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Summer/Fall 2001Volume II Issue III

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portal to our archives

from the editors

News & Notes

who we are & how to submit

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Richard Russo lives in costal Maine with his wife and their two daughters.  

Of his most recent book, Empire Falls,

Empire Falls

The New York Times says: "Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section of the book explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities. As the pace quickens and the disparate threads of the narrative draw tighter, you find yourself torn between the desire to rush ahead and the impulse to slow down...  ...You will also have had the good fortune to tour [Empire Falls] in the company of an amiable, witty raconteur who knows all the gossip and the local history as well as some pretty good jokes. Only after you've bought him a beer, shaken his hand and said goodbye will it occur to you that he's also one of the best novelists around."

 

Mr. Russo previous novels include,

Mohawk

Mohawk,

The Risk Pool

The Risk Pool,

Nobody's Fool

Nobody's Fool, and  

Straight Man

Straight Man.

All are available in Vintage paperback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you didn't know this already, feature interviews with some of today's best writers, is a . . . main feature of failbetter

 Check out our earlier interviews with: 

Ben Marcus

Interview with Ben Marcus

in our Spring/Summer 2001 Issue.

Donald Antrim

Interview with Donald Antrim

in our Winter/Spring 2001 Issue.

 Michael Chabon

CLick Here For Chabon Interview

 in our Fall/Winter 2000 Issue

Interview

with Richard Russo

With his 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 elements.

 

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 gender.

 

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 August Esquire.

 

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.