Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?
I spent thirty years teaching English with an emphasis on writing. I got to know teenagers and how they think and how they react. I feel I know their souls, sometimes. So it was automatic that when I started creating novels that I would write stories about teenagers. Add to that the fact that I spent almost all those thirty years coming to know myself and realizing I was in a deep, dark closet that I needed to break out of and become the open, proud gay man that I am now. I suppose in some way, writing has helped me to find myself as I try to help teens find themselves. I choose to write young adult novels, particular gay-themed young adult novels, because I feel I can help teens to come out of their own closets. But I hope to do much more with my books because I feel that “young adult novel” is only a marketing tool, and books should not be labeled and categorized. My characters have the same problems and aspirations of anyone, old, young, or in between, and anyone can enjoy their journeys and learn from them. So if my novels can help young people be authentic, I am happy. If my novels can help older people be empathetic and more understanding, then I am happier still. I write young adult novels because I know those characters the best, and knowing your subjects is the best way to accomplish writing that fits your goals.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
This is a question that brings out the joy in me, for I get to praise my mother. My mother was an avid reader. I never could figure out how she did it, but she could read several stories at a time and keep them all straight. She would have a book by her chair, a book on the dining table, a book in her purse, a book by her bed, and a book in the bathroom—all awaiting her when she was near them. Seeing someone who was that voraciously reading was powerful role-modeling for me. And my mother had a guiding philosophy about what I chose to read: if I understood it, it couldn’t hurt me; if I didn’t understand it, it couldn’t hurt me either. I recall my sixth grade teacher said she wanted to approve each book we read. After the first three or four books I brought her (and probably I presented those in the time it took others to read one book,) she just threw up her hands and told me I didn’t have to get any more approved. She, obviously, was following my mother’s own philosophy.
Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
Such a long list, for I love a wide range of authors, and reading as much as I do, they all have had an influence on my writing. I love Henry James, Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, Patrick Dennis, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Christopher Rice, Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, and so many more. My favorite contemporary author, and one I think is the finest of the lot, is multi-award winning Benjamin Alire Saenz. His novel Last Night I Sang to the Monster directly influenced my creation of therapist 13 in my novel Thirteen Therapists. Curiously enough, I read Ben’s novel after I’d drafted mine, but in seeing how he treated his therapist character, I got validation that I had done mine right. And two other fine award-winning authors are my mentors: Kathi Appelt and Kelly Bennett. They have taught me just about everything I know about writing, and they’ve championed me as a writer for the last twenty years almost. I could not have written my novels without their encouragement, suggestions, and teaching.
What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?
Reading opens up the world. And as a writer, I hope I’m contributing to that in some way. People who read are learning without knowing it. They are absorbing so much that can enrich themselves and society. Through reading, we are able to see that others are different and yet the same. We, no matter what ethnicity, no matter what home country, no matter what economic group have the same core values. Also, books show us that we can come together in harmony if we try, for we can see our sameness and embrace it, and we can see our differentness, and bridge the gap.
How does your book relate to your spiritual practice or other life path?
I feel like a spiritual person although I don’t attend church services. There was a time when I was a regular church goer, and my experience served me well as a writer (as well as fulfilling personal needs at the time.) Colors, my latest release, is about clergy sexual abuse. But since so many of the instances we’ve heard about occurred with Catholic priests, I decided to set my novel in the world of Protestant—almost Fundamentalist—religion. That’s what I know, so that was an easy choice. Interestingly enough, two reviews I’ve read mention that my main character was molested by a priest. That doesn’t surprise me since priests have made the most news in child molestation cases, and it would be easy to project that notion on my story. But I assure you, Neil, at age nine, is molested by his very Protestant preacher. As for more on how religion has influenced my work, all my works have some religious aspect to them except the first, Thirteen Therapists. My second novel Special Effect features a protagonist who is very much influenced by his family’s Catholic religion; my third The Book of Ethan is all about a boy who was raised to take the reins of a polygamist religious cult. So, truly without planning to, I’ve found myself working through my feelings about religion and how it can influence our lives, both positively and negatively.
What projects are you working on at the present?
Right now, I’m doing yet another revision of my novel Titanic Summer. The novel was begun six years ago. For this latest version, I’ve pulled the story into 2015, and set it against the struggle to get HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, passed. The boy’s mother is against it, the father is for it, and the boy is a closeted gay. I’m hoping that the boy learns enough from the failure of HERO that he grows and becomes happier. And, you ask, why is it called Titanic Summer? The kid’s dad loves anything about the famous ship that hit the iceberg, and about half the story takes place on a pilgrimage the boy takes with his dad to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the dead were taken after the disaster.
Russell J. Sanders is a life-long devotee of the theater. He’s a singer, actor, and director, winning awards for his acting roles and shows he has directed. As a teacher, he has taught theater arts to hundreds of students, plus he’s also taught literature and writing to hundreds of others.
Russell has also travelled the world, visiting Indonesia, Japan, India, Canada, the Caribbean, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Venice—and almost all the US states. His friends think he’s crazy, but wherever he goes, he seeks out Mexican restaurants. The Mexican food in Tokyo was great, he says; in Rome, not so good. Texans cut their teeth on barbecue and Mexican food. Russell’s love for enchiladas led him on a quest to try them wherever he can find them, and he has found them in some very out of the way places. And good or bad, he’s delighted to sample his favorite food.
Most importantly, Russell is an out and proud Gay man, living in Houston with his husband. His marriage is shy of two years old, but his relationship has lasted almost twenty years. He hopes that his novels inspire confidence and instill pride in his young Gay fans, and he also hopes others learn from his work.
Book launch for Colors is Saturday, February 6, 2016 from 3-5 pm at River Oaks Bookstore, 3270 Westheimer (at River Oaks Blvd,) Houston, Texas.
Meet the author and get signed copies of any of his books.
Anyone who can’t attend but would like a signed copies, phone the bookstore to place an order at (713) 520-0061
(Harmony Ink Press; Teen/YA Romance; publication date: January 14, 2016; 208 p.)
With a beautiful girlfriend, a scholarship to a prestigious musical theater school, and talent to spare, life is good for high school senior Neil Darrien. He’s on his way to stardom, but then newcomer Zane Jeffrey secures a place in the school show choir, rousing Neil’s envy. Neil soon sees there’s more to Zane than a talented performer, though—he’s funny and charming, and the two boys become friends.
Neil’s girlfriend Melissa doesn’t like Neil spending so much time with Zane, and she draws Neil into her church. There, Neil is faced with a choice between righting a wrong and risking revealing a secret that could cost him everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.
As Neil’s relationship with Melissa deteriorates, Neil starts to see Zane in a different light—one that has him thinking of Zane as more than just a friend.
Book Trailer for COLORS