He is perhaps best known as a historian, the author of the 1997 volume We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers and co-author of Forward! A History of Dane: The Capital County. But many Madison residents also know him as a familiar voice at WORT-FM, a driver for Union Cab, a staff member at Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, a fixture in such groups as the Madison Area Peace Coalition.
And now Allen Ruff is a novelist.
Last month, he released Save Me, Julie Kogon, through the on-demand publishing firm Trafford. Set in his native New Haven, Conn., the book is an unflinching, gritty yet often quite funny and forgiving story of a death in the family, of the life that preceded it and of dynamics between survivors of the deceased. It is also a tale rich in the sort of micro-history that occurs on streets and in neighborhoods where people live and work, yet one that acknowledges the global history that engulfs us all.
"All my adult life there was something gestating there," says the author. His father's 1989 death planted the idea of a novel in his mind, but its cultivation would consume 18 years. "Life incessantly intrudes," Ruff observes. Back then, he was working at Shakespeare's Books and driving cab. That work schedule, along with life's other incessant intrusions, slowed his progress. "I needed the space," he adds, a period of years to let the book settle in his imagination.
"I started writing in '98," he says. "It just began as memory sketches. I just started jotting down little aphorisms or things my dad said. My father had two things. He had this grab-bag of jokes, but he also had aphorisms." For instance: "My father used to say, ' What Great Depression? By the time of the Depression, we were well rehearsed." And: "When you're learning, it's a listening process. When you're talking, you're not listening."
Ruff added literary detail and color to what he had sketched. "A lot of stories in the novel are drawn from real experience," he explains. "They're then highly fictionalized." He calls his process "imaginary remembrance."
He would wake early, at around 4:30 or 5:30 in the morning, composing on a computer and then editing printouts while parked at the cab stand or sitting in the Harmony Bar. "Because it was my first novel, it was a quest: How do I go about this? I didn't have a thematic plan, a structure."
Ruff views the novel as a series of "vantage points on the fluidity of truth and memory," adding, "I'm kind of mandated by memory."
In fiction, he found a freedom not afforded by writing history. "The great difference is you can invent, you can make stuff up," he says. Yet he felt a sense of obligation toward his characters. "They're human beings," he explains. "That's what makes great characters."
He also felt obliged to history. "Doing histories allowed me to hone my writing," he says. It also instilled in him the impulse to research. Over the course of his life, Ruff had already absorbed much of the Jewish American immigrant experience that infuses his novel. Nevertheless, on pilgrimages to New Haven, he paid visits to the New Haven Jewish Historical Society and to people who had known his father.
He asked one contact about the local characters. "He said, 'What're you talking about? Your father was the biggest character of all.'" And the stories would flow forth.
"I come from a history of storytelling," Ruff says. "Some would call it bullshitting." He ascribes this to oral traditions deriving from the shtetls.
Now that he has published his first novel, he says, he is thinking ahead to his next writing venture. "I have some notes," he allows, regarding a sequel that would pick up in 1989, when Save Me, Julie Kogon leaves off.
"I'm looking for an agent," he adds, in anticipation of optioning movie rights to his novel. He has already cast a couple of roles in his mind, including Danny DeVito in one role and Mickey Rourke in another - "if," Ruff says, "Mickey Rourke could do Jewish."