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Resident Update: Writer Robert James Russell

By Gabrielle Carels

Writer Robert James Russell is a UMS Artist in Residence this season. We’ve asked five artists from across disciplines to take “residence” at our performances and to share the work these performances inspire. Robert shares his experiences on dance, music, and his new novel below:

“When I applied for the UMS Artists-in-Residency program, my goal was to see performances and use that inspiration to craft a new novel. I’m beyond thrilled at the chance to experience wonderful performances and explore the role of music and dance in my work—both of which have always been crucial to my mental health, and to my ability to immerse myself in a project.

So far, I’ve seen the following UMS performances, all radically different from one another—and each has inspired me in vastly different ways:

  • Ryoji Ikeda (superposition)
  • Mariinsky Orchestra
  • Compagnie Marie Chouinard
  • eighth blackbird

See, this isn’t just writing a novel, coming up with a story and characters, but in this instance I am creating an entirely new place: a fictional island in Lake Superior, documenting the entire history of the island, of the people that lived (and, in the present of my novel, still live) there. Typically when I write I find some style of music that works for that story and I listen to the same record(s) over and over as I write, never growing tire of the repetition. In this instance, though, since it’s not just story, but history…and this immersion in different types of performances has been utterly liberating:

Writer Robert James Russell at work on his new novel.
Writer Robert James Russell at work on his new novel.
  • superposition taught me, even through the wondrous noise, about the use of silence in my work.
  • The Mariinsky Orchestra inspired me to embrace more bombastic/dramatic sections of the story.
  • Watching the Compagnie Marie Chouinard showed me how to re-think interactions of characters, how they meet in the story, but also how these characters interact with the island itself.
  • eighth blackbird encouraged me to embrace the unexpected—to travel different routes in the storytelling, in the creation of the island’s history, of its inhabitants, and to avoid the predictable…to really dig deep and do something unique.

Robert James RussellEach of these performances has taught me re-think what I know about art and inspiration, and they are with me every day when I write. In addition to a seemingly never-ending list of books I flip through daily—various back-issues of National Geographic featuring articles about Isle Royale (used as inspiration); a 1937 manual called Wolf and Coyote Trapping; the unbelievably inspiring/gorgeous Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky; others—I am constantly harkening back to each performance, remembering them, and making sure that they are not forgotten. And I am reminded with every word I put down how astonishing and remarkable the performing arts are…how important they are to the production of any art.”

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Robert James Russell is the author of two upcoming books: the collection Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press, 2015) and the novel Mesilla (Dock Street Press, 2015). His first novel, Sea of Trees, was published in 2012. He is the founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and @robhollywood.”

Interested in learning more? Read our interview with Robert.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabrielle joins UMS as a student in the Ross Master of Management Program. Prior to Ross, she earned her BA in Digital Environments Studies here at U of M through the Individual Major Program (IMP). Gabrielle's early background in the arts include piano, bassoon, and flute performance. More recently, she is pursuing her interests in photography and visual design. Gabrielle encourages students to sample a variety of UMS performances; they might discover something really memorable and inspiring! With an academic focus on the complexities of the digital sector and deep-rooted passion for the arts, she is excited to work as a digital media intern within the marketing department.

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