Without a Reliable Guide: An Interview with Russell Persson


I’ve been friends with Russell Persson for over two decades. We met in NYC, two young guys trying to be fiction writers, and that created a bond that’s lasted through a lot of life for both of us. I first read The Way of Florida in an early draft and then recently reread the novel as an advanced reading copy. Persson’s novel is a brilliant take on the historical novel, telling the story of Pánfilo de Narváez’s disastrous exploration of the American Gulf Coast, an 8-year ordeal in which only four of the 300 Spanish Conquistadors survive. In my blurb for The Way of Florida, I said, “getting lost in Russell Persson’s strange language feels like a beautiful and hallucinatory triumph.”

The Way of Florida explores the English language in a distinct, unsettling, and quite moving way. How did you arrive at the strange version of English for the novel?

I’d been working with the language and the idiom for a few years before I started The Way of Florida, but the stories I was working on at the time never felt like the right habitat for that language. I’d been working on some stories loosely based on family history and stories that had to do with some early experiences fishing on lakes and exploring the woods in New England, but when I went at those stories with a language that was rolling and loping and bounding and had a sense of urgency and a kind of bodily momentum it just didn’t feel right. The stories, to me, were more contemplative — more up in the heart instead of down in the belly. There was something that felt inauthentic about it, like I was trying to use language to create an unnecessary urgency.

But then I came across the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. I had insomnia at a friend’s apartment and I looked around for something to read and found one of those books from the old Time-Life series on seafarers, which included a brief chapter on the Narvaez expedition. In the morning my friend suggested I read the full account, which he’d read in college. Once I started reading the Narrative, I felt like I had found that right habitat for the language I’d developed and after finishing my first reading I began working on my version of the story. At the time I don’t think I questioned why I was re-working a 500-year-old Spanish document. It felt inevitable, so I followed that impulse down the hall.

Did the fact that the original version was written in Spanish help you to discover the distinct voice of the novel?

That the original version was written in Spanish wasn’t as important as the unintended narrative technique, which seems to have no regard for the consistency of the passing of time. There are passages that go on for a few pages that describe in detail some specific event, and then in the span of one sentence an entire week of action is quickly addressed and suddenly we’re somewhere else. Not only does that require a unique form of attention, it also opened up the possibility of accelerating or slowing down my own sentence rhythms and cadences in a way that I hadn’t played with before.

So what about rolling, loping, and bounding language was a match for retelling the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca?

On the relation of the story to how the story is told, you can maintain that the style or idiom of the prose needs to be of a piece with the tenor of the story — the music should complement the scene. But I had composed the music first and this music for me was not negotiable and I couldn’t look away and so I felt the scene should be what complements the music.

When I read the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca the first time, it was clear that this was the scene for which my music was composed. At the very start of the Narrative, the Narvaez expedition is blown off course by a storm after departing Havana and not even the expedition’s navigator knows where they are. So we are immediately lost, without a reliable guide, on sea and then land that has no map — and this seemed perfect for the kind of sentences that I was composing — from the body but also disorienting, strange, exploratory, driving. The Narrative continues and is almost always in motion, going from one violent and desperate scene to the next almost without pause. It was this sense of motion and desperation and exploration that made the Narrative a perfect setting for my sentences.

I love your adjectives in that description of the language. What you do in The Way of Florida is all of that. On just the first page, the novel’s first word is a conjunction (and what preceded the conjunction is presumably lost). The second sentence is this: “We passed over to the coast of Florida, and came to land, and went along the coast the way of Florida.” It’s an acoustically-beautiful sentence and the way you handle the late phrasing in the sentence was at once clarifying and disorienting and placed me on the map with you. The last two sentences of the first page are this: “Dry Tortuga far out and east of us the bonefish in between. The fish in clouds around us.” It’s strange, moving and bewildering. I don’t really have a question here. I guess I’m just naming some things that helped me get lost in The Way of Florida. So maybe say anything you want about any of that?

That opening conjunction was my way of allowing the reader to walk into the story and not be slowed down or disenchanted by the constructs of setting and introductions. I wanted the opening pages to be more impressionistic and without the elements in fiction that I find so repellent — those openings to stories or books where I know I’m just getting set up to feel a certain way, that kind of stage setting that I immediately turn away from. Andrei Tarkovsky, who has been for me a profound influence, is a master at this kind of impressionistic storytelling — how he’s able, without dialog or music, to bring the viewer’s awareness, and bodily awareness, into the story and into a scene by composing a picture that is not only dream-like but makes it seem as if the viewer is recalling some lost memory, something recognizable but also foreign and alluring. In the opening lines of The Way of Florida I wanted to introduce the reader to a kind of nebulous diorama, where some things are familiar and perhaps the language is unusual but there’s enough for our human curiosity to get involved and start to walk along with the sentences.

In some of my favorite films or books or works of art, I feel like the work is teaching you how to look at it, or how to hear it — how to be with it, as a kind of conspirator. When I read Beckett or Jabes or Anne Carson I get the feeling that buried inside the text itself is the key or the instructions on how to read it. Sometimes it requires a form of attention or patience we’re not used to cultivating to learn what that key is. But when we do find those instructions it’s like the smoke has lifted and we can see across the entire valley and we want to walk across to the far end.

Right, I think some of the various elements on that first page ask the reader to stop and pay attention – and that that teaches us how to read The Way of Florida. But it wasn’t so long before I was lost, along with the expedition, lost in a different way, of course, but happily so. In a sense, I feel as if the entire novel could be considered a treatise on writing, on the writer as explorer, on the reader as explorer – always circling back and feeding the various elements and layers of the word-generating system you’ve created. How far off am I with that?

Robert Frost has that great quote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I know we’ve all heard it too many times. But even though it’s become a refrigerator magnet I still believe in the basic validity of that sentiment. I did, when I was writing The Way of Florida, especially the first draft, feel like an explorer in a way. I always write a first draft longhand in a notebook with a cheap ballpoint pen and there were nights when I was involuntarily hunched over my desk, working quickly and pressing hard into the paper, in a way trying to cultivate an urgency and desperation, like someone walking and hacking and vigilant. In retrospect it sounds histrionic. But that sense of exploration was there, that lostness and excitement, and it felt like the right fuel to burn at the time. That you felt a sense of exploration and lostness as a reader I’m glad to know.


Russell Persson lives in Reno, Nevada. The Way of Florida is his first novel. His work has previously appeared in The Quarterly, Unsaid Magazine, and 3AM Magazine.

Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, and Us. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages.

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