Robert James Russell, a proud Midwesterner, has known he wanted to be a writer since he was ten years old. A fan of well-placed stream of consciousness and stories that feature everyday characters and dialogue, Robert has a penchant for stories focusing on relationships in all their many forms.
In 2010, he co-founded the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, which aims to catalog the very best fiction of the Midwestern United States. It’s an area he believes is ripe with its own mythologies and tall tales, yet often overlooked. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The setting in Sea of Trees is definitely unique. Where did you learn about the Aokigahara Forest? Stumbled on an article by chance, actually, and just found myself obsessed with the place—why go here to kill yourself? Why these woods? Turns out these woods have a long, sordid history, and I thought it would be the perfect setting to a story. I mean, how could I not write about this place!
Do you have a desire to one day go there? (As a visitor, of course, not on a suicidal mission!) Absolutely! I’ve only been to Japan once, briefly, but I’m in the process of planning a trip in the next year-ish and Aokigahara is at the top of the list. And let me assure you: I absolutely do not plan on, and will avoid at all costs, finding bodies! Can’t handle it!
One of the most important aspects of any story, in my opinion, is description. Often either overdone or underdone, your writing has (and continues to be) an excellent example of how it should be done. What is your best advice to writers on how to strike the perfect balance? I think it just takes time…practice. But more importantly, I think it’s a matter of style. I think when most people start out writing (myself included), you want to just detail everything under the sun in order to make this world believable. Some people keep up this mode of thinking, and there are well-known authors who have a similar style that absolutely works (Haruki Murakami, for example). But, personally, I’ve come to learn that less is more (not TOO little, you need some substance)—I want people to be able to imagine a place, but not have it be so specific that it’s jarring if you’ve never been there. I think that can be detrimental to the reading experience. Again, just a matter of taste, I think.
Another trait I personally love in your writing is the honesty and realness in your characters. You’ve mentioned that you write at coffee shops, has anyone you’ve ever witnessed become the inspiration for a character, or at least a particular part of a character? Ha! Many times! Well, more specifically, I tend to glob onto conversations more than the actual people. I may watch body language, study how people are interacting, and, perhaps every so often, turn the physicality of someone at the coffee shop into a character, but more often than not it’s the conversations that I absorb from this environment. I think that’s where the realness of my characters come from—when I was learning how to hone and develop my voice, this is how I practiced writing dialog: I would go to coffee shops and literally transcribe conversations I overheard (obviously I deleted these afterward, since I didn’t want to share any personal secrets, ha). It’s probably while I still find these settings so invigorating.
I found the voice with which you wrote Sea of Trees to be intoxicating and darkly palpable. When you write, do you find that you become the characters, or are you more of a guest at their dinner party where they share with you their story? I think it’s a mix, really. I think for every character I initially insert a part of myself—ticks, idiosyncrasies—to make them believable, make it easier for me to glob on to as I start developing them, but I also include other factors that that may be unique to their person, such as culture, upbringing, that sort of thing. All of those will create very different characters, very different types of reactions, etc., which I think is important. If everyone was me, it’d be a very boring read, I promise you that. And once I get the skeleton of who these characters are in place, I just sit back and watch, listen as the rest of them form around that base, each different, distinctive.
Does the Sea of Trees readers are enjoying today differ greatly from your first draft or do you find that your stories evolve more in the plotting stage before even beginning to write them? Not too different, I’m happy to say! I had a plan in place initially, and I stuck to that best I could. I think it’s a simple tale, so it was easy for me to stay on target, not stray too far from that. I think I’m lucky (or not, who knows?), that when I initially conceive of an idea, it tends to be fairly finalized. Sure, dialog, some details may change here and there, but the bulk of it remains the same.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? “Write for your audience.” I think that’s just plain ludicrous. Write for yourself first, write what makes you happy. Sure, you may not write something seen by everyone in the world, you may not be famous and rich, but you will be much happier than forcing yourself to write to the whims of people you’ll never meet. I think it’s a disservice to the writer to forcibly pen something they have no investment in.
If you could be interviewed by one famous person (besides me… ha!), who would that be and why? Probably Cormac McCarthy—I’m a huge fan of his work (arguably one of the best American writers of the 20th Century), so it would be amazing to be in his presence (plus he’s notoriously reclusive, so I’d feel honored he ventured outside to talk to me). Also, his early work closely resembled William Faulkner’s (whom I admire greatly), and this may be the closest thing to Faulkner I’ll ever get.
Runner-up: Bret Easton Ellis. Another of my favorite authors. Plus I think the interview would just be crazy fun.
Can readers expect more from Robert James Russell in the not too distant future? (Please say yes!) Yes! I’m currently seeking representation/publication for a new novel, and working on the first draft of a new new novel which I hope to have completed later this summer.
Where do you see the publishing world 10 years from now? I think just more in the direction it’s already going—digital first. Here’s my prediction: Ultimately—no matter how you feel about it—digital will replace hardcopy books, and most people will have eReaders or the like and to their reading that way. I think the entire publishing model will change drastically. I still think there will be big publishing houses, but I think it will be less “dastardly” to be self-pubbed—as is seen by segments of the general public. I think it’s a great alternative, and I hope it becomes less of a “thing” than it is now. I mean, really…who cares where something comes from? If it’s good, it’s good, right?
Any last updates for readers? Exciting new projects you are working on that you’d care to share? Besides what I mentioned already, I’m still actively involved with the journal I co-founded, Midwestern Gothic. We just announced our first theme issue, which we’re so excited about, and we have some big announcements coming up later this year—so stay tuned!
Swirling mystery permeates Sea of Trees as Bill, an American college student, and his Japanese girlfriend Junko traverse the Aokigahara Forest in Japan–infamous as one of the world’s top suicide destinations–in search of evidence of Junko’s sister Izumi who disappeared there a year previous. As the two follow clues and journey deeper into the woods amid the eerily quiet and hauntingly beautiful landscape–bypassing tokens and remains of the departed, suicide notes tacked to trees and shrines put up by forlorn loved ones–they’ll depend on one another in ways they never had to before, testing the very fabric of their relationship. And, as daylight quickly escapes them and they find themselves lost in the dark veil of night, Bill discovers a truth Junko has hidden deep within her-a truth that will change them both forever.