Russell Bittner has published many stories in
print and on the web. He appears to have successfully made the
transition from the world of television and Internet transmission to
writing short stories, ie. from for-profit to non-profit.
with Russell Bittner
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Russell Bittner: I’ve
been at work on these stories–-and dozens of other short stories and
novellas–-since 2002. All but one had been previously published on the
Web or in print, but Stories in the Key of C. Minor is my first collection in book-form. It came about only because Daniel Sawyer, of Faraway Journal, accepted my novella Something Special for serialization on his Website–-and then accepted several other stories for a collection he published through Lulu.
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
and no. Like any emerging writer, I can dream.
The conventional wisdom says that you first get a novel published, and
only then attempt to get anything else published. My first foray into
serious writing (other than pieces I’d scribbled in college or along
the way) involved a four-act play. I submitted it to eighteen different
companies. It went nowhere. I wrote a few stories, but spent most of my
time on poetry. I had a great deal of luck, early on, with my
poetry–-and so, that’s where I’ve spent most of my writing time.
Besides, I’ve always taken to heart the words of François Mauriac: "A
great novelist is first of all a great poet." I don’t think I’m either,
unfortunately, but I keep working at it.
The finished novel sits in a box in ms form–-as do most of my stories.
The ones that made it to this collection are Daniel’s choice.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
chose the stories. I suggested the order. I don’t know what criteria he
used except "readability." I was more pragmatic.
I figured we should start out with something bite-sized (Fright Night)
and leave the novella for last. If a potential reader were kind enough
to indulge me for a few minutes, I figured I’d better keep my spiel
short and sweet.
I’ve spent my entire professional career in sales. To be quite frank,
I’m a piss-poor salesman–-one of the worst I’ve ever come across. I
present what I’ve got to sell in as few words as possible and let the
buyer decide whether he or she is interested. If not, no problem. I
move on with no regrets–-and hope I haven’t dropped a neutron bomb in
The writer in me, however, has always been more interested
in the stories people have to tell than in what I might have to sell.
As a result, I don’t mind listening. You’d be amazed what you’ll hear
if you give people the slightest chance. They’re just waiting for the
opportunity to open up and release.
By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that editors and
publishers are overwhelmed with submissions these days. A lot of folks
are out of work. And yet, they’re not finished. They’ve got a story to
tell–-even if it’s only their own. The problem is one of competition
for attention. That, and the fact that story-telling is as much a craft
as an art–-and that the craft takes time, study and effort to develop,
and lots of reading others’ work.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
The same thing it meant to Aristotle: a beginning, a middle and an end.
It means plot and characterization in equal doses. It means an
attention to language, a sympathy for the reader’s eye and ear, an
attention to white space and punctuation as necessary resting places
and clear road signs. It does not mean experimentation or mental
masturbation. Those things are better left behind in creative writing
classes or on the jade way to an MFA.
People have scant leisure time and very limited attention spans. We’re
all bombarded by distractions, obligations, the mess and press of life.
My first priority is my kiddoes, of which I have two. They represent,
among other things, hungry mouths I have to feed. They respect what my
son calls my "passion," but they understandably respect even more my
ability to feed them.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
One of the most moving things I’ve ever heard is a piece
commissioned by "The Next Big Thing" (of WNYC radio) written by Michael
Greenberg, a Brooklyn-born newspaper columnist with the Times Literary
Supplement, titled "Home Alone," and accompanied by the cellist, Erik
Friedlander. In it, he talks about the disruption (to his writing life)
of time spent with his young son over a couple of days while his wife
is away showing off the new baby. He also mentions a similar 20 hours
spent in hell by Nathaniel Hawthorn with his son.
I don’t mind admitting to you that my own son was the direct inspiration for Fright Night, and that I used him again as the narrator of my story In the Animal Kingdom (albeit,
fifteen years into the future). That story, by the way, was largely
autobiographical. We used to listen to the story of Squanto every
Thanksgiving; we used to celebrate, as most families do, with a huge
spread; wine was a significant part of that spread–-and of the “spread”
that followed; and the sharply reduced circumstances of Thanksgiving
dinners thereafter, absent one member, were more of fact than of
For those readers who are prepared to lend me any
credibility at this point, the wonderful audio experience of
Greenberg’s piece can be found at the bottom of WNYC’s page at
http://www.wnyc.org/shows/tnbt/episodes/2004/04/09. (I hope this
doesn’t constitute a copyright infringement, by the way!)
Because I lived with the doubt that my work would be published
elsewhere than on the Web and in a few less-than-selective literary
journals (I don’t have an MFA), I've always written with my children in
Since the separation and eventual divorce from my wife, I’ve worn the
notion of failure like a bad habit. I wanted my children to know, one
day, that my life wasn’t a total waste. This sounds maudlin, and I
apologize. However, like most things maudlin, it’s also true. This
short collection of stories could be the last I ever get published;
I’ve got the proverbial two-inch-thick rejection folder; and I could
lose my job any day. At this point, at my age, I’m fairly certain I
wouldn’t find another. Willy Loman isn’t just a literary figure for me;
he’s my constant haunt.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
a heartfelt "thank-you": Have you read the stories of Anton Chekhov,
Guy de Maupassant, E. A. Poe, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Eudora
Welty, Flannery O’Connor–or of Robert Olen Butler, Lorrie Moore and
T.C. Boyle in our day? These are some of the masters that come most
immediately to mind.
TSR: How does
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
I’ll let you know when and if it happens. To date, I’m the only one I know of–-and it doesn’t feel very good.
What are you working on now?
RB: To borrow a line from Berthold Brecht: on my next mistake.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
RB: Jorge Luis Borges (Complete Stories); Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love); Mary Gaitskill (Because They Wanted To).