Catching Elaine Russell in one place long enough to interview her is a celebration in itself. In between her travels to Thailand, Spain, Kauai, New York, Argentina, and California (all this year), she shared her journey as an author.
In the past few months, not only has Russell released the second book in her middle grade series, Martin McMillan and the Secret of the Ruby Elephant (Amazon), she launched her first adult novel Across the Mekong River (Amazon) which Kirkus calls, “A multifaceted tale of complex characters finding new lives in their new world.”
This riveting book trailer describes it far better than I could.
Like a good traveler, Russell’s path to publishing took several detours at first. Although she wanted to be a writer “from the time I was a little girl,” and began writing “occasional” short stories as early as ten years old, during high school and college she planned on being a high school history teacher. Russell graduated from UC Davis with a BA in history, and chose to get a MA in resource economics rather than a teaching credential. She worked for many years in environmental planning and policy analysis, writing environmental impacts reports and other technical documents for the public.
“As different as this work is from writing fiction,” Russell says, “it still helped develop my writing skills and provided experiences which come into play in unexpected ways in my stories. I think everything in life, good and bad, helps you as a writer to understand different situations and people and their emotions.”
After the publication of her first book, Martin McMillan and the Lost Inca City, originally with Polar Bear & Company, which launched her middle-grade adventure series, one might say “two roads diverged” and Russell took–both. This is where our interview begins:
How does writing for the adult market differ from writing a middle grade novel?
The two markets are very different in terms of the age and sophistication of the readers and in things like the age of the main characters, the complexity of the plot, and the use of age-appropriate language. But regardless of the age of the audience, a mystery novel for children must have the same basic elements of a mystery for adults.
My adult novel Across the Mekong River is a literary novel that focuses on character development and the use of language, i.e. descriptive passages, metaphors, sensory impressions. On the other hand, my middle-grade adventure novel Martin McMillan and the Secret of the Ruby Elephant emphasizes humor and a fast-paced plot, designed to hold young readers’ attention. The language must be appropriate and ring true for kids.
All three of your books are set in other countries. The stories include details on the history, archeological sites, and culture of these locations.
How much research was required? Where do you find your best material?
There is an old adage that says write about what you know. But my stories would be very boring if I followed that advice. I try to stretch myself and write about what interests me and what makes a good story. As a result I do a great deal of research–finding books, magazines, and online website as well as consulting with experts on specific subjects. Most importantly I visited the countries to experience the setting and people, to soak in the small details that you cannot possibly get from simply reading a book.
For Across the Mekong River, I interviewed many Hmong people who I met through friends or my association with the nonprofit Legacies of War. One Hmong friend read the entire manuscript and consulted with her mother to make sure cultural details were correct. I also visited Laos numerous times in part to research the book and also for my work with Legacies.
While writing Martin McMillan and the Secret of the Ruby Elephant, I consulted several experts– author Bill Doonan, who heads the archaeology department at Sacramento City College, was most helpful; as was Pat Chirpravati, professor of art history at California State University Sacramento and an expert on Thai art. I also traveled in Thailand several times.
Although you’ve had one novel and a number of short stories published through traditional publishers, you decided to try self-publishing for the first time with your adult novel and the second Martin book. What was the Create Space process like?
Working with Create Space was relatively easy once I understood the process. I liked having complete control over the design, production, and timing of the release of my books, which I didn’t have with the small publisher who published my first book Martin McMillan and the Lost Inca City.
What advice would you give to others who are considering this route ?
For anyone considering self-publishing, I would suggest hiring an editor to help finalize the story as well as a copy editor to catch all the typos etc. I spent over a year working with a top editor (Dan Smetanka–formerly with Random House) revising my adult novel Across the Mekong River. And I had several readers to catch the final typos and edits. I also hired a publicist, Julia Drake PR, to help launch the book and get initial media coverage and reviews. I will still need to spend a lot of time marketing my books, but I had to do that with my first book. Unless you are a big name author, it falls on you to get your book out there.
I am a determined and persistent person and I don’t give up. The publishing world is a tough market with endless competition. But you can’t get discouraged by the inevitable rejections and setbacks. You have to take risks and put your work out there. I built up my resume early on by entering writing contests both locally in Sacramento and Fresno then in larger arenas such as the Maui Writer’s Conference and small publishers where I won a number of awards. So my advice to others is keep writing and keep sending your work out. Eventually you will be successful.
How’s the journey so far?
Wonderful. I write for the satisfaction the creative process brings me — getting the words and sentences just right, capturing a essence of a place or the voice of a character, or figuring out the perfect connections in the plot. I do it because I love it more than anything else I have ever pursued.
To contact Elaine Russell (if you can catch up with her!), email: [email protected] or go to http://www. elainerussell.info
Upcoming Elaine Russell events:
Oct 5th, 2012, 6-8 pm, book signing at Face in a Book, El Dorado Hills, CA
School visits contact [email protected] for availability.
March 14th, 2013, Why There Are Words reading series at Studio 333— 333 Caledonia Street, Sausalito, CA 94965