Richard Russo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist. Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small upstate town that once produced ninety percent of the nation’s dress gloves in its factories. Much of his work is inspired by his experiences of small town, working-class life. He has published seven novels, two short story collections, and the memoir Elsewhere (2012). His novel Empire Falls won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and was later adapted into an HBO miniseries based on his screenplay, and starring Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Helen Hunt. His most recent novel, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), is the sequel to Nobody’s Fool (1994), and will be published in Spring 2016. Russo serves as a vice president on the Author’s Guild Board of Directors, and is the fundraising chairman for the Gloversville Public Library. He received his BA, MFA in Creative Writing, and PhD in English at the University of Arizona. He has taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois and Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He has two daughters and lives with his wife in Portland, Maine.
Erin Anadkat Schwartz interviewed Russo in-person on June 19, 2015, during the June 2015 residency at Antioch University Los Angeles.
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We stopped for a lunch of brisket, BBQ chicken, and pulled pork sandwiches—with sodas from the coolest soda machine I have ever seen—at Chop Daddy’s BBQ in Culver City, during the weekday lunch rush. The conversation first started over a jumble of lunchtime chatter, obtrusive sirens, and other resounding LA traffic noise in the background, while ’90s music like U2, Bryan Adams, and The Bangles blared on the jukebox inside. Our talk ran the gamut: bizarre Gloversville-insider stories and scandals; a restoration project Russo is working on for the Gloversville library, built by Andrew Carnegie in 1905; ways of building thriving communities where artists can survive; the Somali population in Portland, Maine; the government-in-exile of Somalia, now partly relocated in Minneapolis.
Erin Anadkat Schwartz: Do you find it a challenging process when another writer adapts your novels to screenplays?
Richard Russo: I tried everything to get somebody else to do the screenplay for Empire Falls. It was Paul Newman who actually talked me into [doing it]—like, how do you say no to Paul Newman? [laughter]
ES: I don’t think you can.
RR: He kept saying that if I didn’t do it, there’s a decent chance it wasn’t going to get done. It was part of—it was done for HBO, and they were going to obviously be spending a lot of money on it, and . . . but anyway, he asked me if I would do it, and I said yes, and I did it. And when it came out, and I still feel this way about it—it seemed to me that number one, I loved it, I loved what they did with it. But I thought the actors were wonderful, Fred Schepisi did a wonderful job, I thought, directing. The only thing that wasn’t fresh about it, it seemed to me, was the writing . . . I would have loved for—because the book was so long . . . Thankfully, we didn’t have to condense it to two hours like you would with a normal movie, we had three and a half hours to work with. I had worked on that book for so long, and I had solved so many problems in the novel in a particular way, that by the time it came to write the screenplay, I just don’t think I was very fresh on it anymore. And I tended to solve the problems of the miniseries in much the same way that I solved the problems of the novel.
[blockquote align=left]What I’m asking of the reader is to dream really deeply . . . and at the end of it, come up out of it as if waking from a dream, but which you look around at the real world and say, wow, I was asleep for a really long time there, and that was such a vivid dream. Ok, now I’m back in reality.
I’ve done a couple screenplays based on other people’s work. When I did a screenplay of the Ice Harvest, based on Scott Phillips’s novel, I found that I was able to take a book which I loved, and I was able to look at that and see some things that could be cut . . . And it was all fine in the novel, but for the screenplay—because it was going to be an hour and a half, an hour and forty-five minutes—I just saw some things that could be cut. If that had been my own work, I doubt I would have been able to see that, only a few fresh set of eyes coming in would have seen that kind of trim. And that’s my only regret about Empire Falls, really, because those actors were so brilliant, was that I think an outside screenwriter would have probably been able to see some different solutions to the same problems that I didn’t see.
After navigating LA traffic back to the Antioch campus, we continued the rest of the interview in a room with less surround sound. Earlier that morning, Russo had been featured in a Q&A session led by Antioch faculty member Peter Nichols, whose novel The Rocks was published in Spring 2015 by Penguin.
ES: During the Q&A earlier, you mentioned, regarding your relationship with your father, that it was important for you to avoid nursing “unproductive grudges.” What did you mean by that?
RR: He was an interesting guy . . . in the sense that he had an ability to treat other people, to whom he had no particular enforceable obligation, as if they were related to him, in much the way Sully does with Rub in Nobody’s Fool. In Nobody’s Fool, Sully’s son Peter has not been a part of his life for a long time. And Peter, at the beginning of the book, has just returned. The event that sets events in motion, sets the plot in motion really, is the return of Sully’s son. But one of the things that Sully has done in his son’s and his wife’s absence, is to manage to create another substitute family. He’s got Rub, who is not really his son, but whom he treats like a son. And he has a woman to whom he’s not really married and has no enforceable obligations, but there she is, in place of his wife. And he’s done that on a couple of other levels, with other people too.
But for Sully, and I think too for my father, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to give people things. He was an incredibly generous person with money, and really with everything, he was incredibly generous with his time. He was the kind of guy if somebody needed desperately to get someplace that’s a two-hour drive, because somebody in the family was sick and the kid needed to get there, something like that, he’d say come on, hop in, he’d take him. He was incredibly generous. But he shied away from enforceable obligations. He would be generous when the generosity was his free choice, but he disliked being told he had to do something because of convention or because he was married or because he was a father. And if you just hung around, you would not only know his generosity, you would be the beneficiary of his generosity. But . . . after the war I think he was all through being obligated.
ES: As writers, we sometimes have emotional obstacles that are difficult to confront and that can get in the way of writing. Did your relationship with your father ever feel like an obstacle for you?
RR: No, no. If there was an obstacle, it was more my mother than my father. My father, I recognized, even long before I wanted to become a writer, I recognized my father as a wonderful source of entertainment. I’m really deeply indebted to both my mother and my father in terms of becoming a writer, because it was my mother who made me a reader. And I certainly wasn’t going to be a writer without first being a reader. She was the one who filled our apartment with books. When she was dog-tired after a long workday and could’ve easily been forgiven for sitting down and watching at 10 o’clock at night, for watching an hour, hour and a half’s worth of television, she was always the one who grabbed a book and read. I was able to read, and was able to check out books at the library. I was just a voracious reader, and I have my mother to thank for that . . . .
What my father did was that he gave me something to write about. Because he was a genuine rogue, he was off the rails, many times. He was the kind of guy whose name would be in the paper on Sunday mornings sometimes, or Saturday after Friday night . . . He had a way of making people feel good about themselves, feel special, even if it was for a very short period of time . . . I think that the way I did things with him, resulted in the best possible outcome, as opposed to my mother, where everything I did was wrong. If I had to do that over again, I would do it all differently.
ES: What kind of books did your mother like to read?
RR: There were some wonderful books that she would read, some of which I still go back and revisit from time to time. She wasn’t what I would call a reader of literature as we would commonly define it, I don’t think. But she did love well-written books, which meant that she gravitated to the kinds of books that were very well written, but very hopeful. Very entertaining, hopefully that took place far away, sometimes in space, sometimes in time. Someplace that allowed her, after an incredibly long workday full of obligations and often not a great deal of success, some place that she could escape to. So she used to love—and I still do sometimes too, a kind of a guilty pleasure, to read some of those books from what people now refer to as the Golden Age of British crime fiction. She was very down the nose about Agatha Christie, but for her, a writer like Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh.
A lot of those writers—Dorothy Sayers—those writers who in the last twenty years, whose profiles have been raised by all those wonderful PBS renditions of those works. She loved those. And as I say, I don’t look down my nose at those, they’re wonderfully entertaining books, and I’ll go back and revisit them from time to time, partly because I still admire them. And partly because she loved them so much, I want to go back and just refresh my memory about what meant so much to her, what she liked about those things. And how important it was for her to leave the confines of her own small existence, which was becoming smaller and smaller and smaller as the years went by, to escape into a world of possibility, and great acts of danger and derring-do, and a good love story, ended up with the right couple together at the end—oh, wow.
ES: Are you a 9-to-5 kind of writer—what’s your daily process like?
RR: It has a lot to do with where I am in the process. When I’m beginning something, if I’m at the beginning of a novel, first draft, first two hundred pages, I am pretty easygoing at the beginning. If I get two good pages in a day at the beginning of the novel, I feel really good about that. And if I get those in the mornings, I’ll revise them in the afternoon, and if I’m done early and I’ve only worked three hours for that day, that’s perfectly fine. In the beginning.
By the time I’m at draft, whatever, where I have a completed manuscript, and I can both see and smell the finish line, by that time I’m working much, much longer hours. And part of that is because I’m not inventing anymore, at that point I’m revising revisions, and there’s still the occasional surprise. It’s wonderful when that happens, especially towards the end. But for the most part, I now have just a certain number of tasks to perform, and at that point, I will be working long hours every day . . . so I might be working eight or nine hours towards the end, as opposed to three hours at the beginning. But at the beginning, I’m quite happy to be done at the end of three hours, or three and a half hours, whereas towards the end, if I’m working three times, I still have the feeling I’m not working hard enough. So when you get to that point, or when I get to that point, it becomes important to soldier through.
My friend Jess Walter, I was talking with him one day, and he said that the closer he gets to the end of a book, the earlier he gets up. When he’s working on a novel towards the beginning, he’s perfectly happy to get up at a reasonable hour, read the newspaper, make breakfast for the kids, all that. If he sits down to write by ten o’clock, that’s perfectly fine. By the time he’s close to finishing a book, he’s up at four in the morning. And I don’t do that, but that’s . . . the difference between how hard you work, depending on where you are in the process . . .
There are times in a novel where you don’t know that you have it in you, for some reason or other, you’re just in a point in the book where you don’t know what comes next, or whatever’s going on, and you just think, Oh God, can I do this? By the time you get to the end like that, you know you can do it, it’s just a matter of working through the necessary tasks, to putting in the necessary hours. And when you do that you get to go back to the beginning, which is the most fun.
ES: Is that your favorite part of the process [the beginning]?
RR: By a longshot.
ES: What is your relationship like in working with your editor?
RR: My editor, who’s been with me for all except three books in the middle, he did Mohawk, and then he left Random House and went somewhere else . . . and then he came back . . . and then all the other books have been with Gary [Fisketjon]. And he is an absolutely brilliant stylistic, page-to-page, line-to-line editor. We really have very little discussion about what happens in the book, unless there’s just something that’s not clear. He feels that once I’ve got the story, once I’ve got the characters doing what they should be doing, and have a satisfying resolution, he really doesn’t want anything to do with the story itself. He wants to help me with style, making sure that everything is as clear, as clean as it can possibly be.
He leaves virtually no sentence of mine unedited, not because he wants me to do everything the way he’s suggesting, but because he wants me to have options. And so he’ll—computers, interestingly, have been really helpful to him in editing—he’ll do a word search, discounting small words like “and” and “the,” but [targeting] substantive words. He’ll do a search on that and find out the frequency of words. So if you have an unusual word, and it turns up fifteen times in the book, it probably shouldn’t . . . so he’ll be on the lookout for those kinds of things. He’s wonderful . . . he’s got a great ear. If a word turns up too often, every time it does it’s a “ding” in the back of his mind, and he’ll be looking for that, to make sure that if words turn up more than they should, it’s because they’re important in terms of the theme, or something like that. He’s a meticulous editor, he’s a really old-school editor, I don’t know many editors anymore that do that kind of line-by-line work.
ES: How long does the editing process usually take?
RR: It takes a while. I think he told me one time that seven to ten pages of edits, for him, is a pretty good day. So if he’s getting five hundred and sixty pages from me, it’s going to take him a while to edit that. I suspect he probably forces himself into longer days when he gets a book from me than when he gets, say, a Kent Haruf novel. And it could be that Kent Haruf is a lot cleaner writer than I am, but he’s edited Kent, and he’s edited Richard Ford, and Donna Tartt, and a whole slew of writers with very different styles. He’s very meticulous. And I’m really grateful to him, it makes my work on the second and third go-arounds, it gives me more to do, but the end product is much better than it would be if he weren’t doing all that heavy lifting.
ES: How did your first novel get to your agent?
RR: I’ve been blessed. I’ve had two editors, only one agent. My agent is one of the very few that really scours the literary magazines. And just as Steve [Heller, chair of the AULA MFA program] published that early story of mine in Mid-American Review, and it might have been that, that my agent Nat Sobel saw, and said when you have a novel, let me know. And Nat has always subscribed, because he likes to support these literary magazines, which are kind of feeders for the mainstream. They’re kind of really wonderful little, babbling brooks that are going to eventually form a much larger river. And he’s always subscribed to between eighty to one hundred literary magazines. And he doesn’t read every word of every issue, but he reads around every issue, and if it’s fiction published in a literary magazine, even with a small circulation, there’s a pretty good chance he’s either read it, or read some of it. He found this [Russo’s short story “The Top of the Tree” was published in the first issue of Mid-American Review in 1981 – ES] in Mid-American Review at the time, it had probably a circulation of three hundred. And without any particular reason of thinking a story by Richard Russo would be good, he read it. He’s eight-three, I think, and he’s still doing it.
ES: I find there is a mix of humor and seriousness in your work. Do you consider yourself a comic writer at all?
RR: I consider myself a comic writer, but actually in the more classical sense of comedy, as opposed to tragedy. Comedy in the Shakespearean sense means that it’s just much more likely to end with a wedding. In that, comedy is essentially hopeful, which can be trying to find the optimism and, especially, if you’re going to go to dark places . . .
And for the comic writer, that’s the trick I think: to end a book, if not with a wedding, at least with the possibility of happiness. These people have gone on a journey, and they can’t arrive either right where they started or with some sort of truly tragic consequences, not after they’ve worked so hard. And so you’re looking for that.
You’re not trying to tie everything up in a pretty bow and pretend that things are better than they are. But you want to acknowledge, I think the comic writer wants to acknowledge, the possibility that hard work ends if not happiness, at least the possibility thereof. When I say I’m a comic writer, I’d like to think it’s that, because I’m sometimes funny, but more importantly than that is my view—my comic view of life—is guardedly hopeful.
You get challenged in that. Yesterday was a challenging day, with what happened in South Carolina. [The day before this interview, nine people were killed by a gunman during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.] It was just a challenging day. You saw Jon Stewart went on last night and didn’t have a thing to say. And the president came out and spoke, saying essentially that [he’s] been here too often. And there’s a time when humor fails, but most of the time . . . . There’s just no place to go with pessimism, is there?
ES: Tell me about the book you collaborated on with your daughter, Kate.
RR: We did this collection called Interventions—three short stories and a novella-size thing. I really wanted the emphasis to be on the art. So she did—there’s an illustration, each story contains an illustration, and then there’s also cover art for each piece, and it all slips into a beautiful slipcase, and her husband Tom did the book’s design, it was kind of a family project. I would give her the story and without instruction say, make of this what you will. It was a lot of fun to do that, it was with a small press, but it was an enormous amount of fun to do. And better yet, when the book came out, we did a regional book tour with it in New England, which meant I got to spend close to a month on the road with her flogging this book. And of course all the years she watched me go out on the road with book tours and everything, and then to do one together with her was just a kick. I think by the time we were done she was glad it was over, because it can be grueling to be away from home for a long period of time . . . she was beginning to recognize what all that was about.
But I would love to do another book with her at some point, because one of the things that I think is happening as result of eBooks, is that print publishers are really striving to find out what’s the added value of a print book. If you can do it all with ones and zeroes and you don’t have to kill a tree to do it, and it costs so much less . . . if you’re going to sell a $30 hardback, what’s the added value of that? And so we’re beginning to see now books that are really beautiful. Not the most recent, but the Murakami novel before that that was incredibly beautiful—
ES: We were just passing that around yesterday!
—I think we may be moving towards an era in which the glory days of books being illustrated by artists, think of those wonderful N.C. Wyeth illustrations, books like Treasure Island, those books were just incredible works of art. That’s one of the directions that print book could be going in, to give added value—because an image on the screen is just not the same thing, is it?
ES: You mentioned in an interview with Down East magazine that one of your favorite short stories you’ve written is “Sister Ursula.” Why so?
RR: Part of it is that I don’t write short stories very well. I have a really difficult time holding on to the reigns tightly enough to keep it from being a novella or a novel. I’ve been at this long enough to know that my vision is expansive. Some writers start in a small frame and they just go deeper and deeper and deeper into the frame, but the frame never gets that much larger. I, on the other hand, tend to start with that same small frame, but very soon the frame is just blown out. I’m not maybe going that much deeper, but it’s suddenly, you’re in the world of a mural now . . . .
And so, I’m particularly proud of that story, first of all because it’s a successful short story, and I’m almost never able to do that. But part of it, too, is just Sister Ursula, she’s this wonderful woman, she’s an eighty-year-old Belgian nun, and she comes into this guy’s short story writing class determined to tell a story that she herself doesn’t know the meaning of. It’s the story of her and her mother—and her father—but primarily her mother. And she has the tremendous desire to share with the other writers—despite the fact that they’re all kids—the other writers in the class and her instructor. She has this overwhelming desire to share her story, and her parents’ story, without ever suspecting for a moment that she doesn’t understand what it is. And she embodies for me a lot of people who would like to do that, the storytelling urge . . . Sister Ursula is one of the most heartbreaking characters I’ve ever had the privilege to hang out with for a time, because she is so desperate to understand something she doesn’t understand. She thinks by telling this story that she’s sharing something very important with other people, and what she’s really doing is just entering a terrible voyage of self-discovery. I just so enjoyed my time with her.
ES: As a traditional fiction novelist, how would you say autobiography comes into play in your work?
RR: In traditional stories, I think it’s kind of assumed that if you’re doing what everybody tells you you should do, which is write what you know, then writing what you know is part and parcel of your own experience. It’s kind of assumed that if not you, then someone you spent a lot time with or whatever, there’s some core of reality from which you are going out like the spokes of the wheel. But you don’t jump from the air into the air, you jump from the ground into the air, which means whatever your ground situation is, it’s probably based in some way in experience—yours or someone that’s close to you. But the most important thing, of course, is that you’re giving that person a name that’s not yours.
What I’m asking of the reader is to dream really deeply . . . and at the end of it, come up out of it as if waking from a dream, but which you look around at the real world and say, wow, I was asleep for a really long time there, and that was such a vivid dream. Ok, now I’m back in reality.
I think what the post-modern novel does when it incorporates autobiography in a much more blatant way, and a writer, for instance, uses his or her own name as a character in the book, something as obvious as that—I think what that writer is saying is, don’t dream too deeply. I want you to be aware that this is a construct, right from the beginning. This is a construct, and it is a story—don’t confuse it with real life, and if I ever get going too far where you get too caught up in it, I’m going to wake you up. Just to let you know, I’m going to wake you up. And then they’ll proceed to do that, whether it’s Borges, or whoever will tell you that I’m going to tell you a story, it is a story, I’m going to remind you that it’s a story, and then after that I’m going to remind you again—and oh, by the way, the main character’s name is Borges. They’re both [traditional and post-modern] using autobiography, but I think they have two completely objectives.
ES: What is your connection to Gloversville now, outside of your work?
RR: I’m going home a lot more now, it’s easier for me. After my father died, it was difficult because I would just see him careening around corners as I negotiated those same streets. And while my mother was alive, she hated the place so much, it made it difficult for me to go back, and for a long time, I just didn’t, even though I have family there, and friends there, I just didn’t go. I’m going a lot more now, back a lot more now than I used to . . . the family that I have left there, my cousins that I’m close to, every time I go back there I run into someone I liked. And during the time when I wasn’t going back, people used to ask me all the time, how come I never come home? And I would say, what are you talking about, haven’t you been reading these books? [laughs] I’m always there. Can’t you see that, every day of my life, for the last twenty-five or thirty years. I’m just not physically present, but I’m certainly there all the time. In that sense, can you ever leave? Well, I tried, for all the good it did me, and now I’m not trying anymore to leave, made some sort of peace. It has something to do with my parents’ death, and affection for my remaining relatives and friends. But also for, as I said, I had a wonderful childhood there . . . .
For a long time, people who read Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Nobody’s Fool, in particular my early novels, and then again with Bridge of Sighs, which is my most Gloversville, Gloversville-novel—people have told me that these books, my writing of these books, has validated their lives in the sense that they realized someone was paying attention. Everybody else was chasing money, or chasing status, or was chasing all the things that people chase, the chimeras that people chase.
And the kinds of people that I write about are not any of those people. The fact that I chose to write about them, and their lives, and treated them with the kind of dignity for how hard their lives were, and all of that, that meant a lot to them. And many of them were grateful to me for that. I think now that I’ve been able to go home and do some other things in person, I think that means as much, or possibly even more. That going back in the flesh has meant a lot to a lot of people. I kind of wish I’d done it sooner, but . . . . One of the things that I noticed when I went back to do this work for the library is that my physical presence meant a lot . . . . I found that if there’s a way to turn fame into something productive in terms of community and society, then why not do it? I don’t see what the counter-argument is at that point.