Interview I did with Hull’s literary pin-up boy Russ Litten for Browse mag, just before Russ’s book came out…
Russ Litten is at the forefront of Hull’s burgeoning literary scene. Russ, one of the most authentic voices in the city, is looking ahead to the release of new novel Kingdom and contemplating what freedom means.
He’s doing all this outside a city centre pub, with a pint in front of him. A crowd has gathered at the table. He is, without doubt, leading the charge for the city’s other writers, although isn’t too enthusiastic about this suggestion.
“A leader? Me? Where would I lead them to?”
There are at least four other writers sat alongside him so the answer may well be to various drinking establishments. Or, he might persuade them to get off home, knuckle down and get some work done. Like he does. For Russ, there’s nothing that matches the power of putting words on the page.
“Writing is freedom because the blank page is the ultimate playground. What could be more enticing than a fresh block of A4 paper? It’s the same as an artist with a blank canvas. Artistic expression is total freedom and, in this city and in this socio-economic climate, writing is the closest you can get to being free.
“I saw Arthur Scargill doing a talk at the Trades & Labour Club on Beverley Road in the late 1980s. He told us a story that’s stayed with me. His dad used to read the dictionary every day, and he told Scargill that the quality of life depends on an ability to manipulate words. And he’s right. If you listen to politicians all we have is language and if you can manipulate language in order to make people respect you or empathise with you or get your point of view across in a way that’s convincing then that puts you in an incredible position.”
Having taught creative writing in prisons Russ know a lot about the importance of freedom and has seen it from the perspective of inmates. Some of this work is included in a recent collection of HMP Humber prisoners’ poetry and prose – Burn – which, says a proud Russ, contains some of the most astonishing writing he’s ever seen.
“It’s a cliche but incarcerated bodies escape via minds. They write without fear which is what we’re all chasing as writers. You don’t have to do much with them to get them writing, really. They have fuck all to do. Writing in prison is the same as writing out here. You don’t need a million quid, just a pen and paper.
“And some of these people carry on writing. I did a reading recently and one lad turned up, told me he’d stuck with writing poetry. That’s ace. And he’s not the only one.”
It is, then, something of an injustice that the funding for creative writing in prisons has recently been slashed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russ’s new book Kingdom is set in surroundings he’s familiar with. It is, however, a twist on stories set in places of detention.
“They have what are called standfasts inside, where they stop and count everyone. And sometimes they’re one short. Usually because there’s someone in a woodwork class or there’s been a wrong count due to human error. And I wondered what would happen if they do the count and there’s one extra. And it’s a ghost. Kingdom’s written from the point of view of this ghost which, from a narrative point of view, gives you license to do anything.”
No-nonsense, plain speaking Russ is no tortured artist. He just gets on with it, albeit with mixed feelings.
“Writing? Sometimes doing it is awful and sometimes I think it’s great. But the key is to keep doing it and sort through it later. Once I’ve got over the idea it has to mean something the act of writing is superb. With novels you get a third of the way through and you start to think, who the fuck wants to read this? But it’s like swimming the Channel, you get halfway across and you can’t shout for the lifeboats, you just have to carry on.
“When Kingdom comes out we’ll have a night out. To celebrate the freedom of the book. Not so much a book release as an escape.”
Burn is available for £10 via www.russlitten.com. All proceeds go to charity.
Kingdom, published by Wrecking Ball Press, is released in September 2015 and available from www.wreckingballpress.com