Q&A with Sheldon Russell, author ofThe Insane Train
- The Insane Train, the second book in the Hook Runyon mystery series, has its roots in actual events in Oklahoma. Can you explain how you developed the story?
While going through the archives at the Oklahoma Historical Society, I came upon an article about Fort Supply, a military fort used in the late 1800s. Oklahoma was still a young state when a fire broke out in a private mental institution in Norman, Okla. The fire killed a number of inmates, who were then buried in a mass grave in Norman. About that same time, the federal government donated Fort Supply to the state of Oklahoma. The decision was made to make it a mental institution and to transfer all the patients there by train. Fort Supply became the first state-operated mental institution in 1908. Anyway, it struck me as material for a mystery, so I took the situation and expanded it.
- Mental illness is a tough topic to address in a novel, especially from the perspective of the 1940s. Describe your experience with people coping with mental illness.
I had an uncle who returned from the war, the big one, with mental illness. My father and another uncle took him to Fort Supply to be committed. I went along, just a child, and remember well how frightening it all was. I had another uncle, from the other side of the family, who was a guard in the criminally insane ward in New Mexico. His stories would make the hair crawl on your neck. Years later, I returned to Fort Supply as a college student. Touring the mental institution was required as part of a psychology class I was taking. The suffering I saw that day left its mark.
One of the things I tried to do in The Insane Train was to show the human side of mental patients. Mental illness, as I see it, is a matter of degree rather than an all or nothing situation. Even the healthiest of us can identify with a little madness.
- Talk a little about how you see Hook.
I know and like men who are uneducated but wise. Hook is such a man. When he lost his arm, which, of course, changed his world, he went on the bum. I remember a switchman who had lost his arm while switching cars. I used to see him at the railroad crossing from time to time. Loss of a limb was not an uncommon occurrence for railroaders in those days.
After Hook loses his arm, in a time of despair, he must come to grips with who he is and, more importantly, who he isn’t any longer. He’s flawed physically, but also emotionally. He’s lost his way and developed a drinking problem to boot. In my view, it’s times such as this when men reflect deeply about what’s important to them. All pretense gone, they must take a hard look. They either get up or they don’t. Hook gets up.
- Hook Runyon is an unusual mix of gruffness and sensitivity, law-abiding and law-breaking, practical and romantic.
Being a railroad detective, Hook has an official reason to be engaged with the bad guys and a certain amount of authority as well. Having been a bad guy himself once, he knows how they think. Having lived on the bum, he knows how to survive. He’s slightly off center, which all good characters are. He’s tough but sensitive. Uneducated but wise. Rugged but good looking. What more can you ask of a protagonist?
- The Insane Train hosts a mixed bag of humanity with physical, emotional and mental issues. Why so many disabilities?
I’m not so much taken with writing about disabilities as I am with writing about struggle. A character with a physical or mental disability manifests struggle in an obvious and concrete way. The reader can’t overlook a missing arm. The struggle cannot be denied or dismissed.
- This novel infuses a bit more humor than The Yard Dog. How does humor contribute to the story? Difficult to write?
Humor, in my view, works best at the darkest moments. It’s the unexpected that’s funny. The Insane Train has all the elements that lend themselves to humor: characters who can say and do what they damn well want, can behave in unexpected ways, sometimes in extreme ways. Put them into a world of normality and see what happens.
Everyone loves humor, and there’s nothing harder to write. To a large extent it has to come naturally. It can’t be forced—at least I can’t force it. It has to be funny to me first. The only thing I can do is kill the censor and hope the muse shows up.
- Do you write full time? Every day?
I’ve been writing for many years, and the process has changed for me. I think this is probably a pretty typical evolution. At first I relied heavily on creative energy, rejecting the idea that good writing had to be planned and structured.
Now, I’m much more structured. I plan nearly as much as I write. I make notes and outlines. I hammer away every day with the regularity of a factory worker. I revise and then revise some more. Once I have the master plan, the journey so to speak, I start thinking in terms of chapters. Most think they can’t write a book—too long, too hard—but anyone can write a chapter. So, that’s what I do, I write chapters.
- Please describe your background growing up in Oklahoma.
I grew up on a cattle ranch in the Gloss Mountains of Oklahoma. We lived many miles from town, had no electricity or running water during my early childhood. We milked eight cows morning and night and sold the cream for grocery money. My folks suffered the Depression and the dust bowl.
My mother taught in a one-room country school, on a war certificate, and took pride in her education. She read to us, my sister and me, a great deal in the evenings, so books were an important source of entertainment. It was also a story-telling culture, bolstered by fiery oratory at the country church just down the road. Humor was a prized commodity, even in the face of some pretty hard times, and was a big part of our lives.
- What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
I love to read and collect books. I spend a lot of time in book stores. I garden, have a dog named Chester, and two old cats, very old cats, Felix and Gracie. My wife, Nancy, and I enjoy going to auctions and bringing home junk we don’t need. We have done a number of restoration jobs on homes we’ve bought over the years. She’s the foreman, and I’m the laborer, brains and brawn, so to speak.
- Currently reading?
I just bought Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King. Also, found a used copy of Shrink Rap by Robert B Parker. Thought it time I read Parker. After his death, his fans made it clear how much they loved his work. Read A Stretch on the River by Richard Bissell, good stuff, a lot like Twain.
- Currently writing?
I’m about half way through a third Hook Runyon, the story of a railway tunnel in the Arizona desert that was under guard during WWII. I have two other manuscripts under consideration with my publisher. Neither is a Hook Runyon mystery.