My latest interview is with author Russell Bittner, who was very kind to answer my questions!
Books & Writing: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Russell Bittner: Although I’d wanted to write fiction almost all of my life, I had to wait until a moment of crisis to put that desire into actual practice. First, there was the matter of a rather protracted formal education, which took me abroad for almost a decade—through six countries and as many languages. That journey may not have done much for my native language (English), but I suspect the exercise helped tremendously to broaden my horizons on language, literature and culture in general.
When I finally finished up with this education back in New York City, I did what next seemed both natural and necessary: I got a job; I started a family; and devoted my time and efforts to domesticity and family life.
The “moment of crisis” I mentioned above occurred when it all fell apart.
Books & Writing: Do you remember the first story you wrote?
Russell Bittner: I dabbled in writing quite a bit while living/studying in Europe—most of it in English, some of it self-delusionally not. But in all of that dabbling, I never really aspired to publication. For one thing, there was no WorldWideWeb at the time. For another, I lacked the confidence to submit anything for publication. In retrospect, I’d say that’s a damned good thing!
Books & Writing: Were you inspired by someone or something?
Russell Bittner: I had the advantage of growing up in a rather literate family. Not a family of writers, mind you, but definitely a family of readers. In the meantime, I’ve had a hand in raising two rather literate children—who, I have to say, have been the chief inspiration and continuing impetus to my writing since I first turned a serious hand to it.
Books & Writing: Can you tell us a bit about your book, “Trompe-l’oeil,” which is, if I understand correctly, the first book you wrote?
Russell Bittner: Not exactly the first book, Jacco, but the first novel. My first book, a collection of short stories (plus one novella) titled Stories in the Key of C. Minor., was published by Faraway Publishing in August of 2009.
My original conceit with Trompe-l’oeil—and the longer the novel languishes, the more I believe that “conceit” is the right word to describe this notion—is that the story is a contemporary version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This is the way I pitched it to literary agents here in the U. S., none of whom even nibbled. To this day, I don’t know: (1) whether they’d ever read either of those two masterpieces; (2) had read them and quickly concluded I was either an idiot or delusional; or (3) knew from prior experience that a first novel of 162K words was a non-starter, so why bother?
In any case, Trompe-l’oeil is rather explicit (as befits the age in which we live), whereas both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were merely implicit. Does that condemn my novel to the broad-based genre of ‘Erotica?’ I certainly hope not!
Books & Writing: What inspired you to write the book, and to re-release it?
Russell Bittner: I didn’t re-release it, Jacco. I finally bit the bullet about a year ago and self-published it via Amazon-Kindle and Smashwords. A well-meaning gentleman by the name of Tim Roux (the Managing Director of Night Publishing out of the U.K.) subsequently took it; gave it a new title (The Lover From an Icy Sea); moved a highly stylized first chapter to the end of the book and called it a ‘Coda’; then gave me a nom de plume (Alexandra S. Sophia) and a snazzy new look. I must confess, I’ve never looked so good!
In the meantime, Pauline Vilain, of Vilain-Innovations (out of the Netherlands) has taken it on as a project and is now promoting it to both British and American mainstream publishing companies. Only time—and the good graces of Ms. Vilain—will tell.
Books & Writing: I understand you also wrote a book which is a collection of shorts (plus one novella) called “The Dead Don’t Bitch”.
Russell Bittner: I did indeed. This is a second collection of short stories, most of which have been published either on the ‘Net or on the page.
Books & Writing: What do you love about short stories?
Russell Bittner: Except for writing poetry (and I’m speaking here as a formalist), I believe the composition of short stories imposes the greatest possible discipline on a writer to say what (s)he means and be done with it. If writing a novel is a kind of marathon, writing a short story is a sprint. Although I’ve written and published several Flash Fiction pieces, I remain to be convinced that one can really say a great deal in fewer than a thousand words. Rather, the constraints of writing Flash Fiction seem to me to be an imposition from without—i.e., from the newer demands of impatient ‘Net readers.
As I observed in one of the short stories (“Collisions”) in my first collection, “life is a competition for attention.” It’s that and has always been that—these days, just more so.
Books & Writing: How did you come up with the stories for that book?
Russell Bittner: I can’t really say where or how I came up with them. The inspiration (or impetus) to write a story—just as it might to write a poem—may come from any number of different sources, most of which derive from personal experience. Although I attempted to tell those stories from a variety of points-of-view and using a variety of voices (part and parcel, I suppose, of an emerging writer’s exercise routine), I firmly believe in the dictum: Write what you know!
Books & Writing: Are you working on something new at the moment?
Russell Bittner: Wasn’t it Bertolt Brecht who once famously said (through the character of Herr Keuner) “I’m preparing my next mistake”? I don’t mean to sound glib with this answer, Jacco, but that pretty much sums it up.
Books & Writing: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Russell Bittner: Yes, if they have any interest in one poor writer’s experience: (1) at (almost) all costs and if within your power to do so, keep your day-job. There’s no glory—and even less opportunity for productivity and creativeness—in poverty. I say “almost” because you also have to keep up the exercise of writing when and as time and energy allow—easier to say than to do; (2) remain realistic about your prospects. If you’re writing a first novel, know the generally accepted guidelines before you set out—for starters, that no agent is going to be much interested in your opus magnus if it’s either too short or too long; (3) stick to standard English—at least in your first novel—and this means knowing the mechanics of writing as well as a surgeon knows anatomy and the tools of his trade; (4) work the publishing “system,” though not at the cost of your personal integrity; (5) continue reading, reading, reading; and (6) don’t give up.
Books & Writing: Which author inspires you?
Russell Bittner: Truth is, Jacco, there are several—and in several languages. Since English is my native language, and because I do most of my reading in English, I’d have to start with Shakespeare and Donne. But moving along chronologically, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Fielding, Hardy and Maugham. I have dozens of favorite authors in American English, but I suppose Mark Twain heads the list.
For me, the first novel ever written remains the greatest: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote. At the same time, two of my favorite short story writers (Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov) didn’t write in English—even if a third (Carson McCullers) did. And if we’re talking novellas—a rather rare form these days—I’d have to cite Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row (which, curiously enough, were called ‘novellas’ in my day, but are now apparently called ‘novels’).
Books & Writing: What is the last book you read?
Russell Bittner: I’m currently reading Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights and The Caliph’s House. There have been several others in the past few months, but my readings were all by way of ‘read and review’—part of a writer’s “job” if (s)he hopes to get any kind of reciprocation.
Books & Writing: Where can people go and read your work?
Russell Bittner: Much of it is available on the WorldWideWeb. Both collections of short stories (plus one novella each) are available either through both Amazon-Kindle and Smashwords—as is my memoir, Girl From Baku.
Books & Writing: Where can people find you on internet?
Russell Bittner: My poetry—if your readers have the stomach for it—is a bit all over the ‘Net. Some of it is available in print, but only here in the U. S. A bit of both—as well as some of my photography—is available to your readers, thanks to ISMs Press’s online publication of the memoir I mentioned immediately above (http://ismspress.wordpress.com/russell-bittner/). Gratis!
Books & Writing: Is there anything else you want to share with the readers?
Russell Bittner: Just that I’m very grateful to you, Jacco, for this opportunity, and to any of them who’ve stuck with both of us this far. And, for those who are also emerging or aspiring writers, good luck and Godspeed! If I had a hot tip, trust me: I’d be more than happy to share it. Unfortunately, I’m as clueless at this point in the journey as I was when I first set out.
For my excerpt, I’ve chosen a short pair of paragraphs one reviewer chose to cite as memorable (“…one of the most exquisite pieces of writing I have ever come across”) and hope, Jacco, your readers won’t be put off by the horticultural Latin:
An excerpt from Trompe-l’oeil:
“In a clearing of not much more than two or three body lengths in any direction, a bed of velvet-soft moss—pure Polytrichum—tiptoed up to a sheer and jagged granite wall. Here and there in the moss carpet, tiny poppies peeked through. Map lichen—Rhizocarpon geographicum—spotted the granite wall like forests made for Lilliputians. Water dropped down the face of the wall and dripped into a tiny pool. Kit looked into the pool to gauge its depth, but couldn’t discern a bottom. The water was blacker than any black he’d ever known. Emerald bridal gowns of liverwort—Conocephalum conicum—covered trunks of trees surrounding the clearing, while their branches wrestled in wraiths of Isotheciium stoloniferum, the color and texture of lime-green lace. Oddly, a single piece of lava rock—covered in dark green Grimmia moss—was lodged in among the granite boulders.
Kit saw how the various greens played with the sunlight, which by some uncanny trick of nature managed to penetrate the overstory here and nowhere else—and then descend, thanks to airborne spors or perhaps just dust particles, like golden spotlights.”