Master Storyteller Richard Russo
Coming to National Writers Series
By Clark Miller | May 19, 2018
Richard Russo, Pulitzer prize-winning author of a dozen widely read novels and eight screenplays, comes to the National Writers Series stage at City Opera House on Friday, June 8, with his first book of essays in hand. In “The Destiny Thief,” Russo discusses how he struggled many years to find his authentic writer’s voice, which, once found, enabled him to create full casts of memorable characters.
Northern Express interviewed Russo about “The Destiny Thief” and the topics it addresses.
Northern Express: You grew up in a small upstate New York, working class town. Your stories return often to small towns. Why? Is it just easier to spot a good story there? Or is there something special that draws you to them?
Russo: I think it has something to do with my interest in class. I can bring [characters] together easily because their paths cross. I know how small towns work because I spent my first 18 years in one.
Northern Express: So the old adage holds true for you — write what you know?
Russo: Some writers tell people what they know, others write about what mystifies them their entire lives. The latter, that’s me. Small towns still mystify me.
Northern Express: The films you’ve written or co-written star some amazing actors, some of whom I suspect have taken over a character you created. True?
Russo: The most obvious example is Paul Newman playing Sully [in the 1995 movie, Nobody’s Fool]. On the first day of filming, he came to the set limping. My first thought was he’s hurt himself. But in fact he was already in character. He was already Sully. He completely owned that character. And that’s why the movie was so wonderful. Years later, I wrote a sequel [the book, “Everybody’s Fool”]. By then, Sully was only half mine. The rest was Newman’s. He had an understanding of the character that I didn’t have.
Northern Express: In “The Destiny Thief” you reveal a lot about yourself. Ever think that might have a negative effect on your creativity?
Russo: [laughs] Call me up this time next year. By then I’ll know the extent of the damage. Right now, it seems OK. I’ve gotten used to the difference between the writer, the public me who goes on book tours, and the more private one who’s a husband and father. The writerly one is the best of the three.
Northern Express: In “The Destiny Thief” you speak often about the pace of the creative life.
Russo: The writer in me demands that I slow down, listen very carefully, that I see clearly. It’s mostly a matter of going slow, slow, slow. These days we all try to be quick-witted. I think the artistic endeavor is essentially about slowing down.
Northern Express: Why does humor, as you have said, only look easy to write?
Russo: I wish I had Cary Grant here with me, he’d be able to tell you why humor only looks easy. We writers work real hard to make it look difficult.
Northern Express: Reading you makes me think of storytellers.
Russo: I got that from my dad. He’d tell a story and improve upon it every time. The funny thing is, he’d either forget I was there when it happened, or he did remember, and it just never bothered him a bit.
Northern Express: One of the threads running through The Destiny Thief is the struggle to break free of imitation and find your own voice. So once you’ve achieved that, and become so popular, do the expectations of your readers ever start to creep into you head?
Russo: For me, that happens fairly regularly. [After some success] I worried that my readers, such as they were, would pigeonhole me in a certain way, writing about working class, upstate New York. Then my agent basically said, “You are who you are.” When you pick up a Dickens novel, you fully expect it to be a Dickens world. Whenever I become anxious about readers’ expectations, I remember the truth is, they expect me to be me.
Northern Express: The terms “humor” and “empathy” are often used to describe your writing. Are the two terms related?
Russo: They are for me. I’d say writing itself is a study in empathy. It’s about forgetting yourself while you put yourself in someone else’s mind and in their shoes. So yeah, those two things — humor and empathy — are related. I could have discovered either one and not been a good writer. It was a combination of both that was absolutely essential. And once I went there, there was a lot of funny sh*# going on! [laughs] It dawned on me I was closer to my old man, the one who loved to improve on his stories. That was also my way.
Northern Express: In your essay, “The Gravestone and the Commode,” you say that, to be funny, writing has to be true to the way people really are.
Russo: It’s false otherwise. If you report the way you actually see it and don’t try to put something over on the world and its inhabitants, you’re writing.
Northern Express: Two quotes from “The Destiny Thief” — just a few pages apart — seem to fit together well. The first one is, “Discovering who I was as a writer might be the final piece of the puzzle, but it also sent me back to the beginning.” The second one is, “And so, with no one left to impress, not even myself, I began, finally, to write.”
Russo: Writers learn different things at different times. I’ve known writers who have an understanding who they are, what they are, what they fear — and they seem to know that from the start. Wouldn’t I have loved that to be true for me!
Northern Express: What was it like for you, then?
Russo: I don’t know why I was so stupid so long. In my case, I got the craft stuff easily enough. I was writing pretty good dialogue by my second workshop. But for me to admit to myself who I was, what I loved most in the world, and what sorts of people interested me, I just couldn’t seem to get that in my head. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be Raymond Chandler, but finding my true voice came to me very, very late.
Northern Express: Are you a writer who is happiest when a book is done, or happiest during the writing of the book? And if the word, “happy,” is too superficial, which term would be better?
Russo: There’s something wonderful, magical about the discovery process. There’s that glorious sense of letting your characters speak to you, learning things about them you didn’t know. So, I love the process. Once it’s done, though, that’s the least interesting part of it. I kind of get over my books really quickly. When it comes out, it’s mostly just gone to me. When people ask me today about a book I’ve written years ago, sometimes they have to remind about the names and everything else. I just move on to people whose lives I’m still trying to find.
Northern Express: What are you working on these days?
Russo: I’ve just finished the first draft of a new novel and made the turn toward home with it.
Northern Express: Care to tell us about it?
Russo: What I’ll tell you is that there are three main characters, all the same age. It takes place over two long weekends almost 50 years apart. When we first meet them, they’re gathered around a grainy black and white TV to get their draft numbers.
Northern Express: Maybe you’d be willing finish this sentence: “If one of my daughters decided to write a novel based on me … ”
Russo: [laughs] I have two daughters. Until recently I thought I was pretty safe from either one of them turning her gaze on her poor old father. But Kate, who is a painter, injured her wrist and can’t work long hours painting. She wrote a full screenplay and put on my desk the other day. And it’s good.
Northern Express: There’s a study showing that some 60 percent of college grads never read a book once they graduate. What role does avid reading have for aspiring writers?
Russo: [moans] Yes, I’ve heard that, too. Fifty years ago, if you’d asked a class [of would-be writers] if they’re big readers, every hand would have gone up. Now, maybe, not so much. That mystifies me. But stories come to them in so many ways today. I know a lot of people still want to be writers. It’s odd that they can have a great love of storytelling without a great affection for language. But I think, ultimately, they will learn that.
For tickets to the Friday, June 8 National Writers Series event with Richard Russo, go to cityoperahouse.org, call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday-Friday, or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front St., Traverse City. The event begins at 7 pm. Doors open at 6 pm.