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Tent cured Solana Beach author’s pandemic writer’s block. Now she’s bringing others inside

Solana Beach novelist Ona Russell, right, conducts an interview with New York Times bestselling author Tod Goldberg
Solana Beach novelist Ona Russell, right, conducts an interview with New York Times bestselling author Tod Goldberg in her backyard tent for Russell’s “Authors in the Tent” YouTube series.
(Nancee E. Lewis / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ona Russell interviewed five colleagues, including NYT best-selling writer Tod Goldberg, for ‘Authors in the Tent’ video series

Over the past 17 years, Solana Beach author Ona Russell has published four historical and mystery novels, which she wrote between her other jobs as a literature professor and a mediator.

Then came the pandemic, and along with it a massive case of writer’s block. Before, Russell’s home office and her bed had been her writing “retreat,” but suddenly in lockdown they became her prison, and the words wouldn’t come. Russell decided she needed a change of scenery for inspiration to strike once again, even if it was only in her backyard.

With her husband, Dean, she bought a no-frills Coleman pop-up tent, dragged some patio furniture inside, set up a writing station and her new outdoor studio was born. Right away, she got the spark to write again, and she was quickly back at work on her fifth novel.

“Like everybody, I was adjusting to the new reality of being rather housebound. For writers, being housebound is a daily routine, but the forced nature of it was a different ballgame,” Russell said. “But once we put the furniture inside the tent, things started shifting for me. I started having my tea brought out there and brought my writing stuff out there and then magically — or at least it felt magical to me — I started to break through.”

Russell wrote an essay about this experience called “In the Tent,” which was one of the 10 winning entries in the San Diego Public Library’s pandemic-born San Diego Decameron Project last fall. The writing contest was based on “The Decameron, a 14th-century book by Giovanni Boccaccio about 10 young Florentines who flee the plague-ravaged city and, as they wait for the outbreak to pass, they keep each other entertained by telling 10 short stories apiece.

Russell said the tent changed the way she thought about writing and the world around her, and she began wondering how other authors had fared during the pandemic and how their environment affects their work. So she came up with an idea she calls “Authors in the Tent.” On Saturday, she invited five Southern California writers to come inside her tent for a series of interviews that were filmed for a YouTube series that she hopes to post on her YouTube channel beginning in mid-June.

Authors in the Tent: Tod Goldberg, left, Quan Huynh, Patricia Santana, Amy Wallen, Ona Russell and Dennis Crosby.
Ona Russell, second from right, poses in her backyard tent with fellow authors, left to right, Tod Goldberg, Quan Huynh, Patricia Santana, Amy Wallen and Dennis Crosby. Russell interviewed the writers for a YouTube series launching in mid-June called “Authors in the Tent.”
(Nancee E. Lewis/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The five authors who agreed to do interviews in Russell’s tent write in different genres and come from different ethnic backgrounds. They range from first-time novelists to top-selling veterans. The first author she reached out to was Tod Goldberg, who is a household name in book circles. The Indio-based writer has written a dozen desert-inspired novels, including “Gangsterland,” “Living Dead Girl” and the popular “Burn Notice” series, and is the co-host of the podcast “Literary Disco.”

“I only knew Tod through reputation and once served on a panel with him. We were Facebook friends, but friends. I thought, why not start at the top? There are some authors who would have said no, but Tod ended up being a generous spirit,” she said.

The other authors interviewed included Orange County resident Quan Huynh, whose memoir “Sparrow in the Razor Wire: Finding Freedom from Within While Serving a Life Sentence” chronicled how he transformed his life after 22 years in and out of prison; South Park resident Amy Wallen, whose third book “How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies” will be out soon; University City resident Patricia Santana, who has written several young adult fiction novels; and North Park resident Dennis K. Crosby, a former private investigator who just published his first urban fantasy novel.

Russell said she asked each of the authors five questions, including about their background, their writing genre, the role that space and place plays in their novels and their thoughts on whether authors should write about characters of different ethnicities than their own. She also asked each author to bring along something that represented their favorite hobby. In the case of Wallen, that meant bringing along a fresh-baked pie.

Russell said she’s so pleased with how this first group of “Authors in a Tent” came together, she’s already lined up interviews with five more authors for a second season that will be filming in September.

To learn more about Russell, visit onarussell.com. “Authors in the Tent” episodes are expected to be available in mid-June by visiting YouTube.com and searching “Ona Russell.”

Author Tod Goldberg, left, being interviewed by novelist Ona Russell in her backyard tent in Solana Beach on May 29.
New York Times-bestselling author Tod Goldberg, left, being interviewed by novelist Ona Russell in her backyard tent in Solana Beach on May 29.
(Nancee E. Lewis/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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