“We shouldn’t just turn inward when we walk”: An Interview with Kent Russell

side by side series of the cover of In the Land of Good Living by Kent Russell which features an overturned palm tree that has crashed into the shallows of an ocean--the title is set against a highly saturated sunset

Statistically, Florida is the most dangerous state in America to be a pedestrian. I dare assert that, by some metrics, driving is as deadly a prospect in my home state as any other, too. Perhaps part of the thrill that attracts so many retirees to the state is the looming prospect of termination. Leave it, then, to a writer with the same such yearning for quietus, to write about the state so damn well.

Kent Russell is no stranger to danger. His journalistic work has taken him to far-flung places where his life was almost always at risk. Despite his past, however, Russell’s closest scrapes with life’s end credits likely came in during the writing of his most recent book, In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida. The book is a document of Russell’s journey as he and his two mates, Glen and Noah, walk the state of Florida from the panhandle to the celestial city of Miami. Like a good journalist, in preparation for the journey, Russell consumed as many walking narratives as he could get his hands on. “But in absorbing walking narrative after walking narrative,” he writes, “I came to realize that I loathed walking narratives. I loathed their epiphanies. Their treacly sentimentality. Most especially, I loathed their tropes.” So, what did he do? He wrote an anti-walking narrative. This is a book wherein the author has his internalized walking-narrator moments in the least romantic places: “We passed big-box stores whose approach ways and parking lots were themselves a quarter mile long,” he writes. “We passed prefab homes under construction. Ads for accident and personal injury attorneys. Churches whose signs trucked in automotive metaphors.” In the Land of Good Living is not a story about internalizing a forest bath. Instead, Russell comes to the conclusion that a walking journey should not only be a journey about the self, but also about how the self exists in a built environment.

There’s no place that has a more fraught relationship with its built environment than the home Russell and I share. In Miami, people have a sadomasochistic relationship with the natural world; there is a constant switching of roles between who is dominant and who is submissive. At times, we dredge and mound, destroying natural ecosystems; hurricanes, though, do the same work, while destroying our fabricated ecosystem, too. It’s a relationship Russell expounds upon. Regarding Carl Fisher, the visionary psychopath who developed Miami Beach, he writes, “He brought in men, machinery, two elephants even. Fisher’s work crews blasted, drained, filled in the mangrove swamp and adjacent barrier islands, which had hitherto been Miami’s buffer against hurricanes. Giant steam shovels dredged Biscayne Bay. They dumped shell and muck into new middens. The middens were graded level. Abracadabra! Tabula rasa ex nihilo!

When the author and his tripmates finally arrive in Miami, he expresses a feeling of relief. “Though I didn’t want to jinx it,” he writes, “It was looking more like we’d made it through the most dangerous pedestrian state without getting pizzaed.” This is ironic—if Florida is a game of Frogger, Miami is the most difficult level. It’s forgivable nostalgia from somebody who’s finally made it home after walking for so long.

Russell and I recently spoke about the walk, growing up in Miami, and the role of the reporter. He was staying in the “ped-a-tear or however you pronounce that shit” at his sister’s place in Oregon, passing the time with none other than walks in the woods.

Jason Katz: So, you’re out in Oregon, then?

Kent Russell: It’s weird for Floridians to be out here. I was walking back from my sister’s house the other day. I turned and saw Mt. Hood. This big snow-capped mountain kind of looming in the distance. It’s so big, it just seems to be floating in the air, and it blows my mind every time I see anything that’s larger than the 600 foot pile of garbage we’ve got in South Florida, which is our highest point. One thing, though, about walking along the highway in Florida is that no elevation changes whatsoever is pretty sweet. I didn’t have to trudge up a crumbly steep mountainside with a fifty-pound Patagonia. It was just walking between a Dollar General and a CVS.

JK: It still did damage on your body though, right?

KR: Yeah, you don’t really think about it, but it really does suck to walk on hard asphalt for months. More often than not you’re walking along a sloped road shoulder and doing weird disproportionate damage to different parts of the human body. Not that I would ever compare [it] to anything actually physically taxing, but it was still unpleasant.

JK: Having now read some of your longer-form articles in addition to In the Land of Good Living, I wonder: are you ever concerned about the long-term health effects of the things you do?

KR: No. I’m sure, in a psychological sense, you might say I have a sublimated death drive. I’d probably have died with a smile on my face if I, you know, somebody’s Toyota Tercel had abbed me on the side of the road. I’m not sure how much reported work you’ve done, but for [me] there’s a weird shift in consciousness that takes place when I’m putting myself in peril. As soon as I begin to think of it as like something that may ultimately end up in writing, the synthesized consciousness of myself like no longer worries about it. Or rather, just how it’s going to become grist for something else. When I was conceiving of the Florida trip, I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, I haven’t ran a mile since I was in the eighth grade at St. Hugh in Coconut Grove.”

JK: Would you say you run on pure adrenaline for long periods of time?

KR: I haven’t thought about it like that, but take the Florida walk for instance. Whatever kind of novelty and adrenaline fuel I got when the first couple of cars rushed by at sixty-five miles per hour eighteen inches from my face, it went away as it became routine. The true terror of being a human being is how quickly you can [get] used to walking along the Florida highway.

JK: Talk about growing up in Coconut Grove. At the end of the book you arrive at your childhood home.

 KR: It’s not just Coconut Grove, or even Miami, but Florida in general, since I don’t live there anymore—every time I turn my gaze away for a moment, so much has changed. This has always been true about it, though. Because it’s so wet and it’s so hot, so fecund, if you’re a homeowner and you don’t remain vigilant, you’ll have vines and water damage appear rapidly. It requires vigilance to maintain the illusion that you’re living in paradise. I miss that overhanging greenness of growing up in Coconut Grove.

JK: You mentioned in an online conversation organized by the Coral Gables bookstore Books & Books about In the Land of Good Living with your sister, the author Karen Russell, some funny details about your childhood bedroom. Tell me about those.

KR: Our house was weirdly, like, bifurcated. We called it an upstairs and a downstairs, but it wasn’t like it was two stories, just a long skinny house that slouched towards the water. I lived at the very bottom of, like, the long slouching house and my half was inundated in the storm surge of Hurricane Andrew.

JK: There’s another aspect of your room I’m thinking of that may seem rote to the outside eye, but to the Miami eye, would be world-altering: you had no air conditioning. How do you think that informed the person you are today?

KR: It’s a weird sensation to have, you know. When I was a child, I knew less of it because I got to when I had to go to sleep at night, it was just hot as hell. And I had to have the ceiling fan on full blast. To exist within the actual atmosphere of Florida and to have to accommodate yourself to the environment is something, like you’re saying, not a lot of people do, or want to do. A good case can be made that Miami would not exist in any kind of comparable form were it not for air conditioning because it just sucks so hard down there. My middle school had this summer camp. Well, it was less of a camp than it was just dropping your kids off, and the PE coach and a handful of eighth graders will watch them as they just try and try to murder each other with street hockey sticks on the blacktop. It was ninety-two degrees with full humidity and we’re all wrestling on the blacktop which you can only expose your skin to for two seconds at a time before you experience third-degree burns, and it was completely normal to me then. Now, having been acculturated to air conditioning, you just want to run from your air-conditioned living room to like, the Gap at Sunset Place. So, when I was a child, I for sure I did sense the chewing noise of the hyper fecund greenery outside my windows closing in. As a long-winded way to answer a question of whether or not that affected me. I think it probably put me more in touch with the generative, and not necessarily benign, natural energies that exist in South Florida. You can see when you go to the Everglades. When people talk about nature in a romantic way, like a wave crashing against a cliffside, or a beautiful John Muir forest or some shit, they’re not thinking of a python strangling a Key Deer to death. The lack of A/C just made me a little more cognizant of that side of the “natural” world of Miami.

JK: I recall the change for me too, when, after the hurricanes in 2005, my parents put up hurricane proof glass doors, and I could no longer hear the peacocks shrieking outside.

KR: Yeah, it’s almost like the only thing you can hear is the sibilance when the thermostat clicks, and your feet are on carpet. Like being hermetically sealed in a bubble on a hostile planet. You feel like you’re just in this completely isolated yet safe and comfortable world. That itself has weird psychic reverberations.

JK: It might explain our ability to ignore sea-level rise, like cognitive dissonance is endemic to South Florida.

KR: It was pretty dark outside our house. Not a lot of moonlight gets through the canopy of trees in Coconut Grove, as you know. Our house was lit up like a fucking undersea laboratory at the bottom of the sea. All these like bugs would be bumping against the windows and frogs and lizards would just be suckered onto the windows and once again you just got the sense of being in a colony in the foreign world. It was a weird whiplash between those two feelings, going from being like a sweating swamp ape to an aloof observer in a strange land.

JK: In the book, you talk about this John Muir woods idea of nature. You write, “And you know see Sierra Club, you know these fancy boys sought to repair their sense of lost unity by hiking through pretty scenery.” I don’t necessarily read a negative tone because you are always toeing the line, but I do wonder if a line about the Sierra Club like that, for example—if poking fun at walks through nature versus the kind of walk you did ultimately undermines what the Sierra Club might do for the environment in some way. In your Books & Books chat with Karen, you referred to this type of thing as “finding the Godhead” in nature. I guess this is a convoluted way of asking, although it may seem corny, if this connection with nature could actually be good for a place like Miami, for example.

KR: Oh, certainly. It’s just in everything I write. I’m creating a narrative consciousness that doesn’t map perfectly onto my own. I wanted to poke fun at certain kinds of walking narratives. If I’m poking fun at anything, it’s not necessarily to denigrate the Sierra Club—it’s more to invert the thematic and narrative thrust of certain kinds of walking narratives where you were using the wilderness almost like a green screen in which to find yourself. I felt like I [wanted] to invert that simply because, like, having read so many walking narratives in preparation for the trip I was like, Jesus Christ I hate this shit. There was definitely an element of overexposure. It’s inversion of narrative and tying it thematically in with the rest of the book. The idea that Florida exists as a place in which one, at least theoretically, is supposed to come and find [one’s] true self, live freely like you can’t live in other parts of the country or other parts of the world—it positions itself as this individualistic paradise. Inasmuch as I’m, like, taking a dump on the Sierra Club, it was all in service of the idea that we shouldn’t just turn inward when we walk, that we should look outward and understand our connection to what we see.

JK: I appreciate that about your style.

KR: That irascible killjoy attitude is more an affectation of that narrative persona than anything I actually believe.

JK: In your book about a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with your mother and sister, What is Due the Other, there’s a scene where your sister steals your notebook and chastises you for the way you “essentialize” some of the people on your trip. I wonder if you have left any anger in your wake, working as a reporter. To bring it back to the Florida story, there’s Captain Dale, an absurd character who probably isn’t offended by the way he’s depicted, but what about others?

KR: Nobody has ever summed up the work of reporting better than Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer. The entire quote escapes me, but fundamentally she said anybody who isn’t a sociopathic narcissist, or a total fucking idiot, recognizes that there is something deeply problematic about this. The journalist shows interest in the subject and the subject agrees to tell them their story, believing that the journalist is just a totally sympathetic ear that is going to help them present their case to the world like a lawyer. Malcolm then describes the subject as the wealthy dowager who wakes up in the morning and finds that her new husband has taken off and absconded all the jewelry. The journalist wasn’t actually entirely sympathetic, but rather a human being filtering my story, cross checking it, and fitting it into other narratives. It’s a fundamentally instrumentalized relationship. In the last ten years, most people have gotten more media savvy though. Celebrities have total control over their platforms. How can a profile being written about them be beneficial? In a lot of ways now, that relationship between subject and journalist has been destroyed. That’s how I rationalize my own vampiristic behavior. I have family members now be like, “Are you taking notes, you asshole?” The people closest to you may ultimately trust you a little less. Kind of like a wolf in the henhouse. It comes with the territory.

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