What books are on your nightstand?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of epics—both historic and fantasy. Things with enormous stakes and multiple POVs. In the last year I’ve read everything from Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Bernard Cornwell, NK Jemisin, and Ken Liu, and am about to start Steven Erikson’s Malazan books. I’m taking inspiration from this for a future project, sure, but I also think some of my reading habits have changed post-COVID. I find myself gravitating towards these long, dense pieces. There’s probably some reading-as-coping-mechanism there, but I don’t think it’s primarily escapism. I find myself in deep admiration of those writers who are daring to write unironically about grand, concrete, life-and-death themes, especially now when we seem to have brushed against the limits of what we as a civilization are capable of enduring. Reading or writing about anything other than those limits feels incomplete to me, at least right now.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
At least for me a trap was trying to appear clever or talented. Most of us are writing because somewhere along the way told us we were good at it, but I think the “look at me!” impulse has only ever gotten in my way. My best work seems to consistently come when I allow myself to sink beneath the text in as ego-less a way as possible, focusing only on trying to grasp something that is solid and true.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I don’t know that it changed the process of writing (the two books were worked on at about the same time), but other things changed around it. I’d wanted to have my name on a published book since I was a kid, and imagined that once that happened, I’d finally feel like a “real” writer. Of course, that wasn’t the way it worked. I didn’t feel any different at all, and so realized I’d actually been a “real” writer (whatever that means) the entire time. It was that, I guess, that helped me give myself permission to do things like talk about my writing, set up a website, and the like, all things I wish I’d started long ago. Before I’d imagined that Twitter or the fraud police or whoever would show up and tell me I wasn’t legitimate enough yet.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
One of my first writing mentors and champions was my high school English teacher, Christine Kindon (she actually sent me a beautiful card after my first book had been published). As my writing grew beyond academic assignments, I wrote an early (awful) story that had a house fire scene. She saw promise in it, and helped me to edit, rewrite, and grow this story, and I remember her helping me to pay careful attention to the fire imagery in that one scene. It was only later she told me she’d survived a house fire that took the life of her daughter, and that reading and working on the scene with me had been, in some strange way, a little cathartic. I was blown away by her confidence, and the fact that something I had created over here in my world, had engendered an emotional response over there, in hers.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I finally read the entirety of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun last year, and—forget SFF or Dying Earth or whatever—it’s just a staggering piece of literature, period. It’s a shame he isn’t more widely read and appreciated outside and inside the SFF genre. Beyond that, I’d say really any of those books that people tend to deem “commercial,” or “guilty pleasure” books, as if somehow their readability is a literary demerit, or the fact that some of these authors are able to turn a book around in a relatively short time frame automatically means its quality suffers. Sometimes, yeah, maybe that’s true, but I’ve found more often than not many of these books we in the literary community tend to look down upon do many many things brilliantly, and we should be learning from and appreciating them much more than we are.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
In this case, quite a lot. I have a good friend who is a multiple, and a large part of this project was getting to know them and seeing just how damaging most of our portrayals of DID are. So many stories position DID as the murdery antagonist, and I hated that. So I embarked on this project with my friend in mind (and their blessing), and they were kind enough to read several drafts and offer feedback along the way.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
When Fire Splits the Sky is my third attempt at a novel. I also have an almost-finished collection and two works in progress that are still relatively early in the screenplay (mapping) phase of the draft, which I think of as blocking a play. The one is particularly massive though. My first run through of it was something like 730 pages. I think that one will occupy me for quite a while. Like WFSS did at the beginning, it feels like I’m on the edge of myself with that one, working on something I’m not quite sure I’m capable of pulling off. For me, that’s the place I always want to be with a project.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
It’s not something I’m conscious of as I’m writing, because I think the issue is subsumed in the larger question of, “How do I inhabit the psyche of this person who is not me?” which is a profoundly difficult thing to do. As far as writing a character who is differently gendered than me (one of the main characters in When Fire Splits the Sky is a male alter-personality in a female body), it’s actually something I do quite a lot, and I honestly have no idea why that is. I’m married to a woman, and I have daughters, so I suppose I’m always trying to understand the way they exist in the world today, but I don’t think that’s the underlying impulse. All I know is that most of my projects begin with a reach, a gap between my existing ability and the demands of the project, and gradually trying to bridge that.
The larger question for me, at least for this book, was the question of whose story is it to tell? In writing half of the story from the perspective of a female trauma survivor with multiple personalities, I didn’t want to tell a story that wasn’t mine. I started with only Ben, her husband, but that version felt incomplete, so I gradually layered in the female perspective as well, laboring to create as truthful and complete a portrayal as I could.
What did you edit out of this book?
The first draft of When Fire Splits the Sky was actually about twice as long, and had several additional viewpoints. The novel alternates between Ben and Maranda, but the first draft also included chapters by a number of her alters. There were some textual experiments in those that I really loved, but ultimately this isn’t an experimental novel, and they didn’t push it far enough to justify those leaps (for example, one alter’s sections were multi-page outlines), and as many early readers tripped over those sections as did not. Even more importantly though, it really came down to the fact that they were overly expository, and every time you got to these experimental chapters the pacing slowed to a crawl. I ended up weaving the alters’ voices into Maranda’s chapters and scrapping the rest, and that solved a lot of issues.
To Drown a Man by Tyler James Russell
At once delicate and visceral, the poems in To Drown a Man chronicle the long gauntlet from a life of secrets to a life of intimacy. “The only difference between imprisonment and hiding,” Russell writes, “is who shuts the door.” Exploring the meaning of redemption and shame as related to the personal, the marital, and the spiritual, these are the poems of a soul at war with itself. They read like chunks of ore being burned of their dross.
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
WHEN FIRE SPLITS THE SKY by Tyler James Russell
Following Ben’s weekend hunting trip outside Juneau, his wife Maranda—a trauma survivor with multiple personalities—makes a discovery that looks like it will finally put their limping, less-than-a-year marriage out of its misery. But in the morning, when a cataclysmic blast throws the world into chaos, Ben and Maranda find themselves stuck in a car, heading north to Anchorage, on a seemingly hopeless quest to reunite with a missing family member before it’s too late.
Driving for days through the fiery devastation, Ben and Maranda’s marital and personal trauma plays out against what might be a global—or even cosmic—catastrophe. All the while, they are pursued by two men with dark ties to Maranda’s past. To reach Anchorage, Ben and Maranda will be forced to confront their blackest secrets as they decide what any relationship might be worth at the end of the world.
Told in alternating chapters from Ben and Maranda’s perspectives, When Fire Splits the Sky is an apocalyptic, psychological, road-trip thriller about the limits of our capacity to endure, change, and survive.
Publication Date: November 22, 2022
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