Being in graduate school is a lot like being kidnapped, or so Decatur-based author/professor Josh Russell would have us believe. His new novel, A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag: A Novel, out Aug. 14, recounts the story of the title character as she graduates from the University of Tennessee and goes off to Cornell to pursue a Ph.D. in English. The stuff of Guttentag's life slowly begins to resemble the conventions of the "captivity narratives" she studies, in which female narrators recount allegedly true stories of being kidnapped by "savages" in the early days of colonial America. Russell, who teaches at Georgia State University, was awarded a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his Townsend Prize-nominated 2010 novel, My Bright Midnight.
What does the story of a woman attending graduate school in the early '90s have to do with the captivity narratives of the 18th century? What made you want to put the two things together?
I've long had an interest in the form of the women's Indian captivity narrative. For years and years I thought about writing one. My first attempt was a satirical historical novel, but I got about three pages in, and it was the least funny satirical novel anyone had ever written. I put the idea on the back burner. Finally, it came to me that the most contemporary version of the women's Indian captivity narrative would be a narrative about someone going to graduate school. These people who live in urban areas of civilization go off to the "woods," or rural areas where a lot of these colleges are. The typical laments in women's Indian captivity narratives are: You have to eat strange food, you have to listen to people say strange things, you have to watch them do these weird dances. I was like, "This is grad school." That was the start, the rough version. In the book, she ends up studying captivity narratives so there's this slightly meta-fictive element.
The book is mostly set in Ithaca, N.Y., and Lincoln, Neb. Are these places you know well? Did you visit them as part of your research?
They're places that are useful to me because of the fact that I've been there but I haven't spent enough time to get to know them very well so I can just kind of "make them up." I wasn't overwhelmed by the details of reality. I think it would have messed me up if I'd gone back to them for the novel.
Do you ever write about places where you're currently living or is it always about places that are in your past?
I'm trying to do it right now and I've had to come up with a trick to manage it. I can't really write about the place where I'm living. I'm overwhelmed by it. I feel this weird responsibility to verisimilitude. When I lived in New Orleans, I couldn't write about it. From a distance I can sort things out and make them fit into the imaginative narrative. My first book about New Orleans, Yellow Jack, I wrote when I was living in Boulder, Co. My second novel, My Bright Midnight about New Orleans, I started in Georgia and finished in Nebraska the summer I was out there. This last book I wrote here in Georgia and never does anyone come to Georgia in it.
You grew up in the North, but currently you live in and write a lot about the South. There are lots of famous examples of writers who do the reverse — who grow up in the South and make their way North — but there aren't many writers who have followed your path.
I grew up in Illinois and Maryland. My wife is a native Southerner. She was born in Virginia and spent a lot of time in Alabama and Louisiana growing up. She refers to me as a carpetbagger. I like it. At one point I proposed to a poet that I know that we edit something called "The Anthology of Carpetbagger Lit." I was trying to claim it was a genre, but it would have been a very short anthology. I think one of the reasons the South has always appealed to me is that it has a literary tradition it's fiercely proud of. It is nice there's a lot of pride, and it's a pride that extends beyond writers and highbrow readers. It makes it a great place to live and to work.