Q&A: Robert James Russell, Author of ‘Sea of Trees’
Robert James Russell, author of Sea of Trees, a novella I recently read, loved and reviewed, has allowed me to happily pick his brain just a little. In a Q&A, he shared his research methods as well as his inspiration for the story.
Q: What inspired you to write Sea of Trees?
RJR: I actually happened upon an article about Aokigahara on chance and was just immediately taken with it. Imagine it: this beautiful, twisted, lava-rock-infused landscape that’s just supernaturally quiet all the time, where people go to kill themselves. Macabre, yes, but also haunting—I couldn’t get the images out of my mind. So I did a bunch of research, knowing I wanted to write something about it, and the story sort of came out of all of that.
Q: This story is heavily based in Japanese culture. How did you become so familiar with it?
RJR: I’ve been interested in Japanese culture for a long time—partially because it’s so removed from the Midwest culture I’ve grown up with, and also because of the dichotomy of old vs. new that Japan plays with more than any other culture in the world (I think, anyway). Broadly, the Japanese are so technologically advanced, but still adhere to many fascinating (and old) rituals in everyday life.
Q: Have you ever visited the Aokigahara Forest? If so, can you describe what it was like to visit such a place of sadness?
RJR: I’ve been to Tokyo once (briefly), but not the forest—I unfortunately didn’t hear about it until well after my trip (I do hope to go in the next year, though). However, I do love the outdoors, and spend as much free time as I can hiking and walking through woods near my home, so I learned as much as I could about Aokigahara (including watching some unsettling documentaries about it), took walks through my own woods, and just imagined a similar place…but with all the death and despair of Aokigahara, the eerie calm of everything.
Q: Were the stories of those who fell within the forest purely fiction, or had you done some research on people who had taken their lives within the trees?
RJR: Most of the suicides—as well as the characters/stories—are completely fictional; however, a few were based on real-life incidents that happened in Japan (none of which took place in Aokigahara, though). I did research on suicides for a while when I was first brainstorming, and came across some interesting stories that sort of set the scene in my mind. Aokigahara is the personification of loneliness and isolation, so it made sense to me that since these people had committed to wanting to end their lives, they would come to a place like this to do it. Also, when doing my research, I read about various bodies, notes left behind that were found by volunteers and family, and that was some inspiration as well for the vignettes.
Q: What are you hoping people take away from this?
RJR: I’m not trying to make excuses for suicide, or claim to have any answers, or, really, do anything other than just explore it as a fact of life. Something that happens…regularly. Personally, I think the relationships in the book are more important than the suicides, the interconnectedness of the characters and their families, friends and lovers, and how every single character loses that with someone (or multiple people) in their own way. To me the story is really how they deal with this loss, how they feel disconnected from everyone. Suicide is obviously an extreme way of dealing with this, but it’s a way to highlight, I think, the breakdown of communication between people. And how important it is.
Q: Do you have any new stories in the works for publication?
RJR: I’m currently looking for representation/a publisher for a novel (fingers crossed), and also working on a new one—I hope to get the first draft done by the end of this summer. I like to stay busy.
Bio: Robert James Russell is the co-founding editor of Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in The Collagist, Joyland, Thunderclap! Magazine, Red River Review, LITSNACK, Greatest Lakes Review, and The Legendary, among others. Sea of Trees is his first novel. Find him online at www.robertjamesrussell.com.