Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bryan Russell Interview

Today I'm interviewing Bryan Russell. Before I get down to it I want to say a few things about Bryan. I know that you all give me a lot of credit for being all about helping other writers, and I do try, and I appreciate your thanks and commendations, but I could blog for decades and never hold a candle to what Bryan does for the community.

Bryan has been the Chief Moderator of Nathan Bransford's forums since long before I met him. That would be achievement enough, but if you take the time to look at what he does there, you would see that this man, while yes, also one of the most talented writers in the world, is even more so one of the most giving. He gives advice free and easy, but more so he gives it with kindness and genuine compassion. This is a rare quality in a man with his level of skill and knowledge, and I urge you, STRONGLY, to get to know him better (as long as you don't take time away from my own milking him for advice and knowledge).

He also hosts one of the coolest blog features I have ever come across. The World in Miniature is a series of flash fiction stories, many by Bryan, a few by myself, and several by other featured guest authors. He'll take submissions from anyone, as long as you're willing to listen to a little editorial suggestion, if necessary (which trust me, is worth it's weight in gold).

Anyway, that's probably enough of kissing Bryan's ass, but I would just like to add one more thing: Thank you for all you've done for me B.

Now on to the interview:

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer, or rather an author?

Well, the writing thing just sort of happened. Once I started reading a lot as a kid, I just started writing, too, utterly fascinated by stories. But I don’t think I really thought seriously about authorship until I was in grade seven or eight. Then it really started striking me how much I loved this writing thing, and also that people actually did this in the adult world – they made a living writing stories.

So this understanding of possibility mixed with a couple of my fledgling efforts in this period helped foster that goal. Having fellow students respond to my writing was really important, too – a sense of the possibility of what I could do with words. I wrote a Halloween story in which an evil spirit murdered all my classmates. And, for whatever reason, they all loved it. There was utter excitement to see what would happen next, who in the class would be knocked off. I mean, luckily I was a likeable and well-adjusted kid, so I got a great grade rather than a trip to the principal’s office and psychiatric counseling. Maybe it was because I killed myself most gruesomely of all…

Or maybe people simply like getting murdered. Who knew?

How long have you been writing seriously?

Well, that youthful seriousness started then, back in grades seven and eight. I started writing real stories, 30 page stories with real plots and characters and themes. But I was young, and it was still sort of haphazard, and that continued through high school. But I read a million things, and I kept writing a bit, and by the end of my time at Banting Secondary School I knew this was what I wanted. I went to University and got a BA and MA in English and Creative Writing, and obviously by that point I was taking it pretty seriously. Wrote a ton, and churned out my first novel attempt for my Masters thesis.

What is your favorite thing about writing?

Well, I’m absolutely a sentence junkie. I’m obsessed with words, with the rhythm and flow of sentences. There’s something inherently fabulous and beautiful to me about great prose. I mean, the uniqueness of it! Style and voice are like fingerprints, singular marks on the worlds they touch.

But, even deeper than that, is the obsession with story. My brain revolves around story, and there’s something intensely explorative about writing. I don’t write to share something I know with others; I write to discover something I don’t know. Writing, for me, is a curious act of exploration. I think my brain is tuned to narrative, and it’s how I come to understand and experience the world around me. It’s made understandable by story, by trying to understand the connection between people and events. My brain makes stories of everything – they sort of swim around inside my head non-stop. And writing is just a deeper and more focused attempt to understand and explore the world.

What is the most difficult part?

Well, I think it used to be revision, because I wasn’t very good at it. I mean, I could polish a sentence fine. But deep story revisions? No. And part of the problem was that my first drafts were pretty good. Lots of clean, (hopefully) interesting writing. And when something is pretty good it’s easier to leave it alone, to accept it. If you realize something is crappy, it’s easier to take the axe to it.

To self: “Oh shit, that’s terrible. Bloody delete the whole thing, moron.”

But if something’s pretty good?

To self: “Hey, that’s okay. On to the next thing…”

But pretty good is often not good enough. Sometimes you need great. And to get to great you have to push past “pretty good”. And that means understanding how to revise. That means challenging yourself, pushing yourself. Don’t stop at the easy spot. You gotta get to the summit. And make it down alive.

Now, I’ve gotten better at revision, and so maybe it’s now… story? The intricacies and subtleties of it, how it’s all tied together and flows along with the rising and falling of tension. It’s funny, because story is the thing we usually think we master first. We have these cool ideas, these stories in our head. Awesome! But we realize our craft isn’t there yet, and so we go about learning all sorts of things. And then we finish and our skills are dope. But we realize that this whole idea of story is trickier than we once thought, and far more complex.

Anyone who uses the word dope to mean cool and has a Master's degree in creative writing is pretty cool in my book.

Other than your current fantasy novel have you ever written any novel length works in any other genre?

Four, actually. The first was a literary novel. It had some great writing, and I like the characters and ideas and themes of it… but it was really more like a skeleton of a novel than a novel itself. I’ve thought about rewriting it at some point, using those bones as the basis for a new book.

The second was also literary, but a sort of surrealist war novel set in the near future. What would you call that? I don’t know. I still love this book, and once had a lit agent for it (she passed away from cancer), but it needs to be rewritten/revised. Which I’ll do, at some point.

The third was a literary novel as well. Pretty straight literary. But it sucked. Okay, there were a couple good points. It should, really, have been a longish short story rather than a novel. Oops. It’s trunked. And trunked to stay.

The fourth is a literary/crime novel about a woman who is kidnapped and trapped in a makeshift cell. I love this one, also. It’s more recent, and I’m still revising, but my focus is on my fantasy novels first and foremost. My goal is to be a fantasy novelist, so I want to treat that ambition in the most professional way possible. It comes first. These other books are on a catch-as-catch-can schedule

What is your favorite genre to read?

Well, I’m a bit of an omnivore, really. I read just about everything, as I have eclectic tastes. I read more literary than anything, but I also read a lot of fantasy, crime, memoir and history. Plus all sorts of odds and ends, from science to religion. I read a lot about virology. Don’t ask me why.

Did you ever play Dungeons and Dragons, the real pen and paper tabletop game?

Indeed I did. I had a vast collection of multi-sided dice. My d30 was like a best friend. It practically glowed.

I must admit I don't remember ever seeing a d30. d20, sure, d100 even, but never a d30, and I should point out, even though I look up to Bryan a lot, and consider him a bit of a mentor, I'm actually about a year or so older than him, so it's not like a difference in histories. Maybe d30 was a Canadian thing.

So I looked it up. Bryan isn't full of shit. See the beautiful, multi-colored glowing proof to the right over there. See it and marvel in the wonder that is a 30 sided die. Ahem, anyway . . .

What about computer or video games based on Dungeons and Dragons?

I’ve never been a big gaming sort of guy. We had a Commodore 64 growing up, and so I played some Gyruss and Aztec Challenge and Summer Olympics and Joust. Ah, the Commodore… I think electronic dayplanners have more power and memory now. And I played my best friend’s Nintendo some, too. Double Dragon. Gotta love some Double Dragon.

Yes, yes you do.

But that’s about it. No D&D video games. I suppose something like Zelda would be the closest.

If you answered no to those previous two questions, what first made you think of writing Fantasy? A book? A film? If you answered yes to either, did they play a part in your decision to write fantasy?

I don’t think D&D led to my writing at all. More, I think it was a writing outlet in and of itself, satisfying many of the same urges as writing a story. I mean, that’s what we were doing, really. I think my best friend and I both liked creating the interesting characters and planning adventures more than actually role-playing them.

I think my desire to write came out of reading. It started with The Hobbit in grade three, followed by Lord of the Rings and then a million other things. I devoured books. The desire to create my own stories came out of the love of the stories I read and an active imagination. Plus, I was a good student and always had extra time in class. Reading and writing were safe activities to keep me out of trouble (mostly successful… but not completely).

If you had to meet one of your characters in a dark alley who would you last want to meet, and why?

The Orchard Keeper, the antagonist from my literary crime novel. For more reasons than I could count.

And which character would you want there with you for protection?

The Ghost King, a mysterious figure from my current fantasy novel.

This is so cool, because based on the names of those two characters, I would initially assume the opposite. Very interesting.

Do you stick to any kind of concrete writing schedule? If so how many hours a day do you write?

Well, I try to write regularly, but what “regularly” means will vary depending on circumstance. Work, family, etc. Life changes, and I allow myself the freedom to change my writing schedule accordingly. The key is to do what you can. For part of this last year I was working and commuting between 80 and 100 hours a week. I had one month with only a single day off. And I have a wife and three small children at home. So obviously trying to write a ton of pages was unreasonable. Work and family had to come first. I did a bit here and there. Not much, but that was all that was available. I believe in goals and schedules, but I’m also very practical. A goal that harms you isn’t a good goal. As long as I’m not simply making excuses (and this is key), I give myself the freedom to be flexible.

Do you prefer writing novels or short stories and flash fiction?

Novels, definitely. Most of my ideas are long ideas, suited to the novel. It’s what I like most to read, and what I like most to write. I love that engagement, that submersion into a story. I certainly appreciate short stories and flash (which I write regularly for my blog), but my true love is certainly novels.

Do you outline, or is the plot all in your head? If you do outline how far you deviate from it?

I do outline, though the looseness varies. I’m never a particularly tight outliner. I have a rough plot in mind, though lots of elements will simply be discovered in the draft process. I tend to have a timeline of scenes, but also blank places that will be filled once I get there. I give lots of room for deviation. First drafts usually stay roughly on the track of the outline. Revisions, however, can take the story far afield. My current novel has changed drastically from its original incarnation.

How many novels have you written?

Seven, all told. My first novel was a fantasy that was almost as long as yours, which I wrote for my Masters thesis. And then I have the four Lit novels I mentioned earlier, and the two books of my current fantasy undertaking.

What is your biggest strength as a writer? Your biggest weakness?

Always hard to evaluate yourself! I try to convince myself I’m becoming a well rounded writer. I’m confident in my writing on a sentence level, in terms of prose style. I’m confident in dialogue. I’m confident in my imagination. And I’m always trying to work on story, on crafting something better. Pacing, conflict, tension. What will make a story better? How do we put all the great parts together and make it work?

I can't vouch for Bryan's novels, but if you go read his flash fiction and short stories you will find a master of diction, rhythm, cadence, and style. He clearly puts a lot of thought into his wrangling of language, and it will leave you awed.

Who is the best author you have only discovered in the last year?

Ryszard Kapuscinski. He’s a Polish journalist who traveled the world and wrote about what he saw, often putting himself in the middle of wars and hotspots and revolutions. A brilliant observer, and an elegant and incisive writer. His work, simply put, is great literature. I wish there were more such writers following in his steps.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A plug! Over at the Alchemy of Writing I publish flash fiction every week, and I’m always looking for great new submissions. Any kind of story. Under 500 words. The world in miniature…

The link is

Okay, I know I already promoted it a few times, but I will take one last opportunity to strongly urge you to go follow this blog. You will NOT regret it.

Fun Random Questions for The End (I stole this interview idea from Jen at Unedited, though I made my own questions up). Which would you rather be?

A Jedi or a Ninja? A Ninja. With a lightsaber.

That's actually hilarious. I was asked a similar question once, I think it was whether I would prefer a lightsaber or a Katana, I replied that I wanted a curved lightsaber. You can read more about it here.

A Tolkien Elf or a Martin Maester? Elf. I like immortality. Think of all the stories I could write just hanging out at Elrond’s house?

Drinking a Labatt’s or a Molson’s? Labatt’s, though I can’t drink either of them anymore. More’s the pity.

Damn. These questions were supposed to be funny. Sorry Bryan.

A rich and famous author or a poor but critically acclaimed one? Hmmm. I don’t need to be famous, but an end to my flirtations with poverty would be nice. Critical regard is also nice, but if I write the stories I want to the best of my ability, and I’m happy with them… well, that’s all the critical regard I really need. Though if someone wanted to give me a Nobel I’d take it.

So wealthy but obscure then? Nice, I could deal with that.

Watching Hockey, Football, or Futbol? Futbol, most certainly. I’m odd. A Canadian sports lover who doesn’t like Hockey all that much. But I’m sort of addicted to futbol and basketball. I like football a lot, too. But my wife doesn’t. This, um, curtails my viewing.

I forgot about Basketball. You'll learn more about the trinity that is Basketball, Bryan Russell and Nathan Bransford tomorrow, when Bryan shares his query with us.

Running or Hiking? Running, but I’m all up for hiking, too. Give me a mountain. Okay, a small hill.

Reading or writing? Two sides of the same coin. Flip and we’ll see.

Thank you so much for answering my questions Bryan, it's really been a pleasure knowing you this last year now, and having you visit my blog.

Readers please say hello, and let Bryan know in the comments if you have any questions!


Ted Cross said...

I felt on odd connection with Bryan from the first time I 'met' him online. I kind of feel like a less literary, less experienced version of him, though I'm probably all wrong. He certainly doesn't look the way I imagined!

Steve MC said...

I first knew Bryan from his witty comments on blogs - they were always worth reading, and they taught me a lot about how to keep things short and unique and funny as heck.

Then I saw his post at Nathan's on the Architecture of Revision, which read like poetry and showed he definitely has a way with words.

So thanks for the profile on this most worthy Canadian, and thanks to Bryan, as well.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great interview. I am always interested in seeing how others juggle a demanding job and family with writing. I can so relate to how Bryan does it.

Good luck with your fantasy novel Bryan. I love reading and writing fantasy. Hope to read yours someday.

Renae said...

Thanks for the fabulous interview Matt! It is good to see how others fine a balance that works for them.

Good luck with your novel Bryan!

Unknown said...

He's my kind of dude. I prefer writing novels over the shorter stuff. I prefer reading novels over the shorter stuff, too. ;)

Great interview guys!

M.A. Leslie said...

Now he is someone that deserves honors. Thank you Bryan for all that you do.

Bryan Russell said...

@ Ted

That's funny! How were you picturing me? Cave troll?


Bryan Russell said...

And thanks for the kind words, all!

Matthew MacNish said...

He sure is M.A., he sure is. Thanks for stopping by!

Jessica Bell said...

WOW! So this is the guy behind all those quirky awesome comments he writes on my blog. So wonderful to 'meet' and get to know a male literary enthusiast! Thank you both for this wonderful interview!

Creepy Query Girl said...

What a great way to be introduced to Bryan! Thanks so much to the both of you- great interview Matt! But what's Futbol? lol.

vic caswell said...

thank you ink, for all you do!!!! :) you rock!
i remember reading a guest post he did (probably the same one someone else mentioned) for nb, and his prose was so vivid and powerful! just GORGEOUS writing!
and then he is always so helpful over at the forums!
great interview matt! :)

Robyn Lucas said...

Great interview! Bryan has been wonderful on the NB forums, always great feedback and kind, but useful information.

I love his flash fiction site as well. There was one in particular, I forgot the name, but it has haunted me for a few months. It was the one about the old woman who was killed and her hands continued playing the piano. The use of language was more so lyrical. Beautiful.

Emily White said...

Great interview! I have to agree with Ted on what I expected Bryan to look like. I pictured someone a bit more snoopy-ish. :)

I'm really looking forward to this query you will be sharing, Bryan!

Tara said...

Excellent questions. It was great getting to know Bryan.

FantasticFiction said...

Congratulations, I have awarded you a very stylish blogger! Please check out the link to my post to pick up your award.
Keep blogging Mat!

Steve Abernathy said...

Well done! Russell you should publish those novels. Get with the 21st century and put them out there.

Laura Pauling said...

Great interview! I'll have to go check out his blog!

Chris Phillips said...

great interview, headed to the blog.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Thanks for introducing me to Bryan! Love his reason for writing: "writing is just a deeper and more focused attempt to understand and explore the world."

I'm off to check out his site...

Candyland said...

What a fantastic interview. I can vouch for Bryan's writing-HE IS AMAZING. And sooo nice.

Lucky Press, LLC said...

Thank you, Matthew for this great interview and Bryan for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. I love this: "I don’t write to share something I know with others; I write to discover something I don’t know. Writing, for me, is a curious act of exploration. I think my brain is tuned to narrative, and it’s how I come to understand and experience the world around me. It’s made understandable by story, by trying to understand the connection between people and events."

I'm going to check out the blog and Bryan's books right now!


Paul Joseph said...

Another A+ interview from an A+ dude. And I like how you throw in some interesting, "just for fun" things at the end. Personality is important, too.

Bryan, it was a pleasure reading and learning more about you. You have a good grasp of the industry and great advice to offer. Definitely someone I'll be looking up so I can continue learning from your experience. Thanks for sharing.

Melissa said...

I'm heading to check Bryan out. This was a great interview!

DesignAndLaugh said...

Man, this is pretty inspiring. I'm not even a writer and I just want to get out there and create!
But I know exactly how he feels with the "It's harder to deal with things when they're 'pretty good."

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

"To end my flirtations with poverty"

I love how you put that, Bryan.

It was nice to learn more about the famous Ink. Thank you for getting him to talk about himself a little.

PS Matthew, I love that your blog is carbon neutral!!

Jeff Beesler said...

Excellent interview, both on the part of the interviewer and interviewee!

And Matthew, don't sell yourself short, dude. Your contributions to writers are just as important as the next person's.

Sarah Ahiers said...

omg - he's totally effing right about the clean first draft deal. It's so much harder to do large edits when the thing is already pretty shiny.
So hard.

Elana Johnson said...

Wow, fabulous interview! It was great to meet Bryan and get to know more about him. :)

BTN Hip Hop said...

interesting opinions

Melissa Gill said...

I didn't know Ink's name was Brian. Thanks for introducing him.

Talli Roland said...

Is Brian Canadian? Yay for Canadians! Yay for Canadians! Yes, I am a bit over-enthusiastic about my homeland. I miss it!

DEZMOND said...

now, that was one long long interview :) but it was great and loved his hat in the picture ;)

Unknown said...

SUCH a fascinating interview. Loved every word, and I feel so inspired. I really needed to read something like this -- no THIS -- today!

Thanks Bryan and Matt!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, good sirs! And I totally feel ya, Brian, on that wife/small children/family thing. Sheesh!

I'd drink Molson, though. Now I don't know if we can ever be friends....

Unknown said...

Great interview!! I too never know about the 30-sided die. Reason #1,578,098 why Bryan is awesome (and Matt awesome for interviewing and making these wonders come to light). Great work, gents.

Lydia Kang said...

Great interview, Matt! And it's great getting to know Bryan better.

Ninja with a lightsaber. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Terrific interview! Great questions, Matt. I enjoyed getting to know Bryan, who I'm grateful to for featuring my story The Prop on his blog. It is a wonderful feature, very unique, and I love reading the stories he posts every Thursday. It's also nice to meet someone else who enjoys fantasy as much as literary writing--I thought I was the only odd-elf! Best to you, Bryan and Matt, and thanks for a great post!

Shannon said...

What a great interview. I've known about Bryan from Nathan's forums, but haven't had any direct interaction with him. After reading this, I'd like to change that.

For starters:

Hi Bryan!

I love the wording "curious act of exploration" - it defines writing perfectly.

Excellent interview. Thank you both!

Bryan Russell said...

Thanks again for the kind words, everyone. It's been a blast.

@ Emmily
Ha! I do love me some Snoopy, though... the patron saint of rejection letters.

@ Steve
I'm waiting for your DIY posts. :)

@ Talli
Us Canadians are taking over the world! One donut at a time.

@ Dezmond
Best hat in the world. Sometimes I curl up with it at night. When my wife isn't looking.

@ Simon
I heard that Molson generally just chucked a bit of yeast into some water they dredged out of the St. Lawrence River...

@ Nathan
My d30 was yellow and glowed like a newborn sun. I called a mulligan whenver I rolled a one, however.

Denise Covey said...

Hi Matthew! This was one of the most interesting interviews I've read for awhile. I love: I don’t write to share something I know with others; I write to discover something I don’t know. My philosophy too.

I'm checking out the flash fiction link.

Also, please come by my Publication Party where each week I have a newly-pubbed author share their journey to publication. Thought you might be interested. Clarissa Draper this week.

Hope to see you there...

Denise :)

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Superb interview!! Loved learning more about Bryan. He clearly knows his stuff. I've read some of his work on his blog, too. He's got mega skill. Definitely someone to follow. I'm sure he'll go places.

Also, how about a katana light saber?

Nice to see you on here, Bryan!

Ted Cross said...

Bryan, thinking it over, I think it may be because you are called 'ink' that I always envisioned you with black hair!

Matthew MacNish said...

Hah! You do have a point there Ted.

JE said...

Ink has a face!!! That alone made my day. ;-) But the rest of the interview was stellar, too. Nice!!

I'm totally adding "dope" to my vocabulary and using it as Bryan did.


Anonymous said...

Wow, great interview!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

How did I miss this??

surrealist war novel Of course! This is so you, Bryan, it surprises me not a bit. But the four lit novels? Makes perfect sense in retrospect, but I didn't see it coming. (Just like a good story.)

I'm off to read your query letter! :)

Thank you Matt and Bryan for the wonderful interview - it's awesome to learn more about writers we love!

Katie Anderson said...

Wow. What a great and interesting interview. Thanks so much!