Interview: W. Ruth Kozak |

W. Ruth Kozak's keen interest in travel and history began when she was a child. By the age of 10 she was penning WW2 war dramas and fantasies for her classmates and friends. Her first publication, at 12, was a snippet from a story she wrote about a Dutch war orphan.

During her teens she turned her interest to Roman and Greek history, producing a number of novel-length historical-fiction manuscripts . At 18 she wrote and produced a play "The Street", a cautionary tale for her peers about heroin addiction in the East end. The play was reworked, and successfully produced in 2000.

After graduating from high school Ruth worked as a copy-runner and research librarian for the Vancouver Sun where she aspired to become a journalist.

Ruth's interest in ancient history and travel took her to Greece where she lived for several years teaching E.S.L and writing about her travels. She has returned there many times while researching her historical fiction w.i.p Shadow of the Lion, about the fall of Alexander the Great's dynasty.

Her travels have taken her to many exotic destinations. She is a published travel writer currently teaches classes on Travel Writing, Prompting the Muse and Novel Writing and conducts Life Writing groups. She is a member of the B.C. Travel Writer's Assoc. and the Federation of B.C. Writers. Ruth is editor/publisher of Travel Thru History.

Marc Latham spoke to Ruth.....

Your Travel Thru History site seems to be attracting plenty of interest and quality articles. Do you think this success is down to the topic, the way you run the site, or a combination of the two?

I believe that having a specific topic makes the site more unique than others. As a writer who's main interest is history and culture rather than holidays at all-inclusive, I wanted to set up a site that appealed to other travellers and writers and readers with those same interests.

What has been the most difficult aspect about setting up the site and running it?

First, I had to find a good webmaster because I'm not that computer savvy and although I've done some of the html coding, I'm not very expert at it. Fortunately I knew someone who was very good at web design and he willingly offered to be my webmaster. I think he's done a brilliant job of setting it up. Of course, this costs money, so before I went ahead with the site I had to make sure I'd be able to afford to maintain it. I know some people who actually do their own web sites and it's a lot of work. So I'm lucky to have this friend who is doing this for me. The biggest challenge for me is the financing, which is out-of-pocket (and being a writer I am not that well-off myself!) So this site is a 'leap of faith' in many ways.

What percentage of a writer's minimum income do you think a site like this can provide?

Writers don't make that much money unless they are hired by specific publications. Freelancing is tough and often discouraging. I didn't expect to 'make' money on the web site. No, on the other hand it is costing me quite a bit to maintain it, between paying contributors and the web master. I was starting to generate a bit of income from AdSense but due to unforeseen problems with some well-meaning friends over-clicking the ads, they have removed them from the site for 'suspicious activity'. This was a very unfortunate turn of events, and I hope to find alternatives soon. The little bit I was generating did help balance the cost of the webmaster. The rest is out-of-pocket. But as the site generates more traffic and interest, I am hoping this will improve. What percentage was I making? Well at the time the ads were removed I was generating a little more than half of what I usually pay the web master each month which definitely helped but it took almost two months before this became an 'income' and then it was over as quickly as it had begun to generate some funds. A huge disappointment, which I hope to rectify quickly. In the meantime this may mean cutting back on stories in order to cut costs, and I hate to do that when the site has just started to generate more traffic.

How much of your writing time do you spend on the site?

I try to work on the site during the hours I would not be doing my own writing (such as evenings). Depending on how much editing I have to do on stories, it doesn't take up too much time, perhaps a few hours now and then. If I was doing my own web set-up it would take much longer.

Do you think editing the site has improved your writing in other areas, such as writing your novel?

I've always enjoyed the editing process and can usually do this quickly and efficiently. Lately I've also taken a couple of day seminars on the subject and have been expanding my resources by editing manuscripts for writers. Yes, because I am more experienced at editing, it is helpful when I edit my own work, although I also belong to a writer's critique group and appreciate their input.

Your novel is also historical. Why do you think travel and history fascinate you so much?

As I've always said, I was born with a gypsy soul. From as early as I can remember I loved adventure and was curious about what was on the other side of the mountain or down the street. I was brought up in a home with a Baptist pastor for a father (formerly a Welsh coal-miner); my parents told me stories every night at bedtime about their interesting lives and read stories to me. My fascination with the Bible stories -- in particular the Biblical lands, drove me first into an interest in Roman history, then when I was seventeen in a high-school history class I was introduced to Alexander the Great, and that really stimulated my interest and desire to explore not only these histories but to visit the countries where these events took place. By the time I graduated from high school I had written about three novel-length stories with historical themes, either taking place in Palestine, Rome or Greece.

What really started me writing 'history' was when my family traveled across Canada by train in 1946 after Dad returned from the war. I was fascinated with the Prairies and Rocky Mountains. I'd already started being interested in the native people, the First Nations, as I was brought up on the prairies and introduced to Indians at an early age. So I began writing about the pioneers first, then about other subjects. My first publication, when I was twelve, was in a Girl Guide magazine; a snippet from a story I wrote about a Dutch war orphan. This was inspired by stories I heard on the news, and others that my dad told me about being in Holland during the war. That trip West was the 'birth' of the historical fiction writer that I am now.

I started writing travel stories in 1980 when I was in a creative writing class. I was already immersed in historical fiction novel writing and knew I'd have to get some publishing experience before launching a major piece of work. At that time I was a single mom, and had always been a traveler, but then started making trips abroad on my own. I decided to try writing about my travels. As I'd already had experience working for a newspaper, I found it easy to write my travel adventures in an interesting journalistic style. The very first story I sent out was published (for good money too!) so that sold me on the idea of turning those talents into travel writing. Now I combine my travels (often for research on my historical fiction work) with writing travel articles and blogs about those adventures.

You have cited Kerouac as a big influence: was it his lifestyle or writing that captured your imagination?

My first job out of school was copy-running at the Vancouver Sun newspaper. A thrilling experience for a budding writer like me. (I wanted to be a crime reporter!) At that time the Beat Generation was something that fascinated me (the rebel that I am!) I read all of Jack Kerouac's books and absolutely loved them. I wanted to write like him -- that stream of consciousness, existentialist kind of writing. I was fascinated by his life-style and he was my pin-up boy.

I also admired Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Tennessee Williams. I was trying my hand at playwriting then too and learned a lot from seeing Williams' plays. A play I originally wrote in 1953 (reworked and produced in 2000), titled "The Street: a Modern Tragedy" was based on events following my boyfriend's addiction to heroin. I wrote it as a cautionary tale for my peers. It was produced (by a group of us kids) in 1953 but at that time was highly censored (by society and my parents!). It was rewritten and produced by a small local company in 2000 to great acclaim. One thing that was repeatedly said was how much like Tennessee Williams' work the plays was. So you see, the writers you admire often reflect in your own writing. My historical fiction reflects the work of one of my favorite authors, Mary Renault. And I think my 'style' of writing has been really influenced by these writers who I admire so much.

Considering environmental concerns, how much traveling do you consider is ethical at the moment?

I don't make so many trips (by plane or by land) that I feel I'm making a big dent in the destruction of the environment. My biggest problem is financing the trips I'd like to make. So for me, I don't feel it's an 'ethical' concern. In my day-to-day life I don't drive a car. I walk, travel on a bus pass around town, on electric trollies and am trying to get back on my bike more frequently, so I'm not contributing much to gas emissions. And I feel that one major trip a year isn't going to do too much damage to the environment -- more to my pocket-book!

If you had to give up travelling or writing, which would it be?

That's a difficult question because I either travel to write or write to travel. I have often combined research trips (to Greece, for instance) with travel writing. I'll always find a way to travel and I'll never give up writing either. Both of these aspects are part of my life. And Greece has become my second home so I couldn't bear to think of never going there again!

What advice would you give to those wanting to become a website editor?

First of all, you need some experience as a writer and some knowledge of publishing. I had my early experience in a newspaper office (later as a news librarian) and I've been writing for most of my life.

Because I teach writing I also do a great deal of editing and I'm expanding on that by taking courses myself in order to do more editing as a side-line. Now that I'm a 'full time writer' I must generate more income for myself. Then, you need to be organized and reasonably disciplined in order to get the work done and know exactly what you want. I'm careful about the stories I accept for my website because I want good quality writing and interesting subjects that appeal not only to myself but that I think are appealing to the readership. Also, you need to have a good web master or know how to do this yourself and be able to spend the time on it. We only change the stories once a month and I try to choose a variety of material to keep the readers interested. And I'm quite particular about the subject and style of the writing. I sometimes post my own work on the site, but I don't think it's a good idea to use too much and turn it into a 'vanity publishing' site. This site, Travel Thru History, was intended as a place to mentor and launch new writers as there are a great many out there who merit the opportunity to be read (and heard!).