Chico author shares her life story
Helga Ruge’s third book tells the tale of her childhood in Germany, Russia and Romania
Helga Ruge is quite a storyteller. Spend an hour in her living room and dare her not to whisk you away on one of her adventures.
“I’ve had two brushes with terrorism,” she started, her white hair pristine, her nails and lipstick a matching dark pink.
“The first was in Casablanca, where I lived from 1950 to ’55. It was the 24th of December, and I went to the central market half an hour earlier than usual to beat the crowds. When I got home, the phone rang and it was my husband—he said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yes …’ A bomb had just gone off in the central market, right where I’d been, and killed 20 people.”
The second was in Guatemala. Ruge’s late husband, Neil, was in the Foreign Service, and after the American ambassador there was killed, Neil turned up on the assassination list. After a short time living with officers on duty all hours of the day, the Ruges decided to call it quits, Neil put in for early retirement, and they moved to none other than Chico, Calif.
You may not be able to tell from her accent, because it’s barely audible, but Ruge was actually born in Germany, on Christmas Day, 1923. In her late 20s, she married a young American diplomat named Neil Ruge (pronounced ROO-ghee), and for the next four decades would live in countries all over the world, from Italy to Morocco to Wales to Guatemala.
So, with stories ready to be told, it’s fortunate that Ruge found the time and desire to put some of them to paper. Her latest book, More Truth Than Fiction: Growing Up in Europe Between the World Wars, is just what it implies—a little bit of fiction mixed in with true stories from Ruge’s childhood in Germany, Russia and Romania.
This was the topic of discussion at a recent reading and signing at Lyon Books in downtown Chico. A dozen people filled the chairs set out before Ruge, and the friendly faces were quiet, expectant as she shared passages—filled with vibrant descriptions and good humor—from More Truth Than Fiction. She also shared some secrets behind her writing process and how she came to own her own publishing company, Clay & Marshall.
Ruge’s first book, Flashbacks of a Diplomat’s Wife, came about purely by accident, she said. She was part of a book club and was asked to give a short presentation on her life traveling around the world. Eventually, one report turned into two and two turned into her memoir, written mostly by hand in the evenings after her husband, sick with Parkinson’s disease, had gone to bed.
Whither the Promised Land is Ruge’s fictional love story, set in Sicily, between an immigrant girl and an American man.
“Through creative-writing classes, I was always told, ‘Write about something you’re familiar with,’ ” Ruge said. So naturally, the story does bear some resemblance to her own life.
As writer and publisher—she started Clay & Marshall to speed up the process of getting her books in print—Ruge e-mailed drafts back and forth to her editor and chose fonts and pictures and cover art for her new book. It was hard work, she said, but she’s pleased with the result. In addition, being able to fill in the gaps in her memory with fiction gave her a sense of creative pride.
“I wanted the freedom to put it together in a readable form that didn’t sound like a diary,” she said.
At 86 years old, writing and publishing may seem like quite a load, but if you’ve met Ruge, you know she’s up to the task. She’s quick to mention she still goes to the gym to stay fit. And although there are only two members remaining, she’s part of a long-running cycling group that meets on Wednesdays, weather permitting.
When the Ruges—Neil, Helga and their two children—moved to Chico almost 40 years ago, Neil took a job at the university and Helga started on her bachelor’s degree—in German. She later joined the faculty, teaching her native tongue for nine years.
Aside from her writing, perhaps Ruge’s most public position has been as part of the Symphony Guild, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. She’s served as president twice and now heads the young-artist division.
At her Lyon Books reading, a woman in the audience asked Ruge if she was up to writing a fourth book. She said, “I’m thinking about it.” In the meantime, she’s working to get the word out about her current release, talking to numerous groups and sending off copies to all the journals she can think of.
“Locally, I’ve gotten good comments,” she said. Look for her on the Barnes & Noble signing schedule in March or April. Her books are available there, on Amazon.com and, of course, at Lyon Books.