The Ms. Q&A: Susan Rubin Wants More Women to Explore “The Road Not Taken”

Susan Rubin has spent decades bringing women’s stories to life—on the stage, through acclaimed work with the Indecent Exposure Theater Company; on screen, via documentaries on a slew of women’s issues that were shown at the United Nations and became parts of activist toolkits for organizations like the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.); and as a writer for this magazine herself.

Often, those stories were limited by the constraints of reality and the persistence of women’s inequality. Which might be why Rubin’s debut novel, The Road Not Taken, is such a marked departure—a wild ride through time and space, in which her protagonist sits with Van Gogh in Arles and romances Egyptian gods by inserting herself into mythology. (Read an excerpt for Ms. readers here!)

The Road Not Taken is many things—a deep-dive into the impacts of misogyny throughout history, a vindication of the women who were so often silenced in ancient mythology—but most importantly, it is a novel that calls on its readers to envision new worlds. Considering the climate in which it was released this month, of relative isolation rife with uncertainty and fear, that powerful combination seems as timely as ever.

Many of us are home during the pandemic longing for escape—and designing a better tomorrow. Women across the country are leading the call for change—and not just to get us through this moment, but to last beyond it. Anyone who has wished she could be in the exact right place at the exact right time to change the world for generations to come will revel in the chance to escape in the pages of The Road Not Taken and imagine themselves the protagonist, who finds herself while she is also traipsing across time and space to fix what so many of us realize now was broken all along.

Rubin talked to Ms. about what led her to the book and what she hopes comes in its wake—including the inspiration, for women of all walks of life, to seize their power and take their one wild and precious life into their own hands.

Carmen Rios: This is such a rich, lush book—so full of different themes and crossing so many boundaries in time and space. Where did your own journey to writing it begin?

Susan Rubin: I had finished the production of a play that was critically very successful and miserable in every other way. I was no longer writing documentaries, and I do not know how to crochet. I had to figure out whether to work on stitching and cooking; volunteering at animal shelters, where every lost creature would have sent me into a cataclysmic depression; or writing a book.

I’m an avid reader—especially all the great women novelists. Number one to me is Simone de Beauvoir, whose All Men are Mortal I adapted into a play. Critically successful, and a totally miserable experience.

I knew inside myself that telling stories is what I am here for. I sat down one day and decided to write about a woman who meets her twin sister and ultimately kills her. For those of you who are mystery story addicts like me, you will recognize that it would have been a direct steal from Josephine Tey’s Brat Ferrar. But I had to start someplace: I went home in my mind to Manhattan.

I went home to the original department store in the U.S., Bloomingdale’s. I had not been there in many years, but it is a landmark for me: I was arrested for shoplifting there, accused at 15 of leading a gang of shoplifters, but they let me go with stern warnings never to return again.

From there, a strange and wonderful mystery happened: the characters, the story, the sexual encounters, the Time/Space travel wrote itself for me. Sometimes I would go off the road, and the story and characters pulled me back. I remembered that even as a child at our wretched lunchroom in elementary school, I sat eating meatloaf and telling stories. Even kids in my class who hated me would come over to my table to listen. That six year old girl had grown into me. 

It was a great joy to realize that all the time I have spent arguing with actors about whether their costumes made them look fat, and all the time I had spent crying over the footage we looked at for our documentaries, had strengthened my story telling as it had turned me into a mature person. The book became my solace against the nightly news. It was a joy to return to my desk, my cats walking over my keyboard periodically, erasing or editing sections of my book. I was pretty sure they stepped on the keyboard exactly at the point where I was going off course. I pushed them off and read what damage they had done, and almost every time the cats had elucidated some part of my story just like my characters were doing all along.

CR: I was struck by your decision to make the protagonist a wealthy widow in her fifties—we don’t see a lot of that in literature! Why was that important to you? What inspired you to tell this kind of story through Deborah’s eyes?

SR: I realized that a wealthy widow could create a cheesy narrative. But in time I saw that my decision was to make clear that the money did nothing to enhance her life. She was not a dismal wretch who cares only about being rich. She cared very little about it. She used the money to buy herself an apartment in a brownstone on Thompson Street between Bleecker and Houston in Greenwich Village. She gave most of it to her daughter, and there is almost nothing in the book about her shopping except to furnish her place.

I wanted to say that life is not only about money, unless you don’t have any. I am a middle-class woman. I did not grow up poor, or mega rich. My father saw ups and downs in the textile business—okay, he sold men’s underwear—that ultimately left him so depressed he died of food poisoning rather than go to a hospital. I know that having enough is vitally important, but having huge excess can be paralyzing. My character gave away her excess, still leaving the story to go on with her not dealing with the struggles of a working woman. This freed her to figure out what the point of her existence was.  

My character was widowed at 50. She and I are extremely different. But she also didn’t crochet. She had one child whom she loved but she didn’t really get much from being a mom. I know that that was risky, just like her having money was risky. But it was my truth that I got cancer in my mid thirties and my choice to birth a child was taken away. I am very pro-choice, and yet, I didn’t have a choice. I was childless from the chemotherapy. I had to prove that I deserved to exist.

I wanted my story to be about a woman who had a child, in exchange for a seat at the Human Dinner Table, but for whom the child did not teach her what her Contract with Creation was. Being 50 meant a lot of things to me, among the most important is that we dismiss women that age. They are what they are and that’s the end of that story. But this woman transformed herself with the help of some immortal friendships and mythological beings. I wanted to make it clear that anybody at any age can give their life meaning.

CR: How did you decide what to include in the text? We go to so many places and spaces, but no single book could encompass the history of misogyny—or the myriad potentials for a feminist future that could lie ahead. Why did you pick Egypt, Weimar, Van Gogh’s house in Arles, and the rest of the sites and stories embedded in The Road Not Taken? 

SR: Egypt was easy. The four seminal mythological gods/goddesses of Egypt were Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Set. Four siblings married to each other. I have always loved their mythology because unlike the Greeks where women and goats are raped with equal vigor by the much more powerful male deities, Egypt was pretty even about women having power. Isis and Osiris had a great marriage, Nephthys and Set had a lousy marriage. At 1 point, Isis must save her husband’s life, and she does this with ease. She is powerful enough to breathe the life back into her husband. Even as a teenager I admired her power. The women in the Abrahamic religions don’t have any power. Until they take it for themselves. And then there is hell to pay. Egypt had always fascinated me as a feminist mythology. 

As for Weimar, oh wow. Weimar, Germany, sat on the cusp of Hitler’s rise to power as the time in history that women were the freest. They went out without their husbands at night. They talked art and politics, they drank and caroused—and then came the Nazis with their Kitchen, Children and Church slogan. In their effort to create a Fatherland, the women had to crawl back inside the solitary confinement of housewifery. And they did. If you read about Weimar, stop halfway through or you will get very depressed at how easily the Third Reich destroyed this delicate moment of equality for women. 

My protagonist’s friendship with Van Gogh served several purposes. It was a surreal friendship based on my character’s ability to climb inside the canvas of his bedroom in Arles, and from there enter his kitchen and hang out with the painter. Eventually she begins to search for the talent he tells her is inside her being. It is a big turning point for the character, and it gave me great pleasure to even pretend I could sit with my favorite painter using my character as my surrogate.

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CR: I loved that throughout, feminism really flows through this book’s pages. It’s the steady current, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. It isn’t didactic, it isn’t a lecture—but the reader goes on a tour of different times, different places, of misogynist myths and real-world sexism throughout history, and the protagonist is reckoning with gender, with race, with imperialism and class warfare. Would you call this a feminist book? How did your own feminist values shape your writing process?

SR: It is a book written by a feminist. There is nothing in me that wishes to be anything else. I was hoping to write a book in which the feminism was almost an assumption. My years writing documentaries had given me an endless view of how women are treated internationally, but also here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. As every abortion restriction was put in place, as every reality of untested rape kits smashed into  my heart, as I read the statistics on domestic violence, I became more adamant about women having a manifest destiny to free themselves, to find out what they can do to stop the horror show that is sexism.

My character also needed to be easy for other women to like. I was not interested in a book for those of us who already know all about misogyny. I have been thrilled that the librarians and bookstore owners in small cities across the country have related easily to my story.

Deborah, the name I give my character about a third of the way into the book, is one of five Biblical women in the Old Testament. She is given no more than five lines, but they are heart shaking: She becomes a Prophet, a Warrior and a Judge. I hope that inside every one of my readers, Deborah’s transition can show the possibility to take back power from the racist, crumbling, despicable patriarchy.

CR: Deborah’s journey made me think a lot about Jane Fonda’s notion that women’s lives are divided into “acts.” At one point, Deborah “dies and resurrects herself.” It’s not easy—in fact, she’s scared. She hesitates. She has to re-learn everything—how to trust herself, how to tap back into her wildness, how to cope with losing the safety of oppressive norms in exchange for an exhilarating adventure. 

The Road Not Taken tells us, as women, that it’s never too late to grow, expand, evolve—and it’s hard not to be inspired, moving through the text, to take a leap and challenge ourselves to live the lives we’ve been waiting to live. But not all of us have spirit guides showing us the ropes! What’s your advice to women looking to find their way through the world? How can we summon the courage, as readers, to follow Deborah’s lead, to be reborn and step into our power?

SR: There are myriad examples of women who have overcome impossible odds to free themselves. I recommend finding one of these women and using her self-empowerment as a way to find one’s own way to be free. From Eleanor Roosevelt to Marie La Veau, Joan of Arc to Nancy Pelosi, there are women to learn from.

For me, the story of Marie La Veau, who is called the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans is a great example: Marie was a real woman who had 15 birth children. But that was not the point for her. She became a powerful actor in the world of slave-ridden New Orleans, and she used her power to buy freedom for other women living as slaves. She and her colleague, Mary Ellen Pleasants, became the conductors of their own underground railroad that took women whose freedom they had bought, from New Orleans to California where the former slaves opened brothels and nightclubs, and used their money to free more slaves who also came to California. They ultimately freed so many people that California which had no laws about freed slaves, enacted the Fugitive Slave Act to make it legal to take these freed Africans and return them to their plantations. And still Marie and Mary Ellen bought more and more women their freedom.

Have you ever heard of them? No? There’s a reason for that. The powers that be do not want women to know that when we work together, we can overpower any obstacle. And I want women to know that. To live that. And to free themselves to work to free others.

CR: Ultimately, what I love in The Road Not Taken is that Deborah’s journey—all that zigging and zagging through time, through space, through feelings and experiences, all that reckoning and reasoning and world-changing—all of the distance she travels she is really traveling back to herself. How did writing this book change your own journey through life? What did you learn from Deborah and The Lost?

SR: I learned that Deborah is more optimistic in some ways than I am.

In spite of my statement about an amazing new world, Deborah did not have to watch our own government turn into a nightmare. Because she doesn’t really join the world until she is fully grown, she has less scar tissue than those of us who have watched teenaged girlfriends go for botched abortions and have had to sit with them afterwards as their boyfriends slept on the adjacent couch.

Deborah believes in the human race a little more than I do. And I learned from writing her, that it is okay for me to be more hopeful. It is okay to have faith that the world will ultimately throw off the oppressors and save itself.

Every day, I try to look at the world that Deborah looked at. She is given Egyptian lovers. She is shown Time and Space as a reality that I can only hope exists. I would like to be less scarred, but I am proud that I work with other women and artists and friends who have seen what I have seen and still struggle for themselves and everybody else in prison. I do not mean the prisons of the legal system. I mean the prisons of limited lives.

CR: In this moment, with the pandemic in full swing, a lot is being said about “new normals” and the potential for a new future. I couldn’t stop thinking about that as I made my way through The Road Not Taken. So much in here harkens to spring, to rebirthing, to walking away from what doesn’t serve us and finding some new normal to step into instead. Are you optimistic about what lies ahead?

SR: I am much more optimistic when I see the response to my book. I feel I am communicating with a wide band of women. I want to remember what it was like to be part of a larger feminist movement. I want to re-instill in myself the hope I had when I was 30, when I believed a revolution for women was inevitable.

My mother, who had spent her life as an activist, laughed at me when I asked how soon the revolution would come. How soon things would change, especially for women. But I’m not laughing. I’m writing, I’m learning. Faith, not in the religious sense, is important now, as the shadows are all around us. Am I optimistic? I will keep fighting with every breath I take.

I once beat back cancer. I hope to be part of beating back women’s inequality. It can’t be harder, can it?

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Carmen Rios is a self-proclaimed feminist superstar and the former digital editor at Ms. Her writing on queerness, gender, race and class has been published in print and online by outlets including BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, DAME, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, SIGNS and the Women’s Media Center; and she is a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. @carmenriosss|