Known by the pen name E.J. Russell, she writes male-male romances that are getting national attention.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Ellen Russell, better known by her pen name E.J. Russell, is an award-nominated author of same-sex romantic fiction who lives near Gaston.For the past few years, a Gaston woman lived a double life.

By day, she was Ellen Russell, working in IT. By night: E.J. Russell, author of an ever-growing number of books in an emerging subsection of the romance genre.

"It's not something that I publicized for a number of years," said Russell, who retired last fall and has now dedicated herself full-time to writing. "I didn't want to sort of jeopardize the business relationships that Perkins Consulting had."

With a laugh, she added, "Also, because I don't like talking about myself."

Russell discovered romance novels after purchasing her first Amazon Kindle about 10 years ago, she said. A lifelong writer with more than a passing interest in writing books — she had an idea for a fantasy trilogy she had started to write not long before, she said — Russell began to try her hand at making her own contributions to the genre. She started attending meetings of the local chapter of the Romance Writers of America, Rose City Romance Writers, in 2011.

At first, Russell tried writing "traditional" romances involving a man and a woman. But after reading a romance novella by prolific author Suzanne Brockmann that depicted a relationship between two men, she began making forays into the male-male romance sub-genre. It didn't take long before she was picked up by Riptide Publishing, a boutique publisher that specializes in LGBTQ fiction.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Ellen Russell shows off her award-nominated book The Druid Next Door, written under her pseudonym E.J. Russell. The novel is a finalist for a 2018 RITA Award, the top honor in American romance writing.Conceptualizing gay relationships between men isn't difficult for Russell, she said. Two of her three children are gay, as was a close friend in high school and several other friends from her time in the theater world.

"One of the questions that people will ask you is, 'Oh, where do you get your ideas?' It's just like when you're an actor, they say, 'Oh, I couldn't remember all those lines. How do you remember those lines?'" Russell said. "As if those were the hardest things to do. And usually, getting the idea, remembering the lines, is the easiest part of the creative process."

Russell identifies with romance novels because she is put off by unhappy endings, she said.

"One of the things I've discovered about myself is that I don't like it when things end badly," she said with a wry smile. "My husband really wanted me to watch 'Breaking Bad.' And it was like, 'Nope, can't do it. I know that there's no way that that can end well.' And romances always end well. I mean, that's one of the promises that any romance author makes to their readers is that there's going to be a happy-ever-after by the time you get to the end."

Growing up in conservative Orange County, Calif., Russell said she chafed under societal expectations that she was supposed to be subservient to men, both romantically and professionally.

"I had been raised in sort of the 'old-school' way," said Russell, who later met her husband while working in theater. "My mother's telling me when I start dating someone, 'You be sure and do what he wants to do,' even though before then, it was a good thing for me to be high-achieving. ... The whole sexual dynamic gets put into it."

What Russell said she likes about writing romances between two men is that, narratively and in the eyes of readers, they start out as "equal."

"One of the things I find most interesting about it is that it removes the politics that is inherent in the power dynamic between men and women," Russell said.

Many gay romances deal with "heavy" issues, like coming out, Russell said. She avoids that kind of angst in her stories, recalling the relative lack of drama when her identical twin sons came out — one of them while he was in high school in Beaverton, the other while he was attending college on the East Coast. All of her protagonists are out, she said.

As she put it in a column for The Huffington Post in 2016: "Although I'm an author who writes primarily gay romance, where angst-filled coming-out stories are a stock-in-trade, I'll probably never write one myself. Not because those stories aren't important, or meaningful, or sometimes heartbreaking for the people involved, but because I don't want to write about a world where it's a big deal. I want it to be a given — you are who you are, you don't have to hide, and although there might still be idiots in the world who are living in the Dark Ages, you don't have to let them into your story."

While her family's experience has informed the way she handles issues like out versus closeted homosexuality in her writing, Russell does not base any of her characters, in whole or in part, on her children. Like virtually all authors, she writes characters that reflect aspects of herself and people she knows, or people she used to know.

"But not my kids," she added, laughing.

Her sons and daughter provide input in a different way, Russell said. Whenever her latest book is published, she texts them to read it and tell her what they think.

"They're not afraid to tell me if they don't like something about the book," Russell said. "But they'll also tell me when they like them, which is nice."

Russell has lived in rural Gaston for nearly 30 years. She has shared what she does with a few neighbors, she said, but as a self-described introvert, she hasn't ever really talked to people in town about her writing. She spends much of her time just writing in her country home. It takes her about a month to write a novel once she has plotted it all out, she said.

Twelve of Russell's books in total have now been published, with 10 of them currently in print.

Although she's now firmly a romance writer, she hasn't given up on her love of fantasy — one of her recent books is titled "The Druid Next Door," and it is a finalist in the "paranormal" category of the 2018 RITA Awards. Winners will be announced in Denver July 19.

"My editor at Riptide is saying, 'Well, your niche is kind of paranormal romantic comedy,'" Russell said. "There's always a component of humor and snark, because if it's not fun, why bother?"

This is Russell's first nomination for an award, she said.

"I was pretty amazed," Russell said.

Russell's latest book, "Tested in Fire," was released Monday, April 2.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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