Part of our mission as publishers of a digital journal has been bringing attention and due praise to high quality shorter works, whether of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. For reasons too long-winded to go into here, it can be difficult to break into the major publishing and book selling world as a writer focused on shorter works, which is why we do our best to publish vital voices working in these less widely read and sold forms. Though we don’t have the resources to publish them right now, novellas are one of our favorite forms of fiction. We believe there is beauty in the economy of the short novel, which is why our friend Megan, a business reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, sat down with recently-published novella-ist Robert James Russell, author of Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012) and co-founding editor of the flourishing literary journal, Midwestern Gothic, to talk about his book, his writing process, and the importance of good dialogue — among other things. And don’t forget to check back in with us: Megan’s review of Sea of Trees is forthcoming.
Megan Graham: Tell me about your writing process.
Robert James Russell: I come up with like 20 ideas for things I want to work on, and then I work on those 20 ideas, and then eventually one of them becomes the clear winner of that bunch, and then I just focus all my attention on it.
I tend to write very quickly when I write. I wrote the initial draft of Sea of Trees in a month. And there’s a lot of research and planning leading up to that. But when I’m getting going and I know what I’m doing, I end up writing really quickly. I just finished my new novel this past week actually. Like finished, finished—my final draft. I think the initial draft of that took 2 months. I write quickly. And I never have a shortage of ideas.
For me, it’s part of the learning process of writing and honing my voice. Even still, I still need to do that in practice. Even if I end up writing four chapters of something that never ends up being anything, it’s good practice and it gets me going for something else. My brain is weird like that. I have to work. I love multitasking, so the more stuff I have to work on, the better I am at all those things. So it’s almost like I force myself when I work on multiple projects to choose, something clicks on and I’m like, ah, this is the one. For whatever reason, it just happens like that.
MG: Are you at a point where you can read something of your own and distinguish whether it’s any good?
RJR: Yeah, I think I can. I wanted to be a writer for my whole life. I’m 31 now, [but for] most of my twenties I was a writer who didn’t write. Which I feel like you hear that all the time from people. I think for me what happened was a lot of real-world experiences and traveling and it just clicked on one day and it hasn’t been able to come off since. And for me now, I’ve spent so much time honing my voice, I didn’t even start getting my stories published until about three years ago. Purposely. I just wasn’t ready, I was very hard on myself. And now, I’m at a point where I’m very happy with what I write. So if I write something I know, okay this is shit, I need to start over, or, I’m very happy with where this is going. That doesn’t mean I’m writing perfect. Lord knows, first draft, I go through pretty quickly and there’s always crap that needs fixing up.
MG: How’d you come across the idea for this book?
RJR: I can give you the romantic answer and I can give you the real answer. They kind of cross a little bit. I wrote a book, it’s my baby, it’s a very literary novel about grad school, actually. I was trying to get that published for a long time and it had a lot of very close calls and started getting really frustrated because nothing was happening with it. So I decided I wanted to write something else that’s maybe a little more broad-based appeal, easier to get into than stream of consciousness, literary fiction that not everybody likes. So I was kind of looking for something and I read an article, I stumbled on an article about Aokigahara, and it was just one of those things, the second I read it I was like, I’ve got to write something about this. I loved it. I knew it and I was hooked. I did research for about a month and a half or two months, and then started writing and—boom—shot through it. It was on my brain, had to get it done.
I’m a really big fan of shorter fiction. Shorter long fiction, if you will. Like novellas and short novels. I like that art form and for Sea of Trees, I feel like if it was any longer it would sort of work against itself. The romantic answer is I read about it and I was smitten, I was like, I have to write about this. But on top of that, it was a frustration of wanting to write about something else that would have more appeal to people. But I’m happy with the turnout. I feel like I wrote something that was very true to my writing style, still is literary, I think, but has more of the thriller elements to it. Or suspense.
MG: When did you hear about Aokigahara?
RJR: It was summer of 2011. It got picked up by a publisher in late September 2011. And then it came out that following May.
MG: Depression in Japan has been really prevalent in the media in recent months.
RJR: One of the big things is that suicide is not a religious taboo in Japan like it is in Christian America. You commit suicide, you’re going to hell, basically, and Shintoism and all these other religions, they don’t have anything for it. It’s not that kind of thing. And it was really like a long withstanding tradition, you dishonored your family, that was the noble thing to do. Now, granted, there is an epidemic of it. Like young kids doing it and stuff like that and that’s obviously a very different thing. But I think it’s kind of seeped into the conscious, which is why it’s so high there. They have one of the highest suicide rates. But they have a very good quality of life in japan too. It seems to me, just conjecture, that it’s so seeped into the subconscious of that country that it’s one of those things that if you’re unhappy, you do it. You want to make a point, you commit suicide.
I was trying to be very careful in the book because I’m not trying to give rationale behind the epidemic of suicide or trying to make any solutions for it or propose any solutions for it—that was not the point of the book. The book was just, hey, it happens, here’s some situations of it, get people thinking about it, perhaps, I’m not even going to imagine or assume that I know anything about it that could cure it or anything like that.
MG: What kind of research do you do before you start writing?
RJR: It depends on the topic. For this, I didn’t interview anybody just because I didn’t know anybody over there. I bought a lot of books, not just on suicide but on culture of Japan and history. And spent a lot of time reading about the history. Why any culture does anything tends to be because they used to do it back in the day and they still do it. Just trying to learn about that. I actually learned a lot about the forest in the process. It had a long, long history. I’ve been to Japan once but haven’t been to the forest. So as much as you can be without actually being there. I like being outdoors, I’m an avid hiker, I know what a forest looks like, so after seeing all these things and reading it, it was very easy to picture in my mind. And kind of put it together that way. I wanted to paint it as a very surreal place. There are details that you come across in the book. I say green a lot, instead of individual leaves, because I want the effect that they’re getting lost but I want the reader to feel that way too. Who hasn’t been in the woods before? Everyone has. So I wanted to make it a little easier for anybody to imagine what it could be like being there.
MG: Have you gotten any feedback from people who have been to the forest?
RJR: Yeah. I’ve met friends of friends who have been to the forest and read the book said it was very spot-on. Because when you go there, there are signs all over the woods saying, “your family loves you, think about your family, don’t commit suicide.” They have volunteers, so many people commit suicide there every year that they have these volunteer suicide patrols that basically go through and either try to stop people or find bodies and take them out of the woods. But there are so many suicides and so few suicide patrols that they can’t find them all. If you go off the trails it’s just a matter of time before you stumble on a body. Not if, but when, kind of thing. Which is really creepy.
I think the one thing that makes it really unique is that it’s very silent. There’s not a lot of animal life that lives there, and the trees are so densely planted together that not a lot of wind can get through. So you’re in the middle of the woods and it’s just eerily, eerily quiet. Which it’s crazy but it’s real. A giant woods with dead bodies everywhere and there’s no wind. I mean it sounds made-up but that was what kind of stroked my imagination when I heard about it. It didn’t seem real. And then finding out that it was very real, it just seemed too good not to write about.
I’ve tried reaching out to some Japanese blogs and newspapers and I’m still in the process of doing that. Being an indie writer, you’re never really done trying to promote your book.
MG: Are your characters based on people you know?
RJR: I think a good amount. I think the best piece of writing advice I had in my entire life was in college, one of my professors told me to write what you know. And I think that can translate to any genre. For me, I base a lot of things on real life. I do my best writing in coffee shops. If I’m stuck, I stop, I sit there and I listen to people’s conversations. Dialogue to me is very, very important to come across as real. Most dialogue that you have with people is very uninteresting. I think when you read books and you start feeling like it’s not real or they wouldn’t say that in real life is because they cut out the things that aren’t boring, but when you have a conversation with a friend it’s not all grandiose and eloquent. I think, to me, that is what creates characters: those patterns of speech. That’s how I start writing characters—how are they going to talk to each other. And obviously I know how I talk so a lot is based on me and my idiosyncrasies of my speech patterns, because I know myself. I obviously use real-world conversations and experiences as much as possible. For me, it all comes down to dialogue. You could write the greatest scenes in the world but if you have shoddy dialogue, it loses it all.
It sounds cheesy, but you use experiences, you use emotions that you’ve had before and try to imagine yourself in this experience using that emotion. And it works for me. I’m a very hands on writer. I would love to go out and be there and do something but I think I’m lucky that I’ve been able to experience a lot of things in the world and for me I’m lucky that I can draw on that.
I wanted to be a writer. I knew that forever and I took a very roundabout way of doing it. I was a zoology major at first in undergrad. I wanted to be a writer and naïvely I was like, I know how to write, I’m going to go get my biology stuff because I wanted to work for National Geographic. And then I realized I hate chemistry and it wasn’t worth finishing up. I just wasn’t ready to write. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t do it.
I think in hindsight I realize I just wasn’t ready to do it. When I actually started writing I spent years trying to hone my voice and stuff like that. During my time I wrote a lot of screenplays, screenwriting is all dialogue. I mean it ‘s all dialogue and I think I write pretty good dialogue and I pride myself on that and think it’s because I spent so many years doing screenwriting. And forcing myself to write believable dialogue that wasn’t cheesy or cliché. Sitting in coffee shops, listening to people having conversations, copying that down. A lot of that sort of thing. I think dialogue is the key to anything.
MG: Have you modeled your style after another writer?
RJR: I think so. Faulkner was and still is my favorite author. He was the reason I reminded myself I wanted to be a writer. I think it got away from me. And toward the tail end of college is when I really started getting back into it. I didn’t try to get anything published, but I tried to develop my voice more. Not a lot of people have a natural voice that they just instantly have. I think a lot of it is practice.
When I was younger I wrote a lot of Edgar Allen Poe type stories, but I’d try to write it in a Victorian style. I didn’t really care for it but it was a good way for me to learn the writing process. As soon as I read “As I Lay Dying,” I tried to write that way, with stream of consciousness where it’s extremely real and raw and unfiltered, and I fell in love with that. A lot of my early writing, I was convinced that was the only type of writing I was going to do and I just started doing more and naturally picked things up from other people you read, from things you see and experience in life and my voice just kind of changed or matured. Happy to say I like where my writing voice is.
MG: I had a great professor who said that an excellent writer had to be an excellent reader.
RJR: I agree with that. I’m funny about that. When I’m writing, I refuse to read anything when I write, because I don’t want anything to seep in. I want to be free of distractions. Between stuff, I can’t get enough. I just voraciously read everything in sight. When I’m writing, when I’m getting to the bulk of what I’m working on, I stop everything. I do not read at all.
MG: What would you say to your 21 year old self?
RJR: Just keep writing. I feel like that’s the most clichéd piece of advice ever, but I think it’s so true. Just don’t stop. I’m constantly getting better. You have to keep doing it. Writing is like anything else. I feel like very few people I know could stop writing for 10 years and then pick it up and immediately be as good as they were before. I feel like it’s a muscle you have to flex very often. Take in the world. I think a lot of people get very afraid that they’re never going to get published. And you just kind of have to have the attitude that a lot of great people don’t get published or it takes them a long time to get published. That is absolutely part of the game. You just have to keep going.
MG: You just finished another novel. What comes next?
RJR: For this one, I am going to try to find an agent. I didn’t have an agent for my first novel. It depends who you talk to, if you need one or not. Some people swear by it. It really depends what you’re trying to go after. For me, I love writing so much but when I get done with my final draft, from the end of the final draft to trying to get it published is my least favorite thing on the planet. I would love to find somebody to help me with that. My publisher for Sea of Trees, Winter Goose, was awesome. And it’s not a knock at them, but I’d like to see if I could go bigger for my next one. And that’s another reason I think an agent might be able to help me. An agent can do a lot of that messy stuff that I hate doing.
MG: What else do you want to do with your writing?
RJR: I’ve always been in love with the idea of writing creative nonfiction. I just haven’t found what that one thing would be that I’m interested in writing a whole book about. But I think that’s definitely in my future somewhere.
Generally, for the future, if I could write as my full-time job or edit the journal that I created as my full-time job, I would love that.
I guess that’s one of the reasons that I want to find a bigger press. Absolutely nothing against my last press. But if I want to try to make a living at this, I’ve got to go big or go home. In the meantime, just try to find a home for this book, keep working my way up and see what happens after that.
Megan Graham is a business reporter with the Chicago Sun Times. She attended college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she majored in journalism. In her free time, she enjoys reading both fiction and non-fiction. You can follow her on Twitter @megancgraham.