Robert James Russell is not only a great writer, and the fiendish genius behind Sex Scene Anthology. He is also one of the people we are chufflicated with pride to have on our forthcoming list, with the upcoming collection The Mating Habits of College Girls. It was my pleasure to catch up with him and give him a grilling on such points of order as what the hell the whole frat house thing’s about and the inevitable comparisons to Brett Easton Ellis (Robert writes better and is better looking is the short answer).
1. You have experienced life on both sides of the Atlantic. What three things do people in the UK not get about American college life that will help them understand The Mating Habits of College Girls?
I mean, in essence, it’s the same in both countries: You have a bunch of over-hormoned teenagers/twenty-somethings jammed together, and, in most cases, living away from home for the first time in their lives. But, there are some differences, for sure:
- 1. Letting loose for the first time. American high school students tend to be a bit more sheltered, especially in the Midwest (where I’m from), so college is their first real time to let loose. I think it comes with the American mentality: We just aren’t, generally speaking, as laid back as our European counterparts in many regards (with nudity, cursing on television, underage drinking, etc.). And sure, if you know where to look you can skirt past these types of rules and regulations, but it’s still pretty strict. From my experience living in England, teenagers are exposed to these types of things at a younger age, so it may not come as much of a shock when they hit the campus for the first time. I’m not saying Americans are more naïve, or that the English are jaded, but I do think it’s a bit more of a learning curve for us over here. For example, when the English get to university they’re allowed to go to the pub to drink legally. Over here we have to wait, in most cases, until our third year to go to the bar (unless we have fake IDs).
- 2. House parties: an American institution. From my experience, this is something uniquely American. Sure, in England there are parties in houses (and dorms and flats), but it’s not the same. There’s something about it, on an American campus (on every American campus), cramming way too many people together, standing shoulder to shoulder, drinking out of plastic cups with a keg in the corner and music playing too loud and people playing drinking games (another fine American institution)…it really is a sight to behold (before it gets broken up by the cops, that is).
- 3. Campus Life. Again, not to generalize—people in England do know how to party and get together—but in America, campuses really try hard to force people to socialize, as opposed to my experience in England, where it seems more to be about studies. Maybe it’s because American universities, generally, have more physical space, but there are more campus-wide events, like concerts and shows and clubs and whatnot to join—these types of things are really one of the biggest ways people meet and get together. And sports, as well. Sporting events at American universities (American football and basketball especially) are huge deals, where a large portion of the student body goes and rallies and supports their team. It’s just the mindset of the American college student, to try to go to as many things as possible, to try to meet people and find your place. So even on a monstrously-sized campus, the general student often runs into people they know from all these different extracurricular activities—it becomes really incestuous, how you start knowing who everyone is and recognizing them places and gossiping about them, knowing what’s happening in their lives.
2. Your characters were recently called hateable but real. What did you make of that assessment?
I love it. That’s exactly what I’m going for…seriously. When people read my work, this type of work, they tend to have the same reaction to characters: “At first I hated him/her, but then later I realized I’ve done that before/I know someone like that.” I think there are lots of “bad” qualities we all have at times, like being insecure or overly cocky, but we like to pretend that we’re all pious creatures incapable of being nothing but good. And I like that we’re all guilty of these less than desirable traits—it makes us human after all—so I tend to be driven to write about these times, to draw attention to the things that people don’t like to admit to or even write about. Because what’s the point of going through life glossing over everything, pretending stuff doesn’t happen when it does? It’s not real.
3. The Mating Habits of College Girls seems almost to invite comparison to Rules of Attraction, so do you want to say your definitive piece on the subject and have done with it?
I don’t know if I’m done with this genre…I just love this time period in young people’s lives, that sort of quagmire between being an “innocent” teen and an adult. There’s just so much to write about. Sure, it’s not “epic” in the traditional sense, but I think it serves a purpose, documenting a time in life that often goes undocumented. And yes, Rules of Attraction had a huge impact on me—it’s easily one of my favorite books. I think Mr. Ellis definitely opened up this genre of “slacker fiction” in a way never done before, but I still think there are things to say, especially as the world is becoming increasingly more connected digitally—we’re still all the same, but it’s interesting to study how we get knowledge and communicate with each other and whatnot. It probably will always fascinate me, this type of writing.
I mean, especially during college days, people tend to make so many new memories and have so many experiences that it can be overwhelming, but I really believe that, even later in life, those tend to be some of the most vivid memories people ever have, the interactions they have with people, etc. Yes, people are at university to study, first and foremost, but I’d be willing to bet 9 times out of 10 you ask someone years after they’ve graduated about their top memories and none of them are about their classes, or being in the classroom. It’s about the interactions they were part of, the relationships (however short-lived) they forged—these are the things that define these years for people. I don’t think everyone NEEDS college, at all, and a lot of these same interactions/relationships happen in the real world as well—but this time of life I think is unique for a lot of reasons, for the sheer number of people you meet, really coming into your own as an adult, etc.
4. There is a lot of dialogue in these pieces. Was that a conscious decision, a way of illustrating the reality of your characters’ lives?
Absolutely it was a conscious decision. I think to truly understand a character you need to see (or, read) them speak, see how they interact with others. I think the best part of that is you can get in someone’s head, see how they process information and how they think, then see how it actually comes out, how they decide to share what’s going on. I think every single one of us is guilty of thinking one thing and saying another—it’s human nature, we want to fit in even if we don’t want to admit it. Another reason why I include so much dialog is that I like to show the breakdown of communication today, how we all feel like we constantly need to be in communication with one another. My grandmother, for instance, quite often is content sitting in a room full of people silent and staring…just watching and recording in her mind. She doesn’t feel the need to just talk in order to hear herself. And I think with the advent of technology being what it is, so prevalent and easy to access, we, today, feel the need to talk all the time…to everyone. So there are lots of points in these stories were people have nothing to say, really, but try to drag out conversations, and say “Yeah” over and over and over. I think it speaks to where we’re going, communication-wise and really is the real world.
5. I’ve never once seen one of these pieces described as misogynistic. Given the subject matter, are you doing something right, or doing something wrong?
I don’t think the characters are misogynistic, actually. I mean, women in the stories are objectified by some of the characters, but in general the characters throughout are very physically judgmental of BOTH sexes. I mean, in essence, they’re not misogynistic because they’re equal opportunity offenders. Not to mention the women in these stories act the same as the men, judging various shallow facets of the people they come across, so there’s not a lot of distinction.
6. How do you feel about the term “slacker”?
I dig it. I think some of the stuff I write, like this collection, falls in this category, dealing with what most people would consider to be “trivial” things, these daily interactions with people, but really, it’s these trivial interactions and dialog that add up to make us who we are, right? So I’m absolutely okay with documenting these types of things, and writing about characters at times in their lives where they may lack a certain degree of motivation…again, it’s real life, so why shy away from it?
7. For me, this is a book about people who are lonely because they never take off their masks. Is that because of their age? Is it something specific to the campus setting? Or is the real tragedy that growing up and leaving isn’t the answer because no one ever does take off the mask?
Loneliness, to me, plays a huge part of college life, even though you’re often surrounded by thousands of your peers. I believe college/university life is a unique set of circumstances where you’re growing and maturing and doing things on your own for the first time, and I think people often think they’re alone, that no one can understand them, or that they’re going through something no one else is, so they compensate for that in a variety of ways (good, bad or ugly), not realizing everyone around them is probably going through the same thing. And I think it’s partially due to their age as well, being thrust a wild set of new responsibilities, this weird age between being a kid and having to do some adult-like things. And in my stories, this loneliness is absolutely present, with pretty much every character thinking they’re alone in the world in some way, with how they’re feeling, and this drives their actions/dialog to some extent, sure. I think that even amid all the many people these characters may come across, amid all the million ways they can stay connected to the world, they still feel alone, as if no one understands them, and I think this is part of the human condition, a necessity of “growing up” that we all face at one point or another. And I think people put up barriers and keep these masks on because it’s easier, dealing with everything, partially as a result of feeling alone and vulnerable.
I think people do take off these masks eventually, though—I don’t think my views are as bleak as in Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction—but truthfully, for most of us, I don’t think it’s something that happens in college, or even at this point in your life. I think, whether you’re in college or not, that during this time period you go through probably the biggest growth of your life, in many ways, and even if you can’t see it at the time, it forms who you become later on. Some people may never lose their masks, but I think for those that do it’s directly related to this point in your life, almost as if it’s a necessity to live through, a rite of passage before you’re allowed to be out there in the real world.