Josh Russell

Interviewed by Wynne Hungerford

Readers are always curious about the writing process. What is your process like? Do you keep a journal? Do you write in a specific place? With coffee? Soft lighting?

Thankfully, over the years I’ve been able to make writing a part of my everyday life by training myself not to need a special place, or a specific pen, or a lucky coffee mug. That training started in earnest when after grad school, about twenty years ago, I was working full-time answering help-desk calls at a software development company and realized the only way I was going to keep being a writer was by making sure the muse was there at 11:59 and stuck around for sixty-odd minutes before I had to get back to the phones. I wrote my first novel, Yellow Jack, over two years of lunch hours and weekends. I’ve always needed to be away from distractions like email and dirty dishes and people, however. Way back when, that meant walking along the Boulder Creek at lunch and writing in a notebook. Lately that means I do my best thinking about writing walking back from dropping off my kid at school, and my best writing when everyone else in the house is asleep, or at school and work.

How did “Blizzard” start?

I’ve written a few very short stories about these same brothers and narrated by this same first-person-plural parental voice. I use fiction to imagine my way into the lives of strangers and people in some way or ways not like me, and these stories are a way of imagining what it’s like to have two kids, not one, what it’s like to have teenaged or adult children, and how weird it must be to raise boys in the twenty-first century. Recently one of my kid’s friends got caught looking at internet porn, and that parenting challenge and the associated Oh no, what next? worries directly inspired “Blizzard.”

What do you think makes a good short-short story?

Omission and distillation. I’m always trying to figure out what’s truly necessary and what I can leave out, what I can boil down to get the essence of whatever I’m writing about, be it parenting challenges or gentrification or colon cancer. And obsessive attention to language: every word has to be right.

Do you have a favorite short piece?

Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story” is perhaps the winner, but close on its heels are Jayne Anne Phillips’ “Blind Girls,” Stuart Dybek’s “Laughter,” and Lydia Davis’ “The Old Dictionary.”

You’re the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Georgia State. I was wondering if there are pieces of writing that you love but don’t work in the classroom. For example, I’ve heard numerous stories about people bringing in Barry Hannah and students being like WUT?

I guess I’ve been lucky. When I’ve shared with students stuff by “challenging” writers (Patrik Ourednik, Christine Schutt, Christopher Merkner, Lydia Davis, Thomas Bernhard) whose work I love, the reaction has almost always been not WUT? but an excited You can do THAT? That response is what I’m aiming for, as much as I can: You can do THAT?

So, I know you have a connection to Subtropics––you used to teach at the University of Florida––and I was wondering if you had any memories or gossip that you’d like to share about your time here. Harry Crews stories? Wild workshops?

Harry had retired by the time I got there, so the Crews stories were all second- or third-hand, and the workshops I led were all pretty well behaved. Padgett Powell did once shoot at me in the woods outside Gainesville, but what’s a little birdshot between friends?

We’re so glad to feature “Blizzard” on our back cover. What do you think makes this piece a good fit for this journal?

One of the reasons I like Subtropics is that this is a hard question: I’ve never been able to discern any limitations in editorial taste at Subtropics beyond the choice to publish good stuff. So I hope “Blizzard” fits because it’s good stuff.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a short story that will complete a collection I’m calling The King of the Animals. Some stories in the collection are as brief as “Blizzard,” one’s fifty pages long, and the rest are somewhere in between, including the title story, which One Story’s publishing in February. Hopefully someone will like the book enough to give it a loving home.