This week’s author inspired me with his candor and excitement. Robert James Russell has a lot to be excited about! His book, Sea of Trees, published through Winter Goose Publishing, is available, as of yesterday on Amazon.com. I am so pleased our interview goes live today, as I love to see young authors thrive in this, sometimes challenging world of book publishing.
His bio on the publisher’s website, states Robert “is a fan of well-placed stream of consciousness and stories that feature everyday characters and dialogue”. It states that he leans towards writing stories on relationships in their numerous forms. Robert is also the founder of Midwestern Gothic, a site ‘dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, by writers who live or have lived here.” Founded in 2010, this “quarterly print literary journal out of Ann Arbor, Michigan” …” aims to collect the very best in Midwestern fiction writing in a way that has never been done before, cataloging the oeuvre of an often-overlooked region of the United States ripe with its own mythologies and tall tales.” (source: About page on Midwestern Gothic )
If you could be any character in fiction, whom would you be?
Too hard to answer! I guess…Jay Gatsby? All that wealth would be pretty grand. If I had to pick who my favorite character is (and not who I would be, because those are very different questions), I’d say it’s a tie: Henry Chinaski, and Patrick Bateman.
When and why did you begin writing?
I actually wanted to be an illustrator when I was younger, drew all the time. Writing stories sort of developed from that—or, in tandem to it, really—and I fell in love with it. I was hooked—I was around ten years old and could not stop writing fantasy stories (a genre I am very foreign to now). And now…it’s like breathing. I can’t not write. It’s just part of who I am.
What inspired you to write your first book?
Sea of Trees isn’t actually my first book. I wrote a book in college when I was really starting to explore my writing voice (which is, and forever shall be, collecting virtual dust), and I’ve written a few other full length “things” since, but I see them, in general, as practice. Getting a good cadence, honing my skills and my voice. So, I guess I wrote my very first book because it was the natural progression of things, of being a writer. I had an idea and I needed to see it written down. But that’s also why I still write books now, why I wrote Sea of Trees, and why I’ll continue to write in the future: Once that little seed of an idea starts germinating in your brain, what other choice do you have? You have to write it. I think inspiration for each project comes from different places, but again, once it’s been implanted, there’s no getting rid of it.
Is anything in Sea of Trees based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
I mean, everything is based to some extent on personal experiences, right? Personal feelings, arguments, things you’ve seen that stand in for places you may not have seen. I’ve never been to the forest at the heart of Sea of Trees, nor have I (fortunately) known anyone who has committed suicide, but I guess this book is a means for me to attempt to understand the understandable—something we all feel the need to do. So to answer your question, it is purely imagination, with feelings and thoughts taken from my own life, reinterpreted to fit this story. The setting for Sea of Trees, however, came about pretty simply: I came across an article about Aokigahara—this mega-forest near Mt. Fuji that is the second most popular spot in the world for people to commit suicide—and just found it absolutely fascinating—and unnerving. Quite simply: It was something I had to write about.
And as I developed the story, I decided to have the main character, Bill, be an outsider so he, like the reader (and like me), can be in the dark about this culture, this place, struggling to understand something so far removed from his own logic.
The story is about, in a larger sense, lost souls—Bill and Junko represent this both physically, as they are lost in the woods, as well as figuratively in a variety of ways (Junko, for instance, seems to be lost in life after the death of her sister, Bill seems lost about the true nature of their relationship, thinking he knows her one minute, then not at all another). I think the themes here are bigger than Aokigahara, and bigger than Japan, bigger than suicide, even, using these unfortunate events as catalysts to talk about what it means to be lost in the world, especially today.
What books have most influenced your life?
Too many to name, but here’s a few (in no particular order): As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis), Outer Dark (Cormac McCarthy), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), McTeague (Frank Norris), and Post Office (Charles Bukowski).
Can you tell us a little about your book “Sea of Trees”?
Sea of Trees is about an American, Bill, and his Japanese girlfriend Junko as they wander through Aokigahara as they try to find evidence of Junko’s sister who disappeared there a year before. It gets moody, but it’s mostly about them, their relationships, and some stuff, as they say, does go down at the end. The book alternates between the main story, Bill and Junko, 1st person from Bill’s POV, as they navigate the forest in question, and then little 3rd-person vignettes/epilogues after each chapter that detail how someone came to the forest to commit suicide—each focusing on a random person, an unique story that brought them there.
What are your current projects?
Midwestern Gothic is keeping me busy—plus we have some very exciting (and big) announcements coming up that will up the ante of what we’re doing with that. I am also working on a new novel that I’m hoping to have finished later this year.
Do you see writing as a career?
For a very lucky few, yes. I think it’s getting harder and harder to do that, so many writers these days need to diversify their talents (teaching college-level English classes, for instance). I don’t have any grand hopes that I will be able to retire and be a writer full-time, not because I don’t think I’m very good, but just because the chances of that in today’s publishing clime is just so…slight. Also, if in the event that ever DOES happen, at least this way I’ll be surprised (rather than disappointed expecting it to happen, then finding out it won’t).
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Everything! I’m sure every author feels that way, right? But seriously, there are tiny little things here and there I see when I re-read it, little bits of dialog I’d tweak every-so-slightly (to infinity, I’m sure), but I’m actually quite happy with how It turned out in general, even now. But as a whole? No, I wouldn’t change it.
How would you describe your writing space? Do you have a ritual?
My writing habits vary. I don’t have a ritual, per se. When the mood hits, I have to write. Doesn’t matter where I am (it’s one of the reason I almost always have a small notebook on me, or, at least, I can take notes on my phone), or what time of day. The one “sort of ritual” I guess I have is that I like to be in public places when I write (libraries, coffee shops)—something about being surrounded by people is inspiring to me. If I’m stuck on something, I just have to look around and people watch for about five minutes before I’m inspired again. I also tend to do my best writing late at night.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Hands-down: Faulkner. He was a pioneer, the way he dissected language, combated the norms of what could be expected from an American novel at that time, and just crafted the most gut-wrenchingly emotional and just overall fantastic tales ever. Period. I think it’s a true testament that his works, even now, stand up and are easily accessible. I’m the first to admit that when you read something from a while ago—Dickens, for example—it feels old and it can be hard to get in to. Faulkner’s works, though, at least to me, read like they could have been written in the last decade. They hold up remarkably well.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
First, I would say keeping it interesting. I purposely kept Sea of Trees short—a novella—since there are only two characters, I didn’t want it to get repetitive and stale. I wanted to tell the story and make sure there was an emotional wallop involved with it…again, without it getting repetitive. I also think, beyond keeping it short (and powerful), making sure I wasn’t too preachy about the topic of suicide was something I was constantly checking myself on. This book is not meant to give some sort of Rosetta stone-answer to why people commit suicide, but instead, study it, study what it means to not understand something that you are—voluntarily or otherwise—a part of…an outsider looking in. So that was a challenge as well.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Keep at it. Writing is not easy, no matter what anyone says. A story may come out of you easy, but then there’s always the submission process, which takes a toll on even the most seasoned veterans. But if you love writing, if you can’t imagine not doing it, then none of that matters. Also, I tend to hear nowadays more “haters” saying how writing has changed, blahblahblah. It has, sure, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get enjoyment out of it—so again, keep at it. Keep the haters at bay. Tell the stories you have to tell. Don’t let anyone stop you from doing that.
If you had to give yourself a “theme song” what would it be and why?
Anything by the fantastically talented Anthony Gonzalez (aka the musical act M83) would suit me fine.
What would be your 1st first question to the people of Antarctica?
Yes! Interesting tidbit: My Great (x6) Uncle was actually an Antarctic explorer, and there is a piece of land named after him—Ellsworth Land. The very first thing I’d ask would be: “Who wants to help me build the sweetest snow fort in the world?”
Are you a person who makes their bed in the morning, or do you not see much point?
Depends, really. I can see a point and while others would like this, and I am a pretty neat (read: not clean) person, but this is one of those things that I just don’t care about. It does make the room look nicer, sure, but more times than not…I let it slip by.
How can we purchase your book?
You can purchase Sea of Trees here