Charlsie Russell, award-winning author of gripping Southern Gothic novels was kind enough to grant us an interview. Her books, a compelling blend of romance and suspense, make for some of our favorite winter evening reads here at Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft. Masterfully executed plot twists married to eerie atmospheres and frank sexual tension will have you turning the pages until the sun rises.
Welcome to Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft, Mrs. Russell. We’re delighted that you could join us today. Here at the Loft, we maintain that you are one of the South’s great undiscovered authors. Your biography is telling. You worked for years before self-publishing your novels. How many years did you query agents before making the decision to self-publish?
C.R.: I spent seven years trying to publish traditionally. This was before and during the dawn of the digital craze—originally pooh-poohed as a potentially popular format (before Kindle, before, Nook, etc.). But remember, even digital publishing, though offering a new outlet for thousands of unpublished authors, was still controlled by digital publishers who served as “gate-keepers” for what would or would not be published.
Like the “format barrier” attributed to digital publishing, self-publishing also carried a stigma, the implication being the author, in the opinion of real publishers, not being good enough to make the cut. Further, it was true then, and remains true today, the big publishers offer writers professional editing, typesetting, copyediting, and beautiful cover art, all nominally for free, in addition to the all-so-important distribution. These aspects of book production are not free for the self-published author. The internet has proven a great equalizer when it comes to distribution—especially when one considers the ease with which self-published digital books can be distributed today.
Not ready to accept that I wouldn’t make the proverbial cut, I forsook the then “pseudo-publishing” digital world and spent time, money, and heartbreak submitting, rewriting, and resubmitting my work to both agents and editors. In fact, I would say I submitted my work to twice as many editors as I did agents. The catch-twenty-two of “you can’t get a publisher without an agent and an agent won’t be interested unless you have an offer from a publisher” was offset somewhat by Romance Writers of America and other national writers groups’ developing relationships with the New York publishers, making access to many editors easier—at least the submitter had a name to send his or her partial to. The truth of the matter is New York was swamped with submissions, as were the agents that dealt with New York.
What did agents say to you in their responses? Did you ever think you weren’t cut out to be a writer?
C.R.: I submitted my work to Pocket, Kensington, Harlequin, Silhouette, Dorchester, Harper Collins, etc. etc., all the big houses with romance imprints. At the time I was making these submissions, I had written four books—two contemporaries and two historicals (my Gothics, The Devil’s Bastard and Wolf Dawson). Over the course of the next seven years, I received scores of standard, one line rejections—Thank you for you submission. It’s not for us at this time or something to that effect. I’d also received two requests for partials and two for full manuscripts (one from an editor and one from an agent). In the end, they didn’t want them. When I did receive a meaningful response as to why my work didn’t fit with an individual house, the bottom line was it wasn’t romance. But if not submitting to a romance editor, it was never clear to me where I should submit my multi-genre work. Many a romance writer writes multi-genre; however, and this is strictly my opinion, the publishing houses at the time seemed to reserve their multi-genre works of fiction for their “established” authors. For the thousands of us on the outside looking in, there was no place to go, and I could have gone on forever going nowhere. So, pushing the stigma aside, I self-published, and I did it the old-fashion way: I wrote my books, I typeset my books, I created my covers, and I sent my prepared manuscript to an offset printer and had my books printed at a cost I couldn’t afford. I do pay an editor to edit my work—she’s an old friend, which helps some with that expense. What I didn’t have was distribution—and that’s another book industry catch-22. To capture the interest of a distributor I needed an inventory of thousands of books (paid for upfront, folks, to an offset printer). Many a self-published author has ended up with garages and storage sheds filled with unsold books. That mistake I did not make.
That’s where matters stood until technology eased publication with print on demand and digital books. Today, Lightning Source (owned by the major book distributor Ingram) prints my paperbacks on demand and ships them wherever they need to go. The inventory of my digital books, of course, is unlimited. Amazon and Smashwords just spit ’em out as required. For this author, things are great—okay, I still haven’t mastered marketing, but at least the warehousing and distribution systems are in place for when I do.
Please don’t take my experience to mean I am opposed to traditional publishing. I’m not, but the industry was not only swamped, it had a strangle-hold on what books made it to the bookstore shelves. Print on demand and digital publishing are exactly what were called for—they opened things up.
I never stopped believing my work could garner a readership, which would never exist without books. I was a writer, the only question was if I’d ever be a published one. That I took into my own hands.
That’s the kind of take-charge attitude paid off. Wolf Dawson is our favorite novel by you, and it won the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal in the romance category. We’re hoping you have a few more tales with a supernatural bent up your sleeve.
The fact that you’re a serious history buff is evident in both your novels and your blog. How do you infuse sound history in your novels without making them read like textbooks?
C.R.: I have always loved history. It seems, however, it’s taken me a lifetime to really appreciate the value of history. Recall the old adage, “you can never read just one book.” At least, you can’t and come up with any modicum of truth. I’m now wise enough to know that you can read hundreds of books and still not come up with the truth, which is, in my opinion, quite often subjective. But you can come up with a pretty good “shades of gray” picture. History isn’t black and white.
I will readily admit that I am not without prejudice. I’m opinionated and I have things I care about and things I love and respect. You’ll note that all my novels are set in Mississippi. My home state is a subject I like to tell myself I know a little bit about, yet every time I start researching, I realize how little I do know and how much more there is to learn. But those are just facts. Some things I simply “feel.”
Regarding weaving history into my novels, I start with my characters and set them in a time period remote from the one I’m living in, but one that has survived, in a sense, via knowledge passed down to me by my ancestors. The South is unique in a sense, in that it has been isolated to some extent from the rest of the country. Some would say that’s bad—such isolation keeps out good influences, well, the reverse is also true. Besides, what constitutes a “good” influence? Being like the rest of the United States doesn’t qualify for me.
Much has been lost, for sure. Things do change for better and worse, but they do go on. In my books I try to pass on certain values and historical points I believe to be of import, but I try to weave those facts and values into the story, taking “living breathing” characters with lives and personal troubles of their own, just like people today, and have the history touch them and then have them pass that history and their take on it back to us. In other words, have them give it to us from their point of view, or their point of view as I perceive it to have been.
I also try to take into account how they would be seeing the history going on around them. I consider how we look at history being made today and how it touches us—medical care, gay marriage, the Supreme Court assuming the power to create laws, abortion, war in Iraq…etc., etc. I try to have my fictional characters view events occurring in their day in that same way—as something ongoing, not as a matter already decided, because for them, it wasn’t. In my stories, the history is peripheral, influencing the characters, yes, sometimes forcing reactions, but the characters’ story is occurring within a historical period. It is they, not the history, driving the story.
From the time the reader meets Wolf Dawson or Eli Calhoon, there’s little doubt as to who’s driving the plot, but it is a rare pleasure for the reader to immerse themselves in a historical read that isn’t dry.
Your novels feature striking wars between the sexes. Where does most of your inspiration come from for these gasoline and match relationships?
C.R.: The graphic sexual content in my stories is residual from my days of writing romance and is more pervasive in my earlier works than in my more recent ones. Graphic content is present in all my work.
Sexual conflict/a love interest, exists in most “escape” fiction. I cut my teeth on Zane Gray (sweet romance) and Frank Yerby (who created earthy, passionate, and even violent romantic themes). Unlike a true romance novel, where sexual conflict is the story, the sexual conflict in my novels is a major sub-plot to the story. Conflict of some sort drives any story, so my hero and heroine start out at some level of opposition to each other pertinent to the plot and are shortly thereafter burdened by a mutual sexual attraction that is character, not story, driven. In my opinion, the sexual tension adds spice and satisfaction to the plot without sacrificing the plot itself.
As far as inspiration for those romantic relationships? The truth would probably be that it’s biological/stimulating/titillating. I could blame it on Zane Gray and Frank Yerby, and decades of reading escape fiction, but then the old adage comes to mind, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Truth is I think the sexual content of their work is what led me to become their fan, not the other way around.
Does your family read your work? What do they say about it?
C.R.: My family does not read my work. In part this harks back to question number three, especially as regards my children. You see, they have no desire to consider what I know about sex, much less read the proof in print. The sexual content present in my books embarrasses them, not that they’re prudes, but rather because their mother wrote it. My two daughters are married and both are appalled that I’ve given their respective mothers-in-law copies of my books. The sad part is that my stories are so much more than a couple of tastefully graphic sex scenes.
I have asked my husband, who is very much aware that I do know a thing or two about sex, to read my work for critical critiques. No, not on the sex scenes, but on technical points. He has a law enforcement/counterintelligence background, which proves useful. I cannot, however, get him to read much of anything. He’s retired and derives his entertainment from repeats of Law and Order and NCIS, so I have to make do with reading excerpts to him out loud and requesting suggestions.
If you had to choose a single life-defining moment that shaped you as a future writer, what would it be?
C.R.: Charlton Heston holding out his hand to that little mixed-blood Chinese girl at the end of Sixty-five Days in Peking and saying, “Here, take my hand.” And she did. Oh, those surprise and all-so-satisfying endings are, in my opinion, where all good stories should lead. They are, when all is said and done, what make the journey worth it.
Wolf Dawson was our most recent read by you, and we were blown away by the ending. We’ve heard this was one of your most quickly written novels. What’s the story behind Wolf Dawson? How did you conceive of a werewolf story and finish it so quickly?
C.R.: Wolf Dawson was my second “published” novel, my second historical, and my second of what I call a Southern Gothic, though it might deviate some from the true application of that term. An old plantation, a dark hero, a reluctant bride, and an evil enshrined in local legend…my kind of story and I hoped it would be for readers, too. Maybe that’s why it came so easily to me. As a rule, I don’t make outlines, and I sometimes pay the price by having to go back and create one—that’s particularly true for complicated mysteries, but that was not the case with Wolf Dawson. The story flowed from beginning to end. That’s not to say there were no rewrites; there were, but I got the basic story down the first time with no major plot changes.
As for werewolf stories, I’ve had werewolves on my mind since I was a little girl and saw Lon Chaney, Jr. transform into one of the things in The Wolf Man. I have never ever considered one to be a good guy, rarely even sympathetic—okay, Jacob in the Twilight series would be an exception, but in general, I consider the things bad.
My true inspiration for the animal haunting the woods around White Oak Glen derives from the shape-shifting legends of Indian lore (a better fit for ole Jake, referenced above), no small part of which flavors the South and its literature. I pictured Jeff’s half-blooded grandfather in front of the fire filling his grandchildren’s heads with all manner of tall tales, some with not even an iota of truth, but wonderful stories nonetheless, stories a loving grandson would believe until a violent act shattered the premise and proved the legend false—or did it?
You’re known for standalone novels, but we know that you’re working on a sequel to Camellia Creek. What made you decide to write a sequel? When can we expect Honor’s Banner out?
C.R.: I didn’t plan it that way. The seeds of Honor’s Banner were sown in Camellia Creek. Even though the latter had reached its satisfying conclusion with the epilogue, the murder of Treasury agent Alan Guthrie, which had brought Major Seth Parker into the lives of Eli and Alice Calhoon to begin with, had scarcely been addressed. Clearly the satisfying ending for that plot point had not been realized and furthermore, Guthrie’s murder was a “whole other story.” When I wrote in Eli’s sister Becky, toward the end of Camellia Creek, I had the stage set. Expect to see Honor’s Banner out in November 2015.
If you could give a piece of advice to other aspiring Southern authors out there, what would it be?
C.R.: By this question, I’m assuming you’re referring to Southern writers writing about the South, otherwise there’d be no cause to specify region. A writer can write about anything. With that assumption in mind, here’s my take on the matter: Be true to the South. Depict her as you perceive her to be, not what others perceive her to be or what you think others perceive her to be. Don’t be afraid of offending anyone by not denigrating the South. Anyone worthy of your patronage would not expect you to. Put your stories in the context of history, but first learn the history and be proud of it, because it’s something to be proud of.
That’s a fine perspective. Because of the insular nature of the South, the culture varies surprisingly from one county to the next. Then there’s a trend for critics to call most any Southern book “stereotypical”. Our culture is diverse, and most of us are writing what we know or have lived. The critical reception of most Southern fiction demonstrates a lack of understanding.
Thank you for stopping by. Expect to see more of your work on here, and we’ll be looking forward to Honor’s Banner.
For those of you wanting to learn more about Mrs. Russell, she blogs about all manner of things from history to writing at Loblolly Writer’s House.
Join us again soon for reviews of Southern fiction and interviews with some of the South’s most talented writers.