Featured Interview With Russell Heath
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
In my teens, I hitchhiked to Alaska and lived in a cabin on the banks of the Tanana River; in my twenties, I lived in Italy and then traveled overland across the Sahara, through the jungles and over the savannas of Africa and into southern Asia; in my thirties, I sailed alone around the world in a small wooden boat; in my forties, I wrote novels; and in my fifties bicycled the spine of the Rockies from Alaska to Mexico. I’ve worked on the Alaska Pipeline, as an environmental lobbyist in the Alaska Legislature, and run a storied environmental organization fighting to protect Alaska’s coastal rainforests. Several years ago, I moved to New York City to dig deep into leadership development and coaching. I now coach business and non-profit leaders intent on making big things happen in the world.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
What got me started writing? Hubris. I was kayaking with a friend around Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska—a 3-week trip. She’d just finished a mystery by an Alaska author and I asked her if it was any good. She said, yes—so I read it. It was beyond dreadful. I complained to my friend—
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “But I didn’t want to influence your opinion.”
“I want my opinion influenced. I wasted hours of my life reading this.”
That night we were weathered in by a blow. I was snugged up in my sleeping bag still pissed that a book could be so bad. And then I stepped off the edge. I said to myself that I could do better.
But I had a problem. I hadn’t a clue how to start. I so hapless, it was almost comical. Thousands of books written every year and I didn’t what to do after picking up a pencil.
Then, one random day, I remembered a novel that was a scene by scene rip-off of Shakespeare’s Lear. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. You’d think she’d be hauled off for plagiarism, but no—she’d won the Pulitzer. I cast about for a play where the author had been dead long enough he wouldn’t be coming after me for stealing his stuff.
Since I was writing a mystery—the play to use was obvious. The first mystery in western literature was Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Fortunately, Sophocles has been dead for 2,500 years and I figured he wouldn’t much care that I was taking his best work. That was my start.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
I can’t answer these questions. Let me answer this one instead: Why did you write a mystery?
I have no love for mysteries—generally because they are so contrived: a bunch of unlikely events strung together to produce an outrageously improbable outcome that has next to zero psychological plausibility: she killed him because of a hang-nail? I chose a mystery because I was on automatic: the book that kicked it all off was a mystery, so I was going to write a mystery.
So, you might ask, is Broken Angels a bunch of unlikely events strung together to produce an outrageously improbable outcome that has next to zero psychological plausibility?
No. This story is the story that I wanted to read. It’s psychologically real, the characters are driven by who they are; they make bad decisions that lead to horrific outcomes—but each step of the way you get why they are doing what they are doing. The story is rich and complex and, at times, emotionally challenging for the reader. And it rips—you will not be able to put this book down.
Tell us a little about your latest book?
Kris Gabriel, an Alaska Native, 24, reluctantly returns to Alaska at the request of a mother she hasn’t seen in nine years. She finds her murdered; shot in the face by the double-barreled blast of a shotgun. Driven by anger and guilt and only knowing how to fight—she sets out to avenge her mother’s death. Relentlessly, she tracks a trail of pain, of lost love, of lives ripped apart by the frozen north’s unyielding law of survival, never suspecting that she has far more at stake than finding her mother’s killer.
At the outset, it looks as if Kris is driven by vengeance to find her mother’s killer. Maybe, but maybe also by guilt. She’d abandoned her mother when she was 15 and when she left, her mother’s life fell apart. Then she’s Alaska Native and she, like her mother, was cast aside by the white world. She grew up on the streets Fairbanks with an alcoholic mother, no father, and even now, she is living a meager existence on the bleak edges of society. She’s crusted by anger and resentment and all she knows how to do is fight. So that’s what she does—fight. But then, as she uncovers her past, we see that what she’s truly searching for is love, for connection, for her humanity. Because Broken Angels is taken from a Greek tragedy—you know it’s not going to turn out well.
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