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Brian Russell: “When the writing is flowing, there’s little better in the world”

March 20, 2010 by · 2 comments

Interview with Brian Russell by Andrew Micheli


Brian Russell is the author of Meeting Dad: A Memoir, which is being released April 1, 2010 from Accents Publishing, Lexington, Kentucky. After more than twenty years of working in the theater as a director and producer of plays, musicals, and operas, Brian shifted his focus toward writing. He was artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company from 1997-02, where he directed more than a dozen shows. In 2007, he graduated with honors with a BGS from Roosevelt University, where his short story, Rutherford, won the first Annual Keenan-Kara Writing Award. In May 2010, he will graduate from Spalding University’s brief residency MFA in Writing Program, where he is also a student assistant editor of The Louisville Review. His prose, poetry, and critiques have been published at and at Feel free to visit his blog at

Which came first, writing or directing?

Writing actually came first. I wrote poetry and music as a child, perhaps as young as when I was ten or eleven. Then, from the ages of seventeen to twenty or twenty-one, I religiously kept a journal. I’d write poems and short stories and the more traditional (mundane) working through the vicissitudes of a young man’s life living in New York City and in London for four plus months.

I started directing professionally at twenty-two, and I came to directing after only having first discovered that I didn’t have the right focus to be an actor, which is what I always thought I would do. One day in the middle of technical rehearsals for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that I was acting in at a summer stock theater in Michigan, I made a very troubling discovery: I realized I was more interested in how the lights looked, how the set worked, and all of the other actors’ performances that I was in my own performance. I knew in that moment that I shouldn’t be an actor. (It took more than two years for me to discover that I had some interest in and aptitude for directing.)

How does directing influence your writing?

Less frequently than I wish it did. When I do allow it to influence my writing, it is very helpful in terms of assessing my writing with a series of questions: Am I telling the story clearly? How is the pacing? Am I keeping the reader interested? You see, as a stage director, unlike a film or television director, you need to find a way to get your audience looking at and paying attention to what you want them to see and hear. There is no frame that blocks all else from view. As a writer, one has a little bit more of a frame to employ – namely, character, plot, tone, point of view, etc. – but these tools don’t in and of themselves keep a reader from looking around the room or outside the window or responding to any number of external events that are ever-present.

Therefore, in this sense, the writer must focus the reader’s attention on the work in a similar way as the director must focus an audience’s attention on the work of a play or musical or opera. We’ve all had the experience of feeling like a book lags or drags or in some other way suddenly becomes less interesting than it was in the previous chapter. This is death for a writer. The reader will simply put the book down and move on to another book or another activity altogether. When I remember to apply my “director’s eye” to a piece of my writing, it helps me see those moments where the pacing is off, or I’ve not chosen the best word, or when I’ve said something three times when once would have sufficed.


Do you have a separate process – a different way of approaching or seeing the work – for directing and writing?

I think there are very different processes. The most significant difference between directing and writing is that directing is an interpretive art form and writing is a completely creative, or authorial art form.

As a director, I begin my approach with the text. As a writer, I am creating a text from scratch. As a director, I always try to trust the text, to discover what is contained within it, and to bring the text to as vivid and interesting and engaging a life as possible, in collaboration with the entire production team – actors, designers, producers. As a writer, I need to imbue a text with enough meaning, engagement, and clarity so that a reader will wish to enter fully into the story. Answering this particular question, the two seem to have nothing whatsoever in common.

There seems to be a natural similarity between the creation of a production for stage and the creation for a work on the page. But in one, the stage, you haven’t written the piece, whereas with the page, you have written the piece. Do you find this true? How?

The closer I look at the two side by side, the less similar they appear to me. The Heisenberg Principle at work? Perhaps.

Do you like one process better than the other – writing vs. directing?

When the writing is flowing, there’s little better in the world. When it isn’t, directing sure seems appealing to me – so much simpler for me to interpret someone else’s work rather than to create (out of whole cloth, as it sometimes feels) my own.

However, there is also the matter of “comfort.” Directing is more comfortable because I’ve been doing it for more than twenty years and I’ve already made so many mistakes from which I’ve learned very valuable lessons. I’m pretty early into having made a serious commitment to write fulltime – therefore, I am making a lot of mistakes, taking wrong turns, climbing up the side of one mountain only to discover that there is no passage down from that particular height and I have to reverse course and try again. Therefore, I am in radically different stages in terms of my relationship with the two art forms.

But, when the writing is coming, when it feels like I’ve found just the right way to tell the story, it is deeply gratifying.

So, you kept that journal from 17-21. In thinking about that work – the journal or diary of your life – and where you are today with Meeting Dad: A Memoir, is there any resemblance in that earlier writing to the writer you are today?

Not a whole lot, for many reasons… First off, I’m nearly 30 years older, but a more basic and crucial difference, that I think applies to all writing, is this idea that all writing is a made thing. That you craft it. You choose a tone, a point of view. You choose words very carefully, you consider the lengths of sentences and structures of paragraphs and when writing in a journal I don’t think about that at all. I’m just, you know, vomiting my thoughts up on to the page.

In the process of writing Meeting Dad you had all of that raw journal. Did you have a sense of tone or voice when you started writing Meeting Dad or did you just want the facts first?

Tone and voice I didn’t have, I had to find that through revisions. It wasn’t like journal writing at first, but what a professor of mine called shitty first draft. She would say, “embrace the idea of the first shitty draft.” You have to go through the process of revision.

When I first started the process of writing Meeting Dad, it was much more overwritten than it is now.

What takes a memoir away from journal or diary and what did you do to make that happen?

A couple things. One is, you have to make choices along the lines of what do I describe, where do I use narrative summary, where do I use scene, dialogue? There are at times, where by placing focus on another character…that that provides the reader a bit of a break from the narrator, from me. And that’s one of the difficult things about memoir, you can’t just be there, center stage with the spotlight on you all the time because a reader will get bored. Likewise you don’t want to have everything in scene or narrative summary, you change it up to keep the readers level of engagement as high as you can.

So, I think that’s how I would differentiate between a first draft and a later revision, is that a first draft, especially early in the process as I was writing this, I was writing about 80 percent as narrative summary, because that’s sort of how I remembered it. And then I went back. For instance, there’s that horrible bedwetting scene, and the first time I wrote it, it was in narrative summary, but then when I went back to do a revision, I thought, ‘OK, wait a minute, I remember this moment really clearly and I can blow it up in to a scene and I think it’s more engaging.’

I think one of the biggest challenges of memoir is that it’s not about having to relate everything that happened. It’s about what’s important that happened and how have you…what do you make of it? A memoir has to engage this issue of what do you make of what happened in your life.

Talk about the research you did – specifically family interviews, interviews with friends. What were those responses that stand out to you, whether they were warm and welcoming or cold and distant, and who said no?

Nobody said no. And I was a little surprised. I’ve done extensive research in the form of phone calls, many of which I’ve taped with my mother. I asked my mother for clarification about a lot of factual things, sometimes dates that I had not retained independent memories of. For instance, I was 2 ½ years old when my natural father left the family. So, what I knew was that he was gone. I had vivid memories about yearning for him and not understanding why he was gone. But, I didn’t have an independent memory of how long we stayed in Oklahoma, for instance. So, mom was extraordinarily helpful.

Last November I spent 6 days in Buffalo interviewing my brother, my adoptive father, John Russell, and also going to a lot of physical locations in Buffalo, on Grand Island and Niagara Falls that are important to the story. And I took photographs of a lot of those places so that I can refer back to those.

You have a lot of characters in this piece. Did you ever use their point of view in writing the piece?

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that I try to write from another character’s point of view, what I do sometimes is speculate as to what my natural father might have been thinking or why another character might have behaved the way they did. So, I might be on to something or I might be all wet. But the reader is alerted that I am imagining, or guessing, or wondering what mom, dad, or Jay thought.

What is this story about?

The story that I’m trying to tell in “Meeting Dad” is the story of a boy, who is a teenager, and is rather self-centered, but a boy who’s been in pain for many years, who decides to act. Because, it is that decision to act, to change his situation, his story, his life, that propels the rest of the narrative. He gets to meet dad.

Did you find in writing this that if was particularly freeing in writing this as scene without the need to overly reflect or look back and analyze the events of your life? There is that, but you have a light hand in this piece in terms of reflection or analysis, you show it all very simply, and I mean very truthfully, and let the reader react.

At this point I am starting to find it very freeing in a wonderful way. But I can tell you this that at the beginning, when I started writing this story, this work, I had a good deal more set up or introduction or explanation. And the mentor with whom I’m working right now, Molly Peacock, who is a wonderful poet and a memoirist herself, beautifully explained to me, A) that I don’t need that; but B) how I did need it in order to get into the story. She said, “so, you wrote this introductory material or set-up material so that you could locate yourself.” And she likened it to scaffolding. That you need scaffolding around a building when you’re placing masonry four stories off the ground. But once you’ve put that beautiful stonework onto the façade of the building, you take the scaffold away.

Why tell this story now?

Well, I think that this story is about a child figuring out or struggling with the fundamental question every boy has, which is how do I move from boyhood to manhood, how do I become a man? You know, we become full agents, we grow into agency in our lives, and most boys, or many boys, have father’s who guide them into agency, onto adulthood, responsibility, maturation. Many boys don’t (have fathers). But I think it holds true for a girl growing to womanhood and needing that guidance as well. So, for a parentless person, or a child who feels parentless, that struggle with how to move from childhood to adulthood is, I think, one that has some sort of universality, one that we can all understand from a number of perspectives. Our own childhood, or perhaps we understand it from the perspective of being a parent to children who are struggling with whatever their issues are. This is only one story, but one that I hope will resonate.

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