No Reason for Apologies: A Q&A with Kent Russell

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If one was tasked with selecting one man as the archetype of the macho, fearless, self-sufficient, plays-by-his-own-rules American male, Daniel Boone would be right near the top. He was a pioneer, frontiersman, explorer, and soldier, and has been called the “founding father of westward expansion.” Boone homesteaded, trapped game, fought in both the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, kickstarted Kentucky, and became one the country’s greatest folk heroes. He was also a crappy father who said of his own flesh-and-blood, after burying him in a mass grave following the 1782 Battle of Blue Licks, “I did not hear your name when they were beating up for volunteers ... I am sorry to think I have raised a timid son.”

That heartfelt epitaph serves as the title of a new collection of essays by Kent Russell, a twenty-nine-year-old Brooklyn writer by way of Miami. At the book’s core, Russell examines his sense of twenty-first-century manhood and his relationship with his own father, a complex Vietnam Vet who ended up a stay-at-home-dad. Along the way, Russell introduces readers to a few men who are forging their own isolated paths, like the fascinating lunatic who lets a poisonous snakes bite him in an effort to find an antidote.

Russell spoke with Signature about the even more famous writer in the family, guzzling beer with the Juggalos, and witchcraft.

Signature: It doesn’t seem like a lot of writers start out writing essays. Did you decide that was the form that suited you early on?

KENT RUSSELL: In college, I studied journalism and Russian because I wanted to make all the money in the world. As my dad says, I would have had the perfect career path in 1939. At the University of Florida, I was doing student newspaper stuff, but I was also writing for Gainesville’s weekly Village Voice-style newsmagazine, Satellite. They only had three people on staff, so they let me go out to find and report strange longer pieces. I was attracted to journalism as an excuse to be around things I like. My original plan was to be a hockey beat writer -- talk about another growth market -- but after working for Satellite, I had an epiphany.

Growing up, I wrote short stories, some really dark stuff. I remember one had a death shroud, there were also guillotines and shark attacks ... Then I hit puberty and the literary light went out. It wasn’t until I got to college that I really started writing again, and that’s when I discovered David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and realized this is what I wanted to do. My sister is the novelist and fiction writer in the family.

SIG: Since you brought her up, your sister isn’t just an ordinary writer, she’s Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and a MacArthur Genius grant winner. What’s your sibling writers' relationship like?

KR: It’s not competitive in the least. I’m Karen’s biggest fan and she’s my biggest champion. I’d quit doing this in a second if it meant that her already beautiful blessed career could be furthered in any extent. We all knew Karen was the one. She would pick up anything in the house and read it, lost in a world for a couple hours and wouldn’t notice if you clapped in her face. Karen was always going to be the best writer around, but she still encouraged me. We went in different directions, but we’re watered from the same root.

To this day though, I don’t show her stuff that isn’t done yet. I’m self-conscious around her. I use this analogy: both Wayne and Brent Gretzky played in the NHL. Brent lasted thirteen games.

SIG: Are the Russells a literary family?

KR: We didn’t have classics on the shelves, but we had a lot of genre stuff, 1980s potboilers and the like. I recall Lord of the Rings being formative for Karen and me. For a period of time when Karen was going into high school and I was in elementary school, our folks would take us to a Borders on US 1 in Miami every Friday. I’d go to the sci-fi fiction and grab the dopest cover, whichever book had a Civil War regimen going through a timewarp and fighting aliens. I still want to read those books so bad, but my Catholic upbringing brain means I feel guilty for wasting time on monsters and spaceships.

SIG: How did you end up writing for n+1, a magazine that’s had a major impact on the world of letters over the last decade?

KR: I moved to New York City in 2008, but I was a fool. I didn’t know anything about n+1 or similar publications like The Believer and Tin House. In grad school, I had a capstone assignment to do a regular reported piece, but I decided I didn’t want to do it. I turned in what became the first essay in I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, about my best friend growing up who served in Afghanistan. The NYU instructor Susie Linfield passed it along to Keith Gessen at n+1 without even me knowing about it. Gessen is a hockey fan, so I had sent him stuff, but he wasn’t into my stupid-ass writing about the sport. He was reluctant to read the essay based on my hockey writing, but he did, and since then the people at n+1 have been supportive. They're my road dogs. It’s a cliche, but true, you just need that one lucky break to get through that semi-permeable editorial membrane. n+1 was it.

SIG: We moved to New York City around the same age, albeit fifteen years apart, but I wonder what the adjustment was like? In 1993, being from Montana, I was quite the novelty.

KR: I bet people always have some stereotype picture of what Montana is, and it's completely false, right? Riding horses to school? I was twenty-two when I got to New York, and only then did I understand, ‘Wow, people think Florida is weird as shit.’ I didn’t know we were America’s Australia until I left. It was a blessing though, I love my home state.

SIG: Your dad is the centerpiece of the book, a Vietnam vet who fits the manly man archetype, but not in a Great Santini way. Would it be fair to say he’s more of an eccentric oddball than a spit-and-polish dad?

KR: Big time. He’s truly the best family man you could ask for. He wasn’t some looming presence where you had to tiptoe around afraid to set him off. Dad used to tape bits of twine to the end of a straw so I could pretend it was a whip. He’d act like the goblins from the video game Castlevania and let me whip him for hours. He was loving and always around. It wasn’t until I left Florida that I realized our family had an odd setup.

SIG: One thing that struck me about your dad: I couldn’t imagine telling my daughter tales of my drunken debauchery, but he revels in it.

KR: I definitely don’t hear other people talking about their dads telling shitfaced stories. Miami isn’t an abstemious town in any sense and I went to UF just like dad, so there is a connection. The only stories my shitheel friends and I -- and many other men naturally -- tell each other are of debauchery, of being a clownish Odysseus passing through terrible waters filled with sea monsters while being eighteen sheets to the wind. It’s a self-mythologizing kind of drive and my dad was a storyteller.

After Hurricane Andrew, when I had to share a bed with my two older sisters, dad would spin yarns for us before we went to bed. They always included really bawdy jokes or shaggy-dog tales where the payoff was totally not worth the buildup. And when he became this family man, there was a disconnect to his younger life, the “dream time” if you will. He told us all about it, often without a filter. In retrospect it’s strange, but I understand the urge. I’m still in the zone of being a shitty young person.

SIG: In the book, your dad says: “People are stupid assholes precisely because they believe they are anything but stupid assholes,” which doesn’t jibe with the fun-loving guy he seemed to be, did he act different outside the family?

KR: In earlier drafts, I had more in there about my dad really loving people as an audience. He’ll ask strangers a question he knows the answer to, just so it can spin off into a performance, a new person to hear his stories. He has a wariness toward the unknown though. It’s one thing to be a song-and-dance man, it’s another to let them see the performer behind the curtain.

SIG: You refer to yourself as “purposely divisive.” Is that something you’d like to change?

KR: Oh yeah, I would love to not be that way, but the self-destructive urge is alive and well in me. For a lot of men, this posturing and wanting to believe we’re radically self-sufficient comes out of fear. The fear of being exposed and denuded. We’re afraid to unclench the fist of who we are because what’s in your hand? Nothing. Rather than be vulnerable and engage deeply with another person, I have to give up the image I’ve created of myself. It’s easier to Irish exit out of people’s lives. It’s born from crippling fear. I am a notorious Irish exiter.

SIG: I wrote a story on Christianity and football last season, and in talking to evangelicals, I learned that the loss of American manliness is a huge concern. You hear this idea all the time, and it’s a theme in your book. Sure, we can’t rebuild engines like our granddads, but is this really a problem, isn’t being a decent guy the definition of what a man should be?

KR: It’s a false nostalgia, like the Victorians' idea of muscular Christianity. “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” kind of thing. What I find myself longing for is a decisiveness, not saying you don’t give a shit, but having the fortitude to do a thing even if it’s unpopular. There’s a David Foster Wallace essay that says every social interaction is transactional, that there’s a cringing niceness in which I’ll be likable to you so you like me. The grandfatherly notion of a guy who stabbed a Nazi in the neck with a bayonet, came home, and drank sloe gin fizzes at lunch, can lead to a lot of coldness and cruelty. You need more than frontiersmen for a functioning society, but I do like guys who can cut down the balloons of bullshit and come back to Earth.

SIG: The irony being that your book, while not an over-sharing work of sexcapades or some such, is still you putting yourself out there for all the world to read.

KR: I am gravitationally attracted to the qualities of autonomy and self-sufficiency that the archetypes represent. But as I grow older, I realize that through shared characteristics, it’s not a good way to live for my own well-being. The door to hell locks from the inside. I hope that by showing a bit of vulnerability, I can open up the door a little bit before it’s too late. I don’t want the mask to become my face.

SIG: Is the act of writing cathartic or therapeutic and does it remain so through all the machinations of publishing?

KR: It’s therapeutic in that it quiets the mind. It’s rare to find that sweet spot where you’re removed from yourself and you look up to see five hours have passed and there are 2,000 words on the page. It’s magical, almost an out-of-body experience. Like drinking, it eclipses my consciousness. It’s the old line, the pain of writing is only superseded by not writing. It’s the best way to get out of my head. It’s an addiction. At five-o’clock I made it through the day without hating the voice in my head, now I can relax and crack the first cold one in peace.

SIG: Let me ask you about some specific essays in the book. You went to the Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering of the Juggalos, and didn’t condescend to it, but did you find much there there? Is it more than a bunch of underclass, mostly white people, getting wasted on everything once-a-year?

KR: In so far as its become the model for pop stars, fostering a fan community of like-minded people who become a second chosen family, there is something to it. It's just like Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” shit or whatever. Demographics notwithstanding, people feel like they’re understood and have found a sense of belonging. It’s a kinship outside the groups we’re born into. That essay could be written about any number of subcultures, but the Juggalos interested me on a “there but for the grace of God, go I” level. After Hurricane Andrew, I lived in the lower middle class outskirts of Pittsburgh for a spell and clearly remember seeing a guy in an Insane Clown Posse Carnival Carnage tee-shirt and a Jason hockey mask. Had I been raised there and not returned to Florida, would I have joined the stupid-ass Juggalo family? I don’t know.

That being said, going to the Gathering of the Juggalos has become a writer's thing. It's kind of a gonzo bunny hill easy for the picking.

SIG: The debauchery and behavior isn’t that far removed from a frat party blowout, and I’m sure the majority of people are playing dress-up and having their definition of a good time. It seems, however, there’s an undercurrent of sadness to the Juggalos, in that for a number of fans this is all there is.

KR: There’s a palpable vibe, a wistful feeling that this is the one time a year to have fun before going back to the auto plant. More than sadness, however, is a feeling of nascent rage, economic, social, or whatever. It’s an oppositional thing. It’s not introspective, but it’s opposition born out of anger and resentment. A fuck-the-world mentality.

SIG: The chapter on the self-immunizer was hard for me to read because I am Team Indiana Jones when it comes to snakes. What I found amazing though is that Tim Friede lets poisonous vipers bite him, not just as a daredevil, but because he wants to find a cure, right?

KR: For sure. Tim is living the mythic narrative like a guy who tamed the West. He believes the answer lies within, which is the source of monumental ambitions, and often insanity. What brought me to that profile was trying to figure out why I’m attracted to and repelled by the Nietzsche aphorism “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Who’s taking this to the wildest extreme? Tim gets a big personal kick out of being the guy who can plug a Black Mamba into his wrist and be none the worse for wear, but also seeing himself as this crusading lone wolf scientist experimenting on the brink.

SIG: It would be cool if Tim became the Jonas Salk of snakebite immunization.

KR: Holy shit, that would be amazing! I came across the statistic that 100,000 people die from snakebites a year. I hope he does it and gets all the accolades.

SIG: One more, on Dave, the guy you hung out with on the deserted island. You went looking for Robinson Crusoe and found a Libertarian Trickle-Down-Economics biz-jargon-speaking TED Talk type, exactly the kind of person I think you wouldn’t want to hang out with.

KR: Deep down, I think he believes his intentions are good and he does legitimately want to help people with the “restoration” resort he aims to build. Being unable to Irish exit I took as a personal challenge; I wanted to see if I could do it. The island was goddamn terrifying. I kept Dave’s big dog Quasi at my side the whole time. There’s a massive crocodile stalking the island! But no, I didn’t find a hermetic character, dipping his cup in a well of stillness, finding God in all things. Of course, someone is going to commodify the idea.

SIG: You have wanderlust. Do these adventures suffice?

KR: I went to Papa New Guinea in December to write about witchhunts. Hundreds , if not thousands, of people are still being publicly tortured and burned alive there. I was following a writerly idea I had about shaming, but it’s not to fulfill some swashbuckling Hemingway-esque dream. Going to far-flung places is to follow the best piece of writer’s advice I ever got: “If there’s some crazy thing you can imagine, someone somewhere is doing it.” I actually don’t take leisure trips. I’m a homebody unless it has practical writing effects.

SIG: Well, someday you’ll be in your forties, maybe find yourself a stay-at-home-dad, and you'll crave any new experience.

KR: My dad always told me two things: “Never get married and watch out for the Chinese.” He amended the first: “Get married to keep from dying in a ludicrous fashion, but make sure you do all your ridiculous shit beforehand.”

SIG: My only advice to writers: Marry up.

KR: I’m trying.