You meet the coolest people on Twitter, folks.
Michigan-based author Robert James Russell struck me as a total class act from the moment I followed him and discovered MidwesternGothic, his quarterly publication highlighting top-notch writers and stories from America’s heartland. He recently released his first novella, Sea of Trees, with Winter Goose Publishing. I knew it was coming, and was thoroughly intrigued by the title and seed of the story: a young couple working their way through Aokigahara (which translates as sea of trees), the appropriately-nicknamed "suicide forest" in Japan. So I anxiously awaited its arrival…and I was not disappointed in the least when I finally had the chance to read it. Rob’s great storytelling talent lies in his capture of details and small personal moments, leading his reader down a tense path toward something significant, one breath-holding step at a time.
It’s a tricky thing, kids, and brother does it with consummate skill.
The read was entirely worth the wait.
Rob was kind enough to answer some questions about his published works, his inspiration for Sea of Trees and what lies ahead for him as an author. If you’ve never heard of Aokigahara before reading this, I guarantee you won’t soon forget it afterward.
Complete the following statement: “I became an author because…” …I have no other choice. I am compelled by reasons I am not fully aware of. This is who I am to the marrow of my bones.
Complete this one, too: “When I’m not busy being an author, I like to…” Eat. Read. Travel. Explore. Photograph.
Your debut novella, Sea of Trees, is haunting and personal and deftly written – great job! The structure – interweaving the story of the main characters with accounts of the suicides performed in the Aokigahara forest in Japan – is particularly effective in establishing tension in small measures. Where did you draw your inspiration for the story and its unique telling? I randomly read an article about Aokigahara and was just immediately taken with it—how a place so hauntingly beautiful can not only exist, but continue to be a setting for so much violence today. I don’t have any personal connections or anecdotes involving suicide (I consider myself lucky in that regard), but I can appreciate why these people feel this way, the mindset they’re in and the seemingly unmoving block in the way of them being truly happy. And for these people, suicide is the only logical way out—that release they’ve been searching for. And that really was my inspiration—I’m not trying to solve suicide in Sea of Trees, I’m not trying to make excuses for it or judge anyone, but instead, just present it as a thing that does happen, showing how certain people got to that point, how they feel so alone but really, in this very macabre action, are more connected than they realize.
Current publishing trends buck the “novel as king” notion and allow the opportunity for stories of varying lengths to be presented to reading audiences. What was your reasoning behind choosing to write SEA as a novella rather than as a full-length novel? Don’t get me wrong, novels are great, but isn’t there something fantastic about a snappy, quick-to-read story that you can digest in a single sitting (or two)? The only concern with doing a novella is, I think, making sure you write a compelling story in a shorter amount of room, but otherwise, I think it’s a great way to tell a story without dragging it on more than is needed. I honestly can’t imagine Sea of Trees as a full-length novel—I think it works best as a novella so as not to completely overwhelm the reader. On another, more personal note, I think it’s a great way to introduce myself—and my work—to the public. A quick read that (hopefully) packs a wallop.
How did you learn about Aokigahara? I stumbled on an article about the place and I started researching non-stop for about a month or so, reading anything I could get my hands on, even watching a few documentaries to get a feel of the place. If anyone out there has researched it, I’m sure you’ll agree it is…while beautiful…a very frightening place.
Have you ever visited the forest – or Japan, for that matter - or was Sea written purely as a speculative story? I’ve been to Tokyo—briefly—but never Aokigahara. I definitely plan on making a trip in the near future, though. I do love being outdoors—hiking, camping, canoeing, etc.—so I drew on my own experiences in the woods of Michigan (which are plentiful), the sounds of the forests, the smells, the feeling of isolation that can, absolutely creep up on you, and then I magnified that for Sea of Trees. After all, can you imagine already wandering lost in the woods of a place you’re not familiar with, a land you’re not familiar with, knowing there are dead bodies at random? Creepy.
You also curate and edit Midwestern Gothic, a quarterly periodical featuring the best and brightest in contemporary American Midwestern writings. How did this come about? I studied Regionalism during my Master’s program and just found an entirely new appreciation for where I grew up. I honestly believe the Midwest United States is often overlooked, dismissed as being populated with nothing but blue collar workers. Luddites with no taste. The first germ of an idea for Midwestern Gothic was to combat that notion—that we have our own mythologies, our own unique histories and culture here, and we produce some of the best art and work in the country (the term “gothic” in our title refers to real life, not “Victorian Gothic”/horror). My Midwestern Gothic partner Jeff and I further shaped the journal into what it is today, and our goal, while perhaps lofty, is to be the premiere journal on Midwestern writing and poetry.
Are there any authors after whom you’ve modeled your own “authorly path”? I mean, I’ve had arbitrary goals in my mind at various points—for example, I wanted to be published by/before my twenty-ninth birthday, like Faulkner—but I’ve come to realize while there are many a great authors out there, (cheeseball alert) you’re always on your own path. We are made up of our own unique experience, and for me, it was traveling the world, seeing good, bad, and ugly things, and getting inspiration so I could sit down and write someday—that’s what I personally needed to do. For others, they may not. And in this realization, I began to separate myself from needing to be like other authors, making sure to take my time and do the best work I can. So, short answer, there are authors whose careers I wish I could emulate, sure, but I guess I’m on my own path, which is good, because I think it makes my writing more real that way. More personal.
What’s next for Robert James Russell, author and editor at large? Continuing to work on Midwestern Gothic (we have some exciting developments coming up this year), and slowly—ever so slowly—working on my next novel. Oh, and of course I’ll be continuing to get the word of Sea of Trees out there, doing a few readings here and there.
Rob’s cool all over the place, kids.
Sea of Trees is haunting enough - and quick enough - to bear a second reading, so I’m planning to revisit it very soon. I highly recommend that you grab a copy for yourself and read his beautiful word craft. Then, head on over to Midwestern Gothic and check out all the other talented writers he’s assembled for your reading discovery. Rob also runs a great website of his own, has an author's page on Facebook, and makes for an awesome Twitter follow with a killer code name: @robhollywood.
See? Dude's already a star.
I have some catching up to do myself, with past issues of the Gothic…there’s a rich vein of storytelling in our own backyard that cries out for exploration. Lucky for us, Rob and company are providing a fantastic, reverent venue through which we can all take up the adventure.
Thanks much for the interview, Mr. Hollywood, and for crafting such a lovely work as you have with Sea of Trees.