Prizewinning author Richard Russo is regarded by many critics as the best writer about small-town America since Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. "He doesn't over-sentimentalize [small towns]," said Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air." Nor does he belittle the dreams and hardships of his working-class characters. "I come from a blue-collar family myself and I think he gets the class interactions; he just really nails class in his novels," said Corrigan.
When Russo left his own native small town in upstate New York, it was with hopes of becoming a college professor. But during his graduate studies, he began to have second thoughts about the academic life. While finishing up his doctorate, he took a creative writing class; and a new career path opened in front of him.
Russo's first novel set the tone for much of his later work. The story of an ailing industrial town and the interwoven lives of its inhabitants, Mohawk won critical praise for its witty, engaging style. In subsequent books, he has brought us a dazzling cast of characters, mostly working-class men and women who are struggling with the problems of everyday life (poor health, unemployment, mounting bills, failed marriages) in dilapidated, claustrophobic burghs that have -- like their denizens -- seen better days. In 2001, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, a brilliant, tragicomic set-piece that explores past and present relationships in a once-thriving Maine town whose textile mill and shirt factory have gone bust.
Russo's vision of America would be bleak, except for the wit and optimism he infuses into his stories. Even when his characters are less than lovable, they are funny, rueful, and unfailingly human. "There's a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it's some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that," Russo said in an interview. That ability to envision himself in the bars and diners of small-town America has served him well. "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life," said the fiction writer Annie Proulx. "And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are."
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In 1994, Russo's book Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis. Newman also starred in the 1998 movie Twilight, for which Russo wrote the screenplay. Russo now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.
When he wrote his first books, Russo was employed full-time as a college teacher, and would stop at the local diner between classes to work on his novels. After the success of Nobody's Fool (the book and the movie), he was able to quit teaching -- but he still likes to write in spots such as the Camden Deli. It's "a less lonely way to write," he told USA Today. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet."
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In the spring of 2005, Richard Russo took some time out to answer some of our questions.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- All of Dickens, really. The breadth of his canvas, the importance he places on vivid minor characters, his understanding that comedy is serious business. And in the character of Pip, I learned, even before I understood I'd learned it, that we recognize ourselves in a character's weakness as much than his strength. When Pip is ashamed of Joe, the best man he knows, we see ourselves, and it's terrible, hard-won knowledge.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- Twain's great novel demonstrates that you can go to the very darkest places if you're armed with a sense of humor. His study of American bigotry, ignorance, arrogance, and violence remains so fresh today, alas, because human nature remains pretty constant. I understand the contemporary controversy, of course. Huck's discovery that Jim is a man is hardly a blinding revelation to black readers, but the idea that much of what we've been taught by people in authority is a crock should resonate with everybody. Especially these days.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Mostly, I suppose, because his concerns -- class, money, the invention of self -- are so central to the American experience. Fitzgerald understood that our most vivid dreams are often rooted in self-doubt and weakness. Many people imagine that we identify with strength and virtue. Fitzgerald knew better.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck -- For the beauty of the book's omniscience. It's fine for writers to be humble. Most of us have a lot to be humble about. But it does you no good to be timid. Pretend to be God? Why not?
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Perhaps because I taught literature for more than twenty years, I feel no great compulsion to discuss it further. I'm through reading for credit, and I generally talk about books only when the subject comes up in the normal course of conversation, sports and politics and sex (subjects about which I have far less knowledge but many more opinions) having already been exhausted. I've never belonged to a book club, and doubt I ever will, not because I disapprove of them, but because for me reading remains a very private and intimate act. I read voraciously and thrust books upon my friends all the time. When a book is returned to me with a clipped comment ("Great" or, "I wept"), that seems to me a full and sufficient discussion.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give novels and receive cookbooks.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have all kinds of rituals, but they're pretty boring and not terribly revealing. I've always enjoyed writing in public places because when the phone rings it's not for me. When I work at home, I invariably find myself standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open and no idea how I got there. There's a particular kind of notebook I like to write in, a certain fountain pen I use to draft with, and another kind for editing. The purpose for most rituals is to get you to that psychic place where you need to be in order to do your best work. They have, collectively, about as much meaning as Nomar Garciaparra's incessant tugging on his batting glove. He just feels better having done it.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My first novel, Mohawk, was rejected a couple dozen times before it was finally published. Most of the people who read it said they didn't know how to publish a book that wasn't quite "literary" and not quite "popular" either. Anyway, years later, my agent was having lunch with an editor who had just turned down a first novel by a gifted young writer. It was well written, she admitted, but she didn't know how to publish it. What she really wished, she said wistfully, was that my agent would give her a writer like Richard Russo. What good would that do, he replied. He'd offered her Mohawk and she'd turned it down for the same reason she was turning this novel down. Which she refused to believe until he showed her the rejection slip. (I'm not sure this qualifies as an inspirational story.)
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
At the risk of appearing disingenuous, I'd restate the premise. If you're a writer and you're looking to be discovered, your focus could use some tweaking, because basically you're hoping to be lucky (who doesn't?). Better to hope for the kind of luck that means more in the end -- the good health (physical and mental) that allows you to keep filling up those blank pages day after day, the emotional equanimity and continuing faith that makes your best work possible, the wisdom to know your best work when you've done it, and the courage to keep doing that good work whether or not anybody's attention. Easy for me to say at this point in my career, but no less true for that.
My inspiration for writing? Paul Newman always says he became an actor so that he wouldn't have to be in the sporting goods business. I believe him. I became a writer to avoid road construction (which I did summers, while I was in college) and scholarly research (I have a Ph.D. in American literature and came dangerously close to employing it full time).
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