Richard Russo

Richard Russo’s expansive portraits of small-town life are at the heart of a shelf of novels — including Mohawk, Nobody’s Fool, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls — set in fictional communities the author populates with “his favorite shirkers, burghers, complainers and human tumbleweeds,” as Janet Maslin once put it. With their all-too-human failings, these are characters we recognize and root for, rebuff and condemn, often in quick succession.

In his latest work of fiction, That Old Cape Magic, Russo canvasses a wider range of settings, including Hollywood, Indiana, Connecticut, and Boston, but one eye is always fixed on the easternmost tip of Massachusetts, where Cape Cod embodies the memories and hopes — often shifting and unclear — of screenwriter Jack Griffin and his extended family.

In a set of conversations with Cameron Martin, Richard Russo spoke about the public-private nature of marriage explored in his new novel; the future of fiction; a possible memoir, and his friendship with the late Paul Newman, who starred in several film adaptations of Russo’s works. The exchanges took place in July 2009, via e-mail.

The Barnes & Noble Review: How did winning the Pulitzer Prize affect your subsequent writing? It’s hard to imagine you’d be able to write without consciously wondering (and maybe worrying) if the new writing rises to the level of such highly recognized work. Do you consider Empire Falls your best novel?

Richard Russo: Fortunately, I was a couple hundred pages into Bridge of Sighs before I learned about the Pulitzer, so I didn’t have to ask myself what my next book should be. There was some additional pressure in the sense that there were at least two dozen other novels worthy of the prize, and I didn’t want my next book to be evidence that the committee had made a grave error. That said, I didn’t worry inordinately. Novelists — especially novelists who paint on a broad canvas — are generally not given to undue anxiety, I think. The task is so enormous that if we ever really thought about what we were letting ourselves in for, we’d never begin. Early on we learn to worry only about what we do today. If I get my two or three pages written on Monday my day’s work is done. It’s useless to worry about Friday or four years from Friday. Pages need our attention; books take care of themselves. So for the next several years I inched my way through Bridge of Sighs in pretty much the same manner as I’d done with all the other novels, an ant building a hill, full of dumb faith. Was Empire Falls my best novel? Well, it was my most ambitious. Its private narrative fit snuggly inside a larger public one. But ambitious isn’t always the same as best, and I’m happy to let readers decide.

BNR: You’d published four novels before Empire Falls, and had success in films and television as well before winning the Pulitzer Prize. Did it take winning the award for you to say to yourself, “OK, I have nothing left to prove,” or did that come with a mix of earlier successes?

RR: There was a point in my early career when I’d have willingly made a pact with the devil. If he’d give me one published novel (at the time, Mohawk), I’d have said, okay, that’s it; I won’t ask for another thing. I’d have continued to write, of course, but in terms of “success,” that one published book — proof that I was a writer and not just someone who thought of himself as a writer — would be it. So, in a sense, when Mohawk was published, I’d already achieved all I’d dare to dream of. After that, of course, I wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke, but that’s a lesser ambition. By the time Nobody’s Fool was published and Robert Benton made his wonderful movie based on that novel, I was already profoundly aware that the deal I would’ve struck with the devil was a poor one, that the literary blessings I’d already received far exceeded what I’d had the effrontery to imagine.

BNR: The new novel is written in omniscient point of view and shifts nimbly between the thoughts and actions of a variety of characters. Who’s your favorite character in the new book and why?

RR: I love all the characters in this book and enjoyed their company from start to finish. I think the minor characters particularly stand out: Harve, who can’t bring himself to admit that Vietnam was a mistake and ends up trapped in a hedge with an impossible exit strategy; Laura, whose great spirit and generosity redeem her parents’ marriage in the way only a child can; ever hopeful Marguerite, who steals every scene she’s in; Griffin’s urn-bound parents who, even dead, won’t leave him alone. But for pure, malicious joy, you just can’t beat those idiot twins.

BNR: Do you use outlines for your novels? Character sketches? Or does the work usually grow organically from one seed; for example, the opening bar of a song? I thought you worked the introduction of both Sunny Kim and Marguerite seamlessly into this book. Did you have their background stories already in mind when you introduced them at the Olde Cape Lounge? Or did you work backwards from their introductions? Also, where did you come across the saying posted on the wall behind the bar?

RR: I never work from an outline, and my characters generally reveal themselves to me on an as-needed basis, though I often don’t recognize the precise nature of the need until after the fact. Sunny Kim, in That Old Cape Magic, is a case in point. I liked him right from the start (and affectionate curiosity is all I need in the early going), but for a very long time I couldn’t figure out what he was doing in the story. Only as I neared the conclusion did I fully comprehend what he was up to, that as an outsider he offered me something no other character in the novel could have provided — the ability to merge the private, intimate story of the Griffin marriage with a larger public theme. We think of marriage as a private matter, but weddings are performed in public and they result in legal documents. Just as importantly, people become vested in each other’s marriages, and for Sunny the Griffin marriage is all mixed up in his mind and heart with the promise of his adopted country. I wish I was smart enough to figure out stuff like that at the beginning of a book, because that would save a lot of anxiety, but I’m not.

The sign in my Old Cape Lounge actually exists in the real world. It hangs in the bar of a restaurant in West Falmouth called The Silver Lounge.

BNR: When you think of That Old Black Magic, the song you used as the basis for the title of That Old Cape Magic, whose version comes to mind among the many artists who have recorded this song? Was the song itself the seed for this novel? Or did you arrive at the title after you’d begun writing about Cape Cod?

RR: I have to disappoint you here. I can sing the opening bar of That Old Black Magic, but the rest never sank in. There’s more than one version? You couldn’t prove it by me. Why did it pop into my head? Couldn’t really say, except that most people have a “magical” place, a place they’re trying to get to, a place that, they believe, will heal what ails them, that speaks to their inner life in some way. I wanted to examine that belief in this novel, so a song with the word Magic in its title made its slow migration from the back of my brain to the front.

BNR: You’ve written for movies and televisions, including screenplays adapted from the works of other novelists, such as 2005’s The Ice Harvest starring John Cusack, which was based on a novel by Scott Phillips, and 2003’s Brush with Fate, based on the Susan Vreeland book. How do you think your background as a novelist affects your screenplay writing? Is writing the screenplay for someone else’s work easier or harder than adapting your own work, which you did withEmpire Falls? When dealing with another’s work, are their particular concerns or potential blind spots that might be absent when handling your own material?

RR: It’s much easier to write a screenplay based on another writer’s book than your own. Both require a kind of ruthlessness, but adapting your own work also requires a kind of amnesia. Every work of art presents the artist with a unique set of problems that have to be solved. A writer who adapts his own work is required to forget how he solved those problems when he wrote the novel, because the medium is now different and what worked on the page may not work on the screen. Another writer will likely have fresher eyes and a clearer vision. Just as importantly, his loyalty will be to the movie he’s writing and not, subconsciously, the novel it’s based on.

BNR: Paul Newman, one of the most beloved actors in film history, passed away last year, and you had the opportunity to work with him on several films including Nobody’s Fool, Twilight and Empire Falls, as he portrayed characters that you created. What was the nature of your relationship, and why did your respective talents seem to complement each other so well?

RR: I’m guessing here, but I think Paul Newman loved the characters he played even more than the films he was in. Over the roughly two decades of our acquaintance, the nicest thing he ever said to me concerned Bridge of Sighs. He’d read the book in galleys and called to tell me how much he’d enjoyed it. It was a short conversation. He was himself a hard man to compliment and I think he understood that praise, especially from the people I admire most, makes me uncomfortable. So all he said was how much he’d enjoyed spending time with the people in my novel. They couldn’t have been any more ordinary, he said, “but you treat them like they’re kings and princes.” That’s how he treated the characters he played: Sully, Cool Hand Luke, Butch, Max Roby. Flawed, charming, self-destructive, determined. Princes all.

BNR: You wrote the introduction to the Collected Stories of Richard Yates, and you once said, “(H)is work is so honest and his vision is so clear, so clear-eyed, that when I’m reading a Richard Yates story, I’ll go back to work on something of my own at the desk and I’m suddenly a different person. I see the world differently, and the story that comes out of me is not going be influenced in that sense by Yates, but while I’m there with him, his vision for that period of time is my vision, and it’s that way with most really good writers.” In the same interview, you also mentioned Alice Munro. Beyond Yates and Munro, what other writers have this effect on you? Are any of them young, up-and-coming writers?

RR: There are several young writers whose vision is so precise and spot-on that I’d follow them anywhere. Joshua Ferris and Ed Park have staked out similar territory (cubical culture) in Then We Came to the End and Personal Days. Doug Dorst’s Alive in Necropolis and Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief also took my breath away. And I cannot recommend strongly enough the work of Jess Walter, whose eye and wit are unparalleled. If you want to understand post 9/11 America, he’s your guy.

BNR: Novelist Alice Hoffman recently found herself at the center of a literary tiff when she went on Twitter to complain about a review of her latest novel in the Boston Globe, calling the reviewer, Roberta Silman, a “moron” and an “idiot,” specifically because Hoffman felt Silman gave away too much of the plot to The Story Sisters. What’s been your overall experience with the novelist-book reviewer dynamic? You’ve reviewed numerous works by other authors who are your peers and contemporaries. What particular considerations do you keep in mind when writing a review?

RR: Actually, I don’t review that much, and for a reason. Even when a book truly sucks, I can’t get out of my mind the fact that some poor dumb schmuck labored over it lovingly, just as I do over my own fiction. I realize that it’s somebody’s job to blow the whistle on bad books, but I resist the notion that it’s mine. When I do review, I look for and attempt to articulate the work’s strengths before pouncing on its weaknesses. When there’s simply no good news, I try not to appear as if I’m enjoying myself in delivering the unpleasant verdict.

BNR: The marketplace for short stories has changed quite a bit, with certain periodicals cutting back on the publication of short fiction — perhaps most notably The Atlantic — while the emergence of numerous online publications has opened new venues for writers and readers. Where do you go to read short stories? Do you read them online or only in print? Have you (or would you) publish something exclusively for the Web, and why?

RR: Because I happen to be next year’s guest judge for Best American Short Stories I’ve been reading far more short fiction than usual and, as a result, become aware of just how much that landscape has changed. I was aware that there were any number of fine literary magazines — Glimmer Train, McSweeneys, Tin House, One Story, Zoetrope, to name just a few — that didn’t exist in my pre-agent days, back when I was submitting my own stories. It’s been thrilling indeed to submerge myself in the kinds of magazines where talented younger writers are finding their first significant successes, and some of these are on-line publications. I haven’t as yet published anything exclusively on the Web, but the day can’t be far off.

BNR: In your books and interviews, you exude a sense of down-to-earth approachability, a feeling that, “Hey, this guy could be my neighbor; I might run into him at the grocery store and he wouldn’t be aloof or condescending.” Have you considered writing a memoir or perhaps a book on the craft of writing? What might prevent you from doing either?

RR: Strangely enough I’m fifty or so pages into something that may be a memoir, though I don’t see it fitting neatly into that genre because it’s less about me than about my family and the place where I grew up in a very different America. Over the years I’ve also written several craft essays and have made notes for a couple others. I suppose I might one day collect these and fob them off on an unsuspecting public as a book.

BNR: In October of 2007, Philip Roth told us that the cultural centrality of literature is gone for good. “It still has some impact, to be sure. But I think as the years go by, in the next 10-20-30 years, it will become more cultic, and be read by people in a cultish way, and that the novel won’t have much impact at all.” What’s your vision for the future of the novel? Have you discussed its prospects with peers? If you were starting out now, would you be more inclined to focus on screenplays to the exclusion of fiction?

RR: My worst fear is that Roth may be right and that technology is closing the very circle it opened centuries ago. Before the invention of the moveable type printing press, books were owned and read only by rich people. A kind of cult, if you will. It was technology that gave literature the “cultural centrality” that’s now being undermined by other technologies. If there’s good news, it’s that our human need for stories, for narrative, is hard-wired, and what we’re talking about here is the software. Many of my peers think that book publishing will soon become a boutique industry before long, but I’m not quite so pessimistic. One of my daughters is a bookseller who dreams of one day owning her own book store, a dream my wife and I have every intention of investing in. My other daughter has recently started writing stories and plays, and, yes, I’ll encourage her to consider screenwriting as well. One thing’s for certain. If I were a young writer without an established name to draw on, I’d be keeping my powder very dry indeed.

BNR: Other writers can look at your career — the success you’ve had in fiction, film and television — and think, “Now that’s a nice writing career.” Whose writing career(s) have you admired, not only in terms of their success and the readership they attracted, but the manner in which they handled the vicissitudes of their chosen profession? We always hear the cautionary tales of writers being crushed by the pressures of success, ending up with tabloid lives or unable to match their earlier achievements, but who stood out for you as an example of how to navigate these challenges, and how did their precedent inform some of your own decisions?

RR: I admire writers who “go about their business,” who after great success return to work with the same good faith and sense of urgency that they brought to the enterprise before, which is probably just another way of saying that these people know who they are and (even more importantly) aren’t. My deepest admiration is for writers who define the “business” of being a successful artist broadly. “Mankind was my business!” the angry Jacob Marley reminds Scrooge, and while it would probably embarrass Stephen King to be singled out in this respect, I think he deserves to be, for many reasons, including his excellent foundation, which is the natural, institutional extension of his and Tabby’s extraordinary personal generosity. He’s also been a tireless promoter of talented young writers.

BNR: Is there a “magical” place you’re trying to get to, career-wise or perhaps in your personal life? Do you think you’ll ever say, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “Okay, this is my last novel, I’m done after this”?

RR: It seems I’ve already arrived at my magical place. Just a few days ago I celebrated my 60th birthday with my wife and daughters and their husbands and some of my very best friends in the world. Welcoming the guests, my younger daughter Kate referred to her father as “one lucky bastard,” and damned if she isn’t right. My writing career? I don’t have anything left to prove, but I have a lot left to do. When I’m Philip Roth’s age, I hope to be still at it, and why not? The people who know me best think I’m as full of (it) as ever, and the world, when it isn’t bent on breaking our hearts, remains wildly entertaining, so there’s really no reason to stop reporting on what it’s up to.

BNR: You mentioned the makings of a memoir. What’s your current fiction project? Can you provide some details about the plot, characters and setting of your next novel and how far along you are?

RR: For some time now a story that involves some of the characters from Nobody’s Fool has been percolating. Sully will surely make an appearance, but I don’t think he’ll be the main character. I have a film project I have to finish first, plus my upcoming book tour, but I’m hoping to start the new novel around the first of the year.