Interview by Nathan Blum

In the time between the scheduling of our meeting and the conversation itself, Claire Jiménez’s new novel, What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez (Grand Central, 2023), was selected for the longlist, the shortlist, and then was named the winner of the 2024 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. While serendipitous for the literary community in Nashville—Jiménez’s visit to Vanderbilt had been on the event calendar for many months—it was no shock that her work was receiving the highest literary honors.

 What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez is a visceral, voice-driven, and intricately structured story of the disappearance of a Puerto Rican girl from Staten Island. Ultimately, it is a search for truth—a search that takes place over many years and from the perspectives of multiple women in the Ramirez family. Each character faces barriers and brutality with shrewd awareness. “But what good was it, really,” Nina, Ruthy’s sister, asks, “to know about a thing, to attach a name to its invisible force, if, regardless, you were gonna constantly be stuck in it?” Jiménez explores these invisible forces, but also this sense of stuckness; in doing so, she defies many conventional, deep-set customs of storytelling—releasing something more complex than just the truth. 

A few weeks after her visit to Nashville, I spoke with Jiménez about writing multiple perspectives, crafting voice, the intersections of mystery and inequity, and the necessity of storytelling.


[Nathan Blum] Congratulations, again, on winning the 2024 PEN/Faulkner Award. I noticed in some of our email correspondence you used the first-person plural “we” when expressing your excitement; you said, “We are out of our minds with joy right now.” I found that small difference in pronoun— “we” instead of “I”—to be profoundly humble. In this context, who is “we?”

[Claire Jiménez] Oh, man. Me, my partner, my family, my friends, my agent, my editors. It has been so wonderful. It was such a surprise. I feel like I won the lotto, but I’m still looking at the ticket, thinking, Are these really the right numbers? Are they going to fire the person who emailed me because they made a mistake? It is such a surreal experience. I was honored even to make the longlist, let alone the shortlist…and now here we are.

It seemed so characteristic of you, and also of the book, to acknowledge the multiplicity of the achievement and the emotional response. What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez is not written in the first-person plural “we,” but it is told from a sort of collective: the multiple perspectives of the women in the Ramirez family. Multiple-perspective novels are known for their difficulty; many beginning writers are advised to stay away from attempting them until they’ve successfully managed the emotional map of a single consciousness. What do you think of this advice? And what motivated you to have four distinct narrators?

It’s true that managing multiple perspectives over the length of a novel can be tricky. You have to sustain multiple character arcs. But I don’t think that is a reason to discourage writers from using multiple perspectives to tell a story. In fact, some stories need multiple perspectives. There’s a strong tradition of multi-narrative novels, and often the writers who are using that strategy are thinking about how you need collective voices to really understand what’s at stake.

For this story, I knew that the disappearance of this young girl—this thirteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl in New York City—required all of the voices of the Ramirez women. I wanted to create a portrait of the family. But I also wanted to create a portrait of loss, and of the differences and relationships between their perspectives.

Those differences are almost audible in the distinctive voices of each focal character (Nina, Jessica, Ruthy, and Dolores). And it’s more than just voice; each character has such a unique way of telling. It feels like four novels, in a way, though it’s not a long book.

 It’s so interesting—people often say that it’s a slim novel, since it’s only a little more than two-hundred pages. I think the next assumption is that it’s a “small” novel, or that it didn’t take as much time. But it took ten years. And you’re right: the struggle was figuring out each voice, each personality. What was their register? What were the images that would come naturally out of their mouths? For example, if you have a thirteen-year-old kid, they might not be noticing the delicacy of a flower petal. You have to really get into the mind of the character. What do they always say? And—this one is really important to me—what do they never say?

That silence is so incredibly important to think about. Silence shapes what is said. Silence is vital to depicting women characters within histories of colonialism and racism. There are lots of silences. You have to think carefully about how they talk—about what they fear. Sometimes it’s not in a very direct way. Most people don’t talk about what they fear, or what they truly love, without subtext.

One of the subtextual tensions that struck me existed between the daughters and their mother, Dolores. An intergenerational tension. It’s a difficult, sensitive question, especially for immigrants and children of immigrants: which generation has it worse? In the book this question breeds animosity, both from the parents down and the children up. Did this tension exist in your original conception of these characters, or was it something that emerged as they were written? 

I always knew that there would be underlying tensions between Ruthy and her mother. It had a lot to do with the way Dolores raised her children—with an “iron fist,” making sure they did exactly what she wanted them to do—and then we have this thirteen year-old girl who says, Like, no. I wanted to explore why it was so important for Dolores to raise her children this way. I think it’s directly related to histories of migration. Sometimes I hear people say that parents who are immigrants feel as if they need to make their children more afraid of them, the parent, than they are of the outside world. That it’s in order to keep them safe. And that’s connected to class.

You’re saying that intergenerational family tension is in some ways a class tension.

Right. Sometimes, when people discuss this book, they talk about the sisters as if they’re poor. But I think they’re actually working class, lower-middle class; it’s Dolores who I think of as somebody who grew up poor. I think that distinction is important. For those who have lived it, they know there’s a big difference between not being able to afford brand-name sneakers and not being able to afford food. At the end of the day, I think that is one of those tensions that arises between the sisters and their mother. Looking at her daughters, the mother thinks, Jesus Christ, you’ve never missed a meal in your whole life. That, for me, is where they face off.

As this tension is building, there is also the exaggerated tension depicted in the reality TV show, Catfight, which plays many roles in the novel, both thematic and structural. Catfight is about a different kind of tension, a different kind of representation. At what point did reality TV make its way into the novel?

 The novel was originally a short story, and even when it was a short story, there was a reality TV show. I had been thinking a lot about this narrative of the missing girl, and then one day I was watching TV, I think it was Jersey Shore, and I felt like I recognized some of the people in it (I’m from Staten Island). I started asking myself what would happen if a family was watching TV, and they saw somebody they had lost, who had disappeared. What would they do?

Later, when the story became a novel, I was really developing two questions with Catfight. The first one was the premise of the novel. Is this really Ruthy, this woman on TV? The second question was whether these are real representations of women. The reality show was a vehicle to explore identity and representation. When do black and brown women—and specifically Puerto Rican women—see themselves on TV? Are these true representations? Which representations are missing?

In a way, with Ruthy’s disappearance at its core, this is a mystery novel. But when I was reading it I didn’t necessarily think of it that way.

 I think mystery is a great genre for really exploring equity, right? The people who are often the victims of crime are often marginalized folks. I took a Women in Mystery course my first year at my PhD Program. We read Patricia Highsmith—all those folks—as well as Lucha Corpi, who’s great. She’s a Mexican mystery writer. One of the things she talks about is even though the genre often feels very white and male, it’s a great genre for writers of color to explore equity—I was inspired by that. But at the same time I knew that I wasn’t writing a strict mystery. There are certain beats you have to meet, certain conventions, specific questions you have to ask yourself, like, What type of sleuth is this? Is this an amateur sleuth? And I knew that this novel was not going to fit into that.

But I did borrow a lot from the genre. One vital lesson I learned was to ask which questions are being planted in each chapter. When am I answering those questions? And when am I recreating new ones? When does the answer to one question create a new question? In a way, this is what makes the reader keep on reading. And I didn’t learn that at my MFA—I learned that from reading mysteries, from genre.

Speaking of your MFA… since this is Nashville Review and you were, once upon a time, a Nashvillian, I’m wondering how you view your time here, from your current vantage.

 Oh, man. In the beginning, the fully-funded MFA was wild to me. You know, before I got in, I was working really bad jobs in New York. People treating me like shit, thinking they could talk to me however they wanted. I was feeling really stuck. And I remember when I got into Vanderbilt, they paid for the flight for my visit. They paid for a hotel, a nice dinner. They asked, Will you please come here? And I was like, I have never been treated like this in my life. I felt incredibly lucky.

One thing I remember distinctly about the MFA was that I had time to write. I had the permission to think of myself as a writer. I remember my mentor, Lorraine López, asked me: What’s your writing schedule? And at first I just made something up. But that question made me understand that a writing schedule was something I needed to create. She helped me build discipline. She showed me that you have to take craft seriously. You need to come and show up to the page.

There’s one other thing I think about often. When I was living in Nashville I taught on death row at the prison, and I taught workshops for cancer patients at the Curb Center. The program had given me funding for the workshops. They were really powerful. I say this because it reminded me that outside of the professionalization of writing, outside of the MFA world and the publishing industry, writing and storytelling are fundamental parts of being human. Right? We tell stories, and we need stories, especially when we’re sick, especially when people take our rights away. Now more than ever, we need to tell stories. They’re essential.


Claire Jiménez is a Puerto Rican writer who grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York. She is the author of the short story collection Staten Island Stories (Johns Hopkins Press, 2019) and What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez (Grand Central, 2023), Winner of the 2024 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She received her M.F.A. from Vanderbilt University and her PhD in English with specializations in Ethnic Studies and Digital Humanities from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In 2019, she co-founded the Puerto Rican Literature Project, a digital archive documenting the lives and work of hundreds of Puerto Rican writers from over the last century. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Nathan Blum is a writer from the Hudson Valley. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, and elsewhere, and was shortlisted for the Iowa Review Award. He has received selection and support from Bowdoin College, Vanderbilt University, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Craigardan Artist Residency. He is currently an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches creative writing and serves as an editor-in-chief at Nashville Review.