A Conversation with Sheldon Russell
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (March 2014)
In 2001, the Western Writers of America voted Dr. Sheldon Russell’s novel, Requiem at Dawn, as a Finalist for Best Original Paperback. Since then, his work has been praised by The New York Times, received starred reviews by both Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and garnered numerous awards. His fourth novel, Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush, was recognized as an Official Oklahoma Centennial Project and went on to win the Langum Prize for Excellence in American Historical Fiction, as well as the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction for 2006. The Insane Train, the second book in his acclaimed Hook Runyon historical mystery series, was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the six best mysteries of 2010, and his latest mystery, The Hanging of Samuel Ash, was chosen as a Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award competition for 2013.
Recently, Lowestoft Chronicle tracked down Russell to discuss his historical novels and his distinctive one-armed railroad detective, Hook Runyon.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): Your first novel, Empire, was published by Evans Publications, Inc. in 1993. This was only seven years before you retired as Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Central Oklahoma. I have heard you say that your attic is full of unpublished novels. Were you writing fiction prior to 1993, and was Empire the first novel you completed?
Sheldon Russell (RS): I’ve been writing for many years and have always been a big reader. In fact, my doctorate was in the area of Reading Specialist. Empire was the first book published, but not the first book written. It was published by a regional house. The print run was small, and the distribution was limited. I carried books around in my car and did signings anywhere they’d have me. I gave presentations to every imaginable group. I learned a great deal about the writing business. While I think my writing has improved over the years, I’ve never regretted that experience.
LC: The Savage Trail and Requiem At Dawn are a couple of truly exceptional historical novels about the American frontier. Both were published by Kensington’s Pinnacle Books imprint. Was it gratifying to have Requiem at Dawn chosen as a finalist for Best Original Paperback in the 2001 Western Writers of America Spur Awards? On the back of this achievement, why was Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush, your fourth novel, published by the University of Oklahoma Press rather than Pinnacle?
SR: The University of Oklahoma Press is renowned for its publications about the Southwest and has a wonderful research facility as well. It seemed a perfect fit to me. At that time, my wife, a sculptor, was operating a gallery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the site of the first Oklahoma land run and territorial capitol. From my writing studio there, I could see the train station where thousands of people arrived in 1889 on a single day to settle the town. They staked out their lots, pitched their tents, and Guthrie was born. I knew early on that it was a book I had to write. By coincidence, I finished the book the same year as the state’s centennial celebration. Dreams to Dust went on to be selected as an Official Oklahoma Centennial Project, received the Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction, and The Langum Prize in Historical Fiction. It’s currently available in paperback as well.
When Requiem at Dawn was selected as a Finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award, I was gobsmacked, as they say. I found myself competing at the national level and in the company of seasoned and successful writers. The recognition gave me encouragement at an important time in my career. By the way, no writers are more generous with their support than those in the WWA.
LC: The Hook Runyon series has proved to be very successful, with great reviews in the New York Times and starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. The Yard Dog, the first book, published in September 2009, was even an Oklahoma Book Award Finalist. How did you get involved with the publisher, Minotaur Books? I hear you signed a four-book deal with them.
SR: Two separate contracts of two books each, actually. Not having to develop character and plot over a four-book span did have some advantages. I was able to make each book a little more independent of the others, and I like the idea of reading a series in any order that I choose. Many of my readers feel the same way.
I’ve been delighted by some very nice reviews. Publishers Weekly selected The Insane Train as one of the six best mysteries of 2010, and I received word just this week that The Hanging of Samuel Ash, the most recent Hook Runyon mystery, has also been selected as a Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction for 2013.
I met Daniela Rapp, my editor at St. Martin’s Minotaur, at a local writers’ conference and pitched The Yard Dog to her. Ms. Rapp, having had considerable experience in the German markets, found the subject matter intriguing. She read the manuscript, liked it, and Hook Runyon’s journey began. I should add that any awards my books have received are due in large part to her keen editorial skills. In the publishing business, one quickly learns how collaborative the process really is.
LC: In the acknowledgements page to The Yard Dog, you credit two books with helping you write the novel: The Barbed Wire College by Ron Robin, (about the indoctrination program for German POWs in the U.S. during WWII), and The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas (about the Nazi plunder of looted art treasures from occupied countries). Did these books help to inspire the story or had you already got a general idea for the plot beforehand? And where did the idea for Hook come from? I’ve heard you say that, as a youngster, rail yards, steam engines, and railroad security agents fascinated you. Your father also worked as a machinist on the Santa Fe Railway. Is that where your fascination with the railroad came from—stories he told you?
SR: I had the idea well in hand before I turned to the historical literature. The POW camp in question was only a few miles from where I grew up. At its height, it contained over five thousand German and Italian prisoners. The camp water tower still stands today. So, I had been keenly aware of the camp for many years. When it was disbanded at the end of the war, the barracks were sold to various entities around the county. One of these buildings was turned into an apartment in my hometown. In the recent past, it was torn down, and two pastel paintings were discovered inside the walls. Somehow, all these details coalesced into the plot for The Yard Dog. I then turned to the history books to give the story as much credibility as possible. Both of these nonfiction books are particularly good accounts of the period.
My interest in railroads was inevitable, I suppose. The town I grew up in existed only because it was a division point for the Santa Fe. It had a huge roundhouse and one of the largest ice plants in the United States. Everyone in town worked for the railroad. All of the men had railroad nicknames, and everyone in town called them by those names. Even our school song was I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.
I lived through the demise of the steam engine and the arrival of the diesel, which effectively made the roundhouse and yards obsolete. Both the jobs and the men were no longer needed. The diesels could go much farther and with less maintenance than the steamers. Today, the roundhouse, the ice plant, and the railroaders are gone.
My father was a machinist and used to take me to the shops, where all the tools were gigantic and all the men were covered in soot. He told stories about the antics in the yards, which were often funny and sometimes dangerous. He talked about the POWs who worked at the ice plant. As a kid, I was taken with one story in particular about a German prisoner who would walk on his hands around the ice plant deck. It’s in the book.
My dad will turn one hundred in November. He’s still telling railroad stories, and I’m still listening.
LC: You once said, “In my view, journeys make the best stories, and men with flaws make the best protagonists. The railroad, the caboose, and Hook Runyon all fit the bill.” The prosthetic arm doesn’t seem to be much of a hindrance for Hook. In fact, there are moments when the hook is useful—when he’s jumping on and off of trains, during fistfights, or prying open crates he’s trapped inside of. It even proves helpful during a snake attack. What made you decide to give him a prosthetic arm rather than some other handicap? And what would you say are Hook’s primary character flaws?
SR: I have always thought that journeys make the best stories, not only from the reader’s point of view but also from the writer’s. The narrative arch, being the journey itself, is a natural and coherent scene sequence. The protagonist begins his journey as one type of person, has good and bad experiences along the way, and reaches the end of his journey as a changed person. The scenery is varied, and the chances of meeting extraordinary folks along the way are pretty good. Anyone who doubts its effectiveness only has to read Lonesome Dove or Huckleberry Finn.
Flawed protagonists are a must, in my view. Who, after all, likes perfect people? Who even knows any? So, Hook drinks a little too much, is pretty quick to drop the hat, and is known to skip out on his debts from time to time. I perhaps went a little too far in making him a chain smoker, but have since put him on the wagon, which has done little to improve his temperament. I figure it like this: making Hook human makes him fun, and as long as the readers can see his true colors when it counts, they’ll forgive him and like him the more for it.
LC: Hook is a unique and memorable character and, like many readers, I love the idea of him living in a caboose. You said that the neat thing about the series is that you “can couple up Hook’s caboose to Frenchy’s steamer and move him to the next trouble spot. This kind of flexibility permits new situations, places, and people.” It does let you easily transport Hook across America, settling for a time in places in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. One of the surprising things, for me, is that Hook always ends up back in Oklahoma and, yet, we don’t see the character Runt Wallace again (Hook’s sidekick from the first book). You spent much of that first book fleshing out this character, as well as Dr. Reina Kaplan, Hook’s love interest. Why did you decide to keep Frenchy (the engineer) and Eddie Preston (the divisional supervisor) in all the books and do away with Runt and Dr. Kaplan?
SR: Knowing what characters to bring forward into future books is always a tough call. The one thing I don’t want to do is wear out a character’s welcome. I like the idea of newly minted characters that can demonstrate different sides of Hook’s personality. I like to create them as well. At the same time, I need Frenchy to keep the trains running and Eddie Preston to give out the orders and drive Hook nuts. And then there’s Mixer, Hook’s dog, who is essential in demonstrating Hook’s softer side throughout the series.
LC: There’s a moving chapter in The Savage Trail, your second novel, where Assistant Surgeon McReynolds relives the death of his wife, Alison, who dies on the operating table while he’s attempting to remove her ruptured appendix. In the case of the Hook Runyon series, there’s a brief passage in two of the books where you explain what happened to his arm. Did you ever consider writing a flashback to the traumatic car accident?
SR: It occurred to me early on that Hook might have lost his arm in the war. In as much as I was writing about what was happening at home, rather than what was happening on the front, I decided against using it. Having a mind of his own, Hook has taken his disability in stride. It is part of his charm and courage. So I abandoned the idea of emphasizing it much altogether, deciding, instead, that I should not make a big deal out of something that he doesn’t. There is also a certain pathos, I think, about a man of Hook’s strength and sensitivity who has been left behind in the war.
LC: With The Hanging of Samuel Ash (Book #4) published last year, does this mean the end of the series, or is there a fifth installment in the works?
SR: The jury is currently out on that one. I have a fifth Hook Book in manuscript form, with the working title of The Bridge Troll Murders. Hook goes undercover as a hobo. By the way, Runt Wallace, one of my personal favorites, does, in fact, return for another Hook adventure.
LC: The Dig: In Search of Coronado’s Treasure, published in August of last year by the University of Oklahoma Press, is a different type of historical mystery—one where two stories, one set in the past and the other in the present, are interwoven. What led you to write this stand-alone novel and why did you decide to tell the story this way? Incidentally, what made you decide to move toward historical mystery in the first place, and is your latest novel an indication that you will be continuing to write in this genre?
SR: I grew up in the Gloss Mountains of Northwestern Oklahoma, not far from where Coronado made his trek north in search of the seven cities of gold. One day, classmates brought an iron lance point to school. It was the general consensus that this may well have belonged to Coronado. As a youngster, I was intrigued by the notion that someone may have passed this way five hundred years before me.
Once an image gets stuck in my head, it’s there until I have reconciled it, usually through writing. So I chose to tell two stories concurrently, one in the past about Coronado’s search for the gold, the other a contemporary story about a young archeologist on a summer dig. I wanted the reader to sense the continuum of time, to feel that the past is as infinite and mysterious as the future, that we are all somehow still connected. I’ve always felt that Eugenides came very close to achieving this in his book, Middlesex.
I’m simply not sure the direction future books will take. While I’ve always had an affinity for the past, and love finding a nugget from history and writing about it, I’m also compelled by evil forces within me to write what I want to write. I’m aware that doesn’t always make the best marketing sense, but there you have it. The writing has to be fun and interesting for me, or I can’t pull it off. Here’s hoping my readers will follow. I’m currently writing a psychological thriller called Shrink Wrapped. I rest my case.
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 nine 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; and the Hook Runyon mystery series (The Yard Dog, The Insane Train, Dead Man’s Tunnel, and The Hanging of Samuel Ash). Works in progress include: The Woodcutter, Blood Rights, and Shrink Wrapped. He and his wife currently reside on the 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. You can read more about him at his website: nicholaslitchfield.com