Josi Russell’s science fiction novels explore familiar human relationships in unfamiliar contexts. She currently teaches creative writing and fiction courses as an Associate Professor of English for Utah State University Eastern.
She lives in the alien landscape of the high desert American Southwest with her family and a giant tortoise named Caesar. Josi is captivated by the fields of linguistics, mathematics, and medicine, by the vast unknown beyond our atmosphere, and by the whole adventure of being human.
Josi grew up in a family of storytellers. Family gatherings always produce stories, both new and old. Josi recalls, “I heard stories like “Grandpa Charley and the Mountain Lion” and stories about trips to town and stories about last Christmas. We are always telling stories.” It was her destiny to create her own stories to share with not only her family, but the world!
In her past and now in the present, her family is still there for her every step of the way. “I have had amazing support of my dream throughout my life. My mom saved every scrap of paper I ever wrote on, and my dad supplied me with enough notebooks to fill a space cruiser. My husband, Richard, is a painter and illustrator. He loves what he does and works hard at it, which inspires me. And he completely understands the creative process, so he is always encouraging me and giving me feedback. His support makes it easier to push through the challenges of writing.”
As she writes stories, in her “plotting panster” way, Josi is drawn to writing science fiction. One of the most interesting aspects of her novels are that they mix the familiar with the unknown.
“I think we love to see familiar relationships in unfamiliar contexts. A love story on a spaceship, for example, or a sibling rivalry that spans a solar system. I think that’s one thing that people have enjoyed about my Caretaker Chronicles series. At it’s heart it’s about Ethan Bryant, the protagonist, doing his best to take care of the people he loves. We all understand that. But there’s an element of the unfamiliar, as well. Ethan’s on a stasis ship, and he’s suddenly called on to watch over the 4,000 sleeping passengers and get them safely to a new planet.
In my new series, Shadows of Empyriad, Aliens have come to Yellowstone. Again, the juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar. And I also think people love to imagine what is just beyond our current understanding. I love to read about what researchers are doing in physics or genetics or chemistry or and then I love to think about where we could go with their discoveries. In Shadows of Empyriad, I explore ideas from geology and biology and sociology and I follow those ideas to new places. A lot of my stories start at the edge of our current knowledge. I love to come to the end of that current knowledge and then take that next step to see where we might go from there. And it makes for great fiction, because from any given point, there are an infinite number of possible futures.”
Inspiration comes not only from family and unique concepts. Inspiration comes from getting away from the computer and travelling. Josi has some great advice for aspiring writers here (or anyone really): “Seek aesthetic experience. Too often, now, authors and other artists immerse themselves completely in the virtual world. And it’s tempting, because you can have so many vicarious experiences so quickly. And it is certainly an important part of research and idea generating, but simply reading, watching, or gaming isn’t enough to create compelling fiction. You need to taste things, see things, and hear things in context to write well.
This year alone, I’ve travelled with my husband and children to see some amazing things. We were up before dawn, standing on a bridge across the Platte River in Nebraska, so that we could see the Sandhill Cranes take off. We spent days watching them dance in the cornfields. It was breathtaking. The feel of the early spring air, and the smell of the river combined with the sight of the pink sunrise darkening as thousands upon thousands of cranes lifted off. I’ve seen videos, and they are not the same as being there.
We also travelled to the Skagit Valley to see the explosion of color brought by the tulips. Acres and acres of brilliant color, every variety unique. And we went to the circus, where I watched trained camels perform and real acrobats defy gravity.
Experiences like this do something to me that simply viewing cranes on a website or watching a YouTube video of acrobats can never do. Actually being there, taking in all the sensory information, awakens my inner observer. I have a better sense of how to describe, and I have a better understanding of the interconnections in the world. I find details to include in my work that I would never otherwise discover.
My advice is to stop scrolling and go out into the world. Find natural phenomena and human endeavors that excite you and amaze you. Build time into your life to experience those things.”
What scientific advancement do you feel is right around the corner?
I think that we are due for a breakthrough in cancer treatment and prevention. We have some of the best minds in the world working on those problems right now, and though there are always setbacks, those researchers are finding piece after piece to this puzzle.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you choose to be?
I am interested in so many things. I would have gone into medicine if the written word hadn’t captivated me so completely. I’d also love to have been an astronaut. Who wouldn’t?
Do any of your characters represent you as a whole or someone you know? Or are they qualities you admire in others?
Ethan is a compilation of the great qualities of a lot of people. He is trying to do the best he can to take care of the people he loves in a tough situation, which I have seen again and again in the strong people I know in real life. The many ways people find to do that are a real inspiration to me, and that’s part of where Ethan came from.
Are there any genres of literature or movies that you won’t read or watch? What’s your favorite genre to read/watch?
Though it’s not a popular stance, I don’t have much use for horror. There is enough horror in actual life without seeking it out in fiction. Classic suspense like Hitchcock, with it’s strong storytelling, is different to me than the type of horror where the whole point is to get to the next gruesome event. Studies have shown that watching that type of violence desensitizes you, and a writer is nothing if they aren’t sensitive to human emotion, human suffering, and human joys. That sensitivity is not something I’m willing to give up, and I think as a society go to a dangerous place when we embrace graphic violence as entertainment.
A few upcoming projects from Josi Russell
The Shadows of Empyriad series launches on August 15th. It explores what happens when aliens come to Yellowstone.
Solomon Karras lives on the edge of Yellowstone Global Park, but he has never been inside. In order to protect its delicate ecosystem, the park has been closed to the public for a quarter of a century. But the fortifications that keep the public away from the bison and the geysers are perfect for keeping the arriving aliens–the Stracahn–away from humanity.
Outside the park, bitter land wars threaten to tear human society apart, and Sol seeks refuge from the conflict by volunteering to work with the aliens inside Yellowstone. There, he meets Zyn’dri, a Stracahn girl with gifts even her own species doesn’t fully understand, and Walt, a ranger whose knowledge of the park is second only to his knowledge of human nature. As the three forge an unlikely friendship, they uncover a sinister plot and an impending disaster.
Can they use their combined strengths to uncover the true villains and avert catastrophe?
The Stracahn have come from their dying planet, Empyriad, in search of a peaceful new home. But with warring humans outside the gates of Yellowstone and the world’s largest supervolcano inside, Earth is anything but peaceful.