“‘Two Snakes Fighting’ Bores the Shit out of Me”: An Interview with Josh Russell

Josh Russell

In the Summer of 2020, I was hospitalized for almost a month and reached out via text to a limited number of writer-friends to let them know what was going on with me. Of that small number, Josh Russell has stayed in touch with me daily, in a manner that has improved my health, deepened our friendship, and, I hope, aided each other during a period in which there have been many days where both of us wondered if there was any reason to write fiction, particularly the kind of fiction each of us have chosen to pursue. 

During that time, we’ve seen too how both of us, survivors of the eighties, midwesterners who’ve lived most of our adult lives in the south, married to southerners, who’ve navigated through a number of different universities—nine have seen fit to employ the two of us—have more in common than not. And I will say it unhesitatingly: I have no other correspondent whom I look forward to hearing from more. 

Yet had none of this texting developed, I still would have been a Josh Russell fan. From his first novel, Yellow Jack, to its follow up, My Bright Midnight, to A True History of the Captivation of , and Transportation to, and Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag, he has done nothing but delight with central characters ranging from J.M.Daguerre’s assistant, Claude, to a German baker in pre-WWII New Orleans to the eponymous and amorous grad student. Russell provides the reader with a poetic precision and an aim to lose her in worlds not quite her own. He seems incapable of writing not only the same book twice but so too the same sentence. This March LSU Press loosed upon the world his first collection of stories, King of the Animals, and in it the same charms of his longer fictions can be found, perhaps even more so, with 47 stories so varied one might wonder if the same writer could produce them. I think one of the reasons it had taken me so long to consider assembling an interview is I didn’t want to share Josh with the world. But so be it. I run that risk.

This interview was conducted over the marvelous Google Docs from 9/30/21 to 10/1/21.

As a Russell completist, I think I have a particular insight into your work. And one thing to note is that you have published novels, novellas, and now a book of stories, which range from lengthy to old age and microscopic. Why are fiction’s forms so valuable to you? 

Okay, so we’ll start this with me offering up a pretentious answer: Form follows inspiration. Maybe a little less pretentious: One of the things I enjoy most about writing is figuring out which container will best hold my idea. Sometimes that container is a lyrical one-page almost-prose poem, sometimes a “traditional” short story, sometimes a novel. One of the things I like best about fiction is how plastic it is, now you can bend and stretch form.

Is this at all a process of toggling, as in going back-and-forth between more lengthy fictions and shorter ones? Or are you now focused on short pieces? Why?

I go back and forth, though the longest thing I’ve written in the last ten years is forty-eight pages long (“House,” the last story in King of the Animals). I had cancer five years ago, and maybe it would sound profound to say that since then I’ve felt the urge to work in forms that I can finish quickly, because I now know that I don’t have infinite time, but I was working small before I got sick. All that’s really changed since then is that I have some stories about people with colon cancer. But don’t worry, they’re pretty funny. The real reason I’m focused on very short prose is that I want a challenge: How short can this be and still be a complete story?

I have always believed that short short fiction—what you and I might’ve called sudden fiction back when we were in graduate school—must entail sacrificing one of the essential elements: plot, point of view, characterization, setting, theme , imagery. Is one or any of these elements reduced in your short fiction? Does it depend upon the story?

For me it’s all about omission and distillation, and the trick is figure out what I need to leave out and what I need to keep and boil down to get the story to do what I want it to do—so maybe I’m back to form following inspiration. It really does depend on what comes from the inspiration. Sometimes I strip out setting, sometimes dialogue, sometimes plot. And sometimes I leave it all in and distill everything. When I was in graduate school, my friends and I were fixated on The World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest, at Sundog (now the Southeast Review). Back then entries had to be 250 words. So I’d write something small and if it was over 250 words, I’d ask myself what was essential, what had to be there to make the story work. That question was kind of a breakthrough for me. Asking what’s essential has served me well ever since, no matter what I’m writing: I like to think my novels benefit from asking that question.

Oh lord, I’d forgotten about that contest! I knew a woman who won third place when I was at Houston and that achievement made me want to marry her!

I was a finalist two years in a row and you never even bought me a drink.

We were in rival programs: such fraternization was looked down upon. 

One of the things I admire about King of the Animals is you assembled the stories in ways so that we don’t see too many like stories together. You don’t seem to rely upon the same “trick“ in story after story. That’s one of the things I find challenging when reading a collection almost entirely out of flash. The reader sees the same tricks displayed in the same places. First, can you talk about the assembly of the stories? How you determined their order? Second, can you talk about what has become your variety of methods within the very short story?

Okay, more pretention: King of the Animals is set up like a palindrome. The first and last stories echo each other, the second and second-to-last do the same thing, etc. That, I hope, makes the book feel, I don’t know, sturdy? Because I like collections that are not composed of twelve versions of the same story, I made sure that there are shifts from story to story: contemporary to historical, overtly-formal to basic linear narrative, domestic realism to folk tale, first person to third to second person to first person plural. In part that’s because I don’t like to write the same kind of story over and over, so that kind of shifting is also a way of mimicking the process of writing these stories, of saying, Hey, I was thinking about this, but then I started thinking about this, and then this, and then . . .

As for the variety of methods, one of the things I love about very short stories is how they allow for experimentation with less fear of failure. Deciding to try and write a three-page story that’s in the form of a pop-up book about World War 1 is a lot less scary than thinking about spending months or years trying to write a novel in the form of a pop-up book about World War 1. Plus I get bored. Sometimes I want to write about nostalgia, sometimes I want to write about German football played in empty stadiums during a pandemic, sometimes I want to write about academia and online education, and if those stories are very short, I can write all of them and not be bored.

Another advantage of being a Russell completist  is getting to see what some of your obsessions are. One is photography. What do you think is the behind that obsession? And what do you think about the fact that all of us carry around a better camera in our phone than that which was available to photographers twenty to thirty years ago? Has your interest in photography waned or grown differently as we move in the direction of the selfie and Insta?

My interest in photography predates my interest in fiction, though the two are related, I guess: I’ve always loved relics, even when I was a kid. We moved all the time: different schools and houses for kindergarten, first grade, second grade. Two houses and one school for third through sixth. Then three houses and three schools in two states for middle and high school. Photographs provided continuity: family snapshots, pictures of the cats. I took pictures when I was a teenager then but never considered what I did arty, or if I did, I didn’t think it was successful art. Art was painting. The first job I had after graduate school was working in a fine photography gallery in New Orleans. I made custom boxes used to ship expensive pictures. That meant I handled work by Walker Evans and Sandy Skogland and Arthur Stiegliz and Eudora Welty and Edward Curtis. (Once I almost broke a Curtis “Curt-Tone”: an image printed on a glass plate that’s then gold-leafed; someone paid $10,000 for it, and it slipped in my hands while I was packing it and almost ended up on the floor). Working at that gallery is how I learned about memorial photographs. Talk about relics.

I take pictures with my phone, a phone my daughter tells me has a terrible camera. Seems okay to me, but I’m not fifteen. For a few years I was taking snapshots of ghost payphones and posting them on Instagram with miniature essays/stories as captions. Thirty years ago I would’ve made a zine with that content, maybe. Lately I take pictures of fading commercial signs and simply identify their locations. Many of the quotidian things that filled the landscape when I was a kid are disappearing, either because of gentrification or rot, so I want a record. I’m not embarrassed by my nostomania.

I don’t think the rise of the selfie and Instagram has changed my feelings about photographs. One thing I feel the snapshot and the story have in common is the way in which both of them exploit the frame. When we see a picture that shows someone standing in front of a house, but the frame cuts off half the house, and only holds the bumper of a car and a single tree limb, we don’t think, Oh, weird, that woman lives in half of a house and in front of that half-house there is a levitating tree limb and bumper. Instead we feel the whole house, the whole tree, and the whole car. The parts gesture to a whole outside the frame. For me, that’s what happens in a successful story: the parts I include gesture to a whole outside the frame of the story.

One of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium is Visibility. Considering that he wrote this before the cell phone camera how important still is that quality in your fiction?

It’s important because it’s something I have to fight against. If I’m not careful, I might just draw word pictures of sunsets. That said, one of the things I admire is writing that makes me slow down and see something in a new way, writing that makes me look at a sunset more carefully. I hope I manage to do that in my stories—make readers slow down and look.

But that’s another admirable quality of your fiction: your mission to above all not be boring. What do you think are the tiresome matters in fiction? How do you combat that?

Two snakes fighting bores the shit out of me. By which I mean, writing that is fixated on describing how things are in the world. What I’m more interested in is how people see things, how ten people would see those snakes in ten very different ways. So what I’m always trying to do is think about those ten ways of looking at the snakes. Hopefully that makes things not boring.

You know I’m thinking about getting that Gardner quote tattooed on my left wrist, right? What’s generated your interest in writing from the POV of female characters? On whom do you rely to make sure you’ve gotten it right?

Get that tattoo. I wanted to have GET OFF MY LAWN tattooed on the back of my hand when I turned 50—because I could then read it when yelling at the neighborhood kids, since I would be too old to remember what to yell at them—but my loving wife vetoed my plan (thank goodness). I got the two small tattoos I have in 1991 and 1992. I need more, don’t I?

Re POV: One or more of the ten people watching the snakes fight is a woman, Tom. Jeeze. I’m not much interested in people just like me—I know how I see the snakes. What interests me is how someone not like me sees those snakes—or those pay phones, or whatever. It’s the one reason I sometimes chose write historical fiction: I want to play with and explore the idea that there is some kind of shared human condition, a foundation on which we then build individuality. My aforementioned wife, who is a poet, is an honest reader. She calls bullshit if I get it wrong.

RE: tattoos: Scorpio, the artist who did my first, a Daffy Duck on my first shoulder, said, “Get one tattoo, you’ll die with two.” So take that for what it’s worth.

But another presence, if not obsession: There’s no shortage of sex in the Russell canon and KOTA. Weren’t you In workshop when the edicts about not writing about sex were issued? What’s behind all this?

How to answer without risking getting canceled and also maintaining my Midwestern prudishness. Sex? What sex? Okay, alright. Yellow Jack, my first novel, was in many ways an exercise in contrarianism: Oh, you can’t give away the ending of the novel in its first pages? Oh, you can’t write about sex that much? WELL LOOK AT THIS. I was happy to find out that breaking some of the rules I’d been told ended up making my work storonger. So maybe it’s partially because of those edicts you mentioned. I was also told one-page stories aren’t stories and you shouldn’t have characters made out of sugar and flour. In addition, I want to write about highly charged moments in peoples’ lives, the moments when they feel weirdest—at once empowered and endangered, and/or ecstatic and terrified, and/or embarrassed and proud—and sometimes those moments occur during sex. Add in the challenge of writing well about something that’s so often done badly: there are few good sex scenes in literature. I like challenges.

I know In our back-and-forth texts I always insist upon what Janet Burroway called “sensory, affective detail.” What are you putting in its place?

Sex between humans and golems made of flour and sugar, or someone surprised their partner knows how to play the harp, e.g. the kinds of arresting details that fill (I hope) in interesting ways the spaces left empty by my not doing the set-dressing I am less and less interested in doing, in part because I’ve done it before and I want to do something different, and in part because the specific set often doesn’t matter: a bed is a bed is a bed. But King Pepper is made of flour and sugar and has three testicles.

Calvino shows up more directly in the suburban folktales section. One, is this not evidence of why, at least in the 90s, the graduate study in creative writing was so fantastic? Where else would in the US we get introduced to such a multifaceted master? Two, describe how Suburban Folkrales arose. And what you hoped to manipulate or manage in this series of small stories?

Being in grad school in 1990 to 1993 was indeed fantastic, but my wife introduced me to Calvio’s Italian Folktales. That was the gateway to Invisible Cities, etc. During the first years we were together, we used to drive long distances a lot: to her parents, to my parents, to Denver from Baton Rouge, etc. On one of those trips we read Italian Folktales to each other. Years later I started reading them to our kid as her bedtime stories. There are a lot of great, weird lines in those folktales, and when one of those lines would make my kid and me laugh or groan (“Our wives are to blame!”) or both, I’d mark it. The next day I’d look back, and if it still made me laugh or groan or both, I’d try and use that line as the seed for my own folktale. Onto that line I’d graft suburban concerns: kidnappers in dark sedans, marital infidelity, school overcrowding, climate collapse. Calvino says in his foreword that folktales aren’t static, that each time they’re told they change, though they retain the important essence of the original.

Let’s talk about suburbs briefly. We both live in something akin to a suburb but it’s not Cheever’s. How has living in the burbs influenced you as a writer? Because it’s given you something of a new subject matter, moving from the NO of your first two books, and the college towns of your novel, but I’d like to hear if you think there’s more to it.

When I was younger, nothing seemed more boring than the suburbs, perhaps because that’s where I lived much of my childhood. The cities those suburbs were an outgrowth of always seemed much more interesting: better record stores, better food, people yelling in the street, panhandlers. It took getting to the point where I wanted to write almost entirely about interiority and the small dramas of life to allow me to see that people in the suburbs are worth exploring, even if those people earnestly celebrate the opening of new grocery stores. So instead of simply thinking, What a bunch of clowns when I see my neighbors celebrating the new Publix, I try to think, How did you people become such clowns?And are you really clowns, or is this an act? Seriously, that’s a mystery worth considering.

Do you have a sense of who your reader is anymore? That old standard that John Updike proposed of a kid in the library of a Midwestern state happening upon one’s book seems so unlikely these days. So other than me who is the ideal Russell neighbor? Don’t say Michael Griffith either.

I like in this question what I think is a typo: who is the ideal Russell neighbor? My literal neighbors are a diverse bunch. Right next door is a couple who have, in fact, read one of my books, one of the New Orleans novels: My Bright Midnight. They both told me they liked it, and they both talked to me about in ways that made clear they were telling the truth when they said they liked it. He’s a UPS driver and she works for nonprofits. I’m pretty sure they’re the only ones on my street who have read anything I’ve written, even though some of them know I write books. It’s not something I mention when I’m walking my dogs. In my neighborhood there’re people who work in IT, teach elementary school, are retired firefighters and music school deans, a guy who works in the kitchen of my favorite bar, a married couple who’re both librarians, a film studies professor, an electrical contractor. My mom and dad live five minutes away these days, so add two neighbors to the list of those who’ve read my stuff. This is a bookish suburb—we have the largest independent book festival in the US; there are at least five independent bookstores in Decatur and a sixth and seventh are just over the Decatur/Atlanta line—so there are people around here who read, but like my neighbors, they’re a diverse bunch. So this is a long way of saying that I really don’t know who my reader is. Some of the literal neighbors who have read my work read a lot of “literary fiction,” some have read something I wrote because their kids are in in school with my kid, some see the cover of  my most recent book, which is cool, and pick it up in the one bookstore that stocks it.

I’ve always wondered if the collection of short fiction is for anyone other than other writers. Yet there are in KOTA many stories individually—and the “suburban folktales” section—that would appeal to your neighbors. The opening story, especially, which is one of the first I know of to deal with the Trump presidency, albeit in an indirect and almost fabulistic manner. Read in the first year of the Biden presidency, it offers a stark reminder of the need to avoid any electoral complacency. I’m trying to imagine reading it in year five of the Trump presidency: we’d probably have to smuggle copies in the gulag! But here I’m putting you totally on the spot: who is the audience for a collection of short fiction?

Beyond my neighborhood and suburb, I guess the people who are reading collections of short fiction published by independent and university presses these days are often people who write short fiction or once wrote short fiction or want to write short fiction. That’s a pretty large neighborhood, too big for me to walk the dogs down every street.

I’m imagining Cheever and O’Connor Streets are pretty wide and long in that neighborhood, while Barthelme is a cul de sac and Carver and Beattie are dead ends. 

And Borges Alley runs behind the strip mall.

What did guide your conception and development of the title story? To me, it hits all the right notes without being obvious or pedantic, and does all that within the frame of a coming of age story that is pretty damn delightful.

Thanks! I like it too. I wrote that story the summer after I got sick, after not writing for about a year. My wife finally told me to stop moping and write something, because much of my moping was about not writing. One reason I wasn’t writing was because I was worried about a lot of stuff: politics, my health, parenting a teenager, being the child of aging parents. So I decided to write about what I was worried about rather than not writing because I was worried about those things. And I love IKEA, so it was fun to set a story in IKEA.

I didn’t want to bring this up, because I’m loath to talk about my malady (neurosarcoidosis), but you mentioned it and how you are writing about it and how it made you reckon with the fact you don’t have infinite time. But colon cancer: when were you diagnosed?

April 15, 2016. I had blood in my shit so I went to the doctor. (PSA: If you have blood in your shit, tell your doctor.) She scheduled a colonoscopy for me. The gastroenterologist was sure it was hemorrhoids, but then . . . I had surgery in June. I lost about a foot of innards and a dozen lymph nodes. They said it would take six weeks to recover, but I’ve found out that six weeks is a popular recovery timeline fantasy that I’m guessing was invented by insurance companies. How long does it take to recover from a lower anterior resectioning? Six weeks! Having a C-section? Six weeks! Open-heart surgery? Six weeks! Bullshit.

And while it’s not like sex or photography, it shows up in a number of ways. And I’ll say it shows up in ways significant and subtle. Why do you think you won’t be losing it from your toolbox any time soon?

It was the first time I’d been seriously ill, so the shock of the new definitely meant it’s made its way into my thinking. When I got sick, I thought it was weird, but then everyone I talked to either had had cancer, knew someone who had or had had cancer, or was dealing with having cancer at the same time I was. Suddenly it seemed like part of the shared human condition—especially the shared condition of aging. I was surprised that I hadn’t known this; until that point cancer was something rare and weird, probably because the three friends I lost to it were young when they died.

You and I talk a lot about the workshops we were students in. How and why are your workshops different?

The workshops I was part of when a student worked in the “traditional” fashion: Like an autopsy. After a few insincere comments about what was “working,” we would get to the reason we were there: cataloging the ways in which the writer’s negligence led to the story’s death while the writer sat silently and listened to the accusations. What I try to do is run the workshop like a conversation. My students have to introduce their stories by telling the group what inspired them to write the story, what their process is like, and what they hope we’ll talk about. Then we have a conversation about the story. Those conversations are much more helpful than an autopsy.

I think I’ve shared with our readers why they should buy King of the Animals, and for that matter, Yellow Jack, My Bright Midnight, and The True History of the Captivation of and Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance Of Hannah Guttentag. What am I missing?

Right now, nothing. I’m working on a book of very short essays about art (writing, visual art, music)—one’s about your beloved John Gardner—and also writing stories, most of them very short, though I did just finish a 36-page story about New Orleans in the early 1990s. Why ignore your obsessions?


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