride—part superhero quest, part thriller, part, well…you’ll see. The book tells the story of Johnny Ribkins, a 72-year old African-American antiques dealer from Florida, born with a special talent—he can make perfect maps of any space he enters. In fact, each member of the Ribkins family is likewise gifted. Johnny’s father could see in the dark, his cousin spits fire and, before dying of a drug overdose, Johnny’s half-brother, Franklin, could scale any wall. When the novel begins, Johnny has been given one week to pay back money he stole from a former employer or else face dire consequences. This launches him on a race against the clock to dig up loot he’s stashed all over Florida, but first he takes on an unexpected sidekick…his brother’s daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.
Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous essay about the “Talented Tenth,” which opens with the line, the “Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted story of race, class, politics, and family legacy. Essence Magazine describes it this way, “…if you love the works of Paul Beatty and Colson Whitehead, you’ll enjoy Ladee Hubbard’s wholly unique view of family and legacy with her dazzling first novel.”
A Kirkus starred review concurs: “Crafty and wistful…Hubbard weaves this narrative with prodigious skill and compelling warmth….To describe this novel, as someone inevitably will, as Song of Solomon reimagined as a Marvel Comics franchise is to shortchange its cleverness and audacity.” The Talented Ribkins is out in paperback. Before you sit down to read it, buckle up!
Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write The Talented Ribkins and when you knew it was over?
I wrote a short story called “The Last Woman” back in 2010. After it was published the characters—Johnny, Eloise and Meredith—stayed with me for a long time. I realized there was a much bigger story I wanted to tell about them but it was not until several years later that I came up with the structure for the book. The story, “The Last Woman,” (in a very modified form) became the first chapter of the novel and the rest of the book flowed out of that. Once I had figured out the basic structure it took another two years of revision to make the book the most polished version of itself.
What was the most fun part of the book to write?
I have a great affection for all of the characters in the book even if I do not agree with everything they say and do. That given, I really enjoyed working on the dialogue and trying to figure out the subtle nuances of how they interact with one another.
What did you edit out of this book?
In earlier drafts Johnny had a friend from his Justice Committee days who accompanied Johnny and Eloise for most of their road trip. As much as I loved this character, I realized at a certain point that his presence was not working for the book and had to take him out of it.
The Talented Ribkins is part magical realism, part noir, and even a bit like a superhero journey. Can you discuss genre and why you chose not to go with straight realism?
It really wasn’t a conscious decision. The book’s style, structure and any “magical realism” contained therein all evolved out of my efforts to respect the truth of these characters and the truth of their story.
In general, I tend to think of genre as a communicative strategy and so approach it as a resource as opposed to a limitation. All fiction is, after all, the result of choices authors make in trying to tell a specific story. That given, I do not want to limit my imagination to artificial boundaries—such as the need to be “realistic”—when it comes to telling my stories and trying to represent my characters’ experiences.
You appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” shortly after the book launched. Is there anything that can prepare a first-time author for talking about her work in front of millions of people on national late-night TV?
No! I was extremely nervous going into that. Seth Meyers is very good at his job and so I felt very comfortable talking to him.
Toni Morrison was one of your mentors, and said this about your book: “For sheer reading pleasure Ladee Hubbard’s original and wildly inventive novel is in a class by itself.” What role did Morrison have as you wrote this book?
She is the person who inspired me to write. She was my thesis advisor when I was an undergraduate and taught me a great deal about writing, but we had not been in contact for several years when I finally did sit down and write a novel. I was very happy to show it to her when it was finished.
All aspiring authors are interested in how writers get published. Can you share what it took to get your novel sold and onto the bookshelves?
Persistence and dedication. Also, I couldn’t have written The Talented Ribkins if I had not learned to respect my own voice and recognize the value in what made it unique—even if others did not. That is one of the messages of the book and I really think it is important.
About Ladee Hubbard: Hubbard is the winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and the 2017 Ernest J. Gaines Literary Prize. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, raised in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hubbard lives in New Orleans with her husband and three children.