Michener Center Alumna Domenica Ruta’s Debut Novel Imagines Our Last Days on Earth

Following her bestselling memoir about her relationship with her mother, With or Without You, Domenica Ruta, MFA ’08, is back with her debut novel, Last Day. In the book, people around the world and throughout history recognize May 28 as a day when the world might end. (May 28 was also the publication date for Last Day, which can’t be a coincidence.) The story builds like a layered and deeply satisfying piece of music, its pleasures accreting toward a wondrous conclusion. To say that the lives of seven characters converge in this book would be to oversimplify their narrative trajectories, and yet it is their collective experience that makes the book so magical.  

 A native of Danvers, Massachusetts, Ruta now lives in New York City. She works as an editor, curator, and advocate for solo moms at ESME.com and is co-editor of the anthology We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, published earlier this fall. The Alcalde spoke with Ruta about Last Day. 

You wrestled with several novels after publishing your memoir. What was the writing process behind Last Day?  

Once my memoir was done and I was ready for a new project, I started scribbling about Last Day. I was afraid it was a compelling idea but that I wasn’t a good enough writer to see it through. So I tasked myself with writing a rebound novel. It could be a terrible, unreadable novel, I told myself, as long as I finished it. I promised myself that no one in the world would ever see it, and no one ever has. This freedom was necessary for me to break out of my fear. I haven’t looked at that weird little novel since. 

 Did a certain character from the novel first draw you into Last Day?  

I grafted Karen (and to a lesser extent Dennis and Rosette) from my failed grad school novel. I just loved her so much, and it broke my heart to let her go when I let go of that novel. I always found it cloying when authors talk about their characters in this way, until Karen. Now I understand how a character can demand to be born and will haunt you until you do right by her. She is energetically huge, a bright burning star in the void, and she is the character most people want to talk about when they finish the book. 

 Did you always know your ending? 

Pretty early on in the process I knew where this novel was headed, but if you can believe this, knowing the ending did not at all circumscribe the network of stories marching toward that end—nor did it relieve any of my writerly anxiety. There was still plenty of discovery and surprise for me along the way. 

 Any books that inspired your novel?  

I love Vonnegut. I didn’t read him until I was in my 30s, so I have a different perspective on him than a lot of people who read him in high school and then grew out of him like some cheesy album they bought at the mall. I think of him as the poet laureate of trauma, and like many survivors of trauma, he has a love for this world that never squints at the abject horror of it. 

 How did UT’s Michener Center for Writers shape your trajectory? 

It taught me how to put my writing first. They set us up with insane privilege—the tuition waiver, the stipend, the summer money. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have any wage-earning work to distract me. When I graduated I knew I would do anything to continue living like that, which for me meant doing manual labor (housekeeping, caregiving) that allowed me to do my wage-earning in three long days—giving me four days of uninterrupted writing. Another program would have left me with loans and I would not have had the financial freedom to make that choice. I am forever grateful to the Michener Center for that. 

 If you had to set a novel in Texas, where would you set it and why? 

I spend a lot of time imagining what life is like on the Rio Grande border right now, where those migrant children are being held captive. But I don’t think I could ever write about that. The apocalypse is easier to think about. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 


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