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Utah-reared writer tells of rough childhood in 'Hippie Boy'

Published January 10, 2014 8:45 am

Books • 'Hippy Boy' author Ingrid Ricks uses her tale of a rough childhood to help youth find their own stories.
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Ingrid Ricks spent years working as a freelance marketer and journalist, thinking she would write a book, someday, about her hardscrabble teenage years growing up in Logan. In her youth, she was caught between a devout Mormon mother, her overbearing stepfather, and her free-wheeling salesman father.

Ricks' two young daughters gave her a necessary kick of inspiration. On a family vacation at Thanksgiving in 2009, the girls, Sydney, 11, and Hannah, 8, pretended to be their mother as an old woman, bending over, walking with a cane. Speaking in an elderly voice, they said: "My book. My book. I have to finish my book," a phrase they must have heard their mother say one too many times.

That family joke spurred Ricks into gear. Within two months she had written a book proposal, which she titled with a childhood nickname bestowed by her father, "Hippie Boy: A Girl's Story," for her long tangled hair and her spunk.

Finding an audience • Within six months, Ricks, a 1990 University of Utah graduate, had written a draft of a memoir. By August, she had found an agent, which is when she learned something important about the contemporary publishing world.

Writing a book is just the first hard step. Building an audience is just as tough.

She received a few rejections from publishers, who said the market for memoirs was saturated, but she kept working on her manuscript. Eventually, Ricks fired her agent and stopped seeking a national publisher.

In October 2011 she self-published "Hippie Boy," finding readers by using the sales skills she had acquired as a teenager while on the road with her golden-tongued father. "My journey was going out and doing it on my own," says Ricks, repeating the clichés that her father lived by. One that still comforts the 46-year-old writer: "By the mile, it's a trial. But by the inch, it's a cinch."

In the book, she portrays her father as a flawed character whose attention she commandeered. "In my household, I felt like it was everyone fending for themselves," Ricks says. "He was my everything. There were a lot of disappointments. I chose to not see through him. And I did everything in my power to get what I needed from him."

Her father was always chasing the next big sale, rarely coming through on time with child-support checks, but he taught her to dream big, she says now.

That drive came in handy during the two years she spent promoting her book. She published essays on Scribd, Open Salon, Salon and other websites, sought media appearances, and made guest appearances on podcasts such as Mormon Expression.

By June 2013," Hippie Boy" hit No. 20 on The New York Times' e-book nonfiction list, the highest self-published book on the list, ranked right below Cheryl Strayed's wildly popular memoir, "Wild," in its 62nd week on the list. At the end of the year, "Hippie Boy" was named one of the Best Indie Books of 2013.

Ricks' self-publishing success led to a national contract with Penguin Random House division Berkley Books, which is re-releasing "Hippie Boy" this month.

Finding freedom • "Hippie Boy" tells the story of Ricks' teenage years in Logan, where she endured the school year with her family in order to spend summers on the road selling tools with her father. "My friends couldn't understand why I wanted to spend my summers on the road in a hot pickup, sweating out there selling tools, sometimes sleeping in the back of a truck," Ricks says. "For me, it was complete freedom."

Time with her father was an escape from the rules at home, from the pain of being bossed around by Earl, her mother's LDS scripture-touting husband, as well as her mother's ongoing struggles to provide for her five children.

In a phone interview, Jerry Ricks praises his second daughter's ambition, saying she wrote what she thought was the truth, even if the portrayal of him in "Hippie Boy" is, well, complicated. "I didn't want to remember a lot of that time," he says, before adding: "I'm not the only one in the world that had hardship."

Jerry Ricks, now 74, has settled in Salt Lake City with this third wife, with whom he adopted four children from Russia in the early 2000s. He's made and lost at least one fortune, and he's still selling, now using the Internet.

He says his daughter learned street smarts from their days together on the road. "She worked side-by-side with me," Jerry Ricks says. "She never ever, even one time, complained."

Never complained, even when she had to wait on a hot Midwestern summer day while her father was arrested and held in the county jail. This was because a former salesman had bounced company checks, he claimed.

That episode, when Ingrid was 16, becomes a turning point in "Hippie Boy." In an Illinois courtroom, the teenager found herself exclaiming loudly — "No!" — when the judge considered extraditing her father to Texas. The teen's protest helped to persuade the judge to accept a bail bond and let Jerry Ricks go.

But that brush with the law also changed the teenager. "In those long seconds when the patrolman pointed his gun at us, pulled Dad out of our car and took him away from me, everything had changed," Ricks writes. "Dad had stopped being the person who was always going to save me. He had become the person who needed to be saved."

Passing it on • In some ways, the difficulties Ricks detailed in "Hippie Boy" might invite comparisons to other children-of-divorce memoirs, headlined by Tobias Wolff's masterful 1989 "This Boy's Life."

Yet Ricks doesn't draw upon an adult narrator to provide insight and commentary on her youthful self, the kind of artful exposition for which Wolff's memoir is known. Instead, perhaps what sets "Hippie Boy" apart is how its stories might especially resonate with young-adult readers.

The clarity of the teenage narrator's voice is what sets apart the story of "Hippie Boy," says Denise Silvestro, executive editor of Berkley Books, who says Ricks' relationship with her father invites comparisons to the characters played by Tatum and Ryan O'Neal in the 1973 film "Paper Moon." The national publishing house is marketing the book to a wide audience, but would be happy, of course, if the book were to find crossover young-adult readers. That's a mission that Ricks is now focusing her promotional abilities on.

After the writer released "Hippie Boy," she got a call from Marjie Bowker, a teacher at a Seattle-area alternative school, who thought the book's strong female narrator would appeal to her students. She asked if Ricks would come speak to her class.

Ricks knew her book wasn't "The Hunger Games," and she wasn't sure her story would connect to contemporary teens. Yet students, especially those in the ninth and 10th grades, responded to the book's scenes about power struggles with a despised stepparent and the shame and helplessness sparked by a family's poverty.

The students had had their own run-ins with authority. They had had their own experiences — with drugs, gangs, prostitution and running away. They knew what it was like to go to extreme measures to seek attention. "My story doesn't even really hold a candle to theirs," Ricks says.

Bowker and Ricks expanded the unit into a publishing workshop, which led to the release of collections of the students' stories, "We Are Absolutely Not Okay" and "You've Got It All Wrong," and eventually to a staged performance of those stories at the Seattle Public Theater. Now they've self-published their curriculum and are seeking grants to expand the program.

As a young girl, Ricks was always looking for someone to save her from her hard life. Now as a writer, she's helping youths use the power of storytelling to save themselves.


facebook.com/ellen.weist —

The power of story

Ingrid Ricks will read from "Hippie Boy: A Girl's Story."

When • Wednesday, Jan. 15, 7 p.m.

Where • Weller Book Works, 607 Trolley Square, Salt Lake City