Mesilla reviewed by David Abrams

David Abrams, the uber-talented, acclaimed author who blurbed Mesilla upon its release, recently reviewed the book and exclaimed it one of the best novellas he read in 2015:

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 this novella’s pages.

I’m forever grateful for David’s words—for everything! And this is great company to be in, his other picks. Highly recommend checking those out, too.

Pick up a copy of Mesilla at Dock Street Press.

Essay: We Buy Gold

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter—the second of mine…the first is here—that I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. 


I’ve only ever been to a toga party once, back when I lived in Los Angeles.

I had moved to LA right after college (in the Midwest)—never having not lived in the Midwest—excited to try to get a job in the movie industry, and to reinvent myself…start over.

It was all on a lark, really. An acquaintance in college (who I didn’t know too well, to be honest) was moving out there. We were in film classes together—I acted in one of his student films, he filmed one of mine—and one day he propositioned me: “You should come with.”

That was all it took: “You should come with.” Why not, I reasoned.

My folks weren’t happy—my mom didn’t fly (still doesn’t), so the prospect of seeing me, visiting me, would require them to drive out to California (no easy feat, if you’ve ever done it), which did not excite them. But my mind was set: I needed to get to the West Coast. It had the allure, the promise, of something…anything. I had an English degree, I wanted to be a writer but barely wrote, believing writing wasn’t something to be nurtured, but that would just rear itself when needed. Some latent gift. I had a Film Specialization, too. I loved film (still do): it inspires me in a way that not even music, writing, can. And I was stagnant, here, in Michigan. Sick of the Midwest, wanted to get away from a crappy relationship, cold weather, and absolutely zero prospects. So, I left, end of the summer, a couple months after I graduated.

I arrived in LA…and, well, it was a weird situation.

My college girlfriend (we were broken up—for good—at the time) decided she was moving out there, too, on a whim! Really. She applied to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, got in, and we—me and her and her dad (ugh, it was awkward) flew out together. I knew exactly two people in LA at the time: my roommate, who was already out there, and my ex-girlfriend, who, for a while, wanted to patch things up, but I didn’t want that, I needed to move on—ready to leave it, us, behind.

I saw her only a handful of times when I lived in LA, I realize now, for that very reason: she reminded me of home, of the old me, and it hindered me, I thought. It didn’t allow me the clean break I needed. And, see, it wasn’t that I was escaping something heinous back home—nothing like that. I just didn’t come into my own, who I was, who my friends were, what I was comfortable being, doing, until later in college, and I felt…held back. I wanted that California sunshine, the waves, the glamor, the tanned body (why not!)…all of it. I had never had a chance to break free in my life, to really feel unencumbered, and I needed that. Desperately.

(Also: Can we talk for a minute about how horrible it was being on a plane with my ex, her dad, and me—me at the window, her dad on the aisle, him hating me, and whenever we talked, me and her, he’d lean forward and death stare me. Just horrible.)

So, there I was, stepping off the proverbial bus from the Midwest (but, you know, a plane), a walking cliché, never having been to LA before. In fact, I was so naïve, I arrived without a car thinking I didn’t need one. Ha!  But I got a job pretty quick in the South Bay area at a mall as a manager of a…let’s just say a once-popular-but-now-declining-yet-always-controversial-clothing store that smelled—strongly—of cologne), and had to bus it there (1.5 hours each way). Which was…interesting, to say the least. I’d sit there, riding, listening to my Discman as we rode through the industrial parts of town, near the airport, scared, nervous, alone.

I bought a car not long after, an adorable all-white 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. It was cheap, needed a lot of work, but I loved that car. I could write for days about it (maybe I will someday).

Anyway, I was settling in. Time passed. I had my go-to order for In-N-Out (Animal-style!), knew my way around the city, the best beaches (El Matador!), where to get cheap good food (hello, small Hawaiian diner in Manhattan Beach with the huge huge portions!), and—soon enough—I was working at a film studio. I had somehow finagled my way into a job as the Assistant to the President of Production at an actual film studio that made big popular films. It was nuts, a dream, a nightmare…all of it.

But I was lost.

LA is…a beautiful city. Truly. I had made great friends, I loved the weather (didn’t, really, miss the seasons, if I’m being honest), adopted a very California-lazy vibe, and I had no real complaints. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do, to be, and that place is a very dangerous place to exist in with that state of mind.

I had been living there for about ten months when the toga party happened.  We were invited by a woman that my roommate and I knew, a friend-of-a-friend situation. And I remember this clearly: to get ready, my roommate and I went to Target to buy new sheets, fresh sheets, and I got soft heather gray Jersey-knit style sheets to be my toga. I didn’t want white ones. Everyone would be in white.

The the party was at a moderately-nice-but-still-rundown apartment complex on a hill overlooking Culver City (where we lived). And it was packed. Wall to wall. People were drinking (duh), drugs were happening (not by me, but hey, no judgment), and it was…fun. Not crazy, nothing was going on I hadn’t seen before during college, just the good, semi-restrained fun I was used to back in the Midwest.

Then I met someone, a woman named Chichi.

Nothing happened, not even an eventual goodbye hug, but we hit it off, talked a bit out on the balcony overlooking the sprawl, and the party, eventually (as all good parties do) headed to the beach. It was late, closer to morning than night, and the handful of us that had relocated found spots, companions, and nestled. A fog had rolled in—I still remember it, this magical scene: waves crashing, no birds, no cars, dense, soft, otherworldly.

If I’m being honest, I don’t remember much about Chichi, but I remember her telling me that she had moved to LA from somewhere else, out East, I think, and that she loved LA, didn’t know what she wanted to do or be but was in love with being there. I asked her what she did, how she got by. She worked odd jobs, as we all do in our twenties, and then she told me, too, that she’d periodically go to the pawn shop and sell things, her prized possessions, one at a time to make ends meet, when needed.

“One of those ‘We buy gold’ places?” I joked.

“Yes,” she said. And she had sold some gold—jewelry, inherited—her DVD player, movies, baseball cards that she had collected whatever she could get money for.

“Why?” I asked. “Why sell everything you love, you own”—she did love these things, she told me—“why stress yourself out like this?”

“Because I want to be here that bad,” she told me. “Nothing else matters to me other than being here. In this place.”

I was…surprised. I had never loved anything in my life that much. It turns out I liked LA, but didn’t love it, my job was…okay, at times (mostly soul-sucking, though), but that sort of passion did not exist in my life. And I was jealous, immediately. There had been an idea, a kernel of an idea, bubbling in my mind for a while: I wanted to move home, back to Michigan. I wanted to go to grad school (somewhere) and I wanted to write…books. Novels. But here I was, feeling dead-ended, stuck, perpetually. I had good times, made the best of it, yes, but I wasn’t…where I needed to be. And she, Chichi, was.

Someone got spooked soon after that, thinking the cops were coming, that we’d be chased off the beach (or worse), so we parted ways. I never talked to or heard from Chichi again, but that was fine…it wasn’t about that. Everything changed after that night, after our conversation. My life, my direction, it all changed.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I didn’t understand the hard work that it took, the time, the practice (oh god so much practice) and life experience, too. But talking to Chichi ripped something open—made me realize, running clumsily in the sand, toga sopping wet from having played in the dark ocean, that I deserved to have that, too, what she had.

I left LA a few months later, moved back to Michigan. I was happy with my decision, with where I’ve ended up now. I did go to grad school, and I picked up the pen in a way that I had always dreamt of, always wanted, from that point forward. In fact, I can pinpoint that night, if I think about it, as being the night that set me on the track, the writing track, understanding what I needed to do, how I needed to bleed for it, the craft. But every so often I think about being lost, about being in that place, that sprawl, especially, and I wonder, now, looking back, if Chichi is still there, somewhere, selling her possessions, scraping by, still, just so she can have an LA area code, zip code, apartment, stories, friends, and if she has any of her gold family jewelry left. Or if it’s been sold, melted down, it, too, gone, forever, from that place, made to be something else, for someone else—transformed into something it was really meant to be.

Mesilla reviewed at Small Press Book Review

Mel Bosworth recently reviewed my Western novel Mesilla at Small Press Book Review:

A simple story of pursued and pursuer wrapped in lush and stirring detail, Mesilla offers a great way to gallop through an easy afternoon with some cowboy coffee or a slug of whiskey.

So thankful for the kind review, and so glad Mel enjoyed it.

Pick up a copy of Mesilla at Dock Street Press.

Film, Thoughts: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

This is a film of loss. Of the mania of dealing with loss. Of being lost in a world where we’re encouraged, our entire lives, to have purpose, a purpose, that what we do—office worker, movie star, politician, pet store owner, etc.—has meaning and we should find meaning in it. But what happens when we can’t? What happens when the one thing we want, what we want, isn’t appropriate for our stance in society? What’s expected of us? What happens then?


Being a working writer—which, for me, is someone who works to support the writing—I get this. I get that, doing one thing, no one really cares about the other. I get that sense of loss—I think any artist would. And that’s what this film is about, to me: Kumiko is a case of extremes, to be sure—she is delusional, her only real companion is her pet rabbit, bunzo—a one-sided friendship, to be sure—she dodges calls from one-time friends, her mother—but she is driven to hunt for treasure. This is her passion. This is her calling. And no one understands it.

This is a beautiful film. An infuriating film. You know, from the very first moments, when Kumiko is seen traipsing along a bucolic, rock-strewn beach—where she serendipitously finds, in a cave, an old VHS cassette of the Coen brothers classic Fargo—that this won’t end well. Coupled with the fact that this is based off of the urban legend of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who mis-reportedly died trying to find the money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character, Carl Showalter, in the movie. But, back to the beach: Kumiko is traipsing, carefree, we see a tree in the foreground, the background, with her and the beach, slowly coming into focus…and she is alone. And anything could happen. We are already plunged into the depths of her mania: that she is on a mission, en media res, although we never find out what starts her, what gets her to here.


But it doesn’t matter. This is a film about isolation, too. About not feeling connected to others. It is shot beautifullypainstakingly, I wager, to resemble a Coen brothers film—acted impeccably, and the soundtrack is next-level good. We don’t ever get to know Kumiko other than the very precarious life she leads (goes to work; dissects the Fargo VHS tape; plays with Buzno), but we aren’t supposed to. I came away watching this, first, mired in sadness—sad for Kumiko, lost and alone, frozen, never finding the money (although, we do get a momentary glimpse of happiness for her, from her point-of-view, we imagine, as she succumbs to nature, to the Minnesota cold blanketing her body)—but then, I thought about it, thought about myself (how else should we view films, but against our own lives, histories?), and I had a very different reaction: This is an uplifting film, to some degree, with a strong moral at the end reminding us, that when we die, the only things we will carry with us into the next life, whatever that may be, are the passions that drove us, played out in our lives. You can easily weep for Kumiko, for her loss, but she’s so happy in the end, even in her delusion, and I think that’s…something.

My score: 4 out of 5 treasure maps

Treasure_Map copy

Interview at Fiction Writers Review

I am completely honored to have chatted with Nina Buckless at Fiction Writers Review about my new novel Mesilla, my (admittedly odd) writing process, and finding the voice of the story:

“And one can revel in the story and arresting impressions captured in the pages of this novel, a bold story and a true, unapologetic Western. But Robert James Russell also illustrates the sorrow, loss, risk, and struggle of the individuals who may have made their way into or out of this unique place and landscape.”

I am a monstrous fan of FWR—as far as I’m concerned, they are one of the best hubs for discussing literature, publishing, everything in between—and it really means so much to be featured on the site. Thanks again to Nina, and Jeremy Chamberlin, for everything.

And check out Mesilla, too, if you’re so inclined.

Under the Volcano

22815_under-the-volcano-5Admission: I have not read Lowry’s novel the film is based on (not yet, anyway), but this film is done so well, impeccably acted, a true character study, that I can’t wait to pick it up.

Albert Finney is a dream here. I have never seen alcoholism presented so unflinchingly: not as a plot device, not as a means to push the story forward, but as baggage…as an anchor that follows Finney’s Consul with every step, every breath. Forming the words in his mouth for him. Deciding where to go, what to do. It is awkward, this film, and meant to be: a man drowning in drunkenness, careening toward total collapse. A man, a government official stationed in Mexico—a white man—meeting and talking with the locals, yes, but not being a part of their culture. His talk, his actions, his dipsomania…the city around him, the people, are means for him to relish his own losses, what he has not accomplished, what has been taken from him (or, in reality, what he has lost on account of his nearsightedness). Here is a man who doesn’t wish to know the landscape, to fully understand his position, geographically or otherwise, and ultimately meets his demise on account of it.

The story is simple, really: it follows Finney’s Consul on the last day of his life. His estranged wife has come back to him after having left without so much a word, and the two of them, along with Finney’s adventurer pal Hugh, take to the streets, the countryside, discussing life, possibilities, yet all of them, this whole time, remain removed from the physical world around them. There are parallels to Marlowe’s Faustus myth, yes. The Consul is suffering, and he believes, really believes, there is no cure, there is no salvation. The Consul, ultimately, cannot see the beauty of what is actually in front of him: that his wife has returned to be with him, that he has the deep affection of his friend Hugh, that the people and places he visits are full of remarkable people all with their own stories. That he is hovering above them, far too high, so high he cannot see how he got there, or how he can get down. Again, I was worried this would be another White Savior movie, a story of a foreign man bringing peace and prosIMG_5872perity to a place not his own, but it is not. It is a study of the fallibility of man; of man’s desire to understand the world but in its egocentrism never being able to…all while the world, the rest of the world, keeps on spinning.

I really did love this film. What stopped it from being a solid 5 for me? I’m not sure. John Huston’s directing is fantastic, the scenery is luscious, and the acting is top-notch. Yet, I can’t place why this wasn’t a flat-out home run. Did it drag in parts? Perhaps, but forgivable. Was it the frustration of seeing someone who cannot pull themselves out of their downward spiral? Yes, but that was, after all, the point of the film, I’d argue. So, I’m not sure… But this was a powerhouse, one I absolutely recommend. And a nice companion piece, actually, to Sorcerer, another film made in about the same timeframe featuring some similar themes.

My score: 4 out of 5 sugar skulls


Interview on COVERED podcast

I recently chatted with Harry C. Marks on his COVERED podcast (Season 2, Episode 3) about my novel Mesilla, Elmore Leonard, Gone Girl, Literati Bookstore, and more.

cover170x170Completely honored to have been asked to take part. COVERED is a gorgeously produced podcast about writers and their books. Whether it’s fiction or non, short stories or long, sweeping epics, Harry digs down in each episode to learn the stories behind the stories, the whys and hows of their creation, and what readers and aspiring authors can learn from the process.

I am not quiet about my love of the literary community, and podcasts like this that dig in deep, talk to the authors, get to know the stories behind the books, are critically important. Please give it a listen, and if you enjoy it, take a minute to rate/review the podcast on iTunes. It’s how they’re able to reach a wider audience.


Sorcerer-truck-on-bridgePrepare for a ramble: What a glorious film. A film that had no business being as good as it is. Sorcerer was lost in the annals of film history, overlooked for a myriad or reasons—chief being, it seems, because it had the displeasure of being released in such close proximity to a little film called Star Wars—but was re-earthed years later and is now called—rightfully so, I might add—a masterpiece.

Why am I so attracted to this film? (Yes, I’d argue that attraction is correct when talking about films, at least with me.) I have, plenty of times, droned on about my love of landscapes, and even my book Mesilla is about the futility of man trying to shape the landscape, trying to harness it without fear of retribution. And, see, that’s the key for me: I love nature, I love being outside, but man versus nature in literature, or in film, is ultimately about reminding the man that they are mortal. And that nature is not…that it continues on long after we are gone. And am I so attracted to that theme, that idea, that we are motes of dust in a large dust storm. We love stories where man triumphs over nature, or survives purely by sheer will in order to see [insert trophy] once again. But, in reality, while this does happen, sure, it’s so easy to forget how miniaturizing nature is.

And that, I think, is what is so great about Sorcerer (which is a re-telling of the 1950 French novel Le salaire de la peur). The film finds, by happenstance, four disparate and desperate outcasts brought together in the small South American village of Porvenir (a country is never given), and the plot is, really, pretty simple: an American owned oil well catches fire, and these four men volunteer to drive the nitroglycerin 200 miles through the jungle needed to extinguish it. And that’s it. And the bulk of the movie is just that: them driving, trying to survive, coming together and dealing with what falls in front of them, etc. We don’t get much in the way of backstory, minus vignettes at the beginning of the film, and there isn’t much dialog either, but, regardless, this is one of the most thrilling films I have ever seen. Partially, I wager, because they actually had to film in the jungle. Because they actually were driving trucks. Because the crew actually had to contend with nature (infamously, due to shooting locations, and conditions, the cost of the film swelled substantially during filming). But you can feel the tension in a way I haven’t felt in a film in a long while. And is sustains throughout, until the very end.

Some classify this film as existential…sure, that’s fine. I can see that: There is a big hunk devoted to reinventing your life, if that’s ever really possible, making something of yourself (after tragedy, in this instance). And maybe that’s what attracts me to the film, too: besides being gorgeously shot and masterfully edited, a film where the landscape is as much a character an anyone else, this falls in line with my whole “what is life…who are we…especially compared to the realm of nature we so quickly try to distance ourselves from but often find ourselves intertwined with” obsession. Maybe.

I was scared, by the end, that this was yet another “white man saves the day” picture, what with Roy Scheider’s Jackie Scanlon—a very white man who, unfortunately, is referred to as “Juan Dominguez” for the last two-thirds of the film—the only survivor, the savior of the people of Porvenir who depend on the well for jobs. But the closing scene (a car pulling up, henchmen emerging, ready to dole out long-overdue justice to poor old Jackie) was sublime. It was the ending needed, deserved. While Scheider’s Jackie is dancing with a local scrub woman in a bar—a gesture, perhaps, to honor the late Bruno Cremer’s Victor character (who, earlier, was seen flirting with her)—and then as the camera pulls back, floats above Porvenir, backwards into the atmosphere, watching as the henchmen enter, not seeing what happens next but understanding what will happen next, we get what Director William Friedkin and writer Walon Green were getting at: you can’t escape your past, not fully. You carry it with you, around your neck, wherever you go. But you need to learn from this, and if you don’t…the jungle eats you alive.

And, ultimately, there is no white savior story here: the people of the village of Porvenir will continue on while all the outsiders who came, who would be seen as heroes, were wiped from the earth.

My score: 5 out of 5 jungle trucks

Opel-Blitztruck-title-image copy


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.