Russ Litten is the author of Scream If You Want To Go Faster (Windmill Books), Swear Down (Tindal Street Press) and Kingdom, published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2015. He has also written for TV, film, radio and the stage. Russ spent five years as a Writer In Residence at a prison in the north of England and also runs workshops and seminars in prisons and Youth Offender Institutes across the UK on behalf of English PEN. He is a regular tutor at Arvon Writing Courses and a workshop tutor for First Story in a secondary school. In 2016 Russ, along with the internationally renowned producer and musician Steve Cobby, released the spoken word/electronica album My People Come from the Sea. The album Boothferry followed in 2017. A collection of short stories We Know What We Are (Obliterati Press) was published in May 2018. His debut poetry collection I Can See The Lights was published by Wild Pressed Books in February 2020 and a free launch for the collection takes place at Hull’s Union Mash Up on February 20. We caught up with Russ a few days before publication.
Tell us about your first poetry collection I Can See The Lights? What can readers expect, and why poetry, now?
I’m always a bit reticent to call these pieces of writing ‘poetry’, mainly because I’m surrounded by so many great poets who know much more about the craft than I do. To me, many of the fragments in I Can See The Lights fall somewhere between song lyrics and prose. I suppose this is because a lot of them were written as spoken word pieces to accompany Steve Cobby’s music. So there is the poetic use of rhyme, metre etc, but they are ultimately concerned with telling a story. I think I got into writing this way because I didn’t have the energy for a novel and shorter pieces seemed to appeal.
Are you working on a novel currently? Or have one in the pipeline? Can you tell us anything about that?
I’m working on a novel based upon my experiences of working in prisons. It’s the very first novel that I’ve plotted out before sitting down to write the thing. I think it would be best described as a psychological thriller.
We love your musical collaborations with Cobby and others. You’ve got your fingers in a lot of pies. Is it all part of the same creative urge? Is one of your creative pursuits more satisfactory than others?
I started off writing words to music when I was in a band back in my teens and everything I’ve done since then has been a natural progression from that. Working with Steve was great for me, because it emphasised the importance of improvisation and how that can result in stuff that’s very pure because it’s not over-thought or laboured to death. Music is a lot more instant than the published word, you can write, make and release stuff very quickly, so you don’t end up second-guessing yourself. They’re more like snapshots in time. More recently, I got back into playing with bands and that’s been good again because it’s a lot more structured and compact, the discipline of writing verses, choruses etc – which I never really bothered with when we were doing the electronica with Cobby and Litten. Playing music is communal and collaborative, much more so than the lonely solo flight of writing. I see writing and music as different sides to the same thing. They each give me what the other cannot, so I feel doubly blessed to be doing both. I usually have music on when I write, and there’s definitely a beat I find myself tapping into when the keys are being struck. I think it’s maybe to do with being a bass player, where you get rhythm and melody rolled into one.
Kingdom defied easy categorisation and was difficult for mainstream publishers to get their heads wrapped around. Tell us how the book came about, the response and your thoughts on genre?
That book came about as a result of a surgical procedure. I came out of a local anaesthetic and thought I was a ghost for about 30 seconds. So I sort of went with that idea. I’ve always been interested in magical realism, which is what I suppose I was aiming for with Kingdom. The response was about the same as all my other books – pockets of appreciation within a general blanket of indifference. It’s probably my most personal book and the one I’m most proud of, I think. As for genre, I think I’m going to attempt to write a book in each and every one, so romance and sci-fi are next on the list. That should keep me busy for a bit.
Who are you writing for?
I always used to say I was writing for myself, but that seems a bit of a glib answer these days. Most of the books I tend to like seem to wallow in relative obscurity, so I’d probably be slightly better off if I considered the sensibilities of others. I am submitting the work after all, putting a price on the back and asking people to buy it. This came as something of a revelation to me after my wife suggested that I write something that “people would actually want to read.” So now I’m writing for my wife.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
I would like them to come away from one of my stories feeling that there is some hope and light in the world. I was always concerned with presenting things in their raw and naked form, a kind of unflinching veracity, but I’ve shifted my thinking on this in recent times. My stuff is always described as “gritty”, “earthy” etc etc which is fair enough, but I don’t feel that this is enough any more. I would like to make a positive emotional connection. Like Lou Reed said, it’s important that people don’t feel so alone. So I would like them to have a transcendental experience, please. If that’s not too much to ask for.
When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether that’s a poem, short story or a full length novel, what approach do you take?
I tend to just get voices talking on the page, wether that’s versions of myself or somebody totally new. After a while I can start to see what the form should be for the particular story that emerges. Some of them get longer, some of them stay short. It’s a sort of clairvoyant approach that I learnt from the ladies whose hair my mam would set in our back kitchen when I was a nipper. They’d go into trances and start talking to ghosts with a head full of rollers.
Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing? Do you set a word count, work at a particular time of day, or anything else?
I am disciplined when I can see a story has got potential. If I’m on with a novel, I try and start as early as possible. This gets easier as the mornings get lighter. I go for as long as I’m fired up about it, which can be anything from half an hour to four or five hours. One tip I learned off Hemingway was to always stop when you know what’s coming next. That’s served me well with regards to momentum.
Do you do a lot of planning or procrastinating before you sit down and get writing?
With this new novel, the planning has become a form of procrastination. I’ve got dates, timelines, biographies, chapter plans, narrative arcs … I don’t usually bother with all that stuff, I’m more concerned with discovering the story through the act of writing and re-drafting etc. Shaping the story out of the text as it unfolds. That involves staring out of the window a lot, or walking the dog. With this one, I know what’s happening so there’s less a sense of wandering about in the wilderness. I can still find a thousand things to do before writing though. But once I’ve got the bit between my teeth, I tend to get on with it. I have periods of indolence verging on horizontal, then I guilt-trip myself into prolonged bouts of hard graft.
You’ve been on both sides of the publishing game, and have had work published by large publishing houses and indies. What are your thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I think independent publishers are certainly less risk-averse then the major publishing houses. The obvious downside is the lack of money and marketing muscle. Ultimately, wether a publisher is major or independent, it boils down to the people who work there and how much time and effort they’re willing to put into your writing. This can vary wildly, regardless of size or bank balance.
What impact does Hull have on your writing?
It is my natural voice and will probably inform most things that I write purely because my preferred mode is auto-fiction. It doesn’t really go beyond that. I’m not trying to say anything about Hull, the place or the people, in particular. It’s just where I live, what I see when I look out the window.
You’ve led workshops at Arvon centres, in prisons and with secondary schools. What makes for a good workshop? And what, if any, are the differences in the way those different groups run?
A good workshop relies on the person leading it being genuinely interested in writing and passionate about the subject matter. There is no “how to” with creative writing, all you can offer is your perspective as a fellow writer, and offer your views to be challenged. More immediately – and crucially – you have to establish an atmosphere of mutual support and trust and human warmth. I think that goes for wherever you hold such a gathering. The differences in the way they are run are borne of logistical pressures. Prison and hostel work is often fragmented and subject to interruptions, so poetry is often the favoured mode of expression. Retreats such as Arvon mean you have the time and space to consider longer pieces of work. But I think the thing common to all is to be open minded and encouraging. The only rule for writing is “does it work?”. It’s a source of constant wonder. I also think it is good to have something at the end of a series of workshops, either a published anthology or a reading or recording.
Are there too many creative writing courses these days?
No, there should be more. And they should all be free.