By Alexandra Murphy
"It’s a myth that you have to write something all in one sitting. Writing a paragraph, even a single sentence, that didn’t exist an hour ago is a beautiful thing—you birthed something brand new, something towards a complete version of an idea.
- Robert James Russell
Robert James Russell is a longtime visiting author at The Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing! He is the author of Sea of Trees, Don't Ask Me To Spell It Out: Stories, and Mesilla, and has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize. In this interview he reminisces about jumping off the "Jaws Bridge," talks about his love for the Western genre, and offers his perspective on a career without an MFA.
You’ve been a recurring instructor at Martha’s Vineyard, what do you think this program uniquely offers writers? Do you have a favorite memory from the Vineyard you would be willing to share?
There are many workshops and writing programs that take place in unique locations. A big plus is, absolutely, being on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, a truly one-of-a-kind piece of Americana, a place with a tremendous history and so much culture and inspiration. But what makes MVICW truly special, and what sets it far apart from the others, is the community fostered by Alexander Weinstein. I have never been a part of a program that is so accepting, warm, enthusiastic, kind, and generative. From the day students arrive, they’re told they matter, that their stories matter—and that permeates every ounce of this program.
One of my favorite memories is from the first time I was teaching at MVICW. A group of us instructors went out, just after sunrise, to the “Jaws Bridge” (a bridge famously featured in the film Jaws). The sky was buttery pink. The water was a blue I hadn’t seen before. We all got up on the edge of the bridge and took turns pencil-jumping into the water below. It was a rush, a communal bonding we all laughed about afterwards, couldn’t stop talking about. Now it’s a ritual, every time I go back: Go to the Jaws Bridge. Marvel at the sky, the beach, the water. Jump and don’t look back.
You truly seem to write it all—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, flash, novels. When you’re working on something new, does the idea inform genre or vice versa? How do you decide which genre will be best for a piece? And what advantages and/or disadvantages do you feel certain genres allow?
I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to materialize how I make this decision—it tends to be something that happens organically, subconsciously. For example, if I’m walking to and from campus for work, I might be inspired by the blooming spring flowers, the butterflies in migration, be in awe of the grass, the redbud blossoms showing off. I might be thinking of things in fragments, and so a poem makes the most sense. If I want to write about my past, I naturally go to creative nonfiction, although plenty of my autobiographical material works its way into my poetry and fiction.
It’s a gut feeling, and peeled apart, each genre does do something different with the work. If I want a discussion, if I want to really get to the heart of the matter, I lean into nonfiction work. If I want to hover on a feeling, it’s poetry. If there’s more, and maybe I don’t feel comfortable saying something through the lens of truth, I’ll hide behind fiction, I’ll build in pieces of my life, or what I want to say, into story. Each genre has strengths, and it’s a great writing exercise: write the same idea as a poem, as an essay, as a piece of flash fiction, and see how it changes with each.
You've mentioned in other interviews that you've always been drawn to Westerns. You consider your most recent book, Mesilla, to be a revisionist Western. What is it about the Western genre that interests you?
Growing up in Michigan, what first drew me to Westerns was the landscape—terrain, climate, flora and fauna so incredibly different from everything I’d ever known. But as I got older, I discovered how much more was there: this is a uniquely American genre (there are only a handful, like jazz, which is fascinating itself), and one that, when done well, has a lot to say.
Western stories almost always deal with characters vs. nature in some way, and often the characters lose—a genre that shows how hard the world can be, and how we are so small by comparison. Westerns are also a genre that deals with the “American experience” like no other—there are so many Western stories about immigrants coming to America, going west to seek their fortunes. Of course there is a long list of “bad” Westerns (movies, books, dime novels), typically from the turn of the 20th century until about the 1960s, eager to explore American Essentialism and Manifest Destiny—that the land was rightly “ours,” that native peoples and people of color were villains who deserved nothing, that the world was tamable and at our mercy. We know better now, and there are so many nuanced Western stories in various media that explore how wrong these old ideas are, that our history is built upon bloodshot and bigotry and general small-mindedness. There’s so much we can take away from this time period, and Westerns are one-of-a-kind in their themes, their approaches, how they can teach us yet about our lives today.
I noticed that you incorporate artwork with some of your writing and contribute art to other writers’ work. As a writer and an artist, do you ever feel some ideas are better left to one art form? Why?
I’ve been doing illustrative work my whole life—I originally wanted to go to art school for visual art, but at some point fell more in love with writing, and so my drawing and doodling took a backseat. For a long time afterwards, I thought of these two things as completely separate—“art” and “Art,” if you will.
Now, all these years later, I realize there can be a place for it all—that writing can complement visual art, that visual art can elevate the writing. I like working in multiple genres, and will feel instinctively drawn to one or the other: some ideas are born as itty-bitty web comics that I want to share on social media, and that’s enough. Others are heady and need more fleshing out, more than I can do on the canvas—and so I use my words. But I do think the beauty of visual art is its ability to tell a detailed, complex story just as well as a novel can (thinking of the work of Jay DeFeo, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Perle Fine, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Hilma af Klimt, among others).
I read in an interview you did with Fiction Writers Review that you drew before you were a writer, but after you were tasked with writing a book for school you were “in love with the words, what they could do…what the pictures couldn’t do.” Can you expand on this—so often we hear the opposite with the cliché ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’
What made me gravitate towards writing is that I had a more natural ability with words than visual art (still spent years working and honing and practicing and failing, obviously, still do). I can produce art I’m happy with through sketching or digital work, but I didn’t know how to draw a vibrant, lush landscape for characters in a fantasy story the way I could conjure them in detail through language. I do think visual art can tell a deep, rich story as well as a story or poem or essay, but it’s not where my strengths lie. That natural inclination to want to tell stories, real and fictional, to be a storyteller, is something I’ve felt since I was little—so I think, in part, this was about finding the right medium.
You pursued a writing career without an MFA? What words of advice can you give to other writers who are trying to do the same?
Nothing is for certain. Success is in the eye of the beholder. The formula for polishing your writing is this: practice (all the time), read (all the time). Get real, honest feedback and take it to heart. You will always, as an artist, need to find ways to grow, and if you push yourself, you will constantly produce better work than the day/week/month/year prior. Give as much as you get—if you get feedback from other writers, offer to read their work. Continue to believe in yourself, to accept that the only one who really gets in the way of your goals is you.
I say all this because this is, in my mind, all you need to be a writer—to have a “career.” Academic structure can afford you time to practice and hone your skills, provide feedback opportunities, a writing network, etc. But there is no right way. Having an MFA doesn’t mean you’ll automatically succeed or get published (if you’re not doing the work yourself), and not having one doesn’t mean you won’t. Ultimately, it’s about holding ourselves accountable. I find that extraordinarily beautiful—it’s within our ability to do this, if we’re honest about what we need.
As an aspiring editor who also writes, I often find it difficult to keep my editor voice quiet while writing. How do you balance the editor and the writer within you?
There is no one right way to write or edit—although I tend to think I’m doing it wrong, even if it works for me. My process is so internal—I think about a draft for ages, pull it apart in my head, write down bare-bones outlines, character bios—and at some point, when the idea has fermented enough, it starts pouring out and becomes hard to contain. I’ll edit as I write, and when I’m done for the day, I’ll re-read and edit some more. The next day, before I begin writing, I’ll revisit what I wrote yesterday and edit some more before moving on. I actually don’t think this is an inherently bad thing—your editor voice is as important as your writing voice, and if it’s talking to you, no matter when that is, I think it’s worth listening to.
For all the busy writers out there, how do you still set aside time to write between your work as co-founder and managing editor at Midwestern Gothic, overseeing Cheap Pop, and writing a bi-weekly column for Pidgeonholes?
In the prime of it all (Midwestern Gothic is on a temporary hiatus, and my column at Pidgeonholes has, for now, finished up), it was all about deliberate time. If an idea was percolating, and it was something that demanded attention, then it deserved time, even just a teensy bit. I used to tell my writing students that it’s a myth that you have to write something all in one sitting. Writing a paragraph, even a single sentence, that didn’t exist an hour ago is a beautiful thing—you birthed something brand new, something towards a complete version of an idea. I love that and think about it a lot. So extending myself that kindness: even if it’s only fifteen minutes of jotting down ideas, that is, and should be, enough.
I’ve also gotten better about saying no, knowing my limits, so I can give 100% to whatever’s on my plate at the moment.
What’s new for your writing? What are you working on now?
I just finished a new novel about grief, witches, forest cults, and long-simmering revenge in the north woods of Wisconsin, and I’m starting to work on a full-length version of my We Know So Little column at Pidgeonholes, measuring my awe of the natural world through everyday interactions.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find his illustrations and writing at robertjamesrussell.com, or on Twitter/Instagram at @robhollywood.