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Your Favorite's Favorite: An Interview with Dan Russell on Absalom, Absalom!

When you read about, talk about, or think about Southern Literature, and more specifically, Southern Gothic Literature, William Faulkner is THE one you are gonna hear most often. His influence on the region and on literature as a whole cannot be understated. He helped establish and navigate so many of the key pillars of what we recognize today as regional fiction.

So, it is not a stretch to see how Dan Russell was influenced by what some call Faulkner's masterwork: Absalom, Absalom!

Dan is an Arkansas based writer and has published a heap of short stories. He's an MFA grad and has a debut novel set to be published in 2025. What I know about Dan, and what I respect so much about him, is that he is not only a phenomenal writer but he is a champion of others as well. I love that. I love people building up others however they can.

Check out this interview and get to know one of the freshest voices in southern fiction!


Justin Lee: Tell everyone about yourself. I know that this is a very cliche question, but let it rip. I want more people to know about you!

Dan Russell: I don’t think this is a cliché. I believe what people want to know about writers is what isn’t on the page—background, influences, etc. I’ve never really understood those who are reluctant to share this. That whole mystery thing seems a little pretentious. We should strive to be open and approachable. As for letting it rip, I am a pretty boring person on the whole. Acerbic at times. When I was young, people often said, “I thought you were an asshole till I got to know you!” That always struck me as odd. I wasn’t trying to be that way, but I am quiet. Most of me comes out better on the page than in person, I guess.

As for writing, I started pretty early. I remember making up stories in my head and creating worlds with GI Joes and He-Man when I was young—these little narratives and arcs. I think a lot of that had to do with being so alone. My parents divorced, and that was a tough time. I retreated into myself and created things that made me happy. In third grade, our class was assigned to write a novel over the third nine weeks of the school year. The winner would receive the Cardinal Quill Award for fiction. I wrote a version of Twin Peaks about a mosquito trying to solve the murder of Laura Gerbil, and it won! I remember my teacher expressing concern over the subject matter, wondering why a third grader was watching that show. Here’s the thing—I wasn’t. I read about it in TV Guide! To this day, I’ve never seen a second of Twin Peaks. The next year, I wrote another one called "Letters Home from Vietnam," and it won again. So, early on, I knew I could write and was drawn to gritty realism. I think a lot of that has to do with experiencing very adult things at a young age. Being aware of what was happening shaped my brain in a way that made me a sponge for adult themes and drama.

During high school, I mainly wrote songs and had a band. Honestly, the middle 15 years of my life were devoted to music and songwriting. The band did well, we put out a record, and became kind of a big deal locally. But I broke it up because I felt like I was doing most of the work. I did the solo thing for extra money until about three or four years ago, but I hated it. People aren’t into songs they don’t know around here. Arkansas is a tough scene for musicians.  

As far as serious writing, I wrote a short essay in college on a whim about baseball for a contest called Pitches and Poems. That was the first thing I’d ever published. I nearly switched from a History to an English major, but didn’t. Looking back, I wish like hell I had.

Once I stopped with music and songwriting, I felt lost. I had nothing creative flowing through me. That brings me to my wife. Without her, none of this— the novel, the stories, the podcast—would have happened. I remember complaining about life and music and art, and she said, “Why don’t you try writing a novel? Maybe doing that would spark that creative fire again.” So, I sat down one day at lunch at work and did. Poor Birds came out of that, and I finished it in about six weeks.

After that, I decided to pursue an MFA because I had always wanted to teach in a university setting. I’d tried with my History degrees, but everywhere wants to teach those courses online now, and the jobs weren’t there. So I thought, why not try writing? I have to tell you, it was the best thing I ever did. I learned so much. It took me to another level. Pre-MFA, I wasn’t having much luck. Post-MFA, I’ve published everything I’ve written. Say what you want about MFAs, but they teach you to write in a polished way and help you identify little things I would have missed before.

JL: Lets just call it like it is: Absalom, Absalom! is one of the giant works of American Literature. To be more direct, the shadow this work casts over Southern Literature in general is all consuming. For better or for worse, the south is haunted by Faulkner. All of the big themes that southern fiction is known for can be found here in this book. How a place, through landscape or demographic, dictates your outcome. The weight of family. Racism. Reckoning with your past. It's all here. Would you say this is required reading for southern writers? What do you think about its legacy?  

DR: I think Faulkner has to be required reading for serious Southern writers. You can get by without him if you’re doing that Colleen Hoover thing where you just pick a place and make stuff up that sounds good, but you’re going to miss a lot of the small neuroses that make Southern people who they are. Of all the Faulkner books, I think Absalom, Absalom!captures this the best because that stuff exists all over the South. Here in Arkansas, there was a man named Lee Wilson who came across the river from Memphis, cleared some cheap land, and became one of the wealthiest people in the country. His name is all over northeast Arkansas. So you had people who did the things that Thomas Sutpen did. Now, were they all the total shitsack of a human like Sutpen? Not all. Wilson certainly wasn’t, but some were. There is an echo of that time period that I am not sure will ever leave, and if we don’t reckon with it internally, we run the risk of that memory shaping reality. I think if you don’t read a book like Absalom, Absalom! and wrestle with what Faulkner is trying to say, then you will never fully articulate everything you want to say about the South. Faulkner has that quote—I have it hung on my kitchen wall, directly in my eyeline at supper every night—“To understand the world you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” I believe that. I believe by reading and truly understanding the plight of African-Americans, poor whites, the rich, the poor, male and female, children, you can glean some understanding of why we as a people in the South feel and act like we do.

As far as its legacy, I think Absalom, Absalom! belongs in the canon. Faulkner gives us this story through a lot of different viewpoints, and I think that is the magic of the book. Plus, we get to see Quentin Compson’s understanding of the South develop over the course of the book. The other thing I found so interesting is how Faulkner uses Quentin to explore this. The last time we saw him, he had jumped into the Charles River because he could no longer reckon with the conflicting ideologies in his head—honor and chivalry—all that bullshit we are taught to live up to when we are young. The weight of it was too much for him, as it is for a lot of folks. When we see him here, he is still wrestling with that. When he is asked why he hates the South, he quickly says he doesn’t hate it. He doesn’t. He doesn’t. He doesn’t. I think that section more than any other sums up Southerners. There are aspects of the South I love: the food, the people, the sense of community the region has. But there are other things I cannot stomach, that turn me inside out and make me angry at myself for being born in such a place. That duality, that constant tension inside the mind of Southern people, is always there. There is a guilt, a knowing that we did the unspeakable for so long that we can never forget it. C. Vann Woodward said as much in The Burden of Southern History. The burden of the sin of slavery and the lingering racism is so heavy and present. We all carry it by virtue of being born in this place. Reading about it doesn’t make it go away, but I think it helps us understand why it is there.

JL: What about this book bumped it to the top of the pile?  

DR: Well, I didn’t choose to read it! I took an independent study in college: Faulkner and the American South. My professor and I designed the syllabus, and some books were non-negotiable. I read Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, and Go Down, Moses. I loved all those books. I almost chose Light in August for this, but while it wrestles with racism and guilt, I think Absalom, Absalom! really gets at the heart of it all. It is generational. Joe Christmas experiences what he does because of what Absalom, Absalom! says about the South. Joe and Charles Bon meet the same fate, for the same reason essentially, but I think we get more into the psychology of it all in Absalom, Absalom!.

JL: Faulkner and his style are both an acquired taste. Is that fair to say? I've read some of his short stories before, but this novel was a totally different animal. It took me a very long time to finish it. I actually struggled quite a bit to make it through. But, when I crossed the finish line I found that the first half of the book is showing you how to read the last half. If that makes sense? Would you consider this a good access point if someone was wanting to get started reading Faulkner?  

DR: I think Faulkner is an acquired taste. But I also think Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Joyce are, too. Plath and Woolf, and certainly Stein, fall into that category. We like what we like. I don’t think this book is the right on-ramp if you’re deciding to read Faulkner. The two books you should choose are The Reivers and Intruder in the Dust. Both of these are more commercial and are written in a style that is more narrative. As I Lay Dying is a good choice, too. Everything Faulkner is still there in all these, but a little more palatable.

JL: Is there something else about this book that you want to talk about?  

DR: The thing about Faulkner and Absalom, Absalom! is that the book never loses its power. It was written in 1936, and everything in it is still prescient. The aspect that hits me the hardest is something so subtle that we might miss it: the whole book is a response to a question. “Tell me about the South.” The fact that Quentin chooses to do that by telling the absolutely abhorrent tale of the Sutpen family says a lot about what Faulkner felt about the South and what he thought was important for Northern people to know. There is a lot that gets lumped on the region, but it all tends to go back to that statement I referenced before. If you want to understand the world, you have to understand why Mississippi and the South are the way they are. Only then can you try to comprehend why some things are so unbending and die so hard.

JL: What are some of your favorite southern novels?  

DR: Oh God, so many! I think Bastard Out of Carolina is a great book. Winter’s Bone, early Woodrell is so damn good. Tomato Red is just a killer book. Look Homeward, Angel; early Cormac McCarthy, Suttree, The Orchard Keeper, Child of God; Harry Crews’ The Gospel Singer; Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. All of those books are wonderful. Short stories, too. As a region, we love to tell stories, so I think a lot of our greater works are shorter. Then you can bring in Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Ron Rash, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown. All of those writers should have a place on the Mount Rushmore of Southern literature. On the contemporary side, I think The Line That Held Us by David Joy is the best book I’ve read in a long time. That book grabs you by the throat and does not let go. I think S.A. Cosby and Eli Cranor are doing great work. Kelly J. Ford. Wiley Cash. It is a good time to be a Southern writer and reader.

JL: What are you working on now?

DR: A day before doing this interview, I wrapped up my second novel. It is still a crime/gritty novel, but a little different from Poor Birds. I think people may be surprised when they read it—that a place like I write about can exist in such a conservative place like Arkansas. There is a tension in it that is present throughout. I’ve got the outline in my head for book three. There are a couple of old murders from the county where I live that are begging me to write about them. I cannot shake the image of one, and it will have to go on a page soon. Poor Birds will hit in 2025, and I am excited for everybody to read it. I’ve lived with that book now for three years, and I love those characters. I find myself wondering how they are. Isn’t that a funny thing? How are these people doing that I created? The magic of fiction, huh? I also want to publish a collection of stories. I’ve got twelve or thirteen that found the light of day, and I think putting them together in a collection is a good way to go. I probably won’t write many more short stories. I am more of a long-form guy. Novels seem to translate better for me. But who knows? The podcast is going well. I think

the response has been amazing. I hope to do a second season. I find other writers fascinating. I hope I was for you! This has been a blast.

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