The Woodcutter: A Conversation with Sheldon Russell
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (February, 2020)
A recipient of two Oklahoma Book Awards for Fiction, The Langum Project for Historical Literature, The Official Centennial Project for literature in Oklahoma, praise from the New York Times for his Hook Runyon mysteries, and starred reviews by Booklist and Publishers Weekly, Sheldon Russell holds an impressive fiction writer’s resume. In 2001, his stirring novel, Requiem at Dawn, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, and The Insane Train, the second book in his acclaimed series featuring a one-armed railroad detective living in a caboose, was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the six best mysteries of 2010.
Last month, Lowestoft Chronicle flagged down Russell and invited him to discuss the inspiration behind his newest literary work, and give an update on his forthcoming Hook Runyon adventure.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): Over the years, you’ve written suspense novels, tales of the Oklahoma Land Rush and the American frontier, postwar mysteries, and a fictional account of Francisco Vázquez Coronado’s 1540s North American expedition. In your latest, A Forgotten Evil, you spirit the reader to the post-Civil War period where bloody skirmishes rage between the U.S. Army and Native American Indians. What drew you to this period? Am I right in thinking that this was a novel, initially titled The Woodcutter, that you started work on sometime prior to 2013?
Sheldon Russell (SR): Yes, this book began its life as The Woodcutter. I worked on it for several years and through several revisions, finally changing the title to A Forgotten Evil. Ironically, the first question one of my readers asked was why I didn’t title it The Woodcutter. Go figure? I admit to still rather liking the first title.
My inspiration for this book came about when my wife and I made a weekend trip to the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, a couple of hours from where we live. It is a silent and sad place in the Antelope Hills area of Oklahoma, haunted still by the tragic deaths of so many people. I was moved.
We made other trips to a number of forts in Kansas. I wanted to know the details of that life. What did their blacksmith shops look like? What tools did they use? What did they sell at the Sutler’s store? What kind of discipline was doled out to the common soldier? Kansas has done a remarkable job of keeping these forts in pristine condition. They had exactly what I was needing.
LC: In this novel, you cast light on the atrocities perpetrated at the Battle of Washita River, a controversial, yet little discussed battle. What was your motivation for writing this book? What misconceptions do you think you held before you started your research?
SR: To look out over that valley is to know that it is a sacred place and that what happened there should never be forgotten. I wanted to do my part in keeping the memory alive. I make no claim to be a historian, but I do know what being lost on the prairie must feel like, what skills are necessary to survive, what the human spirit can endure if necessary. It is one thing to know the history of an event, quite another to know a moment. It’s not enough for readers to know that people died in this place. They must grieve for it as well.
I think my biggest misconception was that I hadn’t fully realized to what lengths the Indians had gone to in order to avoid this confrontation. It was not to be.
LC: Why did you choose the young Ohioan woodcutter, Caleb Justin, as the narrator rather than, say, the hopeful Army recruit, Joshua Hart?
SR: I taught at the University of Louisville, back in the day, and had some memorable experiences on the Belle of Louisville and the Ohio River that I thought I could bring to bear on the story. Caleb, not unlike myself as a boy, lives remote and mostly in his head. He is serious and sensitive, perhaps to a fault, but I thought he was best able to see all sides of the story. While I enjoyed Joshua’s sense of humor and adventure, he was less equipped intellectually and emotionally to step outside of his own culture and to see how marvelously adept the Cheyenne were in their environment. I admit to enjoying the banter between Caleb and Joshua, but I do have to exercise discretion with this aspect of their relationship. I’m capable of carrying it too far.
LC: What I enjoyed most about this story is Caleb’s frightening yet fascinating experiences living with the Cheyenne tribe and his relationship with his captor, the imposing Indian warrior Little River, who becomes his mentor. Though fierce and remorseless, Little River is also benevolent, considerate, and capable of humor. Was it at all challenging depicting him and giving him an authentic voice? Is he pure fiction or based on a real-life Cheyenne warrior?
SR: It’s not based directly on any historical character but rather on character itself. I wanted an evolving relationship between Caleb and Little River, one based on respect and trust. I wanted the reader to know Little River as a person who lived a full and satisfying life, and to appreciate his intelligence and his skills. The relationship between him and Caleb does not mature completely until that moment that they can safely joke with each other. We do not joke with our enemies. By definition, joking with someone requires a dissipation of anxiety and defensiveness.
LC: The story takes some unexpected turns with, essentially, three key characters affecting the course of Caleb’s life — Joshua, Little River, and Joan Monnet, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. How did you go about structuring this novel? Did the narrative arc change as these characters developed?
SR: This book was a bit different for me from the beginning, my approach to writing it, that is. I had a pretty clear vision of where I was going from the outset. I wanted a journey. I wanted adolescent boys stepping out on their own for the first time. I wanted a courageous woman. It was about time for that.
LC: How did your approach to this book differ from prior books? I think in our previous interview you said: “To me, all stories are journeys. Once I know what the journey is, I can then outline each chapter before I write it, some of it little more than brainstorming.” Did this book follow that method?
SR: It’s not always clear to me how my writing might change from one book to another. I had spent considerable time and effort over the years writing my Hook Runyon Mystery Series, where plot was necessarily a major consideration. With this project, the plot had already been written in the history books. My job was to bring to life the characters, the times, and especially the emotions, a process largely driven by the subconscious, I suspect. The results can sometimes be revelatory but also exhausting.
LC: “I write from beginning to end, often rewriting the first chapter after I’m finished,” you once said. A Forgotten Evil has a particularly poignant opening, with the main protagonist burying his father. Did you always intend to begin the narrative this way?
SR: I wrote the chapter about Caleb’s father right out of the chute and didn’t change it. My own father, who lived to be a hundred, had only recently died. When a boy or man loses his father, he necessarily steps up to the grave himself. It’s an uneasy feeling. Suddenly, he must make his own decisions and mistakes and face the world on its terms. I guess those feelings were mine at the time I started this book, and they just came out, as they are sometimes wont to do. Still, they are universal feelings, I think, and something most of us have experienced at one point or the other.
LC: Your fiction is routinely imbued with historical detail, suspenseful passages, and elegant prose. This novel is notable for its wonderfully vivid descriptions of war-ravaged prairie landscapes, vicious battles, Caleb’s harsh, alienated existence, and the hardships faced by those trying to evade capture and survive in the wilderness. Did you make a conscious effort to embroider the language and give the manuscript a rich, lyrical beauty? Have you always had a propensity for literary fiction? Who would you say are your biggest literary influences?
SR: Once started on this book, I wrote with abandon, less editing and less censoring from the outset. I wanted an ending that would not be easily forgotten, and I knew where and how that would come about. If I thought it, I wrote it, which resulted in revealing my penchant for introductory adverbial clauses. But, being more willing to write the bad stuff allowed me to write the good stuff as well, I think. Thank goodness for the editing process.
I fell in love with Mark Twain’s work when I was a kid. Who doesn’t? Somewhere along the line I decided that’s what I wanted to do, and I guess most writers fancy themselves as literary at some point. I went on to do graduate work in English, became fascinated with American novelists, primarily Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. Over the years, my reading has expanded to include favorites such as Conroy, Frazier, MacDonald, and many others. I have no doubt that I’ve tried to emulate them all. Now, I just try to tell the best story that I can. I don’t get too far from my own experiences, and I have become better at dealing with rejection. My work habits are pretty good, and I’ve had some competent editors to help me out along the way. It’s been a satisfying life. No regrets.
LC: In a previous interview, you mentioned you had completed a rough draft of Evil Rides A Train, the next Hook Runyon mystery, and were writing an autobiographical novel, tentatively titled A Particular Madness. Are these two books now complete? What other fiction projects are you currently working on?
SR: I’ve completed two additional Hook Runyon mysteries at this point, Evil Rides a Train and Touch of Rage. Both are in the pipeline for publication. A Particular Madness is currently under consideration. Other manuscripts being considered include Time and Again, a novel based on the Burnham Site, a recent archeological discovery near where I live that suggests that man inhabited North America much earlier than thought. And I have yet another being read, Cougar Mountain, about a small-town doctor in the Southwest who, through eugenics, breeds a champion football team. Yes, I know, but King gets by with it. I’ve only recently, thirty thousand words or so, embarked on a new mystery I’m calling Willful Obsessions, about the estate sales business and the strange happenings that can be uncovered in all that stuff we leave behind.
About the Author
During his academic career, Dr. Sheldon Russell authored twenty-five professional articles and co-authored the text, An Interdisciplinary Approach to Reading and Mathematics. He retired as Professor Emeritus from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2000. He has had eleven novels published: Empire, a suspense novel; two historic frontier novels, The Savage Trail and Requiem at Dawn; Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush; The Dig: In Search of Coronado’s Treasure; A Forgotten Evil; and the Hook Runyon mystery series (The Yard Dog, The Insane Train, Dead Man’s Tunnel, The Hanging of Samuel Ash, and The Bridge Troll Murders).
He and his wife currently reside on their home ranch in northwestern Oklahoma, where they both work daily at their respective crafts. Russell enjoys reading, gardening, and collecting his favorite books.
About the Interviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of Lowestoft Chronicle. He has worked in various countries as a journalist, librarian, and media researcher and resides in western New York. Formerly, a book reviewer for the Lancashire Evening Post and syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK, he now writes for Publishers Weekly and the Colorado Review. Website: www.nicholaslitchfield.com