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Interview with Anne Russell, September 17, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Anne Russell, September 17, 2007
September 17, 2007
Interview with Anne Russell, playwright and author of several books on local history, including Wilmington: A Pictoral History.
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Interviewee: Russell, Anne Interviewer: Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview: 9/17/2007 Series: SENC Writers Length 40 minutes

Diesenhaus: This is an interview with Anne Russell for the Randall Library Oral History Project with Creative Writers. It's September 17, 2007 and I'm the interviewer Doug Diesenhaus. Thanks very much. Perhaps a good place to get started is just to talk about how you got started writing. You were telling me a bit.

Russell: You know, it's funny. Like many writers, you've probably got stories a little here, and a little there and a little there and then you reel it back. I guess I got started as a writer reading other writers. My parents absolutely loved books. And of course, I was born, I hate to confess, prior to television, so what you did was read books. I lived in New York City, although I'm southern. My home place is Wilmington, 300 years of my family. But my dad was with AT&T and we lived in New York for five years. And they would haul cartons of books home to me, which my mother would give 50 cents a carton down near the shipping lines. And these were books that nobody picked up and we didn't know what was in the box. And so it was my big, about once a month, my thrill to open the carton and see if there was anything readable in there. The first book that I found was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which is definitely a grownup book, because it had some sex in it. And I was seven and I read it cover to cover, with the dictionary to help, and absolutely fell in love with the book and thought if I could ever write a book like this, I would die happy. So that started me off, lots of reading. Then I wrote an awful poem in the Roy Rogers "Name the Horse Contest" when I was 11 and it awful, and then wrote poems on Christmas cards to my relatives. I have some. They are equally awful, won the New Hanover High School scribblers club poetry writing contest for money, which is why I entered, and didn't care if I was a dork, because of course poets in high school aren't cool. I actually won $50, which back then was a bunch of money, it's like $500 today, and promptly put it on a layaway on a gown, a red, gorgeous evening gown to wear to the prom. And no one asked me to the prom, so the dress went unworn and the $50 gone, but I thought oh I could sell more. And I couldn't. I couldn't sell any more poems. So I found out when I was 17 that I could make money as a newspaper reporter and I took a job and I wrote columns. I was a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal [inaudible] and I was also a feature writer, went on to be a columnist for UNC Press and then worked my way through school at Chapel Hill, and then to the News & Observer became entertainment editor columns. So all that writing was journalistic and I was a closet poet. And then I tried writing fiction. I can write fiction. I can write passable fiction. In fact, I wrote a novel through the paper from here, just to see if I could do it. It's a publishable novel, which will probably be published at some point. But fiction frustrates me. I didn't know why, but it just frustrates me. It's all a part of getting them from here to there and I don't want that. I just like dialogue so I became a playwright, because that's dialogue when you say in the living room. And felt reborn and love it, and that's what I primarily do now. Sometimes I write other stuff. I'm working with my houseguest now, who has just been through a very harrowing experience, which has, in fact, been nationally publicized, her experience with our so-called justice system and the memoirs that she's going to write about this, I'm kind of co-writing with her. So I do some of that, but mostly, it's about plays. And you make no money whatsoever over writing plays. And that's my story.

Diesenhaus: Given the shift of the different forms, is the experience in writing each of those forms different? Do you approach them differently?

[crew talk]

Diesenhaus: You talked about all these different forms that you've written and I wondered if these experience of writing was different for you. Do you feel different? Do you approach it differently?

Russell: Oh yes, absolutely. You're a very good interviewer. As a matter of fact, I have just now become a sculptor. I had already done one piece some years ago, just for the heck of it and I won an award with that. It's a stone piece and it's a surfing waves. But I just started that, because I've always wanted to and I've found I absolutely love sculpture, large sculpture. And I mention it because the other thing I've done all my life, I won an international art award at New Hanover High School for a painting I did, and so my original plan was to become a commercial artist. And I discovered I am not gifted in that area and turned to the writing more. The paintings frustrate me. I finally made the connection. Paintings frustrate me. They're two-dimensional. Fiction frustrates me. It's two-dimensional, for me. I loved sculpture, three-dimensional, because you go in, and around it and about it. I love drama. It's three-dimensional, so there is some consistency there. So with the forms, I find for myself that creative non-fiction-- I used to teach it in college. I was head of journalism at Pembroke, UNC Pembroke and then also at Barton College, and then I also taught here at UNCW what journalism courses they had in the dark ages. I love creative non-fiction. I believe in journalism tremendously. I think it is the best training ground for a writer, just like everyone says that, Hemmingway and everybody else, and it is. It gives you deadlines. It makes you focus on substance, and not meander off into wild, philosophical things. It pays you money. It's a wonderful discipline. And to get published, bingo, gratification. I write poetry and I occasionally spin off a piece of journalistic writing and then let somebody publish it. Poetry, I think, is your soul. I think writing a truly good poem is more difficult than writing a novel. It is a novel in a tiny, little space. It's the most intimate form, in my opinion, if it's well done and I'd like to object something. Please, all you English teachers in our public schools, particularly in the primary grades, stop assigning haiku to your students, because it's an easy thing and you think it's exotic. It is an eastern form. It is not a western form. Your students are western students. They don't have eastern souls. These haiku are phony. Stop doing that to children. Instead, imitate Walt Whitman, perhaps, or something. That's the end of that speech. I love poetry and I write it when I'm inspired to and I give it to people, and I write it about people I care about. For me, that's the use of poetry, and I think everybody in the universe should try out a poem every now and then. Fiction, I wish were my gift, because you get more credit and academe in the creative writing programs in the English departments if you've had a novel published. But unfortunately, that's not the best thing for me. God bless anyone who does that. Playwriting-- I think poetry is more difficult, a good poem, than a novel. A play is more difficult than any other writing form, a good play, because you have to keep all the balls in the air. It's like juggling, if you've ever written one. At every moment, you have to know where all your characters are, and who's onstage and who's not, what the ones offstage are doing. And there's a rhythm. You have to have your dialogue should not have an extra word in it. It absolutely has to be alive and bounce off of the other people. The set is so important. It can make or break a play, the costuming, the lighting, and you have to be aware on every page of every bit of that. I believe it's the most demanding form, and for me, it's the most satisfactory form. That's about all I have to say about that.

Diesenhaus: I'm thinking about your work in journalism. You talked about that's where the money was.

Russell: Yes-- not a lot of money, but there's not a lot of money in any form of writing.

Diesenhaus: Was it also potentially were there limitations? Moving out of it, did you feel [inaudible]?

Russell: Yes. The main limitations, there are two, to me, primary limitations. You do ask good questions. The first is that most budding novelists are going to write the great American novel because they have to eat; they go and be a reporter. Well you're not going to write the great American novel while you're being a reporter, because you're exhausted and your writing energy is gone, and on the weekend, you just want to crash, and so most of them have a great, unwritten American novels sitting in their desks. That's the first downside. The second downside is journalistic writing doesn't pay a bunch of money. It pays more than other things, but you're never going to be rich off of journalism and that's a downside. So I recommend to everybody who is going to go into journalism-- well this is a third downside, too: to invest in real estate on the side, and not try to flip them so that they're losing money as they are today, but to be smart about it or something. Have something on the side where you can have a cash flow that's independent. The third downside just occurred to me, freelance. Freelance, to me, is like going to hell. You invest-- once you get established, and you're in demand and you're great, you know, you're John Updike, great, but when you're just nobody and you're trying freelance and there's ten million other freelancers, you are going to put a lot of time invested in this thing and get, usually, nothing back, because it'll never get published, or a little bit, sometimes, maybe.

Diesenhaus: You also talked about writing being something that was important to you from a very young age. Were there teachers or instructors then?

Russell: Yeah. You really are a good interviewer. First of all, and this is the cliché and I agree, don't try to be a writer unless you have to. It's a personal gift and I was compelled. I had to be a writer. It is how I make sense my universe. When all around you are losing their heads and blaming it on you and all of that, because the world is nuts. I can sit down, when I think I'm losing my mind, and frame what's going on and gain control over it. And so psychologically, it is deeply, deeply important to me and I would say it has saved me from being locked away permanently in the nuthouse. Truly, I'm not kidding. It's power. It is a powerful form. World War II-- my husband has a theory that Hollywood invented World War II so they could make a lot of movies. But World War II has been written about and written about. The most powerful commentary of World War II, Diary of Ann Frank, it makes me cry. I mean that girl sat there in her-- I'm sorry. It really gets to me. I read it when I was a kid. She was in this powerless situation, which killed her. But she got out her little diary and she wrote, and that thing survived and that speaks. And it speaks more powerfully of that kind of stuff than anything else that's ever been written, in my opinion, and it lives on year, after year, after year, after year. So for me it was compulsion. The other thing that helped me do it-- and I think this is very important-- I came from a family which values words. We'd like to have more money, but somehow, the gift of money is not in my family, but words are important. And my grandfather in Wilmington used to write letters to the editor every week. He world orate, he'd drink too much whiskey in the evening and he'd go out, and my first play has him as a character doing that. And he was all red and he would cuss the town council and he'd do all this. And I'd just sit there and words, words, and a big drama of words. And we had great debates in my family, the art of conversation. My mother was severely dyslexic and she kept saying to me, "Ann, you've got"-- my father was brilliant and my dad was a marvelous conversationalist, and vocabulary, unbelievable. And she said, "You've inherited your dad's way with words. Be a writer. Please be a writer. Be a writer. Be a writer," because my mother couldn't write. She couldn't spell her own name twice. She was the one who'd get the cartons of books for me. We also had, in our apartment in New York City as a kid, the Webster's unabridged dictionary, which I still have it. It's in a glass case, because now it's a very valuable thing, at least to me. It was huge and it had a stand. And it was in the middle of our living room in New York and it was open. And every day, Mother and Dad would argue about the meaning of a word. And the meaning of a word was the most powerful thing in the universe. And every day, out of the New York newspaper over breakfast, from the time I was 6-years-old, my dad would pick a word out of the newspaper and he would say, "At suppertime, I want you to spell it and define it." So words, to me, were the most important things on earth. I became a writer.

Diesenhaus: You're talking about your family life. I think personal history has been very important to your writing. I'm just curious. What is it like to kind of interact with that, to go back to these memories? How do you use it in your creative work?

Russell: Another good question. First of all, your personal history helps you make sense of it. Secondly, it helps you document it and retain it, and sort of just take it out and polish it, and love it, and look at it, and share it with other people and bring it back. And that's what my first play did, The Porch, which was done in New York in September. And believe me, it wasn't Broadway, but it was a big thrill for me. It was done at London Terrace Gardens in Chelsea, incredible place. And that's where I lived as a child, in London Terrace Gardens in Chelsea. And it was an outdoor thing. And it's a Wilmington play and it's about my Wilmington family. That's my most cherished play, because it's my family. And I'm not in it, except I'm the observer who is watching all this take place and mentally recording it, and then in later life, gaining perspective on it. As far as my history books, Wilmington and Victorian History and History of Religions of North Carolina, and Wrightsville Beach History and all of that-- which I'm not writing anymore history, so I've sort of deeded all that to all these wonderful historians who are now putting out all this stuff-- that was a way of sharing. It was a way-- the research was a way of my putting the pieces of the puzzle together and learning, educating myself about how Wilmington came about, or how this particular thing happened, and then writing it out and presenting it, and sharing it with other people and influencing other people.

Diesenhaus: What you just said, place seems to be fairly important to you.

Russell: Yeah, absolutely.

Diesenhaus: Can you talk a bit about how place relates? Is where you live important to the act of creating?

Russell: You know there are so many cliché's, but the reason they are clichés is they're true. Write what you know. You can write science fiction, I guess, but then I'd have to go research something about how all that junk takes place up there. Science fiction bores me stiff. Write what you know because you have observed details unconsciously and subconsciously, as well as consciously. You've absorbed it. You've absorbed the cadences of a speech, the way the light-- like right now today, mid-September, Wilmington, North Carolina. Look at the light. Only this time of year do you get the feel, the air, the light, the coolness of the air this morning, that brilliant light, the way everything is very clearly defined out there. So yeah, write what you know.

Diesenhaus: Does this world affect your work? Does it inspire you?

Russell: We moved 500 times and I went to four high schools, and so I have a lot of places in my soul: Charleston, Atlanta, New York, Ohio, New Jersey. I have written one novel, unpublished, never tried to have it published. I'd rather write than run around getting published. I need an agent, desperately need an agent. Anyone out there, please call me. I wrote a New Jersey novel about ten years ago because of an experience I had in junior high school there. It was a very strange town I lived in, socio-culturally and I had to divest myself of that. Most of my stuff, however, is set here, because this place means the most to me and it's the most in my soul. Although I hate to step on toes, I really envy, and I won't name names, I envy certain southern writers for their success, the money they've made, their reputations. I do. Please, I admire you and I wish I could. But I can't stand, personally, what I call pea patch writing, the yellow haired girl out in the pea patch. It sells, though, because the New York publishers still look on southerners as freaks, kind of, and so as long as you get out and do your southern freak dance, you know, about Granny in the attic and all stuff, they'll kind of lap it up, and that sells. I don't see the south that way. That's not my experience with the south, so I don't like doing that dance. My writing about this place is about the south I like to believe is a different kind of writing. And believe me, I don't compare myself at all to these writers, my God, but Tennessee Williams was a southern writer. We have many North Carolina writers that just wrote wonderfully about the south and profoundly about it. That's the kind of southern writing I prefer.

Diesenhaus: Given you thoughts about the south as a region, I know that you've also been active politically. Did that contribute to your writing?

Russell: As we speak, I am still. My houseguest is just out of jail, none months in jail, Allison Quets. She had her twins taken from her wrongly, and it upset me tremendously what has happened to her. And she has run into what I have run into frequently. Our American system of justice, in my opinion, is the best in the world, because it works and we let it work. But when it gets perverted, which it often does, it is like horrible. She is a victim of that. I have been, also, and so I've extended-- come, stay, we'll get you kind of back on the road, so she's getting back on the road right now. And I'm an activist and I have told her that if they can get no further with the Florida Court of Appeals than they have, I will personally go stand out front of the Florida Court of Appeals and I will protest it. And I know how to protest, because I'm well-trained. I was trained by the Office of Economic Opportunity in the '70's as a community action organizer. And so if there's a cause that I truly believe in-- and you have to pace yourself, because you don't want to waste yourself on it-- I will put myself on the line. And I have been to jail. I've been to jail for these things, not that I like to go there, but I'll do it. And I think that's what everybody has to do. I think you have to have some values which you cherish. I know I'm giving another speech, but in America, I have a Ph.D. in American studies. The only way that we have our constitutional democracy is because all of the citizens have to fight to keep it, because it's constantly power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. We presently have a power situation in our country. And you have to be diligent. You have to say, "No folks, not going to do that. And I believe in this and I will put myself on the line. I'll tie myself to the tree." I'll say one other thing about that. A lot of people who know me now don't understand this and won't believe it. I am shy by nature. I think most writers are. I was very shy growing up. I only became un-shy in my mid-30's when I was in a survival situation and shy wasn't going to help us survive. And I had to learn to put on a face, a performance. My mother was an extrovert. Mother was dead and I remembered how my mom would do it, and I began performing. And now I know how to do it, and I know how to do it as an activist. I would choose that sort of life. It's hard for me, and I'm going to put myself on the line. It's hard for me to do it, but I do. And if you've got to do it, you do it right. So causes which I will fight for her. And this is because when I was 7-years-old in Wilmington, that second grade year, Dad was elsewhere working on a Masters or something. Mother went looking and left me and my baby brother and my grandparents here. I went to Chestnut Street School from New York City. And I'm on this bus that took the kids to school, and the front three-quarters of the bus is all white kids and the back quarter is blacks. There was no room for the blacks, so they're standing up, being thrown all over the bus. We had empty seats in the front. Little kids, fairness is born into you and, isn't there something weird about this thing? I didn't know what segregation was. In New York City, all kinds of people rode the bus and I think this is weird. And so I invited a little black boy to sit next to me. I had an empty seat. I said, "Don't stand here." "Oh no, no!" And I'm, "Why are you afraid? Sit down." Well I'm white. I told him to sit down and he sits down. He knew better, I didn't. The kids yelled to me, "Nigger lover, nigger lover!" The bus driver, a big, beefy, red face looked in the rearview mirror. I'll never forget his face looking in the rearview mirror. Here we are. He slams to a stop, right beside the cemetery there, the national cemetery. And he gets the little black guy by the collar, throws him off the bus, literally throws him into the gutter. And the kids all start yelling names at him, and something in me said something isn't right here, and so that's my first protest. I stood up and said, "If he can't ride the bus, I'm not going to ride the god damn bus." And I got off the bus and I stood with him, and then I became an outcast. No one would speak to me for the rest of the year at school, ate lunch with me, talk to me, play with me. They would do very mean things to me. I boycotted the bus. I wouldn't ride it, and I walked to and from school by myself at age seven, down Market Street at that time. And the reason is this. Aside from the innate sense of justice that all children are born with, "Your piece of cake is bigger than my piece of cake, right," my dad was manic depressive. Couldn't help it, he was born that way, bipolar before anybody ever heard of what that was. A wonderful father, I adored him. He was wonderful, my favorite parent. He was my nurturing parent. But he got nuts when I was 11 and he beat the hell out of my mother. He began to beat my brother and me. And it was all about his moods. I had to defend my mother. My dad killed my mother when she was 52 in a manic rage. Growing up in that home, I was powerless. My dad was a very strong man. I couldn't fight back. All I knew is that this was wrong. It was not fair. So when I got out, the anger and hurt inside of me, to this day, is energy. You can either turn it into depression and anxiety, or you can let it out. I let it out through my writing. I let it out through my activism. That's the energy which comes to me to make me get off my royal ass and go out there and stand in front of something and say, "No, not going to do it." And I think all activists-- not the ones that play it being an activist, "I'm bored, I'm going to smoke a joint and I'm going to go down and protest something," but the real activists, all of them, if you dug into their backgrounds, you'd find that.

Diesenhaus: Do you see that activist spirit and the writer spirit to be, it sounds like they're the same.

Russell: For me, you know, like writing drama. A lot of people like to write musicals. Musicals bore me stiff. Sometimes there's a good song and I remember it, and they're formula stuff. They're nice, but they sell. That's what most people want to go to. They want to go to musicals and get the woes of the world. I like drama. And so for me, the two are tied together. And I think many writers have many reasons for writing and so they do their stuff. Each writer's got your own mix of things.

Diesenhaus: I want to talk a bit about your pursuing an MFA at the university. What drove you to that?

Russell: Well first of all, I'm a born intellectual. I'm not the kind of intellectual that sits there and argues about whether the deconstruction of the [inaudible]. I can't stand that jargon. I cannot stand it, which is one reason I never ever pursued tenure. I got to be an associate professor, to my amazement. Someone just walked in and said, "Do you want to be an associate professor?" and they made me one. That was very nice, still underpaid. But I didn't even bother with tenure. I never did understand it. It seemed very, very political. And all I knew is you had to talk a lot of that stupid jargon and publish a bunch of obscure things nobody ever reads. I like to do real writing for real people. I'm not putting those folks down. They make a lot more money than I do. I forgot the question.

Diesenhaus: More about the MFA.

Russell: Oh yeah, the MFA. I have gotten a Bachelor's from Chapel Hill in English, a useless degree. I got divorced from a very powerful, extremely wealthy and influential man. In fact, a guy who has backed John Edwards to run for everything he's run for. My ex-husband is a-- I have an architect husband now-- but that lawyer husband is now a very, very powerful man. After that, I quit school to marry him. I quit Chapel Hill to get his career on the road. And I left him after ten years and went back with three kids, finished my Bachelors in English, found out a BMA for a female was nothing. It was the equivalent of a high school diploma for a guy. So then I thought okay, I've got to get my own power, so I got a Masters degree in urban studies, while working three jobs and being a single parent of four children. I then discovered that I can't stand bureaucracy. It bores me stiff. I am not made for it. Nine to five, I can't do that stuff. I had several jobs in that field which fed us and supported us and I did a good job at a fairly high level. I was director of substance abuse planning and all for the state of Hawaii. Two years was enough for me of that. What do you do then? Well I was teaching college and doing these things. And then I have a disciplinary graduate degree, American studies. I went on, I left that out. I got a degree in American studies. And $1.50 might get you a cup of coffee in the south. You can sell it California, but not in North Carolina. Because they go to all the other departments to teach American studies. They never hired with a doctorate in American studies. So I taught in the English department, but then they would say, "The problem is, Anne, you don't have a graduate degree in English," so I would say, "Okay". Finally, they got the program here and I thought wow, I'm so glad. Plus, if you're in a community of writers, you write more, because it's valued. If you're outside, then the value is earning a living. So I went back to school. Some of the courses were things I had, myself, taught in college. That was an interesting experience. I learned a lot in the program. I loved it. It did help me with fiction. That was the missing part. I added it in and I got the MFA. And although that has not, per se, gotten me a teaching position, it looks nice and, you know, when I go do presentations and seminars, "Well this looks nice." And I'm going to go hear John Updike when he arrives.

Diesenhaus: Theoretically, do you feel like writing can be taught, or the elements of writing can be taught?

Russell: I think journalism. I think basic news reporting teaches everything you need to know about how to marshal your writing skills. I think that creative journalism is a lovely way of personalizing journalism for you. I think it's a marvelous course. I wish I had taught it over here. I think that the other writing courses don't teach you how to write, in my opinion. What they do is they make you write, and you teach yourself how to write. They make you be with a community of people who value writing, so that when you say, "Well I'm going to write three pages in my novel this weekend," and your husband says, "Oh no, you're going to help me wash the car," you evaluate it and say, "No, I'm not. See because this is more important." So yes, I think that programs like they have are very important programs. They also say to the world, they affirm that writing is a profession. So yes, I think it's very valuable. I learned from Wendy Brenner. You know, David Sedaris, I never heard of the guy. I still don't care for him very much, because I don't like people who diss their families that way. But anyway, he's clever. I listen to him in PR now. Clyde Edgerton is adorable. I loved being in there. It was a lot of fun, a number of other writers over there. I'm glad I did it. I wish I was still in the program. In fact, I'm to an age now where I get free tuition at all the state colleges, so I try to take a course every semester, and I'm going to take the memoir course they're going to be teaching, I think, in the spring.

Diesenhaus: Did I take it right that you have taught creative writing at other schools?

Russell: Oh yes.

Diesenhaus: And is there a certain way, given what you said a few moments ago, a certain way that you teach your philosophy?

Russell: Yeah. And I wouldn't even say taught. I'd say I have provided a forum for people who are interested in creative writing to encourage them, and to maybe help them learn a few tricks. And I used to teach over here at UNCW as an underpaid instructor or some kind of thing. I taught research comp. I taught freshman comp 101 and 102 research comp. And what I did with 102 was I used real books. I said, "Read good writers. James Agee's A Death in the Family is to me, the best piece of writing, American writing for me. It is a prose point. It is absolutely masterful. I'm speaking now of evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, when I lived there so successfully disguised in myself as a child. I've almost memorized the thing, because it is an example of wonderful writing. I think when you read good writers, you pick up their skills. That, to me, is the best way to learn to be a good writer.

Diesenhaus: You talked about essentially making time for writing. Could you talk a bit more about that?

Russell: That is the trap, as you probably know, particularly as a woman, because unlike Hemmingway and many of the male writers-- and this is another cliché-- I didn't have wifey-poo or a girlfriend or whoever over there bearing my babies, tending to my babies, cooking my food, bothering the bill collectors and all of that, taking my phone calls. I was expected to do all of that, and in my spare time, go churn out some writing. If you're a writer, then you write. That's when you're a writer. It is work, and so I think first, you've got to find a way to survive financially. I think one of the worst things a writer can do is to go sit in a garret alone to write the great American novel and never see the light of day. That's the way to suicide and depression. Don't do that. Be part of the world. Have a life, a personal life. Have a way of earning a living. And when the other folks are playing golf which bores me stiff, or going to stupid football games, which also-- you can see my preferences, or watching dumb TV programs, go write, and value it and close your door. And say, "I'm doing something important. I'm working. Leave me alone."

Diesenhaus: Closing the door, going to your place, are there other rituals that you do for you?

Russell: Yes. I don't smoke and I don't drink, which many writers do. I know what they do. It's very lonely sitting in there all by yourself, writing something that nobody's offered to pay for, and nobody else may ever read. You think you're crazy. You get anxiety, because you've been delving into places that normal people don't allow themselves to delve into, and so a lot of them smoke and drink. I don't do either. I eat. And that is why you can tell when I've been on a writing jag, because I'll be 20 pounds heavier, because I sit on my royal butt in the chair, sedentary for hours and hours on end. And then I run and get myself a chocolate ice cream cone or something.

Diesenhaus: Are you doing all of your writing in the office?

Russell: All this business about-- look, I think that's marvelous. I read about all these writers who have these things. Its 2 1/2 pages a day, I write from 8:00 in the morning until noon. It's great. I'm not writing about anything. When I go to the doctor and they say, "When was your last whatever?" or "When did you last whatever?" "I don't know. I don't do anything regular." When the spirit moves me I sort of do it. Writing's the same way. I have a rhythm. I didn't get my dad's, thank God, manic depression, but I got the typical artist, what I call creative personality, which I specialized in. I was a licensed counselor. I specialized in creative personality, which is kind of like this. It's kind of like being pregnant. When you have a baby, you know it's, "Oh you're going to have a baby." Then you have the baby and [makes noise] down, then you kind of level out. I've learned to work with that group. I learned that I will write more in the winter, because I can't stand cold weather. And in the summer, I want to go to the beach and go swimming. So in the summer, I'm not going to produce a lot of writing. I have a lot of creative thoughts and take notes. I've found that I write in clumps. I get inspired, energized, and I guess you could call it sort of hypo-manic, which I think you have to be to do anything creative. I get intense and I'm writing. It comes out. People say, "Anne, you're amazing! How could you turn out all of that?" I don't know. I just did. And then I think I'll never write anything again. I'll never have a creative thought again. It's all over for me. I'm done. I'm done! And then I rest, and then something will happen, like Allison's situation. Ooh man, I care about that!

Diesenhaus: It sounds like possibly that the writing doesn't really come easy, but it sort of finds you. It just comes to you in certain ways.

Russell: Yeah. You know you have these things to say. I have stacks, have about six unfinished projects in there, and four of them will never be finished. When I die, my children will be sorting through this shit-- excuse me-- and saying, "Should we throw it out? Do you think we can sell that? What do we do with this stuff, frame it? What is it? Oh my God, my mother wrote this? Oh my God, how horrible, I can't believe my mother said this." Two of those projects I will actually buckle down. They will draw me. Money always makes me buckle down. Somebody will say, "I'd like to buy that," and I'll have it to you in a week. It's amazing how you can work that way. Or I have to do it because I have to do it, and I do it and it gets finished. That's how I work. I am a dilettante. My husband's the opposite, he's an architect, excessive compulsive. And he delivered me, squeezed out almost everything in his life except one thing, which he does. It works for him. I have to have a lot of things going on, so I don't forbid myself that. I just do it, put it in piles, which you saw in my office. And I'll finish this one and then I'll go rummage around. Oh that's right. Look at this. Wow, I care about it again. I think I'm going to finish it.

Diesenhaus: I'm curious, even just the varied mechanics of writing. Do you start with writing by hand?

Russell: You're so good! I started out, of course, writing by hand. I didn't know how to type when I was a kid. Then the manual typewriter, de, de, de, de, de, that's what we used at the newspaper, darling. We didn't have all this stuff. A roll of paper, a manual typewriter, rip of the paper, send it down the shoot, glue it together. I actually loved that. I loved that way of writing. Somebody gave me an electric typewriter, a lot faster. Then a computer, one of my daughters is head of international marketing for Apple Computer. She gets all this free stuff. "Oh no, I can't use a computer." Then UNCW said, "If you don't use a computer, you die. You will never work here again." I said, "If I wanted to be a computer engineer, computer tech, I would have gone to tech school. I don't want to do that." They said, "You will do that." I learned how to do that. I have to admit it's marvelous, because you can delete, and rewrite, move things around. Now my brain thinks that way. I cannot write by hand. I can take notes by hand, but the mechanics, my brain's over here and my hands over here. Yeah, it affects what you write a lot. And sometimes, it makes your writing worse, because it's too easy, too fast, and you just turn it out. And most good writing, as you've learned, is good editing. You write 100 words and then you cut it to ten.

[crew talk]

Diesenhaus: You said you want to say something else.

Russell: I live at the beach-- almost at the beach. I can't afford on the beach. This is part of what keeps me sane. It's my therapy. The beach is in my soul from a kid here. I can't live inland. It depresses me. I have claustrophobia. You see my house is very light inside. And I get much inspiration from walking on the beach and swimming in the ocean. And I'm out doing that and something un-kinks my brain. And I do that often. I'm writing, working on something like a play, and dialogue. And I go for long walks up to the north end of the beach, and as I'm walking, people are talking to each other and it un-kinks itself. And I can hardly wait to get home. I have to sit there, before I forget it. Water, being in the shower, the water gets it flowing for me. Being out of doors, being at the beach, that's what's important to me, to live near the ocean, saltwater, not a lake, but saltwater.

Diesenhaus: Just getting back a bit to the actual writing process. Do you have people read what you're doing?

Russell: Oh yeah. Gosh, it's terrible to be friend of or related to a writer, because they're constantly saying [makes noise]. The cliché is true. If you read too much of it, you never finish it. You never write it, because you've used up the energy. You don't want to bother anymore. So I think you have to be judicious in that. But once I've gotten parts written, it's very useful to me, particularly. You cannot write a play without reading it out loud. In fact, the way I write plays is I speak. They think I'm nuts. I sit at the computer talking to myself. She said. He said. You have to hear it. Poetry is like that. I think everybody-- fiction, I'm reading out loud to myself as I write. What's the rhythm of that? Did I use that word three times? It's very helpful to me to have someone who cares, who values writing to sit down and say, "Let me read you this." It's not so much their reaction, and which sometimes, is useful. It's that I hear myself doing it, and then I realize what works and what doesn't. I can realize whether your facial expressions. So yeah, that's part of it. And that one use these classes have, pretty much so.

Diesenhaus: I wanted to ask about research and how you manage it. I think I'm hearing that piles are the best way. When you have an idea, do you find pursuing it through research is useful, or is it this interaction with the world?

Russell: Well that is research. You know you have secondhand research and firsthand. Sometimes, I go read what other people have compiled, libraries and things and books. And certainly, for my Pictorial History of Religions in North Carolina or Wilmington, I do a lot of that. It's not like the ________. You can get lost in the research, too, and never write it. You have to be careful with it. I like firsthand research. I love interviewing. I just love it. I love eavesdropping. I always have bits of paper and something to write with somewhere. I had a college roommate who moved out on me because of that. She's, "Oh my God, what are all these scraps of paper? I can't stand it." I hear strange conversations, you know, "Boy, that's interesting," or places that are interesting. Yeah, so that's the way research works for me. But again, I am very intuitive and so, "You know what? I have a gut feeling. I think if I go over there today, to that green swamp thing, I think maybe I'm going to find something." I don't sit down and say, "Here's my six month plan. On Tuesday, Thursday-- "

Diesenhaus: After that gut feeling, given that things seem to come to you in, maybe, small pieces, is there something that pushes you through along your work, the ambition to kind of stay with one thing?

Russell: Passion. I have to care. I have several projects that I've felt slightly bad about. People allow me a fair sum of money, which God knows, I need, to write certain things. I like the people. I don't care about what they're talking about, if it didn't interest me. So I said no. And actually, I've dealt out some work from a lot of writers, because I'm like, "Hey, call so-and-so," and they take it. They do a good job. I have to care. And I'm about that in everything in my life. You only have so much time on the earth and so much energy, and why fritter it away on things you don't care for?

Diesenhaus: You mentioned other writers and talked about a community. For this project, are there other people that you would suggest that maybe we contact who might be a good fit in here?

Russell: Oh I could give you a list a mile long. You could show me who you've already gotten down, and I'll be glad to fill in.

Diesenhaus: As the last question, you've obviously been involved in teaching. You've been involved in BFA program. I wondered if you had any advice for younger writers on any of the forms.

Russell: I absolutely do. Thank you for asking. I have advice for everyone. Stay away from substances. Don't become a pothead or a cokehead or a methhead. Don't become an alcoholic. I know you think that great writers necessarily must be alcoholics and so forth, and we have a long list of people. Actually, the truth is that they destroy themselves with it. Don't be tempted. Find other ways to find release besides your beer or a glass of wine. Just don't use that thinking it's going to make you a great writer. It won't, number one. Number two, be involved in the world. That's where you're going to get your information to write about. Number three, value yourself as a writer, have pride in it. Don't give it away for free, if you can avoid it, because everyone thinks, "Oh writers don't have to pay the rent. They can just give me something to auction at the thing, or write this up for us free of charge." Sure, when you just getting a status, you're going to do a lot of that to get it published. But once you begin to get a status, don't do that. This is what I charge. This is what it's going to cost you. Set up a fee schedule for things. What else? Accept the fact that you are probably going to have wonderful writing spurts where you do wonderful stuff, and then you're going to have periods of time when you're absolutes wiped out. You think nothing's going right. Don't worry about it. That's normal. Read good writers. And don't compete with other people. That's the other thing. You know what? I'm very generous with stuff. I encourage other people, why?, because there's lots to go around. And I want you to do well and you can inspire me. I'm unique and you're unique. And just because you're writing a novel, it has nothing to do with me writing one, so I do my thing. Be glad for what other writers do. Don't resent it.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Russell: Nice to meet you.

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