In 1991, writer Paul Russell made his literary debut with his first novel, The Salt Point. Twenty-four years and five very different novels later, Russell is revisiting that book and the characters in it with Immaculate Blue (hardcover, digital), a sequel of sorts that set twenty-five years after the original. Though in talking to Russell about this new novel, he revealed that this wasn’t some grand plan a quarter century in the making.
photo credt: Eric Brown
I always like to start at the beginning. So, what is Immaculate Blue about?
It’s the summer of 2012, and twenty-five years after the events of my first novel, The Salt Point, three once-close friends reconvene for a weekend in Poughkeepsie, New York. Anatole is getting married to his boyfriend of twelve years. Lydia is long married and the mother of a captivating seventeen year old son. Chris has flown in from Africa, where he works security for the oil fields in the Niger Delta; a paid gun, basically. And no one knows what happened to the fourth member of their crew, the beloved Leigh — “Our Boy Of The Mall” — until Chris, who hates unfinished business, decides to track him down.
When you were coming up with ideas for this book, did you start with the idea of continuing the story of The Salt Point or did you come up with the plot and then realize it would work with characters from The Salt Point twenty years later?
Actually, I never intended to write a sequel. It was my agent’s idea. I’d given him the manuscript of a novel, The Angels Came To Sodom In The Evening, which he absolutely hated. Said it would be professional suicide to publish it and that I’d lose my audience. “Okay,” I told him, a little nonplussed, “so now what do I do?” And he said, “Write a sequel to The Salt Point.” I wasn’t crazy about the idea, I hadn’t thought of those characters in many years.
But a funny thing happened. By the time I got home from meeting with him — a contemplative two hour bus ride from Manhattan to upstate New York — the sequel had practically written itself. It’s as if I discovered a locked room in my brain where the characters, unbeknownst to me, had been living their lives all along. All I had to do was open the door and there they were. I knew exactly what they were up to and what they’d been doing all these years. Writing a novel is never easy, but this was, in many ways, the easiest of all my novels to write because I already knew the characters, and knew them well. For me, that’s always the hardest part: conceiving a new set of characters, learning them from the inside out. And that agonizing work had already been done. I certainly understand why some writers spin out sequel after sequel.
Okay, back up a second. What was The Angels Came To Sodom In The Evening about, and why did he think it would be professional suicide to publish it?
It’s about a right wing family values senator from Tennessee who is brought down by a homosexual scandal. My agent didn’t think my readers would care to read about “some closeted Republican asshole.” And he may very well be right; I do trust his judgment implicitly.
Now, going back to Immaculate Blue, once you decided to write it, I assume you went back and reread The Salt Lick.
I did reread it, in part because I needed to make sure there weren’t factual discrepancies between the worlds of the two novels.
Was there anything that really surprised you about it?
What surprised me most was how much I’d forgotten in the years since I wrote it. Again and again I’d find myself thinking, “I have absolutely no memory of writing that scene.” On the other hand, there were some scenes that I remembered and kept looking for and they weren’t there, clearly having been cut somewhere in the editing process.
The other thing that struck me was the youth and vitality of the prose. That was a little intimidating. I thought, “How can I be a match for my former self?” But then a friend of mine, the novelist Frank Bergon [Jesse’s Ghost], said something wise when I confided my anxiety. Frank’s a boxing aficionado, and he said “Sure, the young fighter has all the exuberance and golden enthusiasm of youth on his side, but the older fighter has craftiness. Never underestimate craftiness; it’s more than a match for youth.” I have to say, that thought sustained me. And I think Frank’s right. As a novelist, I have so many more tools at my disposal now than I used to. Almost too many, I sometimes think it makes the choices harder. If all you’ve got is a hammer, you just bang away, no questions asked.
As you reread The Salt Point, did you ever find yourself wishing you’d done something differently because you wanted to do something different in Immaculate Blue?
No. I just took what was there in The Salt Point as a given, for better or worse, and worked from there.
At one point my copy editor suggested that a Jewish character’s first name “Craig” didn’t sound very Jewish, and I had to tell him sorry, he was “Craig” in The Salt Point and so there’s nothing I can do about that. Besides, I happen to have a Jewish friend named “Craig,” so there.
As you were writing Immaculate Blue, did you look at any other books that continued a story many years later, both in terms of the book’s timeline and/or in terms of the author’s life?
The great novel, for me at least, of past and present is Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, in which the second half takes place ten years after the first; in the interval, enormous and sometimes profoundly shocking events have transpired. So I couldn’t help but think of Immaculate Blue in terms of the second half of Woolf’s novel.
I think your writing has changed since you wrote The Salt Point. When working on Immaculate Blue, did you write it as you do now or do you try and do things stylistically as you would’ve back then?
Yes, the voice of Immaculate Blue is different, probably older and mellower in certain ways, but then the characters are older and, in most but not all cases, mellower. Since in both novels the narrative voice is closely associated with the characters’ consciousness, it seemed appropriate that the voice would have aged along with them. But that doesn’t mean it was involuntary. I’d like to think that if I’d decided a younger voice was still appropriate, I could have managed it.
On a similar topic, I would think that the physical conditions that you write under now are different than the ones you wrote The Salt Point under twenty-four years ago.
The physical conditions have changed very little. I still write at the very same desk at which I wrote The Salt Point, though the single sweet cat that once lay thoughtfully on top of the keyboard of my old DEC Rainbow has been replaced by a tribe of seven cats who take turns lying thoughtfully on top of my MacBook Pro. It’s a miracle I ever manage to get any work done.
Now that Immaculate Blue is done, are you thinking you might write a third book about these characters?
Readers and characters alike seem captivated by Caleb, the outspoken young deaf drummer of the high school garage band Modder Spook introduced in Immaculate Blue. My agent thinks his further story is worth telling, and maybe it is. Right now I’m radically reconceptualizing The Angels Came To Sodom In The Evening because I do think these guys and their lives are worth examining, but there may well be a novel about Caleb a couple of years down the line. The working title may even be The Pink Boy.
Interesting. Are you going to wait twenty odd years to do it, or are you going to do it now but set it another twenty years in their future?
If there is a Caleb sequel, it will probably start more or less as Immaculate Blue finishes up and take him maybe four or five years into the future. Say, though college and into the “real” world. But who knows?
Has doing this follow-up to The Salt Point have you thinking about doing something similar with one of your other books?
I’m not sure I’ll do a sequel to another of my books. I have too many new ideas I’m eager to explore, like a novel to be set on the Aran Islands during a college field trip gone disastrously wrong, sort of a cross between The Turn Of The Screw and Lord Of The Flies. If I did attempt another sequel it would probably be to War Against The Animals. I myself am curious whatever happened to those two vexed brothers.
We’ve talked a lot about how The Salt Point connects to Immaculate Blue. But do you think someone needs to read The Salt Point to really understand Immaculate Blue?
I wrote Immaculate Blue to stand on its own, and in fact the publisher decided not to advertise Immaculate Blue as a sequel to The Salt Point lest readers be dissuaded from reading it by thinking they need to have read The Salt Point first. So I’m imagining that many readers will come to Immaculate Blue first, and then, if they’re interested, which I obviously hope they will be, they’ll seek out The Salt Point as a way of deepening their sense of where these characters came from, who they were when they were young and clueless and the world with all its pleasures and sorrows and unforeseen defeats and surprising successes still lay before them.
Finally, if someone’s read Immaculate Blue and The Salt Point, and they want to read another of your novels, which would you recommend they read next and why?