Monday, July 3, 2023

Q&A with Debbie Russell




Debbie Russell is the author of the new book Crossing Fifty-One: Not Quite a Memoir. It focuses on her family history as well as her own life. Also a lawyer, she was a county prosecutor in Minneapolis for 25 years. 


Q: Your book's subtitle is “Not Quite a Memoir.” Can you say more about that, and about the title itself?


A: I’d first like to quote from a review I received: “Crossing Fifty-One evolves a methodology, tone, and approach that avoids the usual self-indulgent feel of memoirs and traverses into psychological revelations and contrasts that allow Russell's readers to better consider the impact of past encounters on present-day relationship patterns.”


I was ecstatic to receive this assessment, because, in my opinion, for memoir to be of service to others, it can’t just be focused inward. I started out creating subtitles that read like textbooks and I didn’t like the overall tone.


If I had used the typical subtitle “A Memoir,” I’m not sure I’d have gotten all the interest I’ve received. I didn’t want to be self-indulgent, and I wanted people to be curious. I came up with Crossing Fifty-One very early in the project when I realized my grandfather was also 51 when he went into treatment.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: My best source was a wonderful book called The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts. I never stopped being amazed that my physician/surgeon grandfather would voluntarily admit himself to a prison-type facility. After reading about the narcotic farms, I could see that they were quite unique in their approach to drug addiction.


The other big surprise came while I was researching my grandfather and learned that my dad had been federally indicted for bringing marijuana across the border between Mexico and California. I don’t think I would have ever discovered it, had he and my grandfather not shared the same name.


Q: The writer Deborah Burns said of the book, “The generational threads that can bind us together or tear us apart take center stage in this raw and honest midlife reckoning.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think she nailed it! When I compare my dad’s side of the family to that of my mom’s, those “threads” are so much stronger. There are a lot of unknowns on my mom’s side, which I think, over time, caused those threads to fray.


My dad’s ancestors wrote everything down, almost excessively. Even my grandfather documented his experience in rehab through the letters before they were tucked away for 60 years or so. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a blog on Substack, where I write short pieces about things that pop into my head.  I’ve also started my next book tentatively titled Surviving Senser: A True Crime Travel Adventure, which is about the biggest case of my legal career and the biggest national dog agility event I’ve ever been to. They happened to occur at the same time, in early 2012.


I’m hoping to knock out a first draft this winter, as there’s not much else to do in Minnesota winters!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think there’s something in Crossing Fifty-One that will appeal to anyone living in a family, but especially those in midlife.  The themes of perseverance and love come through, as well as the message that it’s never too late to make dreams come true.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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