About the Author
Patricia Russo has said very little about herself in public, until now. Her bios are often one-liners. They mention a few previous sales, and not much more. And she doesn’t really like to give interviews.
When I approached Patricia about a possible interview, I could feel her recoil in horror all the way from across the Atlantic ocean. Uh oh, I thought, what do I do now? After much deliberation, it occurred that I should just ask the obvious question:
Why don’t you like to give interviews?
Some very patient people tried a couple of times, and all I could tell them was, “I got nothing.” Describe your workspace. Do you have any hobbies. Where did the idea come from (OH MY GOD, that one.) Who are your influences.
Boring, irrelevant, and in many cases, for me unanswerable.
Fine then! We won’t do an interview. We’ll just have a nice chat over our morning coffee and cigarettes.
So. What was your first sale?
First pro sale was to Women of Darkness, a horror anthology edited by Kathryn Ptachek. That was in 1987, I think. Then there were five sales to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. First anything was a couple of book reviews when I was fifteen. First story — to Space and Time, can’t remember the year, though I still have a copy of the zine here somewhere.
How did you become a writer?
Becoming a writer — it was a conscious decision, but it happened very early, when I was in the third grade. I was already a very good reader — a couple of years later, I tested off the scale when they tried to figure out what my reading level was, so they just said, ‘college level’ — that would have been in the fifth grade. (I can remember an altercation with a fourth grade reading teacher, who assigned the class the task of going through the story we’d just read and making a list of five words we didn’t know, and then looking them up in the dictionary. So, I was just sitting there. After a while, Ms. Fourth Grade teacher said my name sharply, and asked why I wasn’t doing the assignment. “I know all the words,” I told her. She did not believe me, and asked me what several words from the story meant. I answered without anger, with just a certainty of knowing what I knew (a phrase I learned later from Isaac Asimov). This basically shut Fourth Grade Teacher up at the time, but she punished me (well, she thought she was — she was trying to embarrass me — later, by asking me what a ‘hard’ word meant every time one came up in a text the class had to read. She did not succeed in embarrassing me. I was all, If you ask me, I’m going to tell you.)
Words were not hard. I had a retentive memory, and still do. So I was reading a lot, taking out books from the school library, and the Bookmobile that visited our elementary school once a week. It occurred to me that using words, working with words, playing with words, and creating with words, was what I wanted to do. I said quite often in subsequent years that I considered myself very lucky to have discovered what I wanted to do with my life so early on, when for so many people it is a long and anxious and frustrating and depressing and painful process. From the age of eight or so, I never had any doubt what I wanted to do.
This is probably why I majored in linguistics in college, and not English. Linguistics offers a whole other way to look at and understand not only words, but the way languages work, and language works. And the first stories I wrote, or tried to write, mostly starting them and abandoning them within a page or a page and a bit, were done around the age of eight or so as well. But I don’t remember much about them. I had ideas, but I didn’t know how do the ideas. I still have this difficulty. “I like that idea, only how do I write it.” I’m getting better at that, but often it still stymies me.
I have tried to write novels, and they all suck. I think my natural length is the short story. This is not to say that if the right idea(s) come to me, with strong enough characters, and a plot that can actually sustain tens of thousands of words, I wouldn’t try again. Nothing like that is on the immediate horizon, however. But the brain can snap seemingly unrelated pieces together when you are in no way expecting it. So I do not preclude the possibility altogether.
So you’ve been writing for a long time…
Over thirty years, seriously. By seriously I mean, writing, finishing what I write, and submitting it, and continuing to submit it until it’s either accepted or I give up on it; I don’t tend to give up on something until at least the tenth or fifteenth rejection.
A former employer once asked, “How many stories have you written?” I said, “Hundreds.” I don’t think he believed me. I’ve not published hundreds, but I’ve certainly written hundreds.
Which of your own stories do you like best?
I can’t tell.
No favorite characters. If I’m lucky, when re-reading a piece I’ve written, I can stop and say, “Well, that’s a good line. Can’t complain about that line.” And that’s the best I’ve ever been able to manage.
I get the impression that you’ve had a lot of opportunities to watch people as they go about their business. I say this because the characters you write are so very real and the patterns of speech you give them are so diverse. That is one of the reasons I really love your work, the people you write about — let’s just say some of them have been my neighbors.
As for observing people: yes. But also observing myself. I had a pretty rotten childhood, with parents who should not have had children. I’m amazed I’m as functional as I am, given where I started from, and what I started with. So first (reading psychology helped) I tried to understand what was going on with my family. From there I could see what was going on, many times, with other people. I think I’m pretty good at that, though not perfect.
The crappy childhood part is also a basis for some of my recurring themes. Escape. For a long time, I wrote stories about people trying to get out of bad shit, often failing. Responsibility — because no one took care of me, I had to be responsible for myself. Not being a bystander — not once did anyone ever intervene when physical or emotional abuse was occurring. And of course I wrote slews of stuff about terrible parents.
The problem I had was trying to write functional families, or even functional relationships. Didn’t have a great many models for those. (“The Children Are to Blame” was a deliberate attempt to turn my usual ‘bad parents do terrible things to kids’ theme on its head. Wrote too many of those, don’t like repeating myself, etc.)
One of the things I worry about in terms of my writing is repetition. Telling the same story over and over. I hate that idea. I know that certain themes repeat, and that’s okay.
You don’t seem to be as concerned with genre as you are with telling a good tale. I find this refreshing.
Well. I started as a hard-core science fiction fan. At golden age time, 11 or 12. Read all the SF I could find. Didn’t like fantasy at first, and wasn’t even aware of horror. But I was interested in folklore and mythology (my undergrad degree was in linguistics, but I read through NYU’s Bobst Library’s collection of folklore books pretty thoroughly). And the stories I wrote, of course, depended on the ideas I got. When I was in high school, I was trying to write science fiction. Not successfully. I got more ideas from the folklore stuff. More — situations to explore. More weirdness.
Which of my stories are horror, which fantasy, which sort-of SF? I don’t know. Take “Wishes and Feathers”, which was published in Fantasy. So, like, this is a different planet, so it’s SF, right? There’s not a word in that story that you can point to and say, “This is Earth.” And there’s a medical tech device that surely is an SF marker, right? And yet it’s also about the magic of wishes (and the magic of feathers.) So it’s fantasy, because there’s magic in it? Flip a coin. OK, I think you can pretty fairly say that “Fugly” is horror, and that was how I thought of it when I wrote it. And “How Not to Apologize to a Scarecrow” — okay, horror. But what about “The Jaculi”? Fantasy or horror?
I write the ideas I get. How one might classify the genre of a piece is not that important to me. And when I’m looking for something to read, a story or novel that is described as genre-bending or interstitial will attract my attention, because I figure there’s a good shot the writer has done something interesting. A good shot, mind, not a guarantee.
Why no website or anything else?
OK, why don’t I have a website, or a blog, or at least a LiveJournal or Dreamwidth page — because, really, it would take so much time, effort, and attention for something that would not be enjoyable for me. I would have to force myself to come up with at least minimally interesting content, unless I went with posting two-line bursts of invective, or just links to stories that have appeared or are appearing online. That kind of webpage or blog is deadly boring. The successful ones are imbued by their writers’ personalities, or at least their personas. For me to do it would be stressful exercise in pretense. I’ve given up pretending I give a shit about things that I truly do not. No more pretending, no more faking it. (This has been very liberating.)
And the stories are the stories, after all. What does the background, the childhood, the political stance, the family history, the glimmers of joy or the paroxysms of despair of the writer really matter? Would knowing that stuff really enhance an understanding or appreciation of the story? I’ve told people who asked me, “I think this story means X. Am I right?” that once the story has left the writer’s hands/control, it belongs to the reader, and the reader can interpret or analyze it or pigeonhole it any way he or she likes. My view of it isn’t more valid than anybody else’s.
Since the stories speak for you, let’s show the readers more of them:
(these do not appear in Shiny Thing)