Alumnus Q&A: novelist Henry Joseph Russell ’15

by Betty Kim | 4/12/17 12:00am

Henry Joseph Russell ’15 majored in English and religion while at Dartmouth. His recently published novel, “The Talisman Cock!,” is about two best friends attending boarding school, one of whom procures “Jesus Powers” that allow him to fashion the perfect life for himself. Though the book may seem silly, it is rooted in meaningful concepts such as religion, the Christ story, metaphysics and faith.

Can you explain the origins of the novel?

HR: I guess I was always interested in writing — I wrote all the way through high school, and it was linked with my experiences running, since to me that meant going out, thinking about stories and having a lot of time to myself. I wrote a ton about running; I read everything there was on running, and I was interested in the beats and sounds of the words. Related to the running, I was also really into music, especially folk singers and the storytelling they did.

My freshman year of college, I was in creative writing classes during the winter. I was writing a lot of poetry and short stories. Additionally, I was on the track team, and there was an older girl on the team who I was infatuated with intellectually. She was very into the modernists, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other authors like that, and she opened up this whole new world of writing novels. As a result, I became infatuated with the idea of writing one myself.

During my sophomore year, I told my parents I wanted to be an English major; I was determined to become a famous novelist. I took my off term junior winter and stayed at Dartmouth and said to myself that I was going to write a book. I had no idea what it was going to be. I planned to meet with professor Ernest Hebert, the former head of the creative writing department. To me, he was a shaman; he was old, and he had this mysterious spirit. He had a tattoo of a key on his hand, and when I asked him what it was, he said, “I just like keys because they open things.” He had this Ernest Hemingway vibe about him. I was infatuated with him, so I asked him if he would meet with me once a week to help me write the novel.

I basically started writing this fantasy thing, like “Star Wars” except about running. It was terrible. I realized if I could do anything, I could just write; I probably wrote about 100 pages of it, and after five weeks, I showed it to Hebert, and he said, “This sucks.” So I scrapped the whole thing — literally burned the pages — and I was distraught. I decided that I still needed to write this book, but now I only had four or five weeks left. As I was burning these pages, I realized I needed to write something in first person that was based on myself, so I conjured up some memories. At the time, I was reading John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” which is a boarding school coming-of-age story, so I thought, “I’m going to tackle that genre.” I went to boarding school outside of Boston, and I started plunging back into these memories; it was my story, which made it a lot easier to write. Things just started clicking, especially because there was something Hebert had said about a writer from Dartmouth named David Benioff, author of “The 25th Hour.” He had written the book by splitting up his personality into three parts and making those the three main characters, so I decided to try that. I split myself up into these two characters at boarding school, and the book just wrote itself. I probably wrote around 150 pages in four weeks. It was a lot of coffee and gummy bears in the stacks. When I showed it to Hebert, he said it was good but still needed a lot of work. It took me another two or three years to actually get it right.

I was proud of myself, but if there’s anything I know about writing now, it’s that I can write the pages, and that’s the shell of it, but — to use a cheesy pun from a recent movie —­ you have to put the “Ghost in the Shell.” That is, you have to put the feeling of what you’re trying to say in it. It took me three years to get that right, but I published my novel this December. It was a lot of rewriting and a lot of thinking about who I was and what I wanted. But I finished it, and I love it now.

How does this seemingly silly book deal with serious issues, like faith and metaphysics?

HR: I’ve always been infatuated with the Bible’s stories. People at Dartmouth in the religion department were amazing. Even outside of the school, there was a guy affiliated with Christian Union who I did Bible studies with. I’m not Christian at all; I never went to church or anything, but I loved the stories and read so much of the Bible. I also met with the rabbi at the Habbad to get familiar with the Old Testament. All of “The Talisman Cock!” was a quest to understand Jesus; that was important to me.

Basically, with my experiences running and writing, I’ve always had an embarrassing messiah complex. I’ve always had a vision of myself creating a miracle or expressing love through the pages, all those clichés. But I think when I came to Dartmouth I was a lot like the main character who tells the story in “The Talisman Cock!,” David. He believes God wrote a destiny for him, and that all the things that happen in his life are a sign from God to win the Boston Marathon. I felt the same way about myself running here.

But as I read the Christ stories, I became arrogant, and this other persona was born within me that wanted to create a miracle. This is where Johnny came from, a confident guru character. He’s an a--hole, but he’s brilliant and thinks he understands miracles and God. But he’s a 16-year-old kid in the novel, so naturally, the first miracle he creates is making his d--- big and getting good at hockey.

The whole metaphysics thing gets complicated in that I’m still a young man, and I’m not that wise. I wasn’t wise when I was writing the novel. The book is about kids who are struggling with faith. They’re interested in the mysteries of life, who this guy Jesus was and what these stories mean.

How did you reconcile the deep themes of the novel with its humor?

HR: The wisest thing I’ve ever done is putting a huge penis on the cover on the book. I remember the day that Hebert said, “If you want this book to be what it needs to be, you need to call it ‘The Talisman Cock!’ Put a big exclamation point on it.” I wasn’t going to take myself too seriously. I can’t even say how much I was inspired by J.K. Rowling and her forbearer Roald Dahl, both of whom were able to conjure this silliness that makes their work approachable. I totally wanted that. “The Talisman Cock!” is serious stuff; I consider it a rewriting of the Christ story. At the same time, there’s also guys roughhousing in the dorms and talking about their d----, silly high school stuff like that. I think humor is a powerful thing in that way.

That being said, I was hugely affected by serious writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But thank God for Rowling and Dahl, who taught me that you could be serious and respected and say big things, but be funny, enjoy the puns of language and even have a d--- on your book.

What was your experience studying at Dartmouth like? What advice would you give to students who are aspiring writers?

HR: You have to write. Any writer will say that. During the time I quit my day job of construction work in December, I wrote a ton. Every day I got up, and I made those shells; I was practicing writing stories and putting words on the page. But I think the part about filling in the shell is that you have to live, have relationships, fail and get up.

I think writers should think about their books as being love letters. This book was a huge love letter to my friends, especially at the high school I went to, and I named my two main characters after two teachers from high school. I also took my mom and dad’s love story and implanted it into the book because they were such important supporters to me. For that reason, I would say write every day, but be focused on the gratitude and your feelings, because that’s ultimately what got me to finish the book. It was just a shell for three years until I felt the love of it. It’s bittersweet to read the book now and see how much the people and those experiences meant to me.

Your experience at Dartmouth is going to be a struggle; Dartmouth can be a tough and anti-spiritual place. There’s a ton of competition socially and intellectually. I was lucky that by my senior year I realized I wanted to be someone who wasn’t trying to get ahead, but instead just find the beauty in what was happening around me and get that down on paper. I am still not trying to find a great job or make all the money; for me, it’s about finding the beauty in the things that are important. This all sounds super cliched, but I couldn’t have finished the book without so many people. I really hope that people read the book and feel my gratitude, even if it has a big penis on it.

What’s it like working in construction while also working as a writer?

HR: I said to myself that when I finished the book and published it, I was going to quit construction, sell the book and write another one. I thought “The Talisman Cock!” was going to be an immediate success, that I was going to sell a million copies. While I did sell a lot, it was not enough to have it be my career.

But in these last couple months, I still tried not having a job; while I was able to write a lot, it felt listless. I missed having the camaraderie of the job site and working toward something else. To be a writer, you need to be experiencing other things as well, and there’s no better place for stories than the workplace. I’m really excited to go back to working now. Maybe the next time, when I put out another book or something happens with this one, I’ll be more ready to write full time — or not. Alternatively, I might seek out some other adventure or some other job, but I think it’s good to be doing something else. I would hope that Dartmouth students know that you don’t need to have a “real job;” in college, I worked at a fish pier, and now I work construction. I love being outside. It’s fun for me. It’s release and meditation. As someone who tried being a pure writer for three months, I’m happy to be going back and hammering some nails.

Do you have any future projects coming up?

HR: I’ve been doing a ton of writing and work on new projects. One is a book that takes place at Dartmouth; it’s a fraternity story and sort of a mystery. It has the same plot as “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and involves a version of me and my best friend going on some wild adventures at Dartmouth. It’s silly but also spiritually true, but it takes the silliness of “The Talisman Cock!” to a different level.

The other is a shorter book called, “The Red Fox.” This has really been my heart and soul for the past few months. It takes place in this dream reality where people have animal faces, and the main character’s a red fox, and his best friend is a muskrat. It’s a short book, maybe 20,000 words long, and it’s a spiritual parable. It’s about a man in his thirties who, after his father passes away, goes on this all-night odyssey around his seaside town. He sees old friends, his old boss, his ex-girlfriend and his widowed mother. He sort of lives his whole life in a night. At one point, he meets his maker; he goes into the church and convenes with Christ. It’s a parable about life, and it’s powerful to me. That feels like a real love letter to everything in my life, all the people.

I’m really excited to put them out. I think they’re very interesting projects, and they will show different sides of me. I’ve been pushing myself to write in different ways, do what appeals to me, read as much as I can and experience other art.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.