By Sean Tuohy
Russell doesn’t write standard tough cop novel; his books are filled with heart and compassion. He also pulls readers in with his crisp dialogue, fast-moving plot, and keeps readers on edge with sudden twist and turns. I was lucky enough to sit and chat with Russell about his writing process and how he learned to play the “what if” game.
Sean Tuohy: What led you to writing?
Alan Russell: I can’t imagine not being a writer. From an early age (seven or eight) I knew what I wanted to do. The only other profession that ever interested me was being a professional baseball player (and after my strike zone got too big, professional basketball player). The major difficulty was making a vocation out of my avocation.
ST: What authors influenced you growing up?
AR: I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade and was absolutely wowed. My favorite genres as a young man were fantasy and science fiction. I loved the fiction of Harlan Ellison, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and Ray Bradbury. In my early 20s I started reading more crime fiction. John MacDonald was a favorite of mine. I bought every Travis McGee book. I enjoyed Ross MacDonald as well. There was a period of about a decade where I was reading two books a day. As W. Somerset Maugham said, “If I only had the back of a Worcestershire sauce to read, that’s what I’d read.”
ST: Can you explain your "what if" game?
AR: A lot of my novels have been written just because I’ve asked myself the question, “What if?” For example, what if you were the son of a serial murderer (the basis for my novel Shame)? What would your life be like? What would you do to escape your past? Would the “sins of the father” be revisited upon you? Writers shouldn’t be afraid to daydream and imagine. You know you have something when you think “what if” about something, and that idea stays with you and you feel the need to learn more.
ST: Where did the partnership of LAPD detective Michael Gideon and Sirius come from?
AR: Friends of mine think Michael Gideon (my LAPD detective in Burning Man and Guardians of the Night) is more like me than any of my other characters. Gideon and I both certainly like to crack wise. As for his partner Sirius, I grew up with German shepherds. At this time, I also have three dogs. I wanted to write about this teaming of man and dog. Both of them bring something very important into the equation, and both are fiercely loyal to one another.
ST: Will we get to see the crime fighting duo soon?
AR: I am currently working on the third novel in the series and hope to finish in about six months. It’s been wonderful hearing from readers around the world. I could never have imagined the books would be best-sellers (Burning Man was a top ten best-seller, and Guardians of the Night actually hit number one).
ST: What is your writing process?
AR: I try to write every day. I don’t have a goal (such as write a certain amount of words or pages) other than to put in the time. The words will come if you make that commitment.
ST: Do you have any rituals you have to do before you begin a new novel?
AR: My books seem to have the gestation cycle of an elephant (i.e. 18 months). At a minimum, I know I am looking at a year of my life. I might not have any rituals per se, but I think it’s important to approach a book with a marathoner’s mentality. The race will be difficult, and grueling, and there will be times when I’ll hit the wall, but I have to gut it out to the finish line.
ST: What advice do you give to first time writers?
AR: Super Glue your butt to the chair and put in the time needed to write a novel. And know that even established writers often “hate” the book they are working on. The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the pro will find a way to persevere and prevail.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
AR: People meeting me are always surprised by my height. They only know me through a small author photo, so they’re not expecting someone who is 6-foot 7-inches. And, yes, I did play basketball in college.