I don’t usually post personal life type of stuff here. This place isn’t for that. This place is for, you know, writing and writing-related news. But, since this is a weird, in-between bit of of personal life and writing news…here I go:

Starting January 1, 2016, I’ll be Director of Development at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters (GLCL).

Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan—my hometown—the GLCL is a nonprofit whose mission is to encourage, promote, and celebrate the literary endeavors of writers in the Great Lakes region. This position will have me working to increase awareness of what the GLCL is all about, facilitating further community outreach, and spreading the Great Lakes love so people can see how truly rich this region is in its literary diversity and artistry.

As someone who is so—so!—passionate about this region AND the literary arts, this is a dream come true. I’m so excited to be working alongside the wonderful GLCL staff, and for people to get to know what they are all about.

Lots of goodness to come, for sure.

New story “Red Hawks” at Great Lakes Review

GLR_CoverI’m delighted to have my short story “Red Hawks”—which I wrote during my tenure as an artist-in-residence at the University Musical Society​—in Issue 6 (Summer/Fall 2015) of Great Lakes Review:

We were in neon-colored plastic Adirondack chairs around a slow fire with low flames my dad had struggled to build for over twenty minutes. Lake Superior lay before us, a continent of deep blue I could only just speculate on. We were car camping outside of Munising for the second time that summer after my parents had a big blowout about my Uncle John’s secret family that I wasn’t supposed to know about, the kid with bad scoliosis he had hidden away in Akron.

Great Lakes Review is an amazing publication that I’ve been a fan of for years, and I’m honored to be included in this stellar issue.

Review/blurb from Michigan Radio

I was delighted to chat with Cynthia Canty on Michigan Radio’s Stateside program in advance of Mesilla‘s publication. In addition, Cynthia was kind enough to write a short review/blurb for the book:

Robert James Russell’s Mesilla took me straight back to the Old West, a setting I’ve known and loved since my baby-boomer childhood. I didn’t want Mesilla to end.  It’s exciting to see this young writer leave his mark on this venerable American genre. Here’s hoping he’ll take us back to the West very soon. 

I’m delighted she enjoyed it so much, and am so appreciate of her generous words.

Interview on Episode 1 of Citizen Lit

I was recently invited to come chat on Citizen Lit‘s debut episode about Mesilla, Midwestern Gothic, the state of the writing community, and more.

CLCitizen Lit is the brainchild of Jim Warner and Aubrie Cox, fantastic writers and two of the absolutely best people I know (no joke, they are incredible). In their words: Citizen Lit is about extending the conversation beyond the writer. Each week this literary podcast explores what it means to be an active member of the writing world through reviews, interviews, and recorded performances. Art is about connection and engagement—how the work speaks to us and how we respond back. 

I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Getting the writing community together—especially when it’s so easy to find yourself lost in comparisons, to live writer vs. writer—is a worthwhile feat, and I love that they’re celebrating the craft, the community, and the people in it. No one else is doing this, and when Jim first told me about this, I knew it was going to be a big deal. I’m unbelievably honored to be in the first episode, and really, this is one of the coolest, most important things I’ve been a part of ever. Period.

Give it a listen, support Citizen Lit. Be a part of the conversation.

New story “The Property…” at Storychord

My short story “The Property at 6630 23½ Mile Road” is now live at Storychord Issue #107:

They came in the night for Lee Cabell’s things—two men, August and John, sent to take back what the old man could no longer afford. They had parked a quarter mile down 23½ Mile Road just after midnight, could just make out the farmhouse silhouetted against the dark sky and flanked by moonlit swatches of chapped and scarred fields that went on for acres and acres before butting up against great spans of maple and beech and basswood.

I’m doubly delighted: This is a piece I’ve loved for a long time (based on a true story!), and I also am madly deeply in love with Storychord, a journal that publishes a story plus a corresponding image and song in order to create a “collaborative, multi-media storytelling experience.” Since I so often dip into other medias to find inspiration, this is a match made in heaven.

My corresponding pieces:

Digital collage by Christine Stoddard
Thin Lear “Second Nature”

Thanks to editor/founder Sarah Lynn Knowles for everything—honored to be a part of Storychord.

Mesilla interview/reading on Michigan Public Radio

I was recently asked to come on Michigan Radio’s Stateside with Cynthia Canty to discuss my new novel Mesilla, the Western genre, and more:

Russell says Westerns represent a fundamental understanding of humanity, and speak to our need to tame the wilderness and find our place alongside nature. Looking to Mesilla for an example, he explains that New Mexico is just as much a character as Root. Root is pushing through the desert trying to survive, but New Mexico is constantly pushing back, “pushing him down, so to speak.”

You can now listen to the entire segment at the above link. And you can find out about Mesilla here.

Thanks to Cynthia and everyone at Stateside for having me—it was an honor.

Essay: The Horizon Eaters

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 3.58.54 PM

The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter—why not—that I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. The photos are all mine, taken at the Ellsworth Wing at the American Museum of Natural History.



Often I dream of desolate landscapes. Well, perhaps not desolate so much as isolated—great untouched swathes of pine forests, remote islands in Lake Superior where you could go as long as you wanted without seeing another human.

I love humans, and I love human interactions, but I still find myself regularly coming back to these thoughts—they calm and settle me, thinking of being out there on the land, envisioning people doing this sort of thing. Sure, there is a wave of mostly-true-but-also-incredibly-staged television programming celebrating people who live off the land, homesteading, and being hard-handed in a way that I am most certainly not, but that’s not what I dream of: the trees, mostly, the landscape as it melts away to the horizon.

I had a big group of friends when I was a kid, and even the neighborhood punks who I hated—they assaulted me with the chant “Robby Russell has no muscle!” from their private school bus when I would walk home from school—were still okay enough to invite to games of hide-and-go-seek tag or kick-the-can or Vampire Hunters (a game I invented where we teleported by stepping through a twin-trunked tree acting as a portal to a land where the dead ruled). But that neighborhood was a prison, too, and I didn’t even know it. The world, what was going on in it, was so far removed from my daily life that while, yes, I lived in a perpetual state of cartoony, innocence-driven bliss, I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you who the president was when I was a kid. Or why things like that mattered. My parents wanted to remove me from the troubles of the world and let me enjoy existing, and while I don’t necessarily agree with that now, I’m thankful for it: I had a very ingenuous childhood full of Saturday morning cartoons and sleepovers and (very) used Star Wars VHS tapes playing on repeat.

IMG_4702Lincoln Ellsworth changed all that for me.

I learned in middle school that this man, my Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle, was a polar explorer. In fact, he was one of the polar explorers of his or any other generation. He was, and still is, eclipsed by his contemporaries—most notably Amundsen and Byrd, who even the most casual of history buffs are familiar with—but Ellsworth did alright, too, good enough to have a section of Antarctica, a lake and a mountain, named after him. But here I was, a kid who had traveled the country a teeny bit by that point via Amtrak—although, still under careful guard of my parents—reading about the exploits of a relative not horribly far-removed from my nuclear world. I was enamored!

An example: Ellsworth, along with Amundsen and some others, piloted planes to 87° 44′ north, the northernmost latitude reached by a plane at that time—which, if you strip away all the niceties of modern society and think about being so removed with no way to contact anyone, no one to rely one but yourself, is a remarkable feat. But…one of the planes crashed. They spent weeks clearing off a runway on the snow and ice and making repairs before finally taking off, everyone else in the world already assuming they had been lost, only to return, triumphant and adored.

This adventure was recounted in his book Search, the first of a few books he wrote, and a book I had my local library send over from Detroit, a book I voraciously read that described the adventure in great detail, how harrowing it all was, and how they managed to overcome and survive. The book, but specifically Ellsworth as a human who once existed, a man so different from me or anyone in my family, hooked me. He was a revelation—the world was a revelation—the sceneries, the hardscrabble humans trying to make it their own, just barely surviving—and that is when I started becoming obsessed with landscapes. Westerns, which were once completely unbearable to me, suddenly became fascinating, compelling: Vastly different than the polar regions, yet not at all, really. These stories of mankind against the land, trying to survive, the land itself a character and unflinching in its indifference toward their survival, was the most captivating thing to me then. I couldn’t get enough.

Ellsworth also flew across the north polar region via dirigible, which garnered the first undisputed sighting of the geographic north pole—a pretty big deal.

Ellsworth also crashed again—a recurring theme of his expeditions, although, this time due to a fuel shortage—while piloting over Antarctica. It was only him and his pilot. They were unable to notify anyone of the landing, and were declared missing, presumed dead. They made it to Byrd’s abandoned camp Little America—how wonderful, that name—and were discovered nearly two months later via a British research vessel.

IMG_4703Ellsworth’s support ship was called the MS Wyatt Earp (left). The man had a support ship.

Ellsworth was made an honorary Boy Scout.

Ellsworth was awarded two—two!—Congressional Gold Medals.

Ellsworth was a member of the Polar Legion, a group which demanded leadership of an expedition which reached either the geographic north or south pole.

Ellsworth was a major benefactor of the American Museum of Natural History.

Ellsworth, riches amassed, bought an island and built his house/compound on it—boss!—living there until his death.

Ellsworth once said: “Not until, years later, I found my true interest in life did I discover that I could master a subject, no matter how difficult, if it helped me in what I wanted to do.” Indeed, Ellsworth mastered the desolate, the barren. He mastered the freezing cold and everything that the mighty earth threw at him. He survived. And to me, then—to me now, too—this is something I hold dear: Every day is a victory. Survival is not assured, and we have to work hard at it. I can trace my fascination with nature, with survival and the relationships that flourish and are destroyed when confronted with potential doom, when nature becomes too much, back to Lincoln Ellsworth and his quixotic search for the horizon.

I wish I could shake his hand.


Mesilla is officially released: Yee-haw

Beyond thrilled to announce that today, September 22, 2015, is the official launch day for my Western novel Mesilla from Dock Street Press.

Mesilla_full cover_final

So grateful to Dane and everyone at Dock Street Press for all their hard work. They put together a gorgeous little book (see above), and I can’t wait for this baby to get out there in the world.

And here’s what some wonderful writers I greatly admire had to say about it:

“A shotgun marriage between classic and revisionist Western, Mesilla sings a hard-bitten practicality and brutal authenticity.” —Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes

“In a mounting gush of sumptuous prose, Robert James Russell’s Mesilla scrubs bare the elements of the classic Western—the wounded, questing hero, the damsel in distress, the shoot-outs, the relationship with the horse, the murderous, phantasmal villain in hot pursuit—and reinvents them as existential meditation. In exhilarating fashion, Russell often turns his lens from these tropes to focus on the ever-looming natural world, the components of which shake off all of the beautiful names we’ve attached to them; in Russell’s old West, the rocks and trees and grasses and rivers bear witness to our tragedies only because we tell ourselves that they do. If McCarthy and Emerson collaborated on a novella, solicited Herman Hesse to edit it, Jim Jarmusch to film it, and Leonard Cohen to do the score, the result might capture some of the elusive seductiveness of Russell’s work. —Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Preparing the Ghost and The Mad Feast

“If Albert Camus had written Westerns, they might have sounded something like Robert James Russel’s Mesilla. Tough as rawhide, coiled like a diamond back, and spare as the New Mexico desert, this taut novel is as loaded as the Dance revolver its wounded hero wields. Russell is a writer on the rise, with a voice and vision sure to entrance every reader who lays eyes on this book. I’m already pining away for his next one. —Peter Geye, author of The Lighthouse Road and Safe from the Sea

“Robert James Russel’s Mesilla reads like young James Lee Burke—action so sharp readers might as well pull their fingers from the page looking for blood. A fine story of revenge in the old west, salvation hoped for, but not easily achieved. —Urban Waite, author of Sometimes the Wolf

“Spare, unforgiving, relentless, beautiful. Those words describe three things: the New Mexico desert landscape in 1863, the plot of Mesilla, and Robert James Russell’s language which never seems to break a sweat on the novella’s pages. Mesilla is a welcome return to the western novels of Elmore Leonard, with a cinematic touch of Sergio Leone along the way, as a bullet-riddled man flees his former friend bent on exacting vengeance, no matter the cost. Mesilla is a short novel, but one which will stretch long in my memory. You may come for the exciting chase scenes, but you’ll stay for the thoughtful way Russell probes the human condition.” —David Abrams, author of Fobbit


New story “The Palm, the Pine, the Cypress” at Cactus Heart

I’m honored and thrilled to have my story “The Palm, the Pine, the Cypress” in Issue #13 of Cactus Heart Literary Magazine:

He thought of Freddy again—of how, on Easter Feast Day, the Greeks would parade down 9th Avenue led by the priests wearing their black cassocks and kalimavkions with the black veils. Jerome remembered, too, how mysterious they all were—the women especially, who’d be holding palm fronds folded into crucifixes or the unmistakable blue and white Greek flags and wearing headscarves and colorful dresses, women who seemed otherworldly compared to the girls they knew: exotic women, women with dark curled hair and olive skin, women with wide hips and large breasts that they were sure tasted like some wonderful Mediterranean fruit.

Cactus Heart Literary Magazine is a place I’ve been wanting to get into for a while now, and I’m grateful to be included in this issue. Also: This is story I wrote during my time as a UMS Artist in Residence, so I’m glad it has found a home.

You can pick up a copy of the issue for only $5—and believe me, the roster is incredible and it’s well worth the few bucks.