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L.T. Suzuki

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Blogs by L.T. Suzuki

Robert James Russell Interview
7/14/2012 10:41:19 PM
Author Robert James Russell discusses his recent release and the writing life!

LTS: For today’s author feature, I’d like to introduce you to Robert James Russell. Not only is Robert the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, he is the author of the recently release novella entitled Sea of Trees! I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers, Robert. What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?

RJR: Well, I love to travel, love to read, love to be outdoors (hiking, especially), and, perhaps most of all, love to cook (and eat).

LTS: I know you have works of fiction and poetry that are published, but has writing always been a part of your life from an early age? Did you always know you were destined to be a published author?
RJR: I spent a great deal of my childhood wanting to be an illustrator—I even made my own comics and sold them at lunch to my friends. For a while I had dreams of working for Disney, and even got to tour their animation studio, which was insanely cool. In late elementary school/early middle school, though, that shifted to writing—in part thanks to this publishing program my school had (I wrote two books), and a sudden love of writing fantasy stories, both of which sort of changed my outlook on storytelling. Basically, I went from visual to written storytelling and fell madly in love with the latter. Of course I’ve had other interests in my life between then and now, as we’re all prone to do, but I always came back to writing, learning to develop my voice over the years.
LTS: I’ve had a chance to sneak a read of an excerpt of your debut novella, Sea of Trees and I can understand why it has received such great praise for your writing. What was the inspiration behind this story and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Bill and what brings him to the haunted Aokighara Forest in Japan?

RJR: Thanks for the kind words! Before I wrote Sea of Trees I stumbled upon an article about Aokighara and was just…smitten (as smitten as you can be with such a place, anyway). It really is a beautiful forest, very spooky in real life, and the stuff that has and continues to happen there…well, you don’t really, in my opinion, need to add anything to it—it’s a spooky, haunting setting all on its own. So I did some research and thought it would be great to present the forest as a character by way of our two protaganonists, Bill and Junko, as they explore this landscape. My stories tend to be literary—in the sense they are very character heavy—and when I first started writing this I wanted to make sure the forest was represented along with Bill, Junko, and the various characters presented in the vignettes. It was important to me that it wasn’t just another place, but a powerful place that, even if you’ve never been to, you could still absolutely imagine when you close your eyes.
Along those same lines, Bill is us—the reader. The story is about much more than suicide, but also about being isolated from the world, from people you know, and in this regard it was important for me to have someone in the story that represented the readers’ mindsets of not understanding the customs of Japan, of being an outsider. Bill is there because his girlfriend, Junko—who is Japanese—wants to find some token of her sister who disappeared there a year earlier. He’s there because he’s trying to be supportive of Junko even though he’s skeptical that they’ll find anything.

LTS: Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the readers when they crack open Sea of Trees?

RJR: I think it’s a haunting, seductive (to borrow from a recent review) tale about life, about how we deal with issues in our lives. I’m not trying to make excuses for suicide, nor am I trying to glorifying it; all I’m trying to do is present it as something that does happen—all over the world. Really, this is a story of trying to belong, of our eternal struggle to fit in and understand each other, and what happens when there’s a disconnect from one another.

LTS: The road to publication is difficult at the best of times. Was it difficult for you to land an agent? Do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?

RJR: I actually don’t have an agent! (And for any agents out there reading this, drop me a line, ha!) I was lucky—some publishers don’t require an agent, and having experience in the publishing world (with my literary journal Midwestern Gothic), I know what to look for, what red flags are out there, etc., so that was very helpful. I do think, though, that there are an increasing number of legitimate publishers out there who do not require a writer to have representation, but you have to be careful, make sure you’re getting the best deal for yourself, too. But I think looking for representation and submitting to publishers is very similar—you send sample chapters, sometimes the whole manuscript, and a lot of it is a waiting game. My advice in either case is: be patient and do your homework. Publishers and agents get so many submissions that it’s very easy to dismiss a writer who doesn’t follow procedures and guidelines. Also, they’re busy, so you can’t expect to hear back right away.

LTS: Can you share that moment when your agent told you he/she sold your story to Winter Goose Publishing?

RJR: My heart was aflutter—I could barely believe it. I had a lot of faith in Sea of Trees and Winter Goose saw that, and believed in my writing. I had worked so hard and it was nice to find someone who appreciated what I was doing—I truly won’t ever forget when they contacted me with the good news.

LTS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?

RJR: Beyond what I said previously, I would say be diligent and don’t lose faith in yourself and your writing. Writing—and publishing—is subjective, so you have to not be discouraged and keep at it. We will all, every single one of us, even the most established, strike out, but it doesn’t mean you’re not good. It just means you need to keep going until you find someone who sees something special in you, is willing to get behind you 100%, whether that takes a few months or a few years.

LTS: Still on the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.

RJR: More organic, for sure. I tend to have rough, very simple outlines, but even those are organic and come to me after I’m already workong on a story. Otherwise, it’s all in my head, what I plan to do, and I develop it as I go along. I will say this, though: While I don’t need an outline to write, I absolutely need to know the opening line (which, for me, rarely changes from first to final draft), and the how it ends. If those are in place, everything else will fit in as I move along.

LTS: Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?

RJR: Nothing that needs to happen before I write, no, but I do my best writing in coffee shops and libraries (if I’m allowed to be cliched), and I absolutely listen to music when I write. For me, being around people is inspiring—if I’m stuck, I take my headphones off and just listen to the people around me for a bit. I find that conversations, real ones, no matter what they’re about, gets my juices flowing (probably because I tend to be more character-driven when I write).

LTS: At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?

RJR: For me it’s not a general block, like I can’t write anything, but instead tends to be a specific block, like I can’t work on a partiulcar story or project. When that happens I turn my attention to another story, another work, and get going with that for a bit. Without fail, this sort of “silent treatment” to my work-in-progress does something, relaxes my brain or whatnot, and after a few pages of I find myself thinking back to my stuck story, able to pick it back up and keep working on it.

LTS: Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?

RJR: William Faulkner. It was a long while before I really enjoyed reading, and even longer before I realized reading—in general—makes you a better writer, and I credit Mister Faulkner with awakening that realization in me. It was As I Lay Dying specifically, which I spent a whole semester on for a literary class in undergrad, as well as focusing my Master’s thesis on, that just wowed me—showed me writing can not only be an art, not only be about characters, but can be absolutely poweful stuff that changes how people see the world. I definitely received inspiration from his works—especially the sing-songiness to his works, the sort of everyday chatter in his dialog, the realness and rawness of his worlds—that helped me begin to develop my own writing voice and style.

LTS: What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you hope to branch out into other genres?

RJR: Other genres? Yes, absolutely. I’m actually trying to get another novel published presently—true literary fiction (a fictionalized account of my time in Oxford for grad school)—and I’m also finishing up a crime thriller (or, as I like to refer to it, “literary noir”), and I also have a few other works in the pipeline of various genres. For me, again, I want to write characters, regardless of their settings or their genres, and it’s sort of fun to see if I can write genre fiction but make it more literary, if that makes sense. Have the genre be second-fiddle to the characters in the story.

LTS: Thank you very much for taking time from your busy schedule to discuss your latest release and to share in your writing life, Robert! I’ll catch you on Twitter.

For more information about Robert and his works, check out:
Website: www.robertjamesrussell.com
Follow Robert on Twitter: .robhollywood
Where to buy the book: Available in both print and eBook: Amazon | Barnes & Noble




Comments (1)

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