Sunday Interview #16

Hi, Everyone! I would like to introduce another Canadian writer who was on a YA panel with me at the Word On The Water writer’s festival in Thunder Bay, Ontario last fall. Craig Russell has written the YA novel Black Bottle Man, a classic story about good versus evil.

Johnson House

Welcome, Craig!  Would you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up on a farm near Barnsley, MB. with four brothers and five sisters – an environment where you need to keep your stories straight.

I’ve practised law and now administer the Land Titles system for ~5,000 sq. miles of SW Manitoba for the Province.
My wife and I are restoring ‘Johnson House’ – a 1906 Victorian house in Brandon. It’s now a Municipal Heritage Site –
So life is pretty busy.

It certainly sounds like it! Wow, restoring an old Victorian house – that would be amazing and a lot of work! 🙂

How long have you been writing? Did you always know you wanted to write?

Writing is a recent development for me. I’d been an actor and theatre director in Brandon for a number of years.  Hearing and speaking beautiful dialogue written by others opened my mind to the possibility of writing myself.  In 2006 my short dramatic work, The Unintended Consequences of Love was selected for the Carol Shields Festival of New Works, and I was hooked!

What does your writing process look like? Do you have a set time you prefer to write or do you just fit it in whenever you can?

I’m a closed-door writer. (I don’t understand how other writers can accomplish anything sitting in a coffee shop!) When writing, I aim for a solid three hours at the keyboard. I let the words (good & bad) flow. Later, I cut it to shreds, editing out the crap and keeping what’s worthwhile. Some years I’m able to set aside vacation time for a “writing week”. That’s been effective – a focused period of uninterrupted creative time.

Once you are finished a manuscript, what does editing look like for you?

It’s loud! Because of my theatre background I read the work aloud, in a dramatic fashion, listening for the ‘music’. Good work sings. Bad work reveals itself – and dies. Also – killing adverbs is a cardinal rule.

That’s fascinating! 🙂

Do you have a writers group, critique partner or beta reader that helps you with the process?

I don’t have time to read and comment on others’ work. So I’m not cut out for the writers group dynamic.

With Black Bottle Man I had a wonderful – and possibly unique – experience. With the help of eighteen local actors, we presented the story as a staged radio-play. Each of the three performances had an audience of ~150. Hearing the interplay between actors and audience was invaluable. It forces you to cut anything superfluous.

That certainly IS a unique way to edit!

Please describe the steps you took to get published. Did it take long once the manuscript was finished? Did you need an agent?

I don’t have an agent. After many edits, I sent BBM to four publishers. Anita Daher, the YA editor at Great Plains Publications was enthusiastic and her editing process was fast. It was about six months from her first call to the book launch.

Yes, she is a very quick and enthusiastic editor! 🙂

In which genres do you prefer to write?

My stories always include Fantasy or SF elements. Fantastic situations let you push characters to their limits.

They certainly do!

Do you write strictly YA or have you written in other genres?

I really don’t think about the reader’s age. As a teen I read novels written for adults and felt quite at home. Teen readers are just like adult readers. They’re smart.

Good point!

Product Details

Would you care to tell my readers a little more about Black Bottle Man?

I wrote Black Bottle Man for the smartest reader I could imagine. I think people sense the respect I have for the reader. When it works, the writer and the reader are a team, telling the story together.

The critical approval for BBM has been encouraging – an American Moonbeam Gold Medal, selection as a finalist for the Canadian Aurora Award, the ‘On the Same Page Award’ and two Manitoba Book Awards; and selection by Best Books for Children & Teens as “a title of exceptional calibre”. 
And wonderful reviews by:
CBC radio’s Nikki Tate; Australian book reviewer, Anastasia Gonis, at BuzzWord books;
Victoria, B.C. book reviewer, Meghan Radomske for CM Magazine, and more.

That’s fantastic! Congratulations! 🙂

Was Black Bottle Man the first manuscript you wrote, or had you written other things before it?

BBM is my first published novel. As mentioned earlier, I had a short dramatic piece selected for the 2006 Carol Shields Festival of New Works. I have second novel – Fragment – is out to publishers.  With luck, this winter another fantasy novel will take over my life.

What is ‘Fragment’ about?

Fragment is a high-energy action/adventure.

The synopsis starts like this…
·         Collapsing glaciers thrust a massive Antarctic ice sheet into the open ocean.
·         The commander of an American atomic submarine rescues the survivors of a smashed polar research station. 
·         A Presidential advisor swims the murky waters of Washington politics with the confidence of a Florida alligator. He’ll spin the disaster to suit his aims.
·         A newsman heads into the storm-ridden Drake Passage, intent on learning the truth.
·         A cutthroat corporation sends a cruise ship after an iceberg the size of France, hoping to garner millions in publicity. 
·         A scientist uncovers a secret that threatens the future of American military power and the fate of an entire species.
·         And one brave Blue Whale still has hope.

Intriguing! 🙂

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve enjoyed chatting with readers at literary festivals, SF&F conventions, high school & university classes, and library & book groups. I hope to be invited to many more.

I’m sure you will get plenty of opportunities in the future. 🙂

If people would like to learn more about you and your writing, are there places they can find you?

McNally Robinson Booksellers has been a great support –…Black-Bottle-Man,-by-Craig-Russell

There are reader reviews at:
Amazon Book –
Goodreads –
Chapters –
I have a Facebook Page –
Great Plains Publishing has a reader/teacher’s guide at:

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Craig, and I hope we get to be on another panel together sometime! 🙂

For those who would like to know a bit more about what Black Bottle Man is about, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Forced to move every twelve days, what would happen to your life? 1927. Rembrandt is the only child in the tiny community of Three Farms. Soon his two aunts grow desperate for babies of their own. A man wearing a black top-coat and a ‘glad-ta-meet-ya’ smile arrives with a magic bottle and a deadly deal is made. Determined to undo the wager, Rembrandt, Pa, and Uncle Thompson embark on the journey of their lives, for if they stay in one place for more than twelve days terrible things happen. But where and when will they find a champion capable of defeating the Black Bottle Man? Time ticks. Lives change. Every twelve days…

If you get the chance, I encourage you to read it! 🙂

Real People In Historic Fiction

Writing historical fiction can be difficult, but a lot of fun. The difficult part is doing the research. One wants to be thorough despite sometimes conflicting data. Going through archival books, papers and journals myself, I have come across information where dates don’t jive with other historic records, but I have to consider the source. Was it Wikipedia? Was the information written by someone of that era or someone else who had to research the period and may have slipped up on the dates or was it a typo?

Once you have the facts straight – or at least as close to accurate as they can be – how will your character interact within this historical time period? Will your character be meeting any of the real people that might be walking past them or are they introduced to anyone famous? If so, you need to do a little more research about that particular person. Look for anecdotal accounts about that person. Look at their actions as recorded by historians. These pieces of information paint a picture about the person in question, gives clues as to their personality and how they might react given the scenarios you dream up for them. Examine the manner of speech for that time period so that it doesn’t sound contrived or too modern. Read old literature to learn the grammatical patterns and turns of phrase that were common in the era you are writing about.

This isn’t always easy because sometimes you want to include minor historic figures about which little has been written. Then, it’s guesswork, for the most part. That happened to me when I decided to introduce my character, Michelle, to Duncan McRae, the Scottish stone mason who built St. Andrews Church. All I could find out about him was that he was a Scottish stonemason who built St. Andrews Church (as well as Little Britain Church), and married a woman from London after my character left the time period, built a house in the Little Britain area and had a large family! I was well aware of the fact that he still has living relatives here, so I gave him favourable traits, although they might be a bit annoyed that I gave him a personal interest in MY character instead of letting him stay true to the woman he eventually did marry.

Women of Red River

Harriet Sinclair was a woman I read about in the book Women of Red River. Her story was written from anecdotal accounts given by the woman herself. I got a real feel for her character and knew she would be the perfect girl to befriend Michelle.


As for Governor George Simpson, I had read accounts of his dealings with the Hudson Bay Company and he had been described as the ‘Emperor of the Plains‘ by both admirers and detractors. He also had a reputation as a bit of a philanderer, having taken many ‘country wives’ and siring several illegitimate children. he had also been described as ‘cold-hearted, but fair‘. I was able to work in a lot of the information when creating the living character for Michelle to meet. He was stern when he thought she was slacking but kind enough to let her stay at the fort as long as she worked to earn her keep.

Once you have done all your research and decided on the traits you want your real historic person to present to your character, you are ready to dive into the story. THAT’s the FUN part!

Hope you found this useful, or at least, I hope it’s given you a little insight into what went into ‘Withershins’ and ‘Spirit Quest’.

Have YOUR characters ever interacted with real people?