5 On: Russell Rowland

Russell Rowland

In this 5 On interview, author Russell Rowland discusses the big mistake he made with HarperCollins, whether the journey of writing is truly its own reward, why his Indiegogo campaign worked so well, and his experiences with publishing–from one of the Big 5 to self-publishing.

Russell Rowland has published four novels, all set in Montana. He also published a nonfiction narrative, Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey, based on his travels to every county in Montana. Rowland also co-edited an anthology, West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West, with Lynn Stegner. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University, and he lives in Billings, Montana, where he teaches workshops and works one-on-one with other writers.

5 on Writing 

KRISTEN TSETSI: You write in one of your Facebook comments, in response to a woman who shared that she continues to write for the love of it in spite of the challenges she’s faced working with small presses, that “The journey is its own reward.”

It seems there’s a period in a person’s writing (or other artistic) life when that sentiment is an easy, 100-percent truth. But then something happens, or a time comes, when “The journey is its own reward” becomes more of a daily affirmation that doesn’t feel true without some deep meditation and reflection.

Did “The journey is its own reward” ever change for you?

RUSSELL ROWLAND: I love this question so much. “The journey is its own reward” is, of course, fabulous in theory but impossible to sustain, especially once you’ve been published. So yeah, I’ve had moments—many of them—when I was in this zone of being satisfied with just being able to do what I love. But there are just as many moments (okay, more) when I wonder why writers who are not very good become incredibly famous and wealthy, and writers who I really admire and respect are still struggling to find a publisher for their next book.

And of course it applies to me, as well. I’ve been fortunate to publish several books, now, but it’s been like starting over from scratch each time. People are constantly saying, “You must be able to get anyone to publish your stuff by now.” And I thought the same thing before I got published. I just assumed that once you got your foot in the door, you established yourself. But as you know very well, it comes down to money, and if you’ve never had a huge seller, it will always be a struggle. So you have to TRY and focus on getting satisfaction from the writing, the occasional great review, the beautiful compliments that come your way. It’s usually enough for me, but I have my dark moments like anyone.

Prior to it being purchased in March of this year by independent publisher Dzanc Books, you’d planned to self-publish The Difference Between Us. Congratulations on the sale! When will it be available, what’s it about, and what inspired it?

Thank you!! I was thrilled to have Dzanc take that book on, and I think I owe that almost entirely to Steven Gillis, who suggested I send it to them when I was doing my Indiegogo campaign.

The book is scheduled to come out in the fall of 2019. It’s inspired by a period of my childhood where we moved to a ranch that was in a very tight-knit community right on the Montana-Wyoming border. A rich construction magnate owned this ranch and he hired my dad to manage it, although I’ve never been quite sure why he hired him, because my dad was a schoolteacher. There were several ranch hands that had been there for years, and they didn’t understand it either, so they resented my dad from the moment we showed up.

It was a very rough period for our family. I used that scenario and threw in a murder, one where the new guy is a possible suspect. And there’s also a twist where, in the process of the investigation, the authorities discover that the victim, who is one of the wealthiest ranchers in the area, was a cross-dresser.

The story is about being different, basically, and being an outsider, even in an area where everyone seems to be pretty much in the same boat.

In Open SpacesI love this bit from your website bio: “After deciding to become a writer at the age of 28, he gave himself one year to get published. Fifteen years later, IN OPEN SPACES (HarperCollins 2002) hit the bookshelves.”

In a 2003 January Magazine interview, you chronicle the litany of what had to be crushing blows (which can only be crushing if they follow very high hopes) as you waited to learn whether In Open Spaces would be published, but it’s now been fifteen years since you reached that goal. Looking back now, how would you characterize that fifteen-year-long year, and how does that period influence how you approach writing now? What’s your current writer-goal?

That period of waiting really was excruciating. Seven editors and three and a half years of delays with HarperCollins sometimes made me crazy. And there is nothing warm and fuzzy about the world of major publishers. I never had anyone giving me any reassurances that they were going to try and make this happen. It was a guessing game right up to the time it came out. I finally had a very young assistant editor take it on, and she left Harper a month before the book was released, so even then I had very little solid footing.

But the release itself was just as magical as I’d always imagined, or more so. They sent me on a big book tour that they paid for, with hotels and everything! I was so ignorant about the business that I just assumed it was going to be that way from there on out. I had no idea that would be the end of that! They actually made an offer on my second novel, but I was still feeling my oats enough that I wanted them to put the second one out in hardcover. My editor told me he thought he could get that for me once the book was finished. So I turned down their offer. But of course he left before I finished the book, and the person they turned me over to rejected the novel. My biggest regret in the business.

My current writer-goal is to continue writing books that hold my interest, and I’m thrilled to be working with Dzanc Books, a publisher I’ve admired for years. Because their reputation is one of quality writers, I’m hoping they won’t try and get me to stick to a genre. I have several books in mind, and if I’m able to finally establish a relationship with one publisher, that would be a dream situation. Oddly enough, although I’ve had six different agents through the years, not one of them ever found a publisher for any of my books. I’ve always either found them myself or had a friend refer me.

You teach writing workshops. How many writers do you usually have at a given time, and how do you run the workshop? Do you assign authors or specific works to read in addition to the writing they’re doing (if so, which ones and why)? What do you most hope they’ll get out of the workshop?

My workshops are falling off a bit, but I still do an occasional online workshop, usually with less than ten people. I don’t assign them readings. I focus on writers that are already well into something, usually novels. So it’s all about the work, giving each other feedback and getting helpful feedback. My main objective has always been helping writers find their own voice, so I focus on what they’re doing right first, and then try and give them suggestions for how they can improve on the areas where they’re struggling. I do a lot more one-on-one work now with people who are working on their own books. That to me is way more satisfying.

Speaking of writing workshops… I’ve seen many negative opinions about the MA/MFA pursuit. Arguments include, “People can’t be taught to write”; “Masters’ programs churn out dull, ‘literary’ clones focused on style over substance,” or (and this may be in the same vein), “The programs discount in their study of fiction writing the rich variety of valid commercial genres.” What was your experience getting your MA, and would you recommend such a program to others? What were the benefits, and in what areas do you think the programs could improve?

I understand what people mean about these masters’ programs cranking out clones. I do think there’s something to that. People who write for other writers. I think the great challenge of every writer who goes through one of those programs is to learn the craft of writing without losing your own voice. I think great writers have a balance of great storytelling and fine tuned craft, and it’s sometimes hard to sustain the latter without losing the former. I saw this happen in our program when people lost their confidence. I would absolutely recommend going to a graduate program, but that’s one of the dangers.

I think MFA/MA programs are a classic example of “You get out of it what you put into it.” Boston University had a very competitive program, with only eleven of us, and several of the people in our program came in with the attitude that they were already writers, which I never understood. There was one guy in particular who spent the entire program arguing his case every time we critiqued one of his stories. He was talented, no question, but it didn’t surprise me that he only published one book. He didn’t think he needed to learn any more. I went in with the attitude that I had some talent but didn’t really know what I was doing, and the people who shared that approach were the ones who seemed to get the most out of it. Plus they were much more fun to hang out with.

But it was hard to make friends in that program. It made me realize that maybe not all writers are the insightful, warm people I had always envisioned. It’s just like any other group of people. Some of them are nasty.

The best thing I got from the MA program was getting in the habit of writing. I ended up finishing In Open Spaces my second year there, and before I arrived, I was struggling to write stories that were four or five pages long.

5 on Publishing

There are probably three big fantasies people have when they imagine being traditionally published for the first time:  1. Their book will be reviewed in the New York Times, which will mean crazy fame and a solid writing career; 2. Their book will be in all the bookstores. Even airports! Which means they’ll have definitely, legitimately “made it.” 3. Doing it even once will be enough.

Of all the writers hoping to be published by one of the Big Houses (or even a smaller press), only a small percentage make it. Making it through even once would seem to be an achievement to last a lifetime. So, as someone who’s done it, what else would you say about these fantasies and how they match up with reality?

I would say that the reality matches the fantasy in terms of what it feels like to be able to tell people that you’ve been published, that your book has been reviewed in the Times (I still love that part), that you’ve made something of a mark.

The part that I never quite understood was the lack of support from the publisher, but it did give me a strong understanding that this is a business where you can’t rely on others to toot your horn. If they do, it’s a bonus. But marketing is up to the writer, even if you’re with a major publisher. And although making it once is really nice, there’s always a part of you that wants to go back to that. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with, knowing that someone thought I was good enough to be published by a major publisher, that I ended up getting a starred review with Publisher’s Weekly, and sold a lot of copies, but can’t somehow convince someone that I’m still that same writer.

ArbuckleAfter Harper rejected Arbuckle, you were determined to keep trying to find a publisher for it. Why did you ultimately decide to self-publish, and what did it feel like to commit to that option?

That decision came out of complete desperation. My last publisher had decided not to do any more fiction, and I was getting crickets back from every query letter I sent to agents and publishers, so I honestly felt like it was the only option I had left. It was a pretty low point of my career, although I did enjoy the feeling of being in control of the whole process while I was putting that book together. But in the end, I knew that I will always prefer having a publisher. Self-publishing takes a lot of time that I would much prefer to devote to writing.

You started a Kickstarter campaign to fund your travel through all fifty-six counties of Montana for Fifty-Six Counties, which has since published, and you far exceeded your requested amount during the Indiegogo campaign you launched to fund the self-publication of Arbuckle, which has since released, and The Difference Between Us. What’s the key to having a successful fundraiser as a writer, and can you break down your costs either for publishing yourself or going through smaller publishers? What are the costs associated with going through a small press?

Another great question. I was so fortunate to be able to raise the money for both of those campaigns. I wouldn’t have been able to do the traveling I had to do for Fifty-Six Counties without that Kickstarter. And just as a small side note, the reason I didn’t use Kickstarter the second time was because I learned later that Indiegogo doesn’t have the rule that if you don’t reach your goal, you get nothing. I would have used them to begin with if I’d known that before. The percentage they charge is almost exactly the same.

The key for me was having a strong following already. I don’t think it was the concept of either book that inspired people to contribute. It was having a strong fan base, especially on Facebook, which has been very good to me. You know as well as anyone that I’ve managed to create something of a presence there by posting a painting every day and just sort of being a constant presence. It has never been a contrived thing, so I think that has a lot to do with why it has worked for me. I’m just being myself, posting things that are of interest to me, and things I’m passionate about. And people have responded to that in ways that surprised me.

As far as the costs, I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it has become to produce your own book, in this age of the internet. And I would point people in the direction of Jane Friedman’s blog for advice on how to go about it. I was surprised to learn that you can actually publish your own book through several different companies at the same time, so I used both CreateSpace and IngramSpark, and they both have a nominal fee for the basic elements of downloading your work and processing it. Less than $100. I paid for someone to design the cover for Arbuckle, and I also paid Z.Z. Wei (way less than he deserved, bless his heart) for the cover painting. I probably should have paid someone to copy edit the book, but I was trying to keep the costs to a minimum.

Fifty-Six CountiesThose were my only expenses. The books themselves cost about $3 to print, so that’s the major expense. I’m not great at keeping track of how well my books have done, so I don’t really know that about Arbuckle, but because I offered copies of the book as an incentive for people to contribute to the fund, I sold several hundred right up front, which was a good way to get the word of mouth going. But it has been painfully obvious that this book hasn’t done nearly as well as the others by publishing it myself. Sales are way less than any of my other books.

This is from the blog post titled “Costly Errors” on your website:

[I want to] apologize to anyone that I treated with that smug arrogance of being published by a major publisher. Because now I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that snobbery. The people in the club seldom realize they’re being snotty, I think. But there’s a natural assumption, and I remember it well, that you are in the club for a reason. And that others are not in the club for the very same reason. So now that I know this not to be true, I would like to apologize to the Richard Wheelers of the world, to the Matt Paveliches, the Adrian Jaworts, the Aaron Parretts, and the Tami Haalands. These are people whose writing I greatly admire, and they are people who carry themselves with much more dignity than many of the people in the club. Of course there are exceptions there, too. I have many good friends who have managed to be in the club without letting it go to their heads.

Why do you single out those authors in your apology? And do you think there will come a time when more traditionally published authors will separate from the “club snobbery” and take the same view you now have, that there’s plenty of good work to go around and that sometimes a good writer getting a publisher is a combination of luck, timing, and marketability (which may fall under “timing”)?

How odd that I have no memory of writing this, although of course this is a topic that I’ve been very conscious of since I got published. I guess I picked those particular writers because they are all people who I believe should have received more acclaim for their work, and because they’re friends of mine, so I know from personal conversations how hard it has been to NOT get that acclaim.

I’ve also had very meaningful conversations with people who are incredibly successful and have paid a price for that, as in being away from home much more than they’d like, living in hotels, not having enough time to write or do other things. I’d happily trade places with those folks, but it’s been good to realize that there’s no ideal situation, either. There’s always something that’s not quite perfect.

I don’t think there will come a time when traditionally published authors will accept “the rest of us,” and of course I mean that in a broad sense. There are some who have been very generous supporters of my work, including Larry Watson, Jamie Ford, and Tom McGuane. But my theory on that is that once you’re in that club, you have to somehow justify being there in order to not feel guilty about not being one of those who are struggling to get published.

It’s human nature. I know that’s what I felt like until I got slammed to earth. And being treated like shit by some of these people made me realize that they will probably never get it, that some of it is pure luck.

Not for all of them, of course. I’ve always believed that the real cream rises to the top, so I’ve had to accept that I’m probably not in that category. But I know plenty of very good writers who are good enough to be published by a major publisher, but who simply never got the break. So the people who act snooty about it, and there are plenty of them, are of very little interest to me, which means I’m probably missing out on some good books. But there are plenty of amazing books to keep me reading for the rest of my life, anyway.

I want to get back to The Difference Between Us being picked up by a press. How did this come about, and what’s it been like working with them for the last six months? Have your experiences varied from publisher to publisher?

When I was making a nuisance of myself on Facebook, trying to get people to contribute to the Indiegogo campaign, Steven Gillis emailed me and said I should give Dzanc a try. I have submitted to them many times before, and entered their contests, so I had very little hope that this time would be different. But I suspect he gave the senior editor there, Michelle Dotter, a bit of a nudge, so I will always be grateful to him.

As far as the various publishers I’ve worked with, yes, the experiences have varied wildly. I talked about Harper already. The publisher who did my second book was very small, but they did practically no editing on the book, and I found out later that they might be engaged in some shady practices as far as paying royalties, so as soon as I could manage it, I bought the rights for that novel back and republished it with a company that allows you to do the layout and design work yourself if you choose. They offer editing and layout services at a cost, but I didn’t use those. I used them mostly for distribution, which has been a mixed success at best.

My best experience with a publisher was with Bangtail, a very small press out of Bozeman. Allen Morris Jones runs that press and he published both my third novel, High and Inside, and Fifty-Six Counties. (He has decided not to publish any more fiction, because it just hasn’t been profitable for them.)

Allen works very closely with the author to edit their books, and he designs the covers (he’s fabulous at this, and has designed four of mine). He is also one of the nicest guys in the business. Fifty-Six Counties was a terrific experience and has sold over 5,000 copies, which is pretty unusual for a regional book. So if I ever do another non-fiction book, I will approach Allen again.

Thank you, Russell.

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