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Robert James Russell Interview

Interracial Erotica

Robert James Russell Interview

 “….no matter what you’re writing—whether it be ghosts, zombies, historical fiction, whatever—emotions are emotions, and you can use real life experiences to make these moments real in any story.” Robert James Russell




My introduction to Robert was, at the risk of plowing head long into a cliché, fate. It was more or less one of those friend of a friend--of a really loud and annoying friend sort of deals.  Whatever brought our meeting about, I’m glad our paths crossed. Admittedly, after reading his forward in “Sex Scene” and a couple of his poems I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t figure him out nor, in my mind, could he be fashioned into a single mold.

So I continued to reading, and slowly he became less of a psychological enigma and more of a modern day polymath: a man with his fingers in a wide variety of subjects and areas. He's an amazingly talented writer whose style has been compared to Bret Easton Ellis. I’m inclined to agree and I think you will also.


Without further ado, Robert James Russell….




Tracy Ames: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your writing style?

Robert James Russell: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and have lived in/around Michigan my entire life (I had a quick stint in Los Angeles, and went to grad school in Oxford). Jokingly, my style has been referred to as “Slacker Fiction,” on account of the everydayness it presents, the facets of life we may take for granted—even the darker parts of life we may not necessarily want to focus on. My two biggest inspirations are William Faulkner and Bret Easton Ellis—I actually think they have quite a few similarities, in the way they approach storytelling, and in what they actually tell in their stories, not to mention the unique POVs their works typically have. I love well-placed stream-of-conscious, and I suppose, if I had to classify my writing, it would be literary fiction. I like to use language to its fullest extent, not to confuse the reader, but to really build a world for the reader to journey into, even if a familiar one.

TA: In preparation for this interview, I did a little background work and I must say I’m impressed! You have your fingers in a lot of different areas. Tell the readers what you have going and where you see yourself evolving.

RJR: Thank you. That’s the way I’ve always been—I get it from my Dad—I like to keep busy, and my creativity tends to know no bounds. Ha.

I co-founded Saint James Comics with my buddy Jesse Young out of a mutual and life-long love of comics, which is totally a dream, getting to write comics and seeing them on the shelves at stores. I do see myself, primarily, as a fiction writer, regardless of my wandering fingers, and I think I’m lucky (and unique), that I’m able to tackle many projects at once and give them all my full attention—I guess it’s multitasking that I’m good at, then. I see myself, ideally, continuing as primarily a fiction author, but would love to continue doing the comics and, if the situation presented itself, turning some of them (or my fiction) into screenplays.

TA: When you dove into lit fiction, what about this genre interested you the most?

RJR: I had an obsession with William Faulkner after I was assigned to read “As I Lay Dying” in a freshman college literature course. It just spoke to me, this Modernist-style of writing with all these techniques used to bring us further into the story, and in college is really where I found my initial literary voice, working off greats like Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce and others, and something about the genre of literary fiction spoke to me—to me, it’s all about mirroring life in some way, not as escapist as some genres, but getting into the nitty gritty in ways, at least to me, that a lot of other genres can’t. And that’s what I try to do, why I consider my work (typically) lit fiction—it tends to be intimate and discuss things we may not like to discuss, bring up points we may typically swallow down and forget, but it speaks truths I think not a lot of other genres do.

TA: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?

RJR: I’ve been telling stories since I can remember—it started out with doodling and drawing (I wanted initially to be an animator for Disney), then I began making my own comic books in middle school, which developed pretty seamlessly into writing. I always saw the two, drawing and writing, as the same thing just via different methods. I think that’s how I transitioned into writing so easily—it was just drawing…without the pictures. Ha. But once I got hooked on writing, around fifth/sixth grade, I knew it’s what I wanted to do with my life and I’ve never looked back. I guess the profession of telling stories found me, and it’s something I am absolutely in love with.

TA: I know I’m supposed to be a neutral voice of reason, but I loved your poem entitled “This One Barista at Caribou Coffee”. There you have it—I said it! What was your inspiration and do you approach your poetry as you do your fiction?

RJR: Well thank you! I’m quite fond of that one myself. It’s actually based on a real life incident—many of my poems are based on either things that have happened to me, or that I’ve witnessed. My fiction tends to be a bit more…in my head, if that makes sense. More fictionalized. Ha. But my poetry, a lot of that tends to be about the real world, about everyday things that I tend to find the beauty or irony in (as cheesy as that may sound). My fiction tends to delve into that territory as well, but I think it’s a bit more obvious with my poetry, specially citing things I see on a regular basis. I tend to look toward Bukowski as inspiration, how he just described the huddled masses, the despondent, the types of people so often forgotten about in poetry and literature, and I liked that, and saw that there were all these great scenes in the Midwest, all these great experiences that I felt needed to be shared.

TA: “Sex Scene: An Anthology” how did this project come about? What was your part and how has the book been received?

RJR: I actually was editing a sex scene from my novel Impossible Monsters, and it occurred to me that, with all the great writers I know, many of them don’t like to write about sex, for a variety of reasons, which I thought was a shame. Writing is about emotion, and, to me, sex is nothing BUT emotion—and then it just came to me: how cool would it be to gather a bunch of writers I respect, and have them give me their interpretation of a sex scene, a piece of fiction pretty much decontextualized from any plot? I mean, with almost no other instructions, how great would it be to see thirteen unique views of sex? So I invited people, took on the role of editor—although, I contributed a short story to the collection as well—and just really pushed this into getting done. I think, all-in-all, it got finished up in just over two months, which is pretty great.

The anthology has been well-received—even more so than I could’ve imagined. There’s quite a bit of “erotica” out there, but nothing like this, that gives a totally well-rounded view of sex by a variety of people, good, bad, and ugly. It seems that a great deal of readers out there, many of them writers, wanted to see something like this, and I’ve had many people tell me they’ve now begun tackling writing the dreaded sex scenes, inspired by the anthology. And you know what? That makes it all worth it, knowing even one person was moved by what they read. It makes me feel like we did something right with this one.

"This is a seriously AMAZING anthology. Some really exquisite pieces." Sarah E. Melville



TA: If someone told you a year before “Sex Scene” was envisioned, that you’d be involved in this successful project, what would’ve been your reaction? And how do you think you’ve grown from your involvement?

RJR: I suppose I wouldn’t have been that surprised about the content, but shepherding the project, putting it together with all these great writers I respect, that would’ve surprised me, yes. I tend to be a pretty extroverted person, but I had just never thought about editing a project before, and I absolutely loved it, seeing it go from a budding idea to a finished product. I think it’s helped me really see how different writers work, how people tackle a concept like this, and honestly, it’s absolutely helped my own writing—I’m a big believer in life-long learning, and learning from everything, so how could it hurt to have a more well-rounded view of writing by taking on these sorts of responsibilities? I think it’s good, to see how books are put together, to see what goes into them, to edit stories and pick their location in the book, making sure everything flows from one to the next, and it’s just a fantastic learning experience I’m going to take with me for the rest of my life. Plus, I’d love to do another anthology in the future, so having stumbled through the project already, I know exactly what not to do the next time around.

TA: On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?

RJR: Well, assuming I have no distractions, I tend to do my best work at coffee shops—I think it’s all the people watching I can do that inspires me. On the days when I’m doing nothing but writing, I tend to squat in my favorite spot, drink cup after cup of coffee, listen to music, and just type until I can’t take it anymore (which is usually on account of hunger).

TA: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?

RJR: Well, I definitely do outline, but I tend to be a bit freer about how I do it. I almost always create full profiles/backstories for main characters, even family trees in some cases, and I’ll have the general story arc figured out, how it’s going to start and where it’s going, maybe a few details mapped out for the middle, but I tend to let it come to me as I go. My brain, it almost seems to process better without me writing everything down, tying together loose ends and making the necessary connections without me being aware of it. There has been numerous times where I’ve gone back through a piece, read something, and thought, “I should go back through and make sure there’s X up at the beginning, so it makes more sense later on.” I go back throughout the piece and, sure enough, I already had X in. Obviously, it doesn’t mean I’m not aware of what’s going on when I write, just that, I tend to trust my brain…that it knows what it’s doing. Plus, it helps that when I’m working on anything, a comic or short story or a longer piece of fiction, I become obsessed with it—it saturates my thinking so it’s easy for me to just pick up and write.

TA: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? How do you approach development of your characters? Where do you draw the line?

RJR: I don’t think I really draw the line anywhere. A character may be horribly despicable, but if it’s part of the story, if it drives it and adds something to it, not just added for shock and awe, then how can that be a bad thing? History is full of duplicitous characters…and they tend to be the most fun to write. Ha.

I think for any writer there’s an essence of them in every character they flesh out, no matter how starkly contrasted they may seem at first glance to the real-life person. It’s human nature…writing is a very personal thing, and even if you’re not consciously aware of it, you end up putting down personal stories, personal dialogues, your fears even, embedding them in these characters almost as a means of therapy. I think this is the case for all genres too, even the most fantastic Sci-Fi and Horror—the emotions in those stories need to come from somewhere, and we all mine our personal experiences to come up with that emotion, putting our innermost fears and thoughts and desires down on paper. I think there is a lot of me in my characters, again, because it’s natural—and to me writing really IS therapeutic, it’s something that’s hard to replicate, telling a story, baring your soul like that, which is why I think so many people do write in the first place.

TA: What kind of research do you do before and during the writing process? Do you write straight through, or do you revise as you go along?

RJR: I tend to revise as I go along. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, but, for me, it’s just easier to get everything the way I want it as it comes to me, rather than come back to everything at the end (although, I obviously do edit afterwards). And research…I’m a HUGE fan of research, making I get the details right. I tend to be fairly detailed when I write, at least with little things, that make the story that much fuller, that much more believable, so it’s important to capture the names of things correctly, slang, etc. In fact, I once spent a week creating a 60-page background document for a comic that was only twenty-one pages long. It’s just important to me that I understand the world my characters inhabit, and if that means doing ridiculous amounts of research, so be it.

TA: On average, how long does it take for you to complete a piece of work or get to a place where you’d allow someone to read it?

RJR: I’m pretty quick—my last completed work (around 92K words) took me, initially, just over two months to write. I think, since I tend to revise as I go, I’m usually okay with people checking out my work from the get-go. Granted, at that stage, it’s only people I trust that get to have sneak-peeks.

TA: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it, and what measures do you take to get past it? What do you do to keep the creative "spark" alive - both in your work and out of it?

RJR: By no means do I think I’m above writer’s block, but I’m pretty lucky in that I don’t get it often. I’m a dreamer, anyone who knows me will attest to that, so my brain is ALWAYS going. Literally…always. I tend to come up with a new idea for a book, short story, comic, whatever, every single day. I’ve taught myself, though, how to not be distracted by this, to focus on the task(s) at hand without getting too sidetracked, something I did often when I was younger. I think it’s easier now, being older, to stick to what I’m working on, finish it up, and move on to the next project afterwards. Again, in some cases, I work on more than one project at once, but they tend to be in different fields—one novel, a short story, a comic, etc., rather than working on five different novels at the same time. So, thanks to my restless brain, I can pretty much sit down at any time of day, anywhere, and write.

TA: When someone reads  your work for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel, or experience?

RJR: I am no stranger to creating work that makes people think, that may make them initially pull back and say...“Wow, I’m not sure about this.” I don’t do this purely for a shock factor, not at all, but, especially with my “Slacker Fiction” pieces, where characters are real and in real settings—maybe not as glamorous as some might want to read about—and dive into their own fears, or engage in behavior that we may see and be disgusted at, but then immediately identify as something we’re all guilty of. And I think that’s what I want to achieve…just make readers think. I don’t mind if someone is disgusted by an action or thought, as long as they come back to it and recognize it as human nature, as something they have seen before, which in turn, makes them think back to their initial reaction… “Why did I react that way?”

I think people tend to have very glossy views of themselves (which I think is just human nature), so when they read something “ugly,” their initial reaction may be to just distance themselves from it. And again, I like writing about actions and experiences that are real, that aren’t necessarily puppy dogs and ice cream cones—anything that could possibly get you thinking, that could engage you in a way you didn’t think possible.

I don’t want you to think I’m a pessimistic person, though. I love love, I love life, and I do write very happy things as well—but I think there are certain aspects of life we all go through and can identify with that are just as important as the good times, that are, oftentimes, necessary to lead to the good and happy times, and I love documenting those. Another reason, I suppose, why I tend to write character-based pieces—I like to have the focus be on how these people thrive and grow (or sometimes, don’t grow). It’s the journey, to me, that’s important, and I want my readers to feel that, however slight.

At the end of the day, though, which I know sounds cliché, as long as one person stops to think, stops to ponder on what I’m talking about, then I’m happy.

TA: Does the title of a work come to you as you’re writing it, or does it come before you even begin the first sentence?

RJR: Actually, I’m weird. I tend to need a combination of three things before I start writing: a title, the first sentence, and/or the last sentence. To me, these are the elements that can, initially, bring the reader into the book (the title and the first sentence), and with the last sentence, it’s the last thing you read of a story, the last impression the reader will walk away with. I don’t take those things lightly, and the way my brain works, I’m not able to concentrate unless I have at least two of the three (usually the title and first sentence), setting the tone from the very beginning.

TA: When it comes to the cover arts, what are your likes and dislike?

RJR: Personally, I tend to like cover art that stands out, that isn’t just some cookie-cutter collage (although, that does have its place, for sure). I like something that makes you think, that may not tell you immediately about the story you’re ready to crack open, but definitely lends to the overall aesthetic of the book. People absolutely DO judge books on their covers (I know I’m guilty of this at times), so, to me, I think it’s important you have something people can connect with immediately. For instance, the cover art for Sex Scene (which was done by the fantastically talented John Vestevich), is suggestive without really being so. You can use your imagination and just let it take you for a ride, no pun intended, getting a feel for the contents of the book without ever opening it.

TA: What pros and cons surround the e-publishing industry, and how do you envision the future of e-publishing?

RJR: I think e-publishing is a wonderful thing—it opens up the market to a great many people that might not have their stuff available beforehand. On the flipside, though, I think it can lead to a saturated market, at least nowadays, making it much harder for people to get their work noticed by agents/publishers. I think there is going to be (and, I suppose, already is) a push toward having less agents and publishers involved in the traditional sense, so a saturated market may not be as much of an issue in the future. The only other downside I see to e-publishing and/or self-publishing is that the everyday writer tends not to have as many connections as an agent, may not be able to get their work out to as many avenues as someone who’s had twenty plus years of experience. Again, though, with the advent of social media being what it is, we may find that this becomes something a writer must do themselves in the future anyway. So, I can see the merit in both. Obviously, I have self-published before (e.g. Sex Scene), and I have spent a great deal of time doing whatever it takes to get the book out there in peoples’ hands. I would be remiss to say it would of course be easier if someone with greater ties in the publishing world was helping, though.

Some people have a very negative attitude of traditional publishing houses, I think mostly due to a lack of total control of their piece—and I get that, even if I don’t agree wholeheartedly. And I don’t think publishers will ever really go away. Instead, I think they’re going to have to be more apt in lending creative freedom to authors, putting more responsibility in their hands, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I think the whole industry is really gearing toward a sea change in how creators and publishers interact and what becomes possible for writers, how they connect with their audience.

TA: When it comes to promotion, what lengths have you gone to in order to increase reader-awareness of your work?

RJR: I am a big fan of social media being used (correctly) for promotion of one’s work (without, of course, it being overbearing). Personally, I’m on Twitter pretty much 24/7, and I try to make connections on personal levels with everyone I come across. I get involved in group chats (like #litchat), join Facebook groups and maintain my own Facebook fan page, and do live events and readings whenever I can. Recently, while promoting Sex Scene, I started sending special gifts to folks outside of the US who order a hardcopy of the book (since the shipping is a bit more than we have to pay here). I have no problem at all going above and beyond and doing whatever it takes to make a connection—that’s what’s important to me, connecting with even just one person.

TA: What was the best piece of advice you’ve received with respect to the art of writing? And how did you implement it into your work?

RJR: The best piece of advice I ever received was from a college professor of mine: “Write what you know.” It seems simple, obvious even, but I think about that whenever I write, no matter the subject or genre. I think, when I really got serious about writing fiction, it was hard for me to hone my ideas, narrow them down, and they ended up being just these huge, outlandish, blown-out affairs (which is fine, but I had no idea how to write myself out of the ideas, once I got in). Once my professor told me this, I started writing more intimate pieces, focusing on dialogue and characters, really trying to master the art of storytelling, then moved up to bigger ideas, understanding how to handle them better. I think, though, no matter what you’re writing—whether it be ghosts, zombies, historical fiction, whatever—emotions are emotions, and you can use real life experiences to make these moments real in any story.


TA: What suggestions do you have for new writers based on what you’ve seen thus far?

RJR: I think it would be just put yourself out there. I have met so many good writers who want to be out there in the public conscious, who want to network, but they’re afraid. It’s so easy nowadays to start up a blog, to get on Twitter and Facebook, and start networking, meeting people, finding crit partners to help you develop your work, so there really isn’t any excuse. It can be scary out there, for sure, but I think once people get into the thick of it, they find that it’s really not nearly as bad as they would’ve thought. Writers like to help each other out, after all.

TA: What are you working on now? Any special projects coming out soon we should watch for?

RJR: Well, I’m currently trying to find a home for my novel, Impossible Monsters, which is a fictionalized account of my time in grad school in Oxford—it follows the exploits of three students (two American, one Sikh) over the course of a semester, reminiscent of Ellis’ Rules of Attraction.

I’m also putting together a short story collection which I should have some more details about soon on my website.





Now for the readers’ questions!

TA: If you weren’t sitting here right now, what else would you be doing?

RJR: Depends. I like to keep myself busy—helps quiet my mind. I try to go to the gym as much as possible, just to think, get out frustration, slow my mind a bit, and I take my dog on lots of walks. I love museums…and I love eating. So, I guess, any one of those things would be fantastic by me.

TA: How would you describe your sense of humor? Who and what makes you laugh?

RJR: I have a pretty slapstick sense of humor, generally. I love old Monty Python stuff, Airplane!, and some more absurdist stuff like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and later seasons of Seinfeld. I love the UK version of The Office (the US version is alright too). Last and certainly not least, my girlfriend Patty is easily one of the funniest people I’ve ever known and makes me laugh every day.

TA: What kind of books do you like to read?

RJR: Again, Faulkner is my boy. I re-read his stuff constantly, along with a lot of other American Modernist writers. I love Ron Hansen’s work (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read), and I’m a big fan of non-fiction books dealing with the American West (you know, cowboy stuff). I do tend to read a lot of literary fiction, but I’m open to pretty much anything that’s tells a good story—I finished a biography of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya not too long ago (my favorite painter), so I’m pretty much all over the place.

I’m also quite partial to comic books, and read more than my fair share of them as well…assuming it’s a creative idea that’s well executed (I tend to shy away from super hero-type stuff).

TA: What is your favorite TV show?

RJR: Favorite of all time? Deadwood. Currently? Californication

TA: What is your favorite fast food restaurant? Just thought we’d throw that in for fun…

RJR: I am quite partial to Taco Bell, and I make no apologies for that. Ha.

TA: Without getting up, can you tell us what’s under your bed?

RJR: Dust and dog toys. Nothing too fun, I’m afraid.

TA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

RJR: Without a doubt I’d be a professional surfer.


TA: Can you please tell us where we can find your work online?

RJR: Absolutely! You can check out details about Saint James (plus some free web comics and previews) here: www.WhoisSaintJames.com.

I also frequently update my personal site with news, excerpts of works in progress (including samples from Impossible Monsters) poems, etc., which you can find here: www.robertjamesrussell.com.

And Sex Scene is offered as a FREE PDF download, or as a hardcopy for $6.50. Details here.


I’d like to thank Robert for opening up to our readers and we look forward to reading more of his work very soon.

Have a question or comment for RJR? Click Here. He'd love to hear from you.

Tracy