most recent novel, Empire Falls, Richard Russo returns to what should
be familiar ground -- hometown Americana -- a place that won him such
critical acclaim with his earlier novels of Mohawk and Nobody's
Fool. But much has changed in America, and more specifically, in
American small towns, within this past decade of economic development and
over-reaching one time city-associated social troubles. Still as
hilarious as ever, Russo's latest work, like the man himself, is easily
accessible. He is a modern day master storyteller. Indeed, not
only does such mastery result in an entertaining and effortless read, but a
thought provoking one as well...
failbetter: Much is made of the common man / home
town themes so prevalent in your novels, but perhaps a more common
characteristic of your work has been the sense of humor that each book
exudes. Empire Falls is no exception. In fact, at times it is quite
hilarious. Often when an author is asked to comment upon his or her work,
it is the "serious" elements that are so easily expounded upon.
But our first question is this: What difficulties do you encounter in
writing humor? As a writer of literary fiction, do you ever wonder whether
your sense of humor will undermine or prevent readers or critics from
taking an otherwise epic novel like Empire Falls seriously?
Russo: At the risk of appearing disingenuous, I donít
really think of myself as "writing humor." Iím simply
reporting on the world I observe, which is frequently hilarious. Hereís
the thing. Most of what we witness in life is too complex to take in
whole. Because of this we unconsciously edit what we see, select what to
really record and what to ignore, which is why people who look at the same
thing donít necessarily see the same thing. Iíve been in many an
English department meeting where I was the only one strangling to keep
from laughing. Yet when I reported on those same department meetings in my
academic novel Straight Man, many of the same people who didnít
find the experience funny when they were living it, did laugh when
they saw the same events through my eyes. Comic writers donít so much
invent funny things as strip away the distractions, the impediments to
laughter. "Try to see it my way," we urge. "Only time will
tell if I am right or I am wrong."
I never worry about people not taking my work seriously as a result of
the humor. In the end, the comicís best trick is the illusion that
comedy is effortless. That people imagine what heís doing is easy is an
occupational hazard. Cary Grant never won an Oscar, primarily, I suspect,
because he made everything look so effortless. Why reward someone for
having fun, for being charming? In "serious" fiction (as in
"serious" film) you can feel the weight of the material. You
expect to see the effort and the strain of all that heavy lifting, and we
reward the effort as much as the success. Comedy is often just as serious,
and to ignore that seriousness is misguided, of course, but most writers
with comic world views have accustomed themselves to being sold at a
discount. Most of us wouldnít have it any other way.
failbetter: Though you have returned to a
"small town story" (this time our story is set in Maine not Mohawk)
the scope of Empire Falls seems much larger in scale in comparison
to your other books. There are timeline shifts and a larger number of
significant characters and sub-plots. What difficulties or challenges did
the new book present that you had not previous encountered as a writer?
Russo: I donít think this book presented any
"new" challenges as a result of its scope. Think of it, rather,
as a juggling act. The number of objects that have to be kept in the air
at one time, along with the variety of their shapes and weights, is what
determines the degree of difficulty. Itís easier to juggle three
same-size rubber balls, than it is five objects that vary in shape and
weight. For many of my readers Empire Falls and The Risk Pool
are their two favorite Russo novels. I donít know which is the better
book, but Empire was much the more difficult to write. Itís more
complex, less autobiographical, and itís told from an omniscient point
of view thatís far more demanding than the relatively simple first
person of the earlier novel. Iím not aware of anything all that
"new" in Empire, just a greater complexity and variety of
failbetter: In you previous novels, whether it was The
Risk Pool or Nobodyís Fool, the father-son relationship was
one of the main focal points of the book. Amy Tan, an author who has
successfully explored the mother-daughter relationship, has stated that
she is quite relieved that she has not had a daughter of her own.
Ironically, though married and with a loving family, you yourself have no
sons. Is this, in some small way, a relief or a regret?
Russo: Iíve never regretted not having sons. And
perhaps there is even some relief, though Iíd never thought of it in
those terms until you posed the question. A father of sons is supposed to
know what heís doing, whereas a father of daughters is entitled to be
incompetent. That sort of thing. Raising children is a task that requires
great imagination, but it seems to be expected (especially these days)
that imagination will fail to transcend gender, which may mean that the
fathers of daughters and the mothers of sons, will be judged less harshly
for their failures of imagination.
failbetter: Empire Falls focuses upon the
father-daughter relationship, that between Miles and Tick. Having two
daughters of your own, how much personal research found itís way into
the new book? And have your kids offered their critique of the book?
Russo: Both my daughters were in high school when I
began Empire Falls, a novel that centers, at least in significant
part, on the experience of high school. Iíve thanked both girls on the
acknowledgments page for their willingness to talk with me about their
high school experience, especially as it related to cruelty, which drives
so much of the novelís narrative. I used a fair amount what they told
me, usually in altered form, but I think their greater gift was that their
stories caused me to remember things that had happened when I was their
age, the kind of terrible, thoughtless, psychic cruelty that was inflicted
on some kids every day of their young lives.
Both my daughters have now read Empire Falls, though neither has
been particularly talkative about it. My favorite small critique came from
my younger daughter who remarked, regarding one of the more vividly cruel
incidents in the novel, "I didnít remember telling you about
that." She hadnít. It was something Iíd remembered and
embellished from my own adolescence, not hers.
failbetter: Besides the thin teenager Tick, there
are several prominent and complex female characters in your new novel,
whether it is weight watching Janine, the blunt conversationalist
Charlene, levelheaded barkeep Bea, or best of all, the manipulating Mrs.
Whiting. That said, however, Miles is clearly still the protagonist of the
book. The logical next step would seem to dictate that you might have a
central woman protagonist in your next novel. Is this a possibility? Have
you grappled with this idea beforeóand/orówhat problems would you
expect to encounter in such an endeavor?
Russo: You anticipate my every move. I want very
much to place a woman in the center of at least one novel of mine, though
the idea does make me nervous. I question, among other things, my motives.
One of the reasons Iím glad to be full-time writer these days, and not a
member of the Academy anymore, is the kind of lethal atmosphere thatís
taken root there, largely as a result of Critical Theory and all its
attendant idiocy. Courses in The Literary Imagination have now been
replaced by courses that suggest no such thing exists, or has ever
existed. Old white males, itís now suggested, betray on every page their
race, their gender, the nature of the times that informed their narrow,
bigoted thinking. Huckleberry Finn is taught not as a great work of
the imagination, but rather to reveal the authorís prejudice, everything
he was unable to transcend. Iíd be the first to admit that the
literary imagination, mine or anyoneís, canít be expected to transcend
all human limitations. There is evidence of anti-Semitism in The
Great Gatsby, for instance. Authors are flawed, just like everybody
else. But the fact that my imagination may be unequal to certain tasks
doesnít mean that I shouldnít push it to its limits. Does anyone wish
that Flaubert had written his novel about Mr. Bovary?
That said, wanting to place a woman at the center of one of my novels
because I have every right to do so, may not be a good enough reason. A
far better one might be that, as my recent fiction suggests, in middle age
Iím simply getting more interested in womenís lives. How could I not
be? My wife and I have been married for almost thirty years; Iím the
father of two daughters. Also, in middle age, Iím less timid, less
afraid of getting things wrong, or of being told Iím getting them wrong.
What scares writers most, I suspect, in writing across gender, is sex.
Dickens wrote wonderfully about young girls and old women; it was the
sexual identity of women that seemed to flummox him, and I sympathize.
Tick Roby in Empire Falls and Beryl Peoples in Nobodyís Fool
are two of my best characters, but their ages allow me to finesse that
which is most troublesome and mysterious, that which Iíd least like to
fail at rendering believably. Then again, as other people have pointed out
to me, my writing is reticent on sexual matters anyway, regardless of
failbetter: For an author whose previous works seem
to portray a timeless microcosm of either small town Americana or, as in The
Straight Man, the mind-numbing neuroses of academia, Empire Falls
is a timely work that has some clear connections with the problems of
modern day society. I am referring to the implications of the troubled boy
John Voss. Did you find yourself writing about the tortured school teen
from the angle of an inquisitive author, or more from the view of a real
life parent seeking a plausible explanation for such tragedies?
Russo: Iíd been thinking about school violence
since the incident in Paduka, however long ago that was, and I was right
in the middle of writing Empire Falls when the events at Columbine
took place. Iím not sure I can separate the inquisitive author and
terrified father functions, at least not now, after the fact. But after
the Columbine shootings, when everyone was asking why, I remember thinking
(in inquisitive-author-mode) that answering this kind of question is what
fiction is best at. The sociological explanations for school violence--the
easy availability of guns, too much violence in the media, too little
parental supervision of todayís youth--are not terribly satisfying. We
suspect that if solutions to these very difficult problems could be
engineered, the question of why would still remain. What we really want to
know is more like, What did it feel like to aim the gun and pull the
trigger? What sequence of events led to this moment? The only knowledge
that will be even remotely satisfying is the kind that comes from living
that horrible moment imaginatively and understanding what led up to it.
Thatís what literature offers us--the visceral experience of the living
moment. So, yes, I was interested in investigating that. But it was out of
my role as a terrified parent that the book really grew, I suspect. Like
Miles Roby, Iíve often thought that as parents we have to be vigilant,
and the first chapter of the novel opens with Miles anxiously awaiting his
daughterís return from school, hoping to catch sight of her, to make
sure sheís okay. What Miles also knows (and I fear) is that no matter
how vigilant you are, the moment youíre needed most, youíll likely be
elsewhere, dealing with some other distraction. Such knowledge is the
basis for parental night sweats, and Iíve come to think of this book in
exactly those terms--one long, vivid, parental night sweat.
failbetter: Another, perhaps more universal
societal observation/implication of the new book is the socio-economic
implications of revitalization. The image of wealth and beauty of a place
like Marthaís Vineyard is in sharp contrast to the dreary existence of a
dying Maine town. Nevertheless, the line between the two towns is not so
permanent, just ask the year-round resident of a place like the Vineyard
who can no longer afford to live there, or invite a few wealthy New
Yorkers to flee the urban life to a simple town such as Empire Falls,
possibly open up some quaint B&Bs and boutiques. Next thing you know,
The Empire Grill becomes a successful Starbucks-like chain in every
American town from Maine to Montana. In this viscous economic cycle, where
does it all end? Whatís the answer? Most importantly, what words of
wisdom would a character like Max Roby have to say?
Russo: Earlier this spring, when I was on book tour
with Empire Falls in Chicago, Bill Young (the worldís greatest
literary escort) took me slightly out of our way to show me something he
assured me Iíd love. It was Cabrini Green, the infamous housing project,
now in a state of transition. Some of its horrid high rises have been
razed; others await demolition, while the people who still reside in them
await relocation somewhere less Dresden-like. But it wasnít the project
itself that Bill wanted to show me, but rather the Starbuckís that had
opened right across the street. Snap and develop that photo and many
people will accuse you of doctoring it. Iím reminded of a line spoken by
Peter Falk in an old movie: "This can only mean one thing, but I donít
know what it is." Hereís a prediction though: the people whoíll
be drinking designer coffee at three bucks a pop may not be in the picture
yet, but they will be. And so it goes.
failbetter: Some readers may have had a hard time
reading your work without imagining Paul Newman as one of the characters
(for instance, I had him pegged for Max this time) Ė though Iím not
sure that this is a bad thing. Much has been written and made of the
success of Nobodyís Fool Ė the book, the movie, and your own
subsequent screenplay writing. What, if any, negative consequences have
come as a result of your success?
Russo: I got a nice phone call from Paul a couple
of months ago. He wanted to tell me how much heíd enjoyed Empire Falls.
Before hanging up, he said, "If thereís a movie I want to play Max.
Nobodyíd be better at it, either." Too true.
Thanks to technology, I donít think the movie business is as damaging
to writers as it used to be, at least not to those of us who live on the
opposite coast. Actually, Iím not sure it was ever the movie business
that was so poisonous to writers like Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but rather
"the life." L.A. (like Las Vegas) is more disorienting than
anything else, thanks to its noise and glitter, the ever-present sun
reflected off the shimmering water of countless swimming pools. Live there
and you canít help but get caught up, and until recently if you wanted
to be a screenwriter, you had to live there. Now I can deliver a script as
an e-mail attachment and live in Maine, a fine, mostly quiet,
unpretentious place where I can hear myself think. For more on this
subject have a look at my recent story "Monhegan Light" in the
failbetter: We understand that you are currently
working on a short story collection. Known primarily as a novelist, is
this new territory for you? You once stated that that one of the wonderful
things about being a writer is that once you have finished one book, the
next day you can start another one and "begin another life."
With the forthcoming collection, what kinds of lives can we look forward
to reading about?
Russo: Itís taken me over a decade to come up
with a slender volume of stories. Many of them derive from material that
for various reasons Iíve removed from my novels and then recast. Iím
absurdly proud of several of the stories for the simple reason that short
fiction requires a tighter hold on the fictional reigns than Iím often
capable of exerting. I love the shape and structure of good short stories,
the fact that they can be experienced whole. What are the stories about?
Well, thereís an abused nun; an elderly, disoriented college professor
on vacation; a gaffer with a grudge; a woman fleeing her husband; a
painter who needs a hip replacement; a kid who suspects that inanimate
objects may have inner lives; a writer who fears he may have been poisoned
by the town where he grew up. The usual suspects.