She’s a mother, a hair stylist, a published fiction writer. Kristin Russell isn’t trying to show off. She’s just that impressive. Between her work at a hipster salon in the 12th South neighborhood of Nashville and caring for her two-year-old son Finn, her husband Rann, and her yorkie Audrey, Kristin has made the time to release her literary energy. Her attempts have resulted in a successful first novel, Recovering Ramona, a story about a “young woman who tackles her mom issues and her fears about starting a future family with the help of an eccentric hippie and a 1986 Volvo."
Born and raised in Music City, Kristin writes with a native proficiency of both literature and music. In a quest to heal their dysfunctional relationship, the main characters Claudia and her mother Maryanne run into Kate, an eccentric woman connected to the music world through her associations with Keith Richards and Gram Parsons. Recovering Ramona is steeped in musical heritage and has not only passed the test of narrative, but also the scrutiny of authentic musicians. Among her notable applauders are Roseanne Cash, Holly Williams, and Michael S. Smith. Cash weighs in on Russell’s achievement as “a complex study of the mother-daughter relationship, music, secrets, and slow revelations. Kristin Russell is fresh and original in both style and ideas.”
I had the privilege to talk to Kristin about her writing process and how she has been able to achieve so much. I should note that I sought out Kristin’s writing advice when I first began pursuing admittance into writing school. She has been a great encouragement and source of industry knowledge.
Sarah Braud: Kristin, you are a hair stylist, mother, and writer. In what order of importance would you put those roles?
Kristin Russell: It depends on the day. I mean, ideally it would be mother first, and then equal parts hairstylist and writer, but some days I’m a crappy mom and fall short of my duties. At the same time, I think for me personally, I’m a better mom because I work outside the home and also find time to be creative. I’d rather put that frenetic energy into my work rather than on my kid, but it’s a constant struggle to balance everything.
SB: How did motherhood change your writing process?
KR: Time, there’s never enough of it. I have to have a lot more grace with myself now that I’m a mother. I can’t set daily word counts, or anything like that. Writing is a release for me, so it’s a joy when I get to do it, and also a necessity at a certain point, or I get a little too nutty, and not in a humorous way.
SB: When did you say, “I want to write a book.” Was there a moment when the lights came on?
KR: When a childhood friend of my younger brother’s published his first novel, I was insanely jealous. It was envy that drove me to write a book. Not very flattering, but there it is. I graduated with a BA in English and figured I would write one day, but I thought I would be old and mature and have a lot of wisdom under the tattered quilt on my lap. So I bought a stack of writing books, my favorites still being Stephen King’s On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. And I just started, naively and with no idea of how much work lay ahead. The first draft took a year and a half. I got an agent with the first draft, and went through a round of pitches and revisions. Recovering Ramona has been four completely different books, the last one being the one I published. I finally found an editor I loved, and trusted his input. That was the most important step before saying “done,” because really I could just keep writing forever. I gave up on it several times along the way, but I couldn’t get the story to leave me alone.
SB: Did you write an outline or just follow the story where it led?
KR: When I started there was no outline. I didn’t even have an idea about how to write dialogue. By the last draft, I found an outline very useful in terms of structuring the story arc.
SB: Who were your biggest literary influences? Fill in the blank: if you like _____, you’ll like Recovering Ramona.
KR: Nick Hornby, Tom Perotta, and Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones’ Diary).
SB: In Nick Hornby’s books, pop culture serves as a tool to reveal the character of his protagonists. In High Fidelity, he uses Rob’s relationship with music to reveal his inner depths. In About a Boy, he seems to mock Will’s choices as a commitment to staying shallow, to following trends. His commitment to avoiding sincerity at all costs show up in details like his hatred for Joni Mitchell, and anyone who sings with their eyes closed. What does Claudia’s choices in music reveal about her character?
KR: Music is Claudia’s emotional compass. She doesn’t have the tools to communicate how she feels, except to translate it through lyric and melody, even tempo. She uses it to cope with complex emotions. For example, in one sequence, she focuses on “Summertime” by Janis Joplin as a way to detach from her mother’s passive aggressive comments. When her childhood fears of abandonment resurface, she gets lost in a version of “Head On” by The Pixies.
SB: Is Claudia’s choice in music the same as yours? What are your top five favorite songs?
KR: Yes, we have very similar musical tastes except I do like Neil Young and Claudia doesn’t. Ooh, my top five songs:
1. “Let It Be” by The Beatles
2. “The Only Living Boy In New York” by Simon and Garfunkel
3. “A Case Of You” by Joni Mitchell
4. “Hold On” by Tom Waits
5. “Mary” by Patty Griffin
SB: Speaking of characterization, how did you develop the mother’s character? Did you do a character journal, or base her on your mother? How did the evangelical Southern culture influence the character of the mother?
KR: Evangelical Southern culture definitely influenced Maryanne’s character. She’s kind of a mash-up of all the moms I knew growing up, keeping in mind I’m a pastor’s kid. There is a little of my own mom in there, but Maryanne is truly a collaborative character.
SB: One of the easiest pitfalls in writing is to make a character a caricature and not a real person. How did you avoid stereotypes of Christians and hippies when you were writing Maryanne and Kate?
KR: I think I used the stereotypes, and then tried to turn them on their heads — show that people are surprising no matter where they come from or what they believe. We all have something we can relate to with each other if we look hard enough.
SB: Claudia and her mother are estranged at the beginning of the book. They are essentially forced back into relationship by her mom tricking her — telling her they are going to a spa, but really taking her to therapy. Claudia is a hair stylist and I happen to know that your mother is a therapist. How autobiographical is this story?
KR: The story is only autobiographical in that I have the same career as Claudia, and I have lived in L.A. My mom and I have struggled in our relationship, and we have been to therapy, both individually and together, but she certainly never tried to trick me into it. Can you imagine? I don’t know if I could have recovered from that. I am a big, big fan of therapy. I love it, and go whenever I can. It’s like going to the spa for me, having someone sitting and listening to me blather on about my own neuroses.
SB: Claudia is definitely cynical about faith, even combative toward it. What made you want to write a character with that perspective? How does her perspective toward faith change by the end of the book?
KR: Again, I’m a pastor’s kid, so this was a safe forum for me to hash out some of my own issues, though I’ve struggled with ambivalence toward religion more than the disdain that Claudia feels. She sees faith as a kind of weakness, but in the end, finds a quiet strength in it.
SB: One of your characters, Kate, had an ongoing affair with a singer/songwriter when he played shows in her town. Since she could have had an affair with anyone, why Gram Parsons, someone real?
KR: I chose an actual musician for two reasons. First, I knew most of the story had to take place in Joshua Tree, because I wanted that mystical and Biblical feeling of these women wandering in the desert. Second, it was the major point of connection for Kate and Claudia. Claudia is a student of classic rock ‘n’ roll, and Kate is someone who closely encountered it. Joshua Tree was a special place for Gram, where he searched spiritually, and also died from an overdose. Long before I had the idea for the book, during a trip out West, I actually stayed in the famed “Room 8” where he died.
SB: Who is your readership? What does he or she look like? Or do you write with a "type" of reader in mind, a reader who sees a lot of films, buys a lot of albums, and takes albums seriously? Do they need to know the music industry? How much of your writing has a Nashville-reader in mind?
KR: Initially, I thought I was writing for my generation — thirty-somethings with a creative bent. What I’ve found is that many people a generation ahead of ours have enjoyed it as well. I guess that’s the beauty of a parent-child story. I do love the influence of pop culture on literature, and how it can connect an audience. However, the hope is that the characters and story are strong enough to transcend the references, and hold anyone’s attention.
SB: Let’s talk about self-publishing. You have a unique perspective since many local musicians now opt to be independent from a label. Why did you choose to go that route when it seems to be much more risky for writers than for musicians?
KR: I chose to self-publish because I had worked hard enough to know that I could stand behind my own book, and take the risk myself. I was ready to share it. Publishing is in a tough place right now. I think we will see more and more self-publishing. It’s inevitable with the rise of the e-book. I haven’t regretted it at all. I was able to choose my own designer (Benji Peck), and my own editor (Stephen Parolini), and learn the ins and outs of printing and publishing. It’s been great. I also have an extremely organized husband, which helps a lot. He takes care of all the administrative stuff.
SB: What is the best thing to come out of Recovering Ramona so far?
KR: Amazingly, I have become friends with Gram Parson’s daughter, Polly. She took the tragedy of her father’s overdose, and her own struggle with addiction, and made something beautiful out of it by starting a sober-living community in Austin called Hickory Wind Ranch. She is starting one in Nashville, and it has been such an incredible thing to be a part of so far. I’m honored that she is letting me along for the ride, and astounded by her courage and passion. I certainly couldn’t have imagined it when I was writing the book — the continuation of the story in this way, but I guess that’s God’s sense of humor.
SB: I attended your book release party, which was pretty spectacular and was even an advertised event in the Nashville Scene. Tell us about it and why you chose to do something so unique.
KR: The release party was so much fun. Matthew Perryman Jones, Leigh Nash, Trent Dabbs, Courtney Jaye, Molly Thomas, Thad Cockrell, and Jessie Baylin all performed a free concert at The Basement. They each did a Gram Parsons song, and then some of their own. Nashville is unique in that there is so much talent here, and a growing collaborative community. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the ‘60s, when musicians were hanging out and being inspired by each other — the era Gram was a part of, and also unfortunately, a victim of its excess. Creative community is incredibly important to me, and I was so thrilled that these great musicians were willing to be a part of everything.
SB: Any book tour in the future?
KR: No book tours, though I do have several book club visits lined up. I’m also open to doing visits through Skype for any book clubs that are interested.
SB: Writers and readers are always on the lookout for good books. I imagine Recovering Ramona would be a wonderful way to launch any book club into some deep discussion about their own relationships with their mothers, God, and music. What is the last book you read that blew you away?
KR: Room by Emma Donoghue. It was amazing how she got inside the head of a five-year-old boy, took a horrifying premise, and made it sweet and profound.
SB: Now that Recovering Ramona is published, have you started a new project? Do you still have the same writing schedule?
KR: I am in the research stages for the next novel. I’m watching a lot of documentaries, reading a lot of books, and taking some field trips. I’m not in the actual writing stage, though I have established an arc in my mind. No schedule, just letting it brew for awhile.
Sarah Braud is a creative nonfiction writer living in Franklin, Tennessee with photographer David Braud and their two children, Ellie and Atticus. She is currently in her second semester of graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sarah also spends time teaching English language learners at Vanderbilt University, spurring her four chickens on toward love and good deeds, and arguing with anyone who will listen that inaccuracies and embellishments are not the same thing as lies.