On Memory and Mind-Swipes: An Interview with Robert James Russell

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The stories in Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, Robert James Russell’s new chapbook out this month from WhiskeyPaper Press, follow a narrator perpetually on the verge. Over the course of 12 linked vignettes we see him come of age and stumble, get up and brush it off, always moving toward a greater understanding of what it means to be a son, a friend, a lover, a man. Russell is a quintessentially midwestern writer, and those who attended the recent Voices of the Middle West literary festival in Ann Arbor may remember him as a critical force in that conference—he helped bring in Stuart Dybek as the keynote speaker and organized panels featuring writers such Alissa Nutting and Laura Kasischke.

In addition to Don’t Ask, Russell is the author of Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012), and the forthcoming novel, Mesilla (Dock Street Press, Fall 2015). His work has been featured in numerous literary journals and magazines and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. He is additionally a founding editor of Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP as well as a 2014-2015 UMS Artist in Residence at the University of Michigan.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Don’t Ask and picking Russell’s brain on topics ranging from his writing process, to Japanese forests, to the star power of Patrick Duffy.


Let’s warm up with something basic—what does your writing process look like? Do you follow a routine?

It’s pretty erratic, actually. I wish I had something more consistent—listening to writers talk about how they can wake up early and write for hours or always carve out X amount of time at Y time of day…I’m always jealous of that. I’ve tried, though. It just doesn’t work for me. So basically, I sneak it in whenever/wherever I can. If inspiration strikes for a new story, for instance, I force myself to sit down and do it. If I’m working on something longer—a novel—then I force myself to sit down for a while … just whenever I can. I do my best writing later on in the day, and almost always out in public places (cafes, coffee shops). It’s very hard for me to concentrate at home.

Who gets to see your drafts?

Early drafts? No one. I’m pretty protective of those. But when I feel good about where I’m at with something—even roughly—I have a core group of people, my Trusted Eyeballs who I can count on telling me like it is, that I’ll send to. The thing is, I’m not overly protective—I like to talk out ideas with friends, other writers—but early on, very early on…that’s for me only.

How did Sea of Trees come about?

Sea of TreesI read an article about Aokigahara forest in Japan and was absolutely enthralled with the place … with its mythology. First, here’s a place with such a dark and deep history tied to it—an actual place that exists in the real world—that I felt compelled to write about it. As writers, we spend so much time creating atmosphere, creating new places, and I loved the idea of working on a novel set in this place where this fascinating, otherworldly ambience already exists. Second, I love the woods—I’m always writing about forests…they’re always popping up in my work—so I started thinking about what I could do—an outsider writing about a place like this—and the story eventually became about an outsider, Bill. I suppose it’s meta in that way, where Bill’s journey mirrors my own, learning about the forest and the culture of suicide in Japan. The final product is, I think, a place that exists, but is still very much a fictional version of it—one you can recognize as based on a very real, very startling place.

How much research goes into your work?

Typically quite a bit, it just varies whether it happens before or during—or both. For Sea of Trees, I spent a solid few months researching Aokigahara forest and Japan before I even started writing, and when I felt ready, it just poured out of me. I have a Western novel Mesilla coming out later this year from Dock Street Press, and likewise, there was a lot of research that went into that before I started working. For other projects, though, a lot of this happens as I go along. I’m working on a new book about a fictional island in Lake Superior and I’m constantly finding articles and maps and interviews and old books to look through as I write. I’m very inspired by research and discovery.

What did you grow up reading, and what books are top-of-list for you to read in the near future

Literature-wise, when I was a kid I read a lot of “youth” books like Hatchet—although, I think everyone had to for school?—and I read Michael Crichton books in middle school (although they went mostly over my head). I also read a lot of cartooning/comic books—I wanted to be an illustrator and, for a time, a Disney animator. But I also read a lot of books on Arctic exploration. My great-great-great-great-great-great uncle was a famous arctic explorer, and he wrote a bunch of books, so I’d get those from the library (special ordered from Chicago or Detroit) and read and re-read those. It’s still one of my favorite things to dream/think about, that zenith of arctic exploration.

Regarding what’s on my “to read” list … Well, I’m a bit behind, but there are some things I’m desperate to get to as soon as humanly possible. In no particular order:

H is for Hawk / Helen Macdonald

Butcher’s Crossing / John Edward Williams

Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel

The Control of Nature / John McPhee

The Southern Reach Trilogy / Jeff VanderMeer

Night Film / Marisha Pessl

Both Sea of Trees and Don’t Ask deal exclusively in first-person narrators. How do you wield point-of-view to gain immediacy to (or distance from) your characters?

Well, it’s interesting, because historically—historically in my own timeline, I mean—I really focused on writing third-person narrators. And then, for Sea of Trees, I explored doing third-person initially, but I really wanted to explore the idea of the narrator being unsettled in a strange place in a country that isn’t his own and surrounded by customs and myths he just has no experience with—and third person just didn’t do that for me in the way first-person did. Similarly, for Don’t Ask, I really liked the idea of writing these stories from the perspective of a single narrator—although, they can absolutely be read as being separate from themselves if you want—getting in this person’s head as they narrate, more or less, experiences from childhood to adulthood. I never even considered third-person here, though, because I wanted you to see the world from this limited perspective as this narrator looks back on things, his mistakes (which there are plenty of), the small moments, and again, first-person just made sense.

But point-of-view is always tricky … until it isn’t—everything I write I struggle with, for some amount of time, trying to decide which perspective works better. And then, at some point, it just clicks and it makes sense, usually as the story progresses in my head, as the ideas of what I’m trying to do become clearer and clearer. Point-of-view is a very powerful thing, obviously, and one I pay a lot of attention to, so it demands, when I’m prepping a piece, that I spend a lot of time thinking about it, writing in multiple perspectives just to see what it’s like, thinking—all the time—about what a reader will get from it and how. Sure, you can gain intimate knowledge of characters from third-person, but then you often lose some of the idiosyncrasies that make the characters so wonderful in first-person. But sometimes those idiosyncrasies can get in the way of the story, too … so there’s always a lot to consider. I think it’s one of the more important decisions a writer makes.

What would you say is the organizing principle holding together the stories in Don’t Ask?

Don't AskThe collection is really about the small moments of life that ultimately do define who we are—moments we tend to overlook or forget: the dissolution of relationships piece by piece, how they start falling apart; lying to someone in order to impress them even when it goes nowhere; family drama that is only just comprehensible, perhaps, as you lived through it, but now, older, it seems far greater, far more meaningful than it did at the time; our interactions with people who may not be in our lives any longer and were only in them briefly, but how those, all of those moments, help build us up to who we are now. I’m fascinated with relationships, with how we interact with people, and I’m doubly fascinated by how these intersect with memory and nostalgia and how we humans tend to either completely mind-wipe things from our heads, or remember only selected parts of things rather than the whole, and this collection is my exploration of this—how we’re molded by the small moments in our lives and taking stock of them.

How many revisions do you generally take a story through before you consider it finished? (And how do you know when it’s finished?)

It really depends. I’m weird in that I don’t outline a ton—fun fact: I’ve never taken a creative writing class in my life, and I taught myself everything, so I always think I’m doing it wrong or something, my approach to writing. Anyway, when I do outline (and I rarely do for short stories), it’s usually putting down characters or big plot points, things like that. But no matter what I write, I have to stew on it for a while—days, weeks … months, in some cases—and then, after it’s brewed in my subconscious into something drinkable, I just access it and start going. I know it sounds weird, it’s just how I do it, how I always have. So there have been times where a story comes out nearly complete—although, again, I’ve been writing it in the back of my head for days or weeks—and other times, especially with longer stuff, it comes out and I have to go over it again and again until I’m happy with it.

How do I know it’s finished? For me, it’s a pretty easy test: I read aloud. If I find something to edit, or things to fix/cut/add, then I go back and work on it. But if I can read it aloud and feel good about it, feel a tingle in my body or smile or feel sad or whatever, and not find a thing I want to edit or fix up, then I call it done and move on.

I’m always curious to know about a writer’s murdered darlings. What sort of characters, passages, or mini-narratives did you have to cut to make certain stories—or the collection as a whole—work?

There are a couple other stories floating around out there that I really thought about adding, but that ultimately slowed it down too much. Since these are so short—and the collection is short, too—I was really mindful of it being a consistent read, one that made sense, thinking about the narrator’s life as it progresses start to finish, and not having anything in there that might be repeat or that might ruin the flow.

There is a story that I love—that I need to do something with—about baseball. Not even about playing baseball, but going down to the fields and watching friends play baseball, the narrator wishing he could play … everyone cheering them on and him feeling like such an outcast, this “sport” bringing the whole community together … and he’s not a part of it. I have a soft spot for baseball and nostalgia, so … yeah. I need to dig this one out.

I have to ask: is Big Tom from “The Rough and Tumble Sort” based on anyone special?

He is. I have an Uncle Tom—a distant uncle—who scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. We used to go down to Missouri to visit extended family every year, and, not that I’m that much of a city boy, but this place was otherworldly to me. Sure, they played in the woods like I did back home, but everything else seemed so … removed. And I don’t think it even was that removed, it was just, for me, as close to another country as I could get. And this man, he drove trucks, and scared me something fierce. I remember one time he told me he was going to whack me if I didn’t finish my dinner—which was unheard of in my house at home. You didn’t finish? Fine, no big deal. But down there? You finish every bite. No questions asked. So I ran to my Mom and she said it was fine, he wouldn’t touch me, but he eyeballed me the rest of the night. That always stuck with me.

When I got older, though, he stopped scaring me. Instead of this giant man-beast threatening to trounce me, here was this hardworking guy who wasn’t home a lot so he could make money for his family, a family he cared for so much. I have a lot of respect for him.

The end of Don’t Ask offers a soundtrack, a song pairing for each story. What’s the relationship between these songs and the work?

Music in general is important to my writing process—I can’t write if I’m not listening to something. And I have specific things I listen to depending in the mood of the project, of course. My publisher, WhiskeyPaper Press, asked me to put this together—which I was very excited about—and it was pretty easy since these were songs I was listening to while I worked on these stories anyway. Specifically, though, each of these songs, in some way, represents something about each story: loss or love or faded memories you either hold onto or that seem to replay in your head. I have a pretty extensive music library and, really, can’t imagine a more accurate playlist for this collection.

Now this is important. The world as we know it is ending and you’re preparing your underground bunker. What are the first five books you throw in the hole?

The Coast of Chicago / Stuart Dybek

As I Lay Dying / William Faulkner

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford / Ron Hansen

The Last Night of the Earth Poems / Charles Bukowski

How to Stay Alive in the Woods / Bradford Angier

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Mesilla?

It’s a Western set in 1863 entirely in the New Mexico Territory (and it’s third-person, too!). It follows a troubled man, Everett Root—a Confederate deserter—as he navigates the inhospitable landscape on his way to, what he hopes, is the start of a new life. Of course, seeing that this is a Western, it doesn’t go smoothly—he’s being chased by his one-time friend bent on revenge, and he teams up with a whip-smart girl he saves from certain death, and this whole time, they’re exploring a region of the country that is very volatile. That’s one of the explorations of the book: man’s desire to tame nature and to tame each other, how we are, really, just ants existing in this huge world that really doesn’t care about us one way or the other. I’m fascinated with—always have been—human exploration and habitation in places that…well, aren’t very habitable, all so we can follow our whims (for instance, silver and gold mining driving people to extremes out in the New Mexico wilderness). But there are plenty of gun-fights, breathtaking vistas, and lots of twists and turns.

All right, final question—this one’s for all the marbles. One of the journals you founded, CHEAP POP, specializes in micro-fictions of 500 words or less. Give us your best 100-word story involving an aging panda and a curmudgeonly zookeeper named Zeke.

Zeke put his palm on the glass and noticed the spots on the back of his hand, the flesh paper-thin and easily bruised. Beyond the glass, in the massive enclosure, the panda named Dragon sat chewing. At his feet were split-open remains of stalks, innards scraped clean. Zeke studied Dragon’s giant teeth, his streaked gray, raccoon-masked eyes that looked back at the man as he ate. Zeke narrowed his eyes, cleared his throat. He made sure Dragon was looking at him when he made a fist with his free hand—when he threatened him silently for what he had done.

I was kidding about that being the final question. Are you up for a speed round of Literary Would-You-Rather?


Okay, here goes. Would you rather adopt 200 homeless cats or memorize the full text of Atlas Shrugged?

200 cats. I tried to read Ayn Rand a few times and it didn’t take. Kitties, though, always take.

Would you rather write a 2,000-page history of cheesemaking or eat 200 pounds of barrel aged feta in one sitting?

At first pass I wanted to say the feta … because I love feta. But I’ve learned my lesson overeating cheese in the past, so I’ll say the cheesemaking tome. Could be great?

Would you rather kiss Bram Stoker or William Makepeace Thackeray?

Thackeray looks so stern! I’m Team Stoker all the way.

Would you rather steal a First Folio or a Gutenberg Bible?

Not for any religious reasons whatsoever, but I’d pilfer a Gutenberg Bible—historical significance!

Would you rather write a very special episode of Step-by-Step or Boy Meets World?

Step-by-Step without blinking an eye. I mean, Patrick Duffy. Nuff said.

Would you rather review my forthcoming poetry collection, Mucus Membrane, or my forthcoming mystery novel, There Are A Lot of Greg Whites in the Telephone Directory (and One of Them Committed a Murder)?

Those are fantastic titles, but I’m partial to mysteries (and telephone directories) so I’ll go the latter.

Robert, thank you—we anxiously await Mesilla!


To keep up with Robert James Russell and his upcoming projects, visit his website at robertjamesrussell.com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robhollywood.

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