Friday, November 19, 2010

Interview with Author Sheldon Russell

Sheldon Russell, author of THE INSANE TRAIN
Interviewed by Marta Stephens

Q: Please tell us a little about yourself and your writing journey.

A: I’m an unlikely author, I suppose, having grown up on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. We lived eleven miles from the nearest town, and playmates were hard to come by. But then isolation can turn one inward, and reflection is, I suspect, a large part of becoming a writer. I’ve since moved back to that ranch and once again spend my days living in my head.

I’ve had five novels published. THE INSANE TRAIN will be the sixth. I’m especially proud of the recognition my books have received. DREAMS TO DUST garnered the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction and the Oklahoma Book Award. REQUEIM AT DAWN was a Finalist for the Spur, and THE YARD DOG a Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award this year.

Q: Why THE INSANE TRAIN? What prompted you to write it and what do you hope your readers will get out of it?

A: While poking around in the historical society archives one day, I came across a newspaper article written in 1908 about a fire in a local insane asylum. So many of the patients died in that fire that they had to be buried in a mass grave. About that same time, the federal government had turned over an old territorial fort to the state. The decision was made to transfer the remaining patients by train to that old fort.

This is just the sort of situation that makes for a great mystery: a collection of unpredictable characters, a journey filled with danger, and a train, of course, that time-honored crucible in which I could turn up the heat.

What I hope my readers will get out of THE INSANE TRAIN is a few hours of escape, a dose of intrigue, and a few belly laughs.

Q: Tell us a bit about your protagonist, Hook Runyon, and how he came about?

A: I went to school in a railroad town. My father worked as a machinist for the Santa Fe there, so I knew the railroad culture, how the men thought, how they talked, how they dealt with the dangers and difficulties of their job. Hook Runyon, rail detective, was a natural choice for me.

After losing an arm and his girl on the same day, Hook went on the bum. A year riding the rails taught him all he needed to know about how to be a railroad yard dog. He learned how to survive where others couldn’t, how to fight, and how to drown his troubles with popskull shine. In short, he learned who he was and, more importantly, who he wasn’t any longer.

A mixture of contradictions, Hook lives in a caboose, collects rare books, and drinks bust head liquor. It’s not always clear on which side of the law he’s operating. He’s uneducated but wise, tough but sensitive, gentle but lethal. He likes his women smart and his friends loyal. He loves his old dog, Mixer, and his sidekicks with equal fervor.

Q: Please share with our readers a little about the plot, the characters, the setting, of your novel.

A: A devastating fire destroys an insane asylum in Needles, California. The decision is made to transfer the remaining inmates by train to a fort in Oklahoma. Hook is assigned security duty for the transfer. The cause of the fire is suspicious, and many of the inmates were housed in the criminally insane ward. No weapons will be permitted in their control, and there’s a manpower shortage due to the war. Hook is forced to recruit a group of wayward vets who are living under a bridge as guards for the journey. Things quickly go awry on the insane train.

Q: Please describe the greatest challenge you faced in writing this book, why it was difficult, and how you resolved it.

A: While a train provides a small, high-pressure setting and lots of opportunity for conflict, consider Murder on the Orient Express, it can also limit the introduction of new characters and new situations. Luckily for me, the insane train, being an old worn out steamer, required a number of stops along the way, providing occasions for keeping the story vigorous and fresh.

Q: How much and/or what kind of research went into writing this book?

A: Research was an integral part of my job as a professor, so I not only understand how to do it, I’ve come to rather enjoy it. I read widely about the criminally insane and their diagnostic standards. I also did considerable research into how insane asylum “inmates” were regarded and treated in the 1940’s. I needed a working knowledge of World War II and its effect on veterans. I relied heavily on Santa Fe systems maps, railway museums, and the stories of railroaders themselves to establish Hook’s credibility as a yard dog.

My experience has been that the research doesn’t stop until the book ends. While I don’t feel the need to be an expert in any given area, I do try to make my books factually accurate. I’ve learned to never underestimate the intelligence of my readers.

Q: What do you find the most difficult part of writing in general and what do you do to overcome it?

A: Contrary to what many writers say, I find the rewrites the easiest part of the task. I like the business of polishing my work. Pushing ahead into the blank page, however, is more difficult for me, making certain the ideas are not only plausible but fun. I’ve also been known to write myself into a corner from time to time.

Two pieces of advice keep me going when this happens: The best way forward is most often to go back. When you can no longer think through a problem, stop thinking for awhile. I’ve learned to have more confidence in the power of the subconscious to solve my writing problems.

Q: How do you balance your time to make time for writing?

A: It’s a matter of discipline, isn’t it? And I’ve come to believe that consistency and quality are more important than quantity. I’m not a word counter and find that process both counter productive and tedious. As long as I’m moving forward in some degree, a book stays alive for me.

The best way for me to manage the material, both intellectually and emotionally, is to think of it primarily in terms of chapters. I’m far less likely to be overwhelmed by the process that way.

Q: What impact would you say completing THE INSANE TRAIN has had on you personally and on your writing?

A: THE INSANE TRAIN is the second book in the Hook Runyon series, so I encounter readers who have read THE YARD DOG and who are anticipating this book’s release. That in itself is rewarding and motivating for me. I’m no longer writing for an unknown audience.

In addition, I’ve learned a great deal about writing humor in this book. Not only did the characters lend themselves to it but so did the setting and the plot. I’ve grown more confident, less censorious, more willing to trust my instincts in this area.

Q: Who has been the greatest influence on you with respect to encouraging you to write and become a published author?

A: For writers there’s always those in our personal lives who sacrifice in many silent ways and who believe in us when the world doesn’t. Without them, it wouldn’t happen.

And then there are others who inspire us in different ways. For me, it was a college professor whose literary life was as real to her as her own life. She lived it and loved it and passed it on as a great treasure.

Q: With respect to your writing, please give us some insight into your writing process. In other words, did you outline the chapters? Did you think about the plot for a while before writing it? What steps did you take before you wrote the first sentence?

A: This has changed for me over the years. When I first started writing, I relied heavily on creative energy, doing very little planning, thinking that it would somehow weaken my work.

But I’ve learned that planning pays. Now, before I write a word, I will have put together a schemata, a map of the journey I’m about to take. I know where I’m to start, how I’m to get there, and what lurks at the end, though I don’t know the turns and twists and detours that await me along the way.

Once my overall plan is complete, I develop each chapter in advance of writing it. I do this through drawing association diagrams, making certain that something happens in each chapter and that my reader has good cause to read the next.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m well into my third Hook Runyon mystery. The setting is the Johnson Canyon Railway Tunnel in Arizona, which was kept under constant military guard during World War II. Hook stumbles upon a secret there that could change his life forever.

Q: Any words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

A: Writing is more of a practice skill than most people care to admit. Never confuse writing-related activities with actual writing practice.

About the Author
A retired college professor, Russell lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma, with his wife, Nancy, an artist. He has previously won the Oklahoma Book Award and the Langum Prize for Historical Literature.  THE YARD DOG, the first Hook Runyon novel, was nominated for the Oklahoma Book Award and earned high praise as Russell’s debut mystery.

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