Lisa: We’re so pleased to welcome author Russell J. Sanders to The Novel Approach today to celebrate the upcoming release of You Can’t Tell by Looking, on October 2, 2018 from Harmony Ink Press. Welcome, Russell! Let’s start things off with an introduction. Will you tell us a bit about yourself?
Russell: I’m a Texan, born and raised. In fact, my novel All You Need Is Love is largely based on my teen years in Ft. Worth, Texas. I live in Houston with my incredible husband. The tourist bureau once used the slogan “Houston’s Hot,” but they soon realized that slogan was not enticing at all. For much of the year, Houston’s hot. But it is a huge, diverse city with wonderful attractions and restaurants. Me, I like Tex-Mex food, so Houston’s Heaven for me. Other than a lifetime spent eating enchiladas, I’m also an actor/director/singer and amateur chef. I also read the Houston Chronicle newspaper live on the radio for the blind and visually disabled. And, despite all that, I find time to travel.
Lisa: Is there any one author, or authors, you would say inspired you to become a writer yourself?
Russell: Which one didn’t? I’ve had a book in my hand since I was old enough to see two words put together and know they made sense. My mother was an avid reader, and I followed in her footsteps. So beginning with the Trixie Belden books in elementary school and progressing to numerous books made into movies (I always had to see the movie and then explore the book,) and then discovering the classics like Hawthorne, Cather, Hardy, and Henry James, I’ve learned from the best. Currently, I consider the biggest influences in my writing are my mentors Kathi Appelt and Kelly Bennett, plus my friend Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Lisa: What compels you to write Young Adult/Teen fiction? Do you feel like you draw quite a bit on your own life experiences when shaping your stories and characters?
Russell: I taught high school for many years, so I know the teen psyche. A recent reviewer of my book Titanic Summer praised my use of the teen voice. I suppose teaching teens all those years just ingrained in me how they talk. As for how I shape stories, I just re-read my first three novels—Thirteen Therapists, Special Effect, and The Book of Ethan—and I was reminded that they are filled with incidents that actually happened to me as a child and teen, plus there are things there that I based on news stories I’ve read. The rest is just a runaway imagination.
Lisa: Without giving up any spoilers, will you tell readers a bit about this story, some of the conflicts that you feel are important to it?
Russell: You Can’t Tell by Looking is a story about two boys who are very different indeed, but they share common bonds: being gay and loving The Walking Dead. Gabriel, the new kid in town, is infatuated with Kerem at first sight. Gabe thinks Kerem is the most gorgeous guy he has ever seen. He soon finds out Kerem is Muslim, and thus Gabe sets out to find out everything he can about Islam, particularly if Islam accepts homosexuality and if Kerem is gay himself. Stirring the pot is a conflict involving Kerem’s cousin Timur. But I stop here because anything else I say would be spoiler after spoiler after spoiler.
Lisa: Do you consider this a ‘statement book’, and if so, what do you hope readers take away from it?
Russell: In a way, it definitely is. It is a romance, and in that respect, the only statement it makes is that being gay is okay. But it also makes the case that we are all the same in this world, and that in our differences, we find common ground always if we look for it. I suppose I wanted, in our current climate, to paint Muslims as people who deserve our respect and indeed our love.
Lisa: Do you have a favorite scene in the book, one you remember being particularly memorable to write? If so, would you share what made it special?
Russell: Now, now, now—we’re getting very close to a spoiler here. But let’s just say that the backstory of Timur is something I’m quite proud of.
Lisa: Let’s talk a bit about your cover. Who is your artist, and what do you feel its art conveys? Was it a long process to get things just right?
Russell: Aaron Anderson is the magnificent artist who has done the covers for almost all of my books. He is a wonder. I fill out a questionnaire, and he goes from there. In a short, short time, he sends me three choices and then I pick the one I like the most, plus I get to tell him how I want it changed a bit to further fit my ideas, and he always comes up with the perfect cover. For You Can’t Tell by Looking, he took the idea of a young man totally confused by the melding of two cultures, traditional Islam and mainstream America (whatever that is!) and voila! A beautifully evocative cover was born. And to top it off, I let Aaron know that my favorite color is purple, so he added more purple tones to his original design. What more could an author ask for?
Lisa: Let’s take off your author cap and put on your reader cap for a moment: what do you look for in a book, what sort of protagonists do you love, and do you have a favorite genre/sub-genre?
Russell: As a young adult author, I love to read young adult novels, for they reinforce for me that I’m doing something right—or not, as the case may be. I love it when any novel is set in the South, particularly Texas, plus if a book is about the theater or dance or movies or art in any way, I’m in heaven. But I’m also a fiend for biographies, murder mysteries, and comedy. Right now on my “to read” shelf, you will find several novels I bought on a recent trip to Atlanta and Asheville (I love to pick up local authors’ books while on vacation,) plus a book written by a man who was the subject of a documentary I saw on Netflix, an autobiography of a transgender, two of the Miss Julia books of Ann B. Ross, and a book about crime and corruption in turn of the twentieth century Chicago (one of my favorite cities.) And Amazon, which I single-handedly support with my multitude of purchases, will soon be delivering a book on the history of Southern food, a book about an iconic Atlanta restaurant, and a book about Christmas at Biltmore House. So—would you say I’m an eclectic reader?
Lisa: What’s the one genre/sub-genre you haven’t written yet, but would love to? What’s kept you from it so far?
Russell: I have a years-old idea for a comedy set in Texas that would be a book for adult readers, tentatively called Quada Fay and the Mayor. But I haven’t gotten past the first chapter, no doubt fearing that I can’t capture adult voices well enough for them to be featured in an entire novel. But my newest manuscript, still unsubmitted, has three major characters that are college-aged, so maybe my writing skills are progressing past teen characters.
Lisa: Describe your ideal fantasy writing environment—the beach in Monaco, a sidewalk café in Paris, a thatched cottage in the English countryside—wherever you can dream of.
Russell: That’s a great question. When I write, I want total solitude, total silence. So holed up in my study with no one around is my ideal writing environment. I know myself—if I were in Monaco, Paris, the English countryside, or any other wonderful place like that, I would never write. I’d be too busy exploring. And looking for Mexican restaurants.
Lisa: Russell, thank you so much for being here with us today. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you! Will you share your social links with us so we can all find you on the internet?
About the Book
Gabe Dillon’s life changes when he gazes across his new school’s commons and spies handsome Kerem Uzun, and he wants to know more. Kerem is senior class president. He is mostly very well liked. He comes from a family of doctors, is of Turkish heritage, and he is Muslim.
At first Gabe doesn’t understand the ritual he sees Kerem performing. But as the boys bond, Gabe is eager to learn about Islam. He’s falling in love with a boy who may or may not be gay, a boy whose religion may condemn Gabe’s open homosexuality.
Complicating the budding relationship is Timur, Kerem’s cousin, who has grown up alongside Kerem as his brother. A family tragedy left Timur homeless, and Kerem’s parents took him in. But as Kerem grows into his own way of looking at life and how it fits into his devout practice of his faith, Timur is becoming more fundamental in his practice of Islam. And he isn’t the only one opposed to the friendship between Kerem and Gabe. Can they forge a lasting relationship amid so many challenges?
Add You Can’t Tell by Looking to your Goodreads Shelf
“That is the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever laid eyes on!” Did I say that out loud? Or did I just think it? Whatever. I’m standing here, at the end of the first day at my new school, gazing across the commons at a guy who is mesmerizing. His slender stature—straight and tall like a soldier and muscled like one as well—says he has the confidence of a lion. His jaw is square, his closely cropped black curls shine, and even this far from him, I see eyes as black as midnight that sparkle as he laughs with his friends. I can’t look away from him.
“So how was your first day?” I hear my cousin’s voice, and I want to respond, but I am entranced by this magnificent specimen across the way. “Gabe?” Shaun is almost shouting in my ear, but I continue to ignore him. “Earth to Gabriel, Earth to Gabriel.” Shaun’s call pounds into me, but it doesn’t break my concentration.
Not taking my eyes off the god I’ve just discovered, I say, “What, Shaun?” trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
“What’s up, Gabe? I’m trying to get an update on your first day here, and you’re blowing me off.”
Shaun is right, and to be fair, I shouldn’t be doing this. But my eyes don’t want to leave this vision. They’re glued to the guy. “Oh, I see, you’ve discovered our resident towelhead.” His use of that disgusting slur rips me away from the object of my attention for a moment.
“Shaun, you know as well as I do name-calling is lower than low. I’m surprised at you.” My cousin and I have never been close, but we’ve been raised in the same family with the same values—or at least I thought so. I’m reasonably certain my aunt, my dad’s sister, would not like hearing her son say what he did.
“Look, Gabe, I’m only calling it like it is. That guy you have the hots for is a Muslim. Is that the term you’d rather I use? Either way, he’s just one jihad away from blowing this school sky-high.”
“Are you kidding me? You really believe that about all Muslims? That they are all waiting for the chance to strap on a bomb and take out the world?”
“Gabriel, my man, this ain’t the little town you spent your life in until now. We don’t leave our front doors unlocked. We don’t ask just anyone into our lives. We’re cautious. And when someone like him, the one you’re drooling over right now”—he points to the object of my fascination—“is around, you need to be on your guard. No telling what’s going on in his mind.”
I truly want to go off on Shaun right now. He’s being blatantly bigoted, and it pisses me off, but Shaun has been so good to me this past summer. When my dad announced we were moving here and I wouldn’t be graduating from my school back home, leaving the friends I’ve always known, Shaun took it upon himself to make the transition easier for me. He spent the entire summer texting me and skyping with me, trying to get me ready for the day I’d just spent. I stayed with Gram and Pop while Mom and Dad moved here at the beginning of summer. I’d spent the last three summers teaching little kids how to swim at the Y, and I wasn’t about to give that up. So my parents told me I could live with my grandparents while they got the new house set up and Dad started his new job. He was an insurance salesman in our hometown, but now he’s working at his company’s headquarters here in the city. A big promotion for him. So I didn’t raise much of a ruckus when I was told I’d be moving. And Shaun’s wrong about our “little town.” It has a hundred and fifty thousand residents, give or take a few, so it’s not a tiny place; granted, it’s not as big as this ginormous city.
Anyway, given my status as the new kid and my cousin’s eagerness to make me feel welcome, I had no right to deal with his attitude at the moment. That might come later, if he kept it up.
“Okay, okay,” I say. “But who is that guy?” I had to know more.
About the Author
Russell J. Sanders is a man on a quest. In his travels all over the world, he searches out Mexican restaurants. A lifelong Texan, raised on Tex-Mex, he wants to try the enchiladas and other delicacies that pass for Mexican food in the far reaches of the world. He has been pleasantly surprised in Tokyo and Indonesia and left wondering in Rome and a few other places. Sometimes what the menu says and what you are served is not what is expected. But the joy is in the quest.
Russell’s also on a quest to spread a very important message: love is found in many forms in this world, and being gay or lesbian or bisexual or any other variation is normal, healthy, and wonderful. He wants his novels to bolster the confidence of gay teens and change the minds of or educate further all the others who may stumble upon his prose.
Russell’s writing joins his long career of acting, singing, and teaching, adding to his passions for cooking and reading. He has won awards for his acting and directing and has taught theater to hundreds of teens. He has also taught additional thousands of teenagers the art of writing and the love for literature. He is always in the middle of a good story, whether reading it or writing it. And he can whip up a delicious meal in minutes.
He does all this with the support of his husband, a man he has loved for over twenty years and married a few years ago. They live happily in Houston, Texas.