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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with insightful, gonzo writer Kent Russell

We checked in with Kent Russell, "Gonzo" journalist who visited us in 2015 with I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, his nonfiction collection about mastering boyhood fears and living up to his father's conceptions of traditional American manhood.

Russell's writing style and his willingness to immerse himself in crazy situations have earned many comparisons with the father of "Gonzo," Hunter S. Thompson. See last week's post about the 15th anniversary of Thompson's cannon shot.

Kent is the author of a new book of nonfiction, In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida (2020), an exploration of the quirky and improbable state where he was raised.

From the publisher:

"In the summer of 2016, Kent Russell – broke, at loose ends, hungry for adventure–set off to walk across Florida. Mythic, superficial, soaked in contradictions, maligned by cultural elites, segregated from the South, and literally vanishing into the sea, Florida (or, as he calls it: “America Concentrate”) seemed to Russell to embody America’s divided soul. The journey, with two friends intent on filming the ensuing mayhem, quickly reduces the trio to filthy drifters pushing a shopping cart of camera equipment."

In a review of the new book in The Atlantic, Upstate New York native and Florida transplant Lauren Groff called it, “Sharp… Brilliant…," and said, "I’ve never read an account of our gorgeous and messed-up state that is a more appropriate match of form and function… The spirit of Don Quixote presides over this buddy-trip plotline… this feels like both the real and the true story of Florida.” Read the review.

Q: Hi Kent. Can you tell us about In the Land of Good Living?

A: My book is about the state of Florida, which is, according to me, a microcosm or synecdoche of the larger country. Modern Florida exists as a pure creation of Americans’ demand; it is sort of like our nation’s Portrait of Dorian Gray — a reflection of the hopes, desires, pathologies, and whacked-out philosophies belonging to the millions and millions of Americans who have crammed into the peninsula in the last 70-odd years. Florida, then, can be thought of as something like America Concentrate. And if you want to know what this country was, is, and is becoming — look to Florida.

Q: What advice do you have for young people at this moment in history?

A: Read old books— ancient ones if at all possible. Try to keep in mind that none of our contemporary struggles are entirely novel. None are truly unprecedented. We don’t have to repeat history as farce, you know.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers during quarantine?

A: Get out and walk at least once a day. Get out and move. Absorb as much sunlight as possible. Do whatever you can to differentiate your experience of time. Time, like extruded sausage, is much easier to digest if you’re able to tie it off into discrete links.

Q: What was your strangest experience during quarantine?

A: My father joining the family conference call with his screen-sharing option enabled somehow, overwhelming us with a video feed of our feeds’ feeds’ feeds. For a brief moment, I was certain that my old man had conjured an audiovisual infinite regression and unwittingly opened a portal to Hell.

Q: Any specific book recommendations?

A: For anyone who wants to understand revolution, and revolutionaries, and the utopian hopes plus eschatological energies that drive both —I cannot recommend The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn enough.

A clip from Kent Russell's 2015 visit:


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