Mike Russell is the author of Strange Medicine and Nothing is Strange, two collections of short stories that deal in the realm of outlandish peculiarity. The phrase “good things come in small packages” comes to mind for while each story is a tiny peek into a new world, his works contain a powerful core that speaks directly to the reader. Russell’s artistic journey began when he wrote his first short story at the age of 12. From there he went on to study visual art at university but continued to write; always feeling compelled to put pen to paper. He continues to incorporate painting and performance art into his repertoire but feels he can reach a wider audience with his prose.
Russell’s stories are humorous, engaging and poetically direct. His aim is to reach the reader in such a way that they stop and re-evaluate their common attitudes and question their current outlook on life. The author declares his works as “strange” but with the belief that strange is desirable, that we are all a little strange and our strangeness is what makes us beautiful. The beauty he sees in the world is matter-of-fact and, with considerable aplomb, Russell tackles heavy subjects such as death, sex, relationships, and the human desire to conform to a man-made status quo. His pithy style makes for an enjoyable quick read that sticks with you for days and leaves the reader to ponder those deeper topics that are all too often pushed below the surface of our day to day lives.
Below is the inside scoop on the inner workings of Mike Russell‘s mind and his creative process.
RC: Your stories are beautiful, short snippets, quick glances into a new world. What draws you to that style of writing rather than longer, full-length novels? Do you like the mystery of the limited back story or is there another reason for the brevity?
MR: Thank you! I love exploring strange worlds. Short stories can allow many different worlds to be explored rather than creating a definitive representation of reality, which will always be limiting. As soon as anyone says ‘this is the way life is’ you can be sure that something will happen to contradict them. My aim is to liberate, never to limit. I do have novels on the way but of course, they are strange novels in which reality refuses to behave (you know, like in life). I like to describe worlds in such a way that the reader can experience them very clearly, even beyond the confines of the story; yet also give the reader space to wonder.
RC: You started writing from a very young age, what prompted that?
MR: It was a desire to explore. I had a lot of questions about life, which no one else around me seemed to be troubled by. I found in books that I was not alone in wondering about my existence. In a way, books seemed to be a secret means of communication between people, where they discussed and explored all the things that could not be said aloud.
In writing, I found that I could not only explore the questions I had about life but also discover new ways of seeing things. It was like shining a light into dark places. I would recommend writing to anyone who is troubled (and let’s face it most people are); there is so much to be discovered within you that can help you. Even if no one reads it but you, it expands your awareness because there is always more within you than you know. There are whole worlds in there and they want to help you! In knowing how books have helped me, I feel that my books can help others.
RC: Many authors write multiple works or stories in the same world. They may have different characters but they all intersect in the same place or time. Are each of your pieces part of the same fantastical place?
MR: I don’t think of it in that way but the reader could choose to. If my stories occur in one place then it is a paradoxical place. I am comfortable with the idea of paradox. A paradox is the ultimate state of freedom: neither one thing nor another. My stories often contain people or things that cannot be neatly confined: hybrids, hermaphrodites etc. We are all that way really.
RC: The subject matter of your work is deemed outside of the norm, the feeling of strange and uncommon is prevalent in what you write. What inspires these works?
MR: I decided to claim the word ‘strange’ for my books as a badge of honor. If someone calls you strange it is usually meant as an insult but to be strange is to be unique, to refuse to conform, to not settle for anything less that authenticity. … If anyone says they aren’t strange you can be sure that they are hiding something, if only from themselves. But more importantly, to recognize the strangeness of existence can wake us up. I have always been drawn to the strange. It makes me happy.
RC: To build on the last question, how do you formulate your ideas and turn them into pieces of literature?
MR: The process of writing is mysterious. Inspiration comes: an image or a scene, like a small waking dream. These ideas come with a thrill, like a mini revelation. I always feel as if I am seeing a glimpse of something larger. I collect these inspirations, then wait to see how they fit together. The overall story is, therefore, the last thing to come. I think this may be the reverse to how many writers work. It is an adventure and a journey of discovery.
RC: Many of your stories have to do with how humans perceive the world and their relationship to it. How does that reflect your life views? What are you trying to convey about the world we live in today?
MR: A representation, any representation, for example, a soap opera, can limit or liberate our experience of life. If our representations of life are limited then our lives can become limited. If these things don’t matter then why do dictatorships (and many elected governments) censor the arts? To consciously choose to engage with art that helps us to remove our preconceptions about life, our conditioning, our fears even, is a fantastic way to help us move towards freedom – real freedom. We need to strive for art that can fearlessly delve into ourselves and help us to change.
RC: Several of your stories contain the theme of interconnectedness with our environment and fellow humans – the idea that we are all one – take “The Shining Flower” in Nothing is Strange for example. Do you hope that these stories will reach some of the population and evoke that idea of unity?
MR: There is unity and then there is similarity. The imposing of similarity or conformity comes I think from a misplaced desire for unity. It is a dreadful tragedy. We don’t have to turn on the news to see it; we can see it in our own lives. True unity celebrates difference because it includes rather than excludes. … The stories I write aren’t inert. They aren’t escapism. I hope they are entertaining but they are also ways of exploring and ultimately transforming ourselves. To talk of transformation through art may sound like reaching for the moon but consider the power of the dream: it has no boundaries, it isn’t polite, it will show you things that are beautiful or terrifying… stories can have that power. They can be universal dreams rather than personal dreams. Stories can be truly magical, truly transformative. Culture seems to have forgotten that, like someone who has given up on the possibility of their life ever getting better and who has settled for less than they desire. Strangeness can come to the rescue!
RC: There is a multitude of media forms that artists use to express themselves, have you ever considered another form other than writing? Please elaborate.
MR: I design the covers of my books myself. I think book covers are very important, not just in reaching the right audience but in setting a mood for the stories. For many years, alongside writing, I painted and made sculptures. I studied art to MA level and worked as a tutor in an art college, helping art students to write their essays. I am visually minded. I think my stories reflect that. I first discovered that there was an audience for my writing through storytelling and I still perform my stories to audiences from time to time. These performances include the use of props and images that I have made. I continue to make images and objects but the main focus of my creative energy is writing. I have found that I can reach many more people through my writing. It is my first love.
RC: You have published two books, Strange Medicine and Nothing is Strange. Is there a third Strange installment in the works and when can we expect that?
MR: Absolutely! There are more short story collections to come as well as novels and novellas! The next book is to be a novella. It is being proofed as we speak and has a planned release for the end of the year. I can’t say too much about it but I am excited… If you follow www.strangebooks.com (which of course I highly recommend you to do) you will be alerted when each new book is published. I have a deep motivation to continue to write stories that I see a need for. The world needs more strangeness!