Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: A teacher, a singer, an actor, a director, a chef, a traveler, a writer…these are all descriptions of native Texas author Russell J. Sanders, now residing in Las Vegas, Nevada. A life spent in Texas led to a relocation adventure, because that’s what life is about–embarking on adventures. So he and his husband set out for parts unknown and are loving it! Russell writes young adult novels, and his works are infused with his travel experiences. Thus far, his novels have taken readers to Ft. Worth, Houston, Chicago, Hollywood, and Nova Scotia. Since he has traveled to England, France, Italy, Japan, India, Bali, Jakarta, Toronto, Vancouver, Alaska, and Hawaii, who knows where he may lead his readers next? But one thing is certain, there will likely be a mention of Tex-Mex food in his books, for no matter where he travels, Russell seeks out Mexican food, not searching for the perfect enchilada, but just to experience what the food is like in faraway places. It actually was pretty good, he says, in Jakarta, and not so good in Wyoming. Mostly, Russell’s goal is to tell the world, through his writing, that we are all put on this earth to love one another, no matter our race, religion, or sexual preference.
Thanks so much, Russell, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
Russell J. Sanders: My first published book—a book that has recently been released in a second edition—was Thirteen Therapists. First, because I, myself, have had thirteen therapists in my life, I thought that would be a great title. Then I had this desire to make the main character the son of a very rich woman, a woman who loves her four children but is not a very good nor attentive parent. Next, to further get out of my comfort zone, I set the book in Chicago, my favorite city, one that I’ve traveled to many, many times. From there, a plot just seemed to magically appear. And from reader reaction, the book apparently speaks to a wide audience.
JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
RJS: I have not taken a trip for research, but my travels were featured in two of my books, Titanic Summer and Heartthrob. For the former, the protagonist—again a teenage boy—is taken on a road trip by his Titanic-obsessed father. Eventually, that trip to the Titanic Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the gravesites of Titanic victims leads to a giant blowup between father and son. But the father, always trying to stay connected with his son, sends him a video about the Titanic that impacts the boy’s way of thinking. As for Heartthrob, the story involves a teenage TV sitcom star, so I was inspired by travels to Hollywood.
JSC: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
RJS: I can write a book in the matter of a few weeks, two or three. Then I let it “stew” by not looking at it again for a month or more. It is then that I have had time to reassess, and I begin revisions. After a second draft, I may give it another month or so before embarking on further drafts. Eventually, sometimes a year or more, I am able to declare the work finished and ready to submit. My novel Heartthrob was actually about ten years old before I decided to release it to the world.
JSC: Name the book you like most among all you’ve written, and tell us why.
RJS: All my books are my babies, so I’m hesitant to choose one that I like the most. Perhaps the one dearest to my heart is All You Need Is Love, a love story—set in 1968—between a young, fairly button-downed, actor and his Hippie musician friend. Why is that book so dear to me? Because it was inspired by the death of a dear friend who was that Hippie in the book. He and I were never lovers, as portrayed in the book, but I was compelled to honor his spirit and soothe my grief by creating a “maybe” story. That book is filled with incidents directly from my own teenage years.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for An Angry God?
RJS: My books all put gay teens in very hard social situations—pastor abuse, growing up in a polygamist community, navigating life in turbulent times like the 1960s, understanding and accepting a privileged upbringing—so I wanted to do something that was totally different. And thus was born An Angry God, a tale of a serial killer stalking young gay men. There are three main characters who alternate telling the story of the book while revealing their very different childhoods. One is the stepson of a billionaire, another is the son of a wise but secretive woman, and the third is from a fiercely devout yet loving and accepting family. They are all three thrust into a story that is fueled by a hateful minister who believes gays should be eradicated from the face of the earth. With those four characters in mind, I constructed a murder mystery of which one reviewer says “It’s dangerous for me to start a mystery novel. My curiosity kicks in (whodunnit?!?), and I know that I will get nothing done for a couple days except read! An Angry God had that effect because all the traditional elements of mysteries are there: crimes you WANT to be solved, many suspects, red herrings, interesting plot twists.” When I read that, I knew I had succeeded.
JSC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
RJS: I was determined to be a professional actor/singer. But, obviously, that determination faded somewhere along the way because I became a teacher, instead, and now a writer. Perhaps I always knew I would be a teacher. My degree is in vocal music education with an additional concentration in theater. So I spent many years teaching theater and performing/directing in community theater. Eventually, in my teaching career, I turned exclusively to teaching literature through writing. So I guess, at this point, I’ve experienced everything I ever wanted to be when I “grew up.” But, I ask, does anyone ever “grow up”?
JSC: Were you a voracious reader when you were a kid?
RJS: I never was without a book! I read every moment I could find. I was a good student in school and almost always got my homework done in class and found time to read until the bell rang to end the class. My mother’s attitude about my book choices was “if he understands it, it can’t hurt him; if he doesn’t understand it, it can’t hurt him.” So, in sixth grade, when our teacher declared she wanted us to always be reading outside of class but she wanted to approve our choices, I presented the current book I was reading, a decidedly adult title. She rolled her eyes and said, “You don’t have to get my approval anymore.” Apparently, she trusted I was mature enough or intelligent enough or who knows what enough, to choose my own reading material. I don’t remember what that book was, but I do remember reading C.Y. Lee’s Flower Drum Song then. I thought it was a good story. I read it again many years later, I realized it was indeed a very sexy good story, thus proving my mother’s attitude about my book choices.
JSC: What is your writing process?
RJS: My writing process is one that most writers would scoff at. I do not write every day. When I have an idea, then I write. Usually, by that time, the book almost writes itself. Then I don’t return to the keyboard until I feel I have a grasp of what I want to do to revise the book. So most writers would indeed scoff at this, just as I scoff at posts on social media that declare “I wrote ten thousand words today” or some such statement. But you know, neither of us should be doing that scoffing because every writer has his/her/their process, and if it works for you, then it’s the right choice.
JSC: If you could choose three authors to invite for a dinner party, who would they be, and why?
RJS: Michael Connelly, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kelly Bennett. Why? Connelly is a superb crime fiction writer, and I devour all his books. Fitzgerald, of course, wrote The Great Gatsby, my favorite book and one I’ve read about thirty times. Kelly is my dear friend—a fine writer and my mentor, and she always has her eyes and ears open. So if conversation lagged because I wasn’t engaging enough, Kelly would keep the party going, and I would learn everything and more that I wanted to know.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
RJS: I have two projects, one completed (nothing’s ever completed, I guess, until it is in print) and one that is in first draft status. The first of these is called Bud. It is a transgender young adult story. After many drafts, feedback from several people, and a few rejections, I’m still shopping it around and hope it finds a home. The other is the story of a teen boy whose mother is a hoarder. We shall see where that one takes me as I begin to do a second draft.
And now for Russell’s latest book: An Angry God:
A serial killer is stalking young gay men in a Midwest college town. High school senior Kevin Bland, rich, brilliant, and a wild-child, meets a college freshman, Mitch Christman, who is just Kevin’s type. And also the killer’s type. Adding to the mix is college sophomore Brent who enlists Mitch’s help in finding answers and possibly unmasking the killer. And all the while, Dr. Spencer Fellows, anti-gay crusader, and hate-monger, stirs the pot, praising the killer for ridding the city of gay men, one by one by one.
So he’d ditched school. No big deal. Kevin knew he’d get away with it. He always did. The trick was to make sure the attendance office only had his stepdad’s work phone as a contact. That was easy. He told them his mom worked out of town frequently—she didn’t—and that his father oversaw his every move. If he said that with a sweet, sad puppy dog look on his face, he could always pull it off. All he had to do was make sure he filled out the parental contact form, leaving off his mom’s work number, and handed it in personally. His mother had never really cared, and his stepdad couldn’t be bothered. Even if the attendance clerk called Step’s office, he’d blow them off, too busy to deal with something as insignificant as his stepson. But they’d never call because Kevin only ditched when he’d had all he could stomach. And that was not very often. Most of the time, he’d sit, smile, and pretend to take notes. He’d have no use for theorems, Moby Dick, the periodic table, the battle of Waterloo, or anything of their other crap in the real world. And if he did, he’d remember it all anyway. That’s just the way his brain worked. Some might say Kevin was too smart for his own good. But he didn’t see it that way. His motto was, “Play all the angles and win the game at all costs.”
So there he sprawled, in front of the flat screen, catching up on the day’s news and smoking a joint. Hand-rolled. Excellent stuff. Just what he needed this fine morning. He’d get rid of the evidence, Febreze the house, and paste a smile on his face long before Mom and Step got home from work. His mom lived at the office, and Step was not much better. He inhaled deeply and held the smoke in his lungs, as the blue BREAKING NEWS letters filled the screen. The news anchor, Chet Charles, hair all perfect, dark suit with matching tie and silk flower in his lapel, star of Greatwood, Indiana’s CBS affiliate Channel 4, monotoned, “Force Four News has just learned a body was discovered in Fullerton Arboretum an hour ago. Nathan Miller was jogging with his dog when he felt a pull on the leash. Miller apparently tried to get the dog back on the path, but the black lab pulled away, ripping the leash from Miller’s hands. When Miller ran after his dog, he found a gruesome sight and immediately dialed 911. Force Four reporter Marlon Gordon is on the scene. Here’s what he has to say of this discovery.”
The screen cut to Greatwood’s heartthrob reporter, muscles bulging in a form-fitting Force Four News polo, park joggers running behind him on the trail, seemingly oblivious to this aforementioned slaughter. The guy, mic in hand, nodded his head—why do they always do that?—and began to speak.
“As you said, Chet, a body was discovered. We appear to have a white male, perhaps sixteen to twenty-two, who has been bludgeoned to death Our cameraman was able to get footage before authorities shooed hi, away. A warning here—the video is graphic, and parents may want to take caution.
“Out of respect for the victim and his family, we are not showing his face, but I must say, it will be difficult to identify this young man on facial recognition alone. As you can see, his clothing is soaked in blood, appearing as if this attack was in the last few hours.
“The police and crime scene techs are still gathering evidence. It seems, however, this murder, if it is indeed a murder and frankly, I don’t see how it could be anything but, is the fourth in a series of murders that have plagued several areas of Greatwood, each time the victim a young man, who was later identified as gay, with sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and a slight build. This latest victim does indeed fit this physical description. As they work the case, police will certainly ascertain whether this particular victim also was gay.
“As we know, our police chief and district attorney’s office were reluctant to call these murders hate crimes, yet with this, the fourth young man to be murdered in the same fashion, we expect that designation to be made at the next press conference.
“Certainly, local anti-gay activist Spencer Fellows, founder of the group Family Now, is convinced the murderer is targeting gay men. Just last week, when the third body was discovered, Fellows was quick to release this video statement…”
The familiar Fellows mug, his fake benevolent smile slashed across his face, replaced Marlon Gordon’s. He spoke in his I’m holier than thou way. “The Lord is indeed angry that we, as a society, are sheltering sinners. And this anger overflows into innocent citizens. If our laws, our moral values, our governing bodies, and our police will not take care of the situation, then, make no mistake, someone will. I’m not advocating the murder of sinners nor lawlessness, but I am saying that the Lord loves a warrior, and whoever is committing these acts will not be turned away from his Heavenly Father.”
Again, Kevin saw Marlon’s perfect cover model head fill the screen. “Strong words. They unleashed quite a furor last week. Reverend Sid Kramer, the city’s most vocal LGBTQ+ advocate, was quick to release his own statement.” Gordon held up a sheaf of papers and read. “Reverend Kramer said, ‘Fellows’s opinion is just that—an opinion. It is sad that he, a man who purports to be a pillar of Family Now, that local bastion of hate masquerading as a Christian organization, can make such an inflammatory statement. He famously calls himself and his followers ‘warriors for Christ.’ The Christ I and my friends know doesn’t need warriors, for our Christ only preaches love, not hate and certainly not vengeance. I have many friends of all religions, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, who feel otherwise. They, like I, feel that no God would ever be happy to see a member of His flock murdered, much less in such a heinous fashion. These murders are being committed by someone who deserves the full force of the justice system. Whether he or she will wind up in the fires of hell is something none of us will ever know.”