Like a Letter Tied to a Balloon: An Interview with Kent Russell



There’s a voiceover in The Beginners, where Ewan McGregor’s character compares his romantic partnership to that of his parents. “We didn’t go to this war. We didn’t have to hide to have sex. Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn’t have time for and a happiness that I never saw with them.”

Nonfiction writer Kent Russell didn’t fight in Vietnam like his father or in Afghanistan like his best friend.

He went to college, drank beer, attended The Gathering of the Juggalos, partied with snake handlers, and stalked Amish baseball players. He wrote about his adventures for Harper’s, GQ, The Believer, and Tin House.

In first book, the essay collection I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, Russell searches for his place in popular American masculinity, white middle-class at its darkest and most absurd. It’s a quiet, personal war. “I am homesick most for the place I’ve never known,” he writes.

We emailed as he finished the book tour for A Timid Son.

I started following your career a few years ago with “American Juggalo.” The essay’s winding research and narrative voice hooked me, and I went online to learn more about its writer but only found a handful of publications. Even now, you don’t keep a website or public social media. I’m curious to hear about your reasons for this and how much your agent or publisher prodded you to change.

The lack of a website can be chalked up to straight laziness. I simply do not feel like filling out an “About Me” section. (That’s what I wrote a book for!) Also: shame. I feel that, were all of my pieces—and I mean all of them, not just the ones that were transmuted into the book—compiled in one accessible location, people would have a much easier go of finding out I’m a fraud.

Social media is another story. I can’t … I can barely function as a human being as-is. In just this one earth-bound modality alone. I am so full of dread and inferiority, I so readily guzzle Haterade, that I feel as though my participation on Twitter or Instagram would cause me to blow up as MegaMan does upon death: diffusely, with woo-woo sound effects.

But it’s also like—I’m pretty filter-less in person. I’ve simply lost that desire to continuously make witticisms, in the hopes of being liked. I don’t want to have to laugh very hard at other people’s witticisms, in the hopes of being liked. I am not worried about preserving good, transactional relations at all times, about greasing the wheels of reciprocation.

I don’t know if this makes me more of an adult, or more of an asshole. What I do know is that, on Twitter, I’d expose the hard coal of my anthracite heart within like 24 hours of signing up. (There’s something to be said, after all, about people not knowing me or my work and going into my book with an open mind.)

Anyway. I’m much more comfortable crafting a persona alone, in a room, over the course of many weeks or months, and then releasing that carefully-crafted persona into the wild blue yonder—without expectation or desire for response—like a letter tied to a balloon.

Also also: I already feel utterly exposed and utterly insignificant. Cosmologically speaking, I mean. I don’t need social media doubling down on that.

OK, last thing, I know I’m getting wound up here. Let me just end this as pretentiously as possible, quoting at length from Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession. This is not about social media, of course, but it captures most if not all of my feelings re: social media:

From my intimacy with these men I acquired a new vice: abnormally developed pride, and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what. To remember that time, and my own state of mind and that of those men (though there are thousands like them today), is sad and terrible and ludicrous, and arouses exactly the feeling one experiences in a lunatic asylum. We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote—teaching others. And without remarking that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? we did not know how to reply, we all not listening to one another, talked at the same time, sometimes backing and praising one another in order to be backed and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another—just as in a lunatic asylum.

(My publishing squad never made peep one re: lack of online presence. Which shows you just how totally screwed they are, God love ‘em. Whatever, though. I’ve signed my blood pact with Old Media. I’m out here, wearing all white in the colonial compound, sipping tea from bone china, hearing faintly the whoosh and yowl of Jonathan Franzen caning another uppity blogger in the square – until the gates come down finally and irrevocably.)

With its regular references to cell phone GPS and photos, A Timid Son feels here and now. How do you compare your style of reported memoir with more casual, online expression?

I love casual, online expression. I read it compulsively every day. I thoroughly admire anyone who can step into that world and write thoughtful, expressive posts again and again and again and again. They have a skillset that I can’t even dream of acquiring.

I myself need time to figure out what I think + feel about something. I can only figure out what I think + feel about something through researching it and reporting on it and writing about it. And I happen to be an incredibly slow writer. I need days on days on days to “perfect” something. Again, this is an outmoded skillset. I would not survive in the online ecosystem. I don’t exactly know how I’ve wound up where I’ve wound up in publishing.

But to answer your question: I’m old-fashioned in that I like some time to have elapsed between when something happens and when I write about it. For the most part. I like some space to have opened up between the consciousness that did the experiencing and the consciousness that does the remembering/synthesizing/composing. I understand that this sounds rich, coming from a 29-year-old who wrote a “reported memoir.” But I just prefer that the past self and the present self be more separate in the writing. (If that’s what best serves the writing itself, etc.)

That is, after all, what separates good and bad writing, in my opinion: the distance you’ve put between your very first draft and your twelfth. I must reiterate that this is an outmoded, unpopular, unmarketable approach in terms of nonfiction writing, especially personal writing. But, shit. With each pass, I get to bring to bear whatever little intelligence I possess. With each pass, with time and effort, I might be able to create something that lasts longer than one go-round on the water-wheel of the Internet.

But please, Internet. When you do finally breach + burn legacy publishing’s hacienda—spare me my life.

I keep thinking about what you said about the difference between good and bad writing. Looking at the pieces in your book, most of them could have taken very different routes in the revision process. The options for the personal essay, “Ryan Went to Afghanistan” are infinite. How hard is it to give up those unlived lives/structures/scenes? How quickly did “American Juggalo” take its final form, balancing the action of The Gathering, Insane Clown Posse lore, and the narrator’s background? (Your line “You can be a juggalo, or you can be white trash—the first term is yours, the second is somebody else’s” nails my fascination with the subculture.) Any deleted scenes you’d like to share?

That’s a good question. Basically, my “process” is this: Whether it’s reportage, memoir, essay, or whatever else I’m working on, I go fucking nuts in that first draft. Mondo maximalism. I write out every last scene, idea, remembrance, detail, etc. I rarely even look back on the previous days’ work. I just go go go ’til I’ve exhausted my reported grist or memory reserves.

What I’m left with is ungainly and unpublishable; something I would never, ever let see the light of day. But when I go back over this odious, lexical potpourri, I can start to pick out the things that don’t belong and leave in the things that do. There’s a coherence somewhere in there, a narrative. I’m a firm believer in the unconscious. I like to let it run free, let it skate all over the page like the page is a sheet of fresh ice. The pattern it carves might seem incomprehensible at first, but there is a path in there.

Or, to further garble metaphors: It’s like all writers are sculptors. All writers have to hew at a big blank slab, have to carve out a rough shape and then refine, refine, refine, until the the figure emerges and can be sharply honed. Nonfiction writers, though, have to more or less make their own marble. I can’t order that shit from Italy, or my imagination. I have to go out and get the relevant experience + information, or else I have to dredge it from my past like some American Society for Psychical Research-era automatic writer.

So, anyway, this all is to say: You’re right that these stories could’ve gone any which way. But I don’t necessarily see them as multiverses of lives unlived, or whatever. By the time I get to the end of a piece, I know that there was only one way it could’ve gone.

For “American Juggalo,” the whole process of writing a rough draft took about three weeks. (Then, of course, came the rounds and rounds of editing with my road dogggs over at n+1. That line that you like so much—you can thank Chad Harbach for patiently teasing that one out of my idiot prose.)

It was also Harbach who, on every. single. draft., removed my favorite scene of all: the “talent” portion of the Ms. Juggalette Pageant, a.k.a. the butt-chugging contest.

With my own work, I know I am on to something, am getting at some dark truth when reading it back gives me anxiety. I recognize my faults. Do you see a connection with the masochism of personal writing—to paraphrase your book’s epigraph, say in books what you would never say aloud—and the tough, sometimes dangerous subjects you are attracted to? Or, I mean, is writing just a nobler version of drinking and fighting?

Oh, I have a very hard time writing about myself. Very hard. Introspection is something that does not come naturally me. Examining all my motivations and rationalizations, putting them on the page—terrible.

Moreover, whenever I attempt to do that (when I know I must), an unquenchable voice rises up in me, in the peanut gallery of my soul, a sneering, shit-eating voice that shouts out LAAAAAAAAAAME!

But when I hear him, I know I’m doing God’s work. For that’s what the book’s about, ultimately: breaking free of his grasp; unclenching the spiritual fist; letting oneself put oneself in a vulnerable position, letting oneself receive love and give it freely; digging one’s monstrous self out of the coffin in which it reposes, and dragging it into the withering, denuding light of day; being not afraid anymore.

At a young age, you’ve tackled American manhood and your own journey. What’s next? Do you see yourself leaning deeper into longform journalism? (More pieces about rap music, please!)

Oh, yeah, I consider myself a magazine writer. Albeit a magazine writer whose first step is always toward the subjects/situations/people who interest me, in which or in whom I see a glint of myself reflected. I gotta go and report quite simply because I can’t make shit up. I could never be a fiction writer. I’m not imaginative enough or smart enough or talented enough. Plus, creative nonfiction is my first and truest love. I’m sticking with the girl who brung me.

Also: We’ve got more than enough white guys in glasses explaining rap music to us, David. Rap music and basketball. Because I am a truly unique snowflake, a beautiful stallion running free across the publishing plain—this white guy in glasses is gonna stick to ice hockey, horror movies, and original sin, thank you very much.


Photo: Michael Lionstar

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.