Interview: Paul Russell

Jen: Today we welcome Paul Russell to Romancing the Book. Paul, will you share a short bio with us?
Paul: Paul Russell is the author of seven novels. Two were awarded the Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction, one was chosen as one of the 100 Best Gay and Lesbian Novels by the Triangle Publishing Group, and three were finalists for the Lambda Literary Award. His novels might best be described as dreamy reconstructions of half-recalled nightmares.

He attended Oberlin College in Ohio, and also spent time in Germany and London. He then went on to study at Cornell University, earning an MFA in Creative Writing in 1982 and a PhD in English in 1983. He has taught at Vassar College, The College of William & Mary, and the University of Exeter.

Read more about him at paulrussellwriter.com

Jen: Tell us about your newest release.
Paul: My latest is actually a re-release by Cleis of my 1992 novel Boys of Life. I became intrigued by the life and murder of the Italian film director, novelist, poet and communist Pier Paolo Pasolini. I soon realized I’d need to transfer my story from Italy to the US, and in the process discovered the ways in which Pasolini was a European intellectual of a kind we don’t have in America. So I had to invent an American figure to replace him, which entailed rethinking everything.

My latest novel, Immaculate Blue, was published by Cleis last fall; it’s a stand-alone sequel to my first novel, The Salt Point, and revisits a group of friends nearly twenty five years later; they’ve gone their separate ways, and some have lost their way, but they gather on a weekend when one of the group is getting married to his longtime boyfriend.

Jen: At what age did you discover writing? Tell us your call story.
Paul: When I was in high school I wanted more than anything to be a composer. Every afternoon after school I’d spend hours composing at the piano (and no doubt driving the rest of my family crazy). The high school band featured a new piece of mine at every concert. I wrote music for the school drama productions.

But when I went away to college I lost my nerve—it became clear I wasn’t nearly as talented as I had thought or hoped. My first semester at Oberlin completely shattered my confidence. In a kind of desperation, I went on a program to Germany the second semester, and studied at a Goethe Institute in the little town of Blaubeuren. My German was practically nonexistent, and the strange local dialect didn’t make things easier. So I spent six months more or less in silence, during which I came to understand how much the English language, which I’d never given second thought to, meant to me. The inability to communicate made me suddenly cherish what I’d always taken for granted.

That summer when I returned to the States, I started writing my first novel. I made every mistake a beginning writer can possibly make, but from all those failures I learned a lot. So I’m a sort of accidental novelist. And I never allowed myself to look back as far as music was concerned, knowing even at that early age what happens to people who look back.

Jen: Do you have a writing routine?
Paul: I seem to find a different routine for each book. When I wrote Boys of Life, nearly twenty-five years ago, I was living on 20 secluded acres in rural Virginia. I saw virtually no one. My companions were a biography of the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, some Fellini interviews, Petronius’ Satyricon, and an unpublished manuscript of poems by the recently deceased Emily Dickinson scholar and BDSM aficionado Karl Keller. It was a crazy, kind of desperate time for me. I wrote all hours of the day and night, wandered the woods, sometimes got frighteningly lost, drank too much, and generally existed at an unsustainable fever pitch. None of my other books have been produced in even remotely comparable circumstances.

These days I visit the local public library for several hours every afternoon to write. I can’t stress how essential it is to have a routine—a regular, daily appointment with the work at hand. It’s been lovely to rediscover the calming pleasures of a small local library. At some point, libraries became associated with work, professional life, and all the attendant anxieties. So it’s nice to return to a more innocent relationship with libraries, where it’s all about the pleasure of reading for its own sake.

Jen: How do you remember ideas that come to you at odd times?
Paul: I always, always keep a notebook handy. And it’s a good thing. Often I’ll come across sentences or ideas I’ve jotted down which turn out to be quite useful, but I won’t have any memory of having written them down, which means they’d have been utterly lost.

Jen: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?
Paul: My favorite writers—Woolf, Joyce, Proust, Nabokov—aren’t necessarily the writers who’ve influenced me the most, in large part because little rowboats shouldn’t follow too closely in the wake of great ocean liners. It seldom ends well for the rowboats.

My latest discovery is Elizabeth Taylor; I’ve been devouring her novels. Probably her best is Angel, but every one I’ve read has keen pleasures to offer. She’s the kind of writer who just seems to land directly on her target every time, so that the writer in me is constantly saying Yes! as I read her pages. I also like that her novels feel completely unplotted—in other words, what happens happens because the characters are who they are. There’s this sense of organic inevitability. The characters themselves produce the plot—out of themselves, so to speak; it isn’t foisted on them by the author.

I recently finished Virginia Baily’s impossible-to-put-down Early One Morning, about a young woman in wartime Rome who has a Jewish child “donated” to her by desperate parents as they are carted away to the death camps. I’ve also been reading a lot of forgotten gay-themed novels from the 1940s and 50s, and have discovered several absolute gems: Fritz Peters’ Finisterre, Isabel Bolton’s The Christmas Tree, Harlan Cozad McIntosh’s This Finer Shadow, Charles Jackson’s Fall of Valor. They’re all out of print, but well worth tracking down, and will completely change your ideas about gay literary visibility pre-Stonewall.

Jen: What do you do in your free time?
Paul: When I’m writing, I really don’t have any free time. In a sense, I’m always working. I’d say a third of the sentences in any given book are initially jotted down as they occur to me in the middle of the night. Another third come to me when I’m working in my garden. I’ll have half a sentence stuck in my head; I go out and pull a few weeds, and usually the sentence will come unstuck, and I’ll hurry back in to finish the sentence, maybe write a few more if I’m lucky, then it’s back to the garden to weed some more and hope something comes to me. And more often than not it does. The book is never far from my thoughts. I really, really envy folks who can compartmentalize. With me, it’s inconveniently all-consuming.

Jen: What’s next for you?
Paul: I’m currently working on The Angels Came to Sodom in the Evening, a look at a closeted, right wing, family values politician and his compelling demons.