Portrait of an Unfinished Woman-an interview

By Maralise Petersen

covershot of hard won wisdom by ruth swanerMaddox Steak House feels like the entrance to another era; it’s a dark, woodsy cabin-like structure filled with friendly faces, fake plants, and the smell of meat. I order, of course, the fantastic Shrimp Steak. Have you ever heard of  Shrimp Steak?  Probably not. You see Maddox is a one-of-a-kind place and so is the lady I’m here to interview. Ruth Swaner decisively orders her food and begins talking about her latest obsession. She has a book to be published by Deseret Book next spring called Hard Won Wisdom: Advice for a Richer Life from the Greatest Generation.
She quickly names a litany of celebrity Mormons that her and co-author Susan Madsen interviewed for the project; from Colleen Maxwell to Barbara Smith, Richard Howe to Ramona Sullivan. But she firmly believes that you don’t have to be famous to have wisdom. “Some of my closest and dearest older friends are in this book and they have lots of wisdom” she declares. She takes charge of our interview, connecting topics, getting louder as she gets excited, answering unasked questions, and making up for my inexperience with her suppressed hilarity and unashamed candor.
I find out that Ruth started her writing career interviewing people for human interest stories. She talks about her experiences writing freelance stories for the Deseret News. Herald Journal, The Ensign, and other magazines. She segues to how she found her “voice” after learning about her fourth son’s autism and how that led to journal writing. Her friends read portions of the journal and encouraged her to edit and submit them for publication. She talks about her leadership of the League of Utah Writers and then she surprises me.
“Do you want to know something else?” she says. “I’m a power seller on Ebay.” She claims to be too good for garage sales and has moved on to the estate market. In fact, the only time I don’t relish in her every word is when she is answering one of my fabricated questions. I try to dig and find out if she (like me) wonders who her ambition serves. She answers that, of course, it serves the Lord. She said, “I stand on the thirteenth Article of Faith. I try to write stories ‘of good report’ about overcoming obstacles and finding the faith to go on.” She points out, “I want the reader to have a ‘take away’ value from the story, one that will build and uplift them. Above all, I want to touch them deeply.” I ask how her husband (mentioned in her article published in the upcoming Fall issue of Segullah entitled “Tender Hands”) has reacted to her writing life, and she responds that “He lets me do what I want. We contrast each other. I married him for his righteousness and stability and he says he married me for my zest for living and my pretty blue eyes.”
There is not enough room to detail the awards that she has won for her prose, poetry and artwork (24 + awards for her writing alone). She graduated from Utah State in Art Education with a minor in Woodcut Print Making. She finds it unbelievable that I am interested in her artwork. She explains the process of printing a woodcut, the selection of a large soft pine board, drawing the subject on the board, figuring out what areas will be recessed, the hours of scoring, carving, and detailing.  And finally, the printing onto fragile rice paper that her husband purchased in Thailand. “I love carving the wood. It connects me to the earth I love so much, the smell, the mountains, and the feel of the grain.”
Ruth’s freinds call her “depthy.” It’s not an official word but it’s one that precisely describes the way Ruth has lead her life. She published a book in 1991 entitled Portraits of an Unfinished Woman. I find this title ironic only because Ruth comes as close to a finished a woman as I have had the pleasure to meet.

About Maralise Petersen


10 thoughts on “Portrait of an Unfinished Woman-an interview”

  1. I love the idea of gathering and preserving wisdom from hero generation. I'm looking forward to the book! Do you have a thought from that text to tide me over in the meantime?

  2. Ruth Swaner. Ruth Swaner. Ruth Swaner. That name rings a bell somewhere back in the deep, cavernous recesses of my brain. I think I may have taught her son at BYU. Ruth, if you're reading this, did you have a son at BYU during the late 80's/early 90's? A tall, handsome, red-headed chap?

    Great interview, Mara. Ruth sounds like someone I'd have lunch with at Maddox's Steak House any old time. Depthy, with a zest for living–sounds like my kind of gal!

  3. Angie and Sharlee–sorry ladies, Ruth is in Spain right now. Yes, I am fighting feelings of intense jealousy. I'll have her check in with you once she returns.

    Sharlee–Her youngest son (the one with Autism) is 27 so I'm assuming that she might have had another son at BYU during that time…small world eh?

  4. Really well-written interview Mara. You only give away that you're new by telling us.

    Ruth: I'd love to correspond about how to get started doing some free-lance stuff. It keeps coming to the forefront of my mind as I ponder how I'd like to channel my interest and love of writing. Anxiously awaiting your return from Spain.

  5. Angie,…There are so many wonderful thoughts and stories from Hard One Wisom…that I wouldn't know where to begin. It is a truly heartwarming book…We interviewed common old folks plus well-knowns such as the Prophet's sister Ramona, Sister Collen Maxwell, and more….Some of my old friends even past away after we interviewed them…They will be greatly missed…One of my favorites, however, is very much alive – 83-year-old Beth Titensor..her life is amazing just like her…I love her with all my heart. Please pass the word and get this book next spring. Best Wishes, RUTH

  6. HI Heather, I would love to share my thoughts and love for writing with you. Please get my e-mail from
    Maralise. Thanks for your comments…..RUTH SWANER

  7. Hey Angie….Ooooops…I can't believe I gave you the wrong title of the book…It is "Hard 'won' Wisdom (not 'one' wisdom)-advice for a Richer Life From the Greatest Generation. There you have it….RUTH


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