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Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is happy to have Russell J. Sanders here today talking about writing, characters and his latest story, All You Need Is Love. Welcome, Russell.
✒︎Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words Interview with Russell J. Sanders✒︎
- How much of yourself goes into a character?
I think it’s impossible for an author to create a character that doesn’t have some aspects of him/herself. We are products of our own experiences, thus we use those experiences—whether physical or emotional—in our characters. But in my new novel All You Need Is Love, that “putting myself into the character” goes far beyond where I’ve gone before. The main character Dewey Snodgress is I, and I am he. I’m not saying that everything that happens to Dewey happened to me as a teenager. The plot of the book is totally fabricated. But Dewey has so much me in him that I consider the book autobiographical. Like Dewey, I was a soloist in my high school choir, I was an actor with my high school drama group, and I was so sheltered that I barely knew what was going on in the world outside my high school. Also like Dewey, I never met a black person. In my 1960s Texas world, we had no black kids in our high school. They lived across town, and we never had occasion to mix with them. My fantasy of how Dewey meets LuLu is inspired by how I met one of my dearest friends—many years later—a beautiful, wildly funny African-American woman. And adding to the similarity between me and Dewey, I graced Dewey with the same childhood nickname my dad christened me with.
- Does research play a role into choosing which genre you write? Do you enjoy research or prefer making up your worlds and cultures?
I’ve done both. I have written novels like Special Effect and Colors where I’ve set the story in “today,” and not had to do much but create a story and characters from my own experiences and knowledge-base. Then there’s The Book of Ethan, set in the “now,” but is a book I had to meticulously research in order to create the world of a religious cult. Much of what I wrote is true, some is what I invented based on my research, in order to fuel the plot I wanted to tell. My first book Thirteen Therapists is set in modern-day Chicago, a city I love and have visited many times. But still I needed to do research to get the sense of place I needed. Then there are my historical novels, the current All You Need Is Love and the upcoming (in 2018) Titanic Summer. I did extensive research for both. I wouldn’t have thought I needed to research a story set in the era where I grew up in the town in which I grew up, but All You Need Is Love continuously sent me to experts to check facts or to fill me in on things my brain had lost. My brother, younger, handsomer, and smarter than I, was able to refresh my memories of our childhood neighborhood, while I got invaluable assistance from experts about the Vietnam War and the Texas one–act play contest of the time. For Titanic Summer, I spent hours reading about the famous ship that hit the iceberg so I could re-create that time and experience. Perhaps the novel I’ve researched the most is the one being released in 2019—You Can’t Tell by Looking. One of its main characters is a Muslim-American teen, and I read several books, learning about Islam, so I could get it all right.
- Has your choice of childhood or teenage reading genres carried into your own choices for writing?
When I was a kid, I read everything. And I do mean everything. My mother, a voracious reader herself, raised me with this philosophy: “If he doesn’t understand it, it can’t hurt him; if he does understand it, it can only broaden his perspectives.” I remember my sixth grade teacher, at the beginning of the year, announced that she wanted us all reading books outside of the classroom, but she wanted to approve of each book. After I took her three or four books I was reading, she threw up her hands and said I didn’t need approval any more. It wasn’t that she felt she couldn’t control me, it was that she trusted that I could read whatever I wanted, and what I wanted to read were often bestsellers written for adults. So my love of reading certainly influenced my choice to become a writer.
As for choosing to write young adult novels, that came about more because of my teaching career. Actually, when I grew up, young adult novel was not a genre. Books with teen protagonists were just books, either young enough in perspective for children to read or old enough in perspective for adults to enjoy. But as a high school teacher, I learned to love young adult novels and love teenagers. I wanted to create books that reflected their experiences and spoke to them, and thus my career writing YA was born.
- Have you ever had to put an ‘in progress’ story aside because of the emotional ties with it? You were hurting with the characters or didn’t know how to proceed?
Never. I’ve put aside stories because I suddenly got stumped and couldn’t continue because I didn’t have a clue where the story was taking me. But those were stories that weren’t meant to be. The process many writers follow is to outline a plot and write from the outline. I think of a character, a setting, an incident, and then I start writing. My fingers take me all the way to the end. I’m continually amazed at what my characters do and where they go. I once wrote a murder plot that had a choice of six different murderers, and I didn’t know who did the dastardly deed until he confessed! I love that my characters take on their own lives and let me write those lives down for them. I get to live through them instead of my creating their lives.
- Do you read romances, as a teenager and as an adult?
I love romantic stories. Romance novels, as a genre, are not something I pick up very often. Amazingly, the genre seems to require two or three explicit sex scenes, and I get bored reading those, whether hetero or homo. You’d think I, as a gay man, would want to read about a hot encounter, but I think I, as a storyteller, want the story to keep advancing, and a sex scene just stops the action for me. And so, in my romantic young adult novels, my sex scenes are pretty tame, created to show character or plot development, rather than to add steam. And don’t get me wrong, I applaud the readers of Romance novels and I admire and honor the writers of that genre. As they say, different strokes for different folks.
- Who do you think is your major influence as a writer? Now and growing up?
Definitely, growing up it was my mother. The woman had a book at her easy chair, a book in the car, a book in her purse, a book by her bedside, and yes, a book in the bathroom, so she would never be without something to read. And she kept all those ongoing plots straight! So how could I not be influenced by that? (And yet, to my chagrin, my younger brother is not an avid reader, although I’m proud to say he’s read all the books I’ve written and is one of my greatest champions.)
As far as now, I suppose one of my greatest influences is the award-winning author Benjamin Alire Saenz. He truly is the finest writer alive today in my opinion. He is also a great human being, and it shows in his writing. I love all his books from my favorite, his first novel Carry Me Like Water, to his young adult novels like his Lambda award-winning book Ari and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. If I could be one tenth the success that Ben is and garner even 1% of the good reviews he gets, I would feel like an ultra-successful writer.
Aside from Ben, though, I continually sing the praises of my mentors: Kathi Appelt and Kelly Bennett. Both are amazing writers, teachers, and friends. Kathi encouraged me by example and by words long before I even began writing novels, and Kelly not only taught me and critiqued me, she has been steadfast in supporting my quest to be published and the continuance of this budding career I have. And she is one of my dearest friends.
- How do you feel about the ebook format and where do you see it going?
Love/Hate. I love that it is successful and that many younger readers are actually reading because they are comfortable tied to their electronic devices. And selfishly, I love that royalties from an ebook purchase are greater than those from a print book purchase. But personally, I hate ebooks. There is something cold about the format. I feel that I’m not reading a real book if I can’t turn pages, look back easily to see what I missed, turn to the back cover and read the blurb one more time. Reading a print book is a sensory experience that I don’t get from an ebook.
- How do you choose your covers? (curious on my part)
I’m blessed to be published by Dreamspinner/Harmony Ink Press. They have the most incredibly talented artists. From a questionnaire I fill out (where I present some outlandish, unworkable ideas,) the Dreamspinner Press artist comes up with the perfect distillation of the essence of my book. And presents me with three or four choices! And then I’m further blessed that my husband is a graphic artist, for he can look at each choice, ask me questions, take my feedback, and help me either choose the best or know what to say if I deign to ask my artist to do further work. But lordy, lordy, lordy—no matter what I suggest, the artist comes back with the perfect cover. I was honored to have artist Anne Cain design the cover for The Book of Ethan. She evoked the two worlds of the cult-fleeing Ethan and the black rapper Kyan so beautifully. Aaron Anderson did Special Effect, with its shadowy figure trapped in the half-light of a dark theater; Colors and its stained glass that main character Neil is so tormented over; and All You Need Is Love’s iconic gun with the daisy in its barrel with the 1960s-inspired psychedelic paisley lettering. Aaron’s covers take my breath away.
- Do you have a favorite among your own stories? And why?
My favorite, I guess, is the one I’ve just finished. I finished Thirteen Therapists and loved it. Then I wrote Special Effect, and I was amazed I could create a murder mystery. Next came The Book of Ethan, and I was enthralled by the world I painted. Colors came after that, and I marveled at how I managed to tackle such an important, difficult subject. But oh—I wrote All You Need Is Love, and it is so much my life story that I can’t help but cherish it. The upcoming novels Titanic Summer and You Can’t Tell by Looking, when I see each in print, will probably capture my heart, respectively. What can I say? I love writing, and I love what I write. Does that sound too self-aggrandizing?
- What’s next for you as an author?
What’s next? What’s next is to make sure All You Need Is Love finds its audience. Besides how much I love the story and want to share it with everyone, I think it is an important book because it sheds light on the era of the 1960s, a turbulent, life-changing time in America that most teens today know very little about. Even if they don’t learn enough from my book, I hope it spurs them to search for more about that time.
And then, of course, are my two novels already under contract. Spring of 2018 will see Titanic Summer, a novel that tells of a gay teen in the summer of 2015 in Houston, Texas, when the fight for the Houston Equal Rights Amendment was being fought. That fight was ultimately lost, but my hero wins his parallel fight with his gay identity, his problems with his father, and his feelings about a newfound friend. And along the way, I might add, he learns about a teen who perished on the Titanic.
A year later, I’ll have You Can’t Tell by Looking, a story of a love that develops between a Christian boy and a Muslim-American classmate, replete with all the things a relationship of that sort stirs up.
And finally, there’s a new story rumbling in my gut. I know very little about it, but sooner or later, it’s going to poke its head out and introduce itself. And then my fingers will fly across the keys to tell that story!
All You Need Is Love…blurb
It is 1969 when Dewey Snodgress, high school theater star, meets irrepressible hippie Jeep Brickthorn, who quickly inserts himself into Dewey’s life—and eventually, into his heart. Meanwhile, Dewey prepares to appear in a production across town, a play about protestors of the Vietnam War, where he befriends the wild and wonderful Lucretia “LuLu” Belton, who is also determined to follow her dreams and become an actress—whether her parents approve or not.
The show has a profound effect, especially on Dewey’s father, who reconsiders his approval of the war after his son’s performance. But Dewey knows his dad won’t be so accepting if he reveals the love he’s developing for Jeep, so he fights to push his feelings away and keep the peace in his family.
Still, Dewey can’t ignore the ripples moving through society—from the impending Woodstock Festival to the Stonewall Riots—and he begins to see that the road to happiness and acceptance for him and Jeep might lead them away from conservative Fort Worth, Texas—and Dewey’s dad.
Russell J. Sanders…bio
Russell J. Sanders is a life-long devotee of the theater. He’s a singer, actor, and director, winning awards for his acting roles and shows he has directed. As a teacher, he has taught theater arts to hundreds of students, plus he’s also taught literature and writing to hundreds of others.
Russell has also travelled the world, visiting Indonesia, Japan, India, Canada, the Caribbean, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Venice—and almost all the US states. His friends think he’s crazy, but wherever he goes, he seeks out Mexican restaurants. The Mexican food in Tokyo was great, he says; in Rome, not so good. Texans cut their teeth on barbecue and Mexican food. Russell’s love for enchiladas led him on a quest to try them wherever he can find them, and he has found them in some very out of the way places. And good or bad, he’s delighted to sample his favorite food.
Most importantly, Russell is an out and proud Gay man, living in Houston with his husband—a relationship that has lasted almost twenty years. He hopes that his novels inspire confidence and instill pride in his young Gay fans, and he also hopes others learn from his work.
Media Contacts for Russell J. Sanders:
Thirteen Therapists (Featherweight Press)
Special Effect (Harmony Ink Press)
The Book of Ethan (Harmony Ink Press)
Colors (Harmony Ink Press)
All You Need Is Love (Harmony Ink Press, coming March 2017)
Titanic Summer (Harmony Ink Press, coming Spring 2018)