Interview: Tartarus and Singing Stones with R.B. Russell

Ray (R.B.) Russell is an English author, publisher, composer, and filmmaker.  His written works include numerous short stories and novellas, the most recent of which is The Stones Are Singing.  Russell’s fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award, and works such as Bloody Baudelaire and The Dark Return of Time have been selected for adaptation to film.  Together with his partner Rosalie Parker, Russell runs Tartarus Press, an award-winning publisher of fantasy and horror literature and critical nonfiction relating to these fields.  Additional information can be found at Tartarus Press. We asked Russell about his latest novella, The Stones are Singing, his work at Tartarus Press, and more.

Weird Fiction Review: In The Stones Are Singing, a great deal of attention is placed on the city of Venice and its physical features.  Can you share a bit about what inspired that choice of setting?  Do you think the story could be told the same if it was set anywhere else?

R.B. Russell: I don’t think that I’ve ever stayed anywhere quite as atmospheric as Venice. Everything about the city is breath-takingly beautiful, from the impressive vistas down the main canals, through to details as small as a wrought-iron hinge on a dark door at the end of an unconsidered alleyway. A few years ago I was lucky to be able to stay (with my partner, Rosalie Parker, and our son, Tim,) in the apartment I describe in the book. It was full of antiques and original artwork, but the most sublime aspect was the view out of the living room window down a very minor, tributary canal. The jade green water, the crumbling brick and the distant bridge all demanded to be described in a small notebook I bought. That description, transcribed when I returned home, was the start of the story, although I did not know where it would lead at the time… Nowhere else could have inspired the tale that evolved.

WFR: There is a substantial amount of emphasis on physical materials — glass, stones, etc. — and their fragility or malleability in The Stones Are Singing.  Can you tell us a bit about what brought that theme into the story?  How do these ideas fit into your aesthetics of supernatural fiction?

RBR: In a previous life I qualified as an Architect, and I was always attracted to the ideas of the deeply unfashionable Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B., or ‘Anti-Scrape’). Their manifesto was that old buildings should be appreciated without any restoration, which meant enjoying the fabric of ruins and, at most, trying to stave-off further decay (even this intervention was too much for some members). Venice struck me as the ideals of S.P.A.B. brought to life in a city of perpetually deteriorating brickwork, stone and mortar — to be appreciated for the short time it remains standing. Likewise antiques, old roman glass, etc., should be left to display their history, and allowed to age (everything tends, eventually, to decay, ruin and dust).

A number of my stories have been about the perception of ‘normality’, and the subjective interpretation of the world around us. In The Stones are Singing, the fragility of ancient glass, or the permanence of stone, is not always what it appears to be. One cannot trust the most ancient or apparently eternal of objects.

WFR: As an author of both short fiction and longer forms, do you have a preference for either?  In your view, what are the potentials and limits of each as applied to supernatural fiction, whether in regard to your own work or more generally?

RBRI have written fiction since I was a teenager (and it might be said that I am still exploring the same themes, ideas and characters that obsessed me back then). I always aspired to write novels, but about eight years ago, when I decided to write a little more seriously, short stories came naturally. (I have been lucky enough to publish most of them in collections with PS Publishing and Swan River Press.) I strongly believe that the short story is under-rated and misunderstood outside of genre fiction — mainstream writers and publishers mistake fragments and shadows for fully-realised stories. The short story is perfect for creating an atmosphere (as in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘unity of effect’), and I do think one should finish a short story feeling satisfied that it has presented something meaningful.

When I sit down to write I never know what length a story will turn out to be, and some insist on a little more space to develop and come to life. I have written a few novellas—The Stones are Singing, Bloody Baudelaire (which has actually been filmed as Backgammon) and The Dark Return of Time (which might also be filmed, if certain unlikely stars align).

In the last three years, though, I have finished two novels, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the demands required (and the liberties one can take) when writing at length. The longer the work, the more difficult it is to keep up the ‘unity of effect’, of course. Plot and character development become far more important if the reader is to be kept interested, but it doesn’t mean that the essential weird or supernatural elements have to be forsaken. The trick is to not dilute them. Whether or not I have succeeded remains to be seen, but I must acknowledge the astute insight of Rosalie Parker and my agent, Leslie Gardner, in bringing my own efforts closer to publication.

WFR: Tartarus Press publishes authors both classic and contemporary.  What are the most important qualities you look for when selecting a project for publication?  Apart from the business aspects of publishing, what is the cultural and historical role, in your view, of a specialty press, particularly one with an emphasis on collectible volumes?

RBRI run Tartarus Press with Rosalie Parker, and for both of us the quality of the writing is paramount, whether in classic or contemporary fiction. In the case of the former, we have often come across super-rare books of supernatural fiction that we know collectors would love to see reprinted, but we have declined to do so because we know that readers would be disappointed. (There is a reason why some books are never reprinted — they are just not good enough!) With contemporary fiction it is always tempting to be influenced by an author’s reputation and potential selling-power, but there is always a quality threshold. Essentially, we have to love the writing before we will consider publishing it.

You ask about the cultural and historical role of speciality presses, but beyond their ability to put into print authors who the mainstream press may overlook, I am not sure if they are much different to mainstream presses (apart from having smaller budgets). At Tartarus we have no intention to be elitist, or to wilfully delight in the obscure. Good writing deserves to be read and we are doing what we can to make it available. And it just so happens that we like printing books lithographically on good paper, with sewn sections, etc. (We have nothing against glued, print on demand paperbacks!) It is a bonus if a customer takes a risk on buying a book by an unknown contemporary and discovers that their first edition is worth a great deal of money once it is out of print. (If anyone would like to sell their copy of our edition of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney then they might receive as much as £700 for it!) For any press the collectability, rarity, quality of binding, etc., will always come second to the quality of the writing.

Robert Aickman by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, 1960

WFR: You’ve also produced a documentary, Robert Aickman: Author of Strange Tales.  What about Aickman’s work brought this decision about?  Have you considered producing such short films about other authors or topics?

RBR: The documentary that Rosalie and I produced was, in many ways, a more ambitious successor to a number of short films I had previously made about book collecting. For those I interviewed Mark Valentine, Reggie Oliver, Quentin S. Crisp and John Hirschhorn Smith (as well as making a video about my own collecting.) While researching Robert Aickman’s life and work for our new Tartarus Press editions we came across a great deal of information that was visual — clips of film, photos, original typescripts, paperback artwork, etc. To make the documentary was a natural step to take.

Since then we have made a non-literary feature film about the part of the Yorkshire Dales in which we live. But more bookish documentaries will follow in due course…

WFR: Are there any experiences you’ve had as an author that have informed your work as a publisher?  Vice-versa?

RBR: I think that I am the same as many authors — incredibly thin-skinned while nursing a huge ego, and so I hope that as a publisher I treat our authors with the care that I would hope to receive myself! Luckily my main publishers, Swan River Press and PS Publishing, are run by wonderful, understanding people.

WFRWormwood, Tartarus’s critical journal dedicated to fantastical and decadent literature, has been published for almost 17 years.  What, from your perspective, has changed in that time with respect to critical approaches to weird fiction?

RBR: Even before we started publishing Wormwood (edited by Mark Valentine), there had started the long, slow process of the academic world accepting genre fiction as worthy of critical study and discussion, which is generally a good thing. Many working in the various non-‘realist’ genres craved this kind of academic respectability, so it is strange when some commentators now complain when academics have their say. That the academics are not necessarily coming from a ‘fannish’ background is often a good thing. There is a great tradition in genre writing, of course, and academics have been studying it for centuries without actually noticing that, for example, Beowolf is fantasy, Wuthering Heights is a ghost story, Frankenstein is science fiction, etc.

WFR: What projects are you working on now, as either publisher or writer? Can you tell us about any forthcoming projects you have slated for 2017?

RBR: With Tartarus Press we don’t like making announcements about forthcoming books because it has sometimes jinxed them! By not offering ‘teasers’ we hope that the definitive announcement of a new publication is more of an event. I can say, though, that we have a couple of traditional, classic Tartarus titles forthcoming in 2017, and also some very fine contemporary fiction by new writers.

Similarly, I wouldn’t want to say too much about my own writing in case I fail to complete it, or don’t find a publisher. But I can’t quite stop myself from mentioning that I have just signed the contract for my first novel, She Sleeps, which will be published by PS in the next 12 months…