Ruthie Bolton had so many obstacles in her way that it's a wonder her memoir, "Gal: A True Life," (Harcourt Brace) was ever written, let alone published. But the book, which describes her childhood in Charleston, S.C., has been in stores since June, and now it's a best seller: No. 13 for hardcover nonfiction on the New York Times list.
The author, 33, is black, married, the mother of five and a veteran of "every job available" in stores and fast-food restaurants. Ruthie Bolton is a pseudonym: she didn't want to use her real name and still hasn't revealed it, wanting to protect her family from distress.She began to write, she said in a telephone interview from Charleston, when she saw a forgotten photograph of her grandmother, who had been beaten to death by her second husband, a sadistic man who brought up Ruthie in a home of violence and wrenching sadness. "It had been so long, too long," she said.
"It felt like it was something that had been on my chest all these years, all that pressure." Bolton produced 58 handwritten pages in a blue binder one of her daughters had brought home from school. But she was stuck.
That's where Josephine Humphreys, the author of novels including "Rich in Love" and "Dreams of Sleep," came in.
The maintenance man in the building where Humphreys has an office happened to overhear Bolton, who was working as a cashier at a plant nursery across the river, discussing her embryonic book. He asked Humphreys if she would help.
Humphreys read the 58 pages and was captivated. "It wasn't publishable," she said. "She was having a really hard time with spelling and paragraphing and putting into words what she was trying to say. But it was a really powerful story, and she really wanted to write it."
She suggested that Bolton try telling her story into a tape recorder. So for the next two months, Bolton traveled to Humphreys' office twice a week. There she talked and talked. Humphreys transcribed the tapes and sent the manuscript to her literary agent, Harriet Wasserman, who sold it to Cork Smith at Harcourt Brace.
Harcourt originally printed 17,500 copies; 60,000 are now in print. "Gal" has been optioned for the movies by Tony Ganz and Dick Wolff, and its author recently returned home from what sounds like a very successful book tour.
"I met a lot of people who had similar situations as me, who had never mentioned it to anybody," Bolton said. "I met all kinds of people that I had never known were in this world. People would just reach out to me and hold my hand."