A True History of Josh Russell

By Ann Claycombe

Creative writing professor’s latest work of fiction captivates

Josh Russell has made a career for himself writing historical novels set in New Orleans. The first, “Yellow Jack,” told the story of a photographer living through the yellow-fever epidemic of the 1840s. The second, “My Bright Midnight,” tells the story of a German immigrant living in the city just at the end of World War II.

“I could have written another historical novel,” says Russell, associate professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program. “I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable doing it. But I wanted to do something new.”

Russell’s latest novel has a historical-sounding title: “A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, and Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag.” And, in fact, it’s meant to echo the titles of seventeenth-century captivity narratives, which were the stories of European women kidnapped by Native Americans from the first American colonies.

The novel itself, though, is the comic tale of a woman navigating the complications of earning a Ph.D. in English. The “Strange Lands” of the title include Nashville, Ithaca, Nebraska and New Orleans, while her “captivators” include professors, librarians and her own baby.

When he began “A True History,” Russell actually intended it to be another historical tale, a direct satirical imitation of one of those old captivity narratives. He didn’t get far with the idea.

“About halfway through page three, I started to get bored with it,” he said, “and I thought, ‘No one else will think this is funny.”’

So instead, he spent some time thinking about what got him interested in 350-year-old kidnapping stories in the first place. On the one hand,  he said, they share some elements with modern action movies: kidnapping, savage violence and hints of dark sexuality.

On the other hand, “they’re just complaints,” he said. The authors  always write about how bad the food is, for  example, or how strange Indian dances are.

“What’s the contemporary version of a captivity  narrative?” he asked — that is, a tale of dislocation and complaint? “Graduate school. You listen to people say strange things, you eat strange food, you watch people dance strangely at parties.”

The idea appealed to Russell in another way: it would let him be funny.

“Now that I’m in my 40s, I’m trying to make things a little lighter,” he said. “And some of my best work is kind of smart-alecky.”

Writing a nearly contemporary comedy (“A True History” takes place in the 1990s) is only one aspect of Russell’s reinvention of himself as an artist, however. One of his current projects is to not only write a book, but to physically make it. He is taking printmaking classes, and intends to do everything from writing the text to binding and cutting the pages.

“I made skater ‘zines when I was a kid in the 1980s,” he said. That experience, plus the spread of electronic publishing, has encouraged him to think about the nature of the book as an art form.

“There’s just something about having a hand in every single bit of it,” Russell said. “I mean, you don’t make a sculpture and then send it to someone else to be copied and disseminated.”