Posted on October 26, 2020 at 8:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Today we're interviewing Russell Rowland, who writes literary fiction and nonfiction.
Rowland has published five novels and a nonfiction narrative, Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey, and co-edited, with Lynn Stegner, an anthology about the West, West of 98.
He has an MA in creative writing from Boston University, and in 2007, he returned to his hometown of Billings, Montana, where he teaches online workshops and works one-on-one with other writers.
SADYE: How did you come to see yourself as a writer, and what inspired you to seek publication?
RUSSELL: In my early twenties, I quit drinking and discovered a latent love for books.
I started reading voraciously, and soon fell in love with the minimalist writers like Raymond Carver. I always credit my discovery of Carver’s work as the moment I thought to myself that writing was something I’d like to pursue.
So I started cranking out very Carver-esque stories: minimalist, focusing on the tension of the relationships between my characters.
I was accepted into the creative writing program at Boston University, and it was there that I actually found my voice when I stopped trying to become the next Carver, and started writing about Montana.
I was fortunate to spend time as an intern at the Atlantic Monthly while I was in Boston, and I showed the first few chapters of my first novel, In Open Spaces, to C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor there, and he offered to help me get it published.
That’s when I realized I might actually be good enough to become a published author.
SADYE: Which of your characters would you most and least like to trade places with?
RUSSELL: In my most recent novel, Cold Country, there is a character named Carl Logan who is based on my father.
I loved my father, but the period of time that this book explores was one of the lowest points of his life, when he took a job managing a ranch after teaching school for several years.
The ranch was owned by a construction magnate, Peter Keiwitt, who lived in Nebraska, and he had several ranch hands who resented having this outsider come in as their supervisor. It was a miserable two years for my father.
The character I would most like to trade places with would probably be Blake Arbuckle, the narrator of my first two novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years.
He is also based on a real person, my maternal grandfather, who owned a ranch in southeastern Montana. My grandfather was one of my favorite people, and I think those books captured him pretty well.
SADYE: Which of your characters would you most and least like to become romantically involved with? Most likely?
RUSSELL: There is a woman in Cold Country named Babe Ruth, and she’s a drug addict with an artistic temperament who is married to a rancher — not the life she wanted for herself.
So she’s kind of a mess, which means she’s probably just the kind of woman I would be attracted to in real life. So she is the most likely and the least advisable.
One of my favorite characters is Rita, who appears in In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years, and after moving to Montana from back East and being abandoned by her husband, Blake’s brother Jack, she falls in love with Montana and ends up staying.
So she’s very stable and adaptable. I would probably fall in love with Rita and run away because she’s so stable.
SADYE: What have been the most surprising, rewarding, and challenging parts of your writing career?
RUSSELL: I was fortunate, thanks to a chance meeting with an editor when I was living in San Francisco, to have my first novel published with HarperCollins, which led to some very nice reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times.
I got the idea in my head that my career was going to be very smooth from that point, but of course I was in for a rude awakening.
I went through seven editors at Harper before the book came out, because they were going through the whole merger with several other publishers, so I kind of got lost in the shuffle.
By the time I had completed my second novel, my editor was long gone, and they turned my novel over to someone who didn’t know me from Adam, so they turned down that book.
It’s been a struggle since then finding publishers for each of my books, although I’ve managed to get every book I’ve written published, so I’m not complaining.
But I would have obviously preferred to develop a relationship with one publisher. I’ve used six different publishers for my seven books.
SADYE: What has been the most touching or memorable piece of reader feedback you’ve received?
RUSSELL: I gave a talk a few years ago at one of the libraries in Montana and taught a writing workshop the next day.
A couple of years later, I got an email from one of the participants in the workshop, telling me that she had been planning to commit suicide the night of that talk, but that something I said that night motivated her to change her mind and keep going.
It kind of took my breath away, and she and I still keep in contact.
She just lost her husband a few days ago, so I checked in with her to make sure she’s okay, and she seems to be coping as well as can be expected.
That’s the kind of experience you don’t really anticipate when your main goal is to just tell compelling stories.
The relationships I’ve developed with some of my readers has been surprising and incredibly rewarding.
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Categories: Author Interview