Interview with Richard Russo

Posted by Goodreads on October 31, 2012
In his first memoir, Elsewhere, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo writes about how his vivacious but volatile mother shaped his understanding of the world around him. Many of Russo's best-selling novels—Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool—are set in failing Northeastern towns and based on the small upstate New York town of Gloversville, where he and his mother both grew up. When the author left home for college in Arizona, his mother followed, beginning a four-decade-long dual existence in which Russo moved around the country with his wife and daughters while his mother vacillated between a life near him, which represented an escape and independence, and a life back in her hometown, which she both loved and reviled. Russo talks to Jade Chang about shaping narratives, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and whether or not you can really go home again.

Goodreads: How did you make the decision to dip into memoir?

Richard Russo: This was a book that I would have dearly loved not to write. After [my mother's] death, I was still pretty raw with all of it—it had not been an easy six to nine months, and I just wanted to get back in the world of my fiction. But then John Freeman, at Granta [publishing], called me up and asked me to write something about Gloversville itself, not the various fictional avatars I've given it over the years. When I wrote that, I found myself right back in my mother's life. Also, in the months after her death she was visiting my dreams so much that it just came to me that there was unfinished business there. It wasn't so much that I wanted to write a book and tell the story of my mother; I just wanted to understand it myself.

GR: What particularly did you want to understand?

RR: Well, people were always astonished to find that when I went off to college, my mother came with me. When I would tell them this, you could see the look on their faces! And I began to question whether my decision to go to Arizona was really mine or not. All those issues of Arizona Highways that turned up on the coffee table, and my mother talking about how if she was going to college, she would certainly love to study archaeology... As I started sitting down and writing this story, I realized that the decision to go to Arizona really hadn't been mine at all—she had been putting down a trail of crumbs. I don't want to suggest that she was necessarily devious, but she was much more skilled at it than I was!

GR: When did you start to question your mother's version of things? That first version of things?

RR: For me, there's a difference between telling a story verbally that makes sense, but the things that are not right about a story, when you sit down to write it down, become much more apparent to you. That's what happened throughout the writing of this book. The simple act of writing things down and actually looking at them and thinking, "Now if I were a reader, would I believe this?" And then the next question is, of course, well, wait a second, do I believe it? Because if they don't believe it, then maybe there is something unbelievable about it.

GR: Why were you willing to believe all those things for so long?

RR: Well, maybe I'm stupid! That's the obvious explanation that you have to consider.

GR: But that's never the whole reason.

RR: I think in addition to that, [it was] because my father wasn't there to give me an alternate explanation, and because my grandparents were very protective of my mother. They never wanted to contradict her official narrative in any way because they were worried about her, and the same was true about my aunt and uncle and my cousin. It's easy to not tell the complete truth to a child, and it's easy to tell lies to anyone who loves you.

GR: Did writing this book feel like a 250-page therapy session? How did you actually go in there and shape the narrative of a book that's about the narrative that we shape for ourselves?

RR: It was kind of a root canal of a book. I have to say that because I wrote the book not to tell the truth but to find out the truth. That's kind of what kept me going even though it was difficult. One of the things that blew my mind was that even when you're not inventing things, even when you've resolved to tell as close to literal truth as you possibly can, you still have at your disposal a great number of the techniques you think of as belonging to the fiction writer. Chief among them is shaping the narrative. You're going to say, "Here's where I'm going to begin." It's not where my life began, but here's where I'm going to begin. You know, even before you write the first word of the story you've already told about six lies.

GR: What about the decision to drop so much of yourself? We don't know how you met your wife, what college was like, anything like that.

RR: I'm calling this a memoir because I don't know what else to call it, but honestly I never thought of this book as being about me. The way I saw it, my job from the start was to stay out of this book as much as possible and to make it a book where what I didn't know was as important or more as what I did know; that sense of both innocence and ignorance. Of things that happen in a child's life. A child has the ability to record almost perfectly what happens, but what he or she doesn't have is the ability to know what they mean. So that's what I was after in much of this book—that sense of mystery, of not understanding what's going on around you. I didn't want the sense of an older narrator who now knows everything.

GR: Do you think that if your mother had felt differently about Gloversville, you would have had a far different life?

RR: I've thought about that a lot, and it's a real possibility. Because my mother's life was a hard one, and because she struggled so mightily, and because she made mistakes from time to time that impacted my wife's life, and my children's.... [But] she was also responsible in a way for what I come to think of now as my life. That is, wife, children, my becoming a writer, becoming an educated man—everything that I think of as my life, that I wouldn't trade in, it's because of her. If she hadn't been throwing down those bread crumbs, if I hadn't been dutifully following, I don't know what would have become of me.

GR: That reminds me of the moment near the end of the prologue, when you talk about your mother being so close to the life she wants, yet separated from it completely. Just how easily anyone could have been a completely different person.

RR: And who really doesn't feel that way? I think basically there are two kinds of people. There are the people who just lie to themselves and say, well, I became this because I chose this and I chose that, and I did this and I did that. They're more likely to become calcified in their narrative, and they tend to disregard luck and good fortune and see their lives as just things that they made, and that's all bullshit. We are equal parts just luck and fate. Free will plays some part, but it's not just our free will, it's other people's free will, it's not just our decisions, it's other people's decisions.

GR: Near the end of the book you say, "rather than confront my own love-hate relationship with my hometown, I simply created other Gloversvilles in my imagination." When did you realize that that was what you were doing?

RR: I certainly knew it by the third book, by the time I started working on Nobody's Fool. I remember giving the book to my agent—I was 100 pages into Nobody's Fool, and I remember asking him, "I don't want to get trapped in this town." It's interesting, now that I've written this memoir, the language that I used there. My mother was always warning me: "Don't get trapped in Gloversville." So here I am now, in my late 30s or early 40s, writing to my agent and sending him part of a third book and saying, "I don't want to get trapped in this town."

GR: And how did he respond?

RR: [He said,] "No, that would be like Dickens saying I don't want to get trapped in London." Basically, this is what you know, and you have staked out this territory, and it may not be the territory that you imagined for yourself, but your readers love it and you clearly love it and you should not be afraid of this at all. By the time I moved on to Empire Falls, I understood the wisdom of what he had told me. I'm not sure at what point it became clear to me that I was free to love my fictional Gloversvilles in a way that I would probably never love the real place, and that continuing to return there fictionally was probably the purest expression of love that I would ever be able to give to this place. But it also set up the paradox whereby people are always asking me, "What the hell are you doing living in Maine? Why don't you come back and live in Upstate New York? That's who you are." And in some ways this book, Elsewhere, is an answer to his question and to other people who are saying, "How can you so clearly be devoted to a place, and treat it the way Joyce treated Dublin?"

GR: Right, Joyce didn't write about Dublin in Dublin, either.

RR: He fled! He did exactly what I've done. He would be a Dubliner for the rest of his life, but damned if he was going to live there!

GR: You talk about your daughter being diagnosed with OCD and how you realized that your mother had shared the same problems.

RR: My daughter's fine now, and fine because she did self-diagnose and the diagnosis was confirmed. And she did what I don't think my mother could have done. My mother never would have spoken to a doctor and gotten help. It's not a cure, per se, but the regimen works, and it works even in people who have neglected it for the better part of their adult lives. My daughter got caught at a very early stage, which is not to say that she doesn't still struggle

GR: How does your daughter feel about being in the book?

RR: One of the first things I did was to give it to Barbara, my wife, and then to my daughters, because this was about their grandmother, and I couldn't do this without their approval. I asked [my daughter]—"Do I keep you out of this book?"—and she said, without even a moment's notice, "This is very important, you have to put me in it, you have to let people know."

GR: Goodreads member Jason M. Vaughn asks, "Is there something that happens during the early thinking/writing that makes you realize (without a doubt) that this will be your next book?"

RR: Usually my next book is located in the book that I'm working on in the moment, and usually it's the result of some dissatisfaction. If I've written a story in first person and toward the end of the book I think—"Oh God, it would really be nice to go into some point of view of somebody else here, I'm really tired of seeing this person's point of view over 750 pages!"—then my dissatisfaction over my narrative choice there will determine that the next book will be omniscient, and I'll get a chance to go into everybody's point of view that I want to.

GR: What is Elsewhere going to motivate?

RR: I think Elsewhere is going to be my one and only delving into memoir. It took me into a very dark place, and I feel right now the next book has to be very comic indeed. I'd already begun a novel that I plan to go back to, a sequel to Nobody's Fool in which the main character is that dumb cop that was Sully's nemesis—he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the movie. I think it's very funny, and I don't think it's going to have a character in it who resembles my mother in any way!

GR: Yeah, forget it! No families!

RR: It's going to be a book where no one has a mother! People have been born into life like Venus on a half-shell! There's no fathering, no birthing, nothing!

GR: This is another question from a Goodreads member, Jeff Wescott. Jeff says, "When I read a Richard Russo novel, I hear the voices of the men I grew up around in Westfield, MA. His sense of humor is very much like my dad's, a man who stood picket lines in the '70s, gave 25 years of service to his company, and was still 'downsized' in his 50s. This was devastating for him, and I think Russo gets all that hurt and wounded pride and corporate betrayal into so many of his characters, all without a lot of ranting and raving. My questions for him: What role have unions played in his own life, or in his family's? Where does he think labor is heading?" And he has an additional note for you: "I wish my dad had lived long enough to read one of Russo's books: It might have helped put what happened to him and our family in a different perspective. I know it would have made him laugh."

RR: Oh man, wow. Well, to go back to the important first part of the question, I think that labor unions together with the G.I. Bill are probably more responsible than anything for the increase in wealth across the board in this nation. I think that even states like Arizona, which is a strong Right-to-Work state—they've done everything they can to keep unions out forever—I think even their economy was boosted by union jobs in the rest of the country. I think it was the ability of men and women to bring home the kind of paychecks that allowed them to buy their first homes and send their kids to college that was responsible for what we now think of as the middle class, which is now disappearing before our very eyes, largely due to union-busting efforts of Republican governors across the country.

I remain a union man. I think a lot of people who now look on unions as a problem in this country just have very short memories. They just don't remember what life was like—not just in terms of wealth but in terms of working conditions. It wasn't just that people with union jobs—men like my father, who worked in construction—made more money than men who worked in the mills, where there was no union at all or a weak union, it was that they didn't get killed on the job. Most of what we think of as the most important safety legislation was a result of unions negotiating contracts that put a premium on safety of the workforce. [Without unions], America becomes not just a less prosperous nation, but also a more dangerous one.

GR: On a different note, are there any writing habits that you have? Anything you need to do every morning?

RR: Is this the "Do you work in the nude?" question?

GR: Yes! Do you?

RR: This reminds me of, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed Asner used to always be so anxious to give that answer: "Yes, I sleep in the nude." Ha! OK, habits... I used to go into a local restaurant and work there. [I liked] the noise, I liked that if the phone rang it wasn't for me... it was less lonely. I had to stop doing that because of cell phones, and I still miss it. Strangely enough, if there are 15 people in a restaurant all talking loudly, I won't hear them, but if there's one person on a cell phone, it cuts through all of them.

GR: Which books or authors have been a big influence?

RR: Well, you know, the dead ones are fairly predictable: Dickens, because of his great big canvases and the way he loved his minor characters and always gave the impression that his minor characters were as important. Let's see, for making me realize I could only go to dark places if I was armed with humor, Mark Twain. If you want to write about ignorance and racism and violence, like Twain did in Huckleberry Finn, you'd better have people laughing. And then Fitzgerald, for so articulating both the upside and the downside of the American dream—how in our national character we believe it's not only our right, but perhaps even our duty, to reinvent ourselves. To say that it doesn't matter who our daddy is in our effort to be who we want to become. The past doesn't matter. But he was also careful to make us aware what the price of that could be.

GR: And what are you reading now?

RR: I'm plowing through Dennis Lehane's new novel. His book is violent, but he's writing about violence, where it comes from; these are not romantic stories about violence. He's bent on explaining America to America, and I'm just captivated.

Also, I just so admired Lauren Groff's Arcadia, a book that wears its learning and ambition so lightly. And earlier this year, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins.

GR: One last question—are there any fans who think that you wrote the Twilight movies?

RR: Yes! They've completely forgotten about the Paul Newman/Susan Sarandon movie [also titled Twilight, which Russo scripted in 1998], and they'll say tentatively, "I can't believe you also write about vampires..."

Interview by Jade Chang for Goodreads. Jade is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles.

Learn more about Jade and follow what she's reading.

Would you like to contribute author interviews to Goodreads? Contact us.

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy This interview makes me want to read both Elsewhere and Nobody's Fool. Russo is a witty, interesting man. . . as Jade Chang's questions helped reveal.

message 2: by Goodloe (new)

Goodloe Bankes To my way of thinking Robert Russo is a giant redwood in a forest of authors. I have read practically everything he has written and find everyone a different experience with a common thread. If you have grown up in a small town and spent much time in a small town barber shop you soon realize a great story teller such as Mr. Russo has drawn from life experiences the qualities that draw you in and hold you to the end of the story.

message 3: by Avidreader (new)

Avidreader I heard him being intereviewed on NPR and I was intrigued by this book and his relationship to his mother. Definitely will be reading the book.

message 4: by Harvey (new)

Harvey T my first marriage took place in gloversville a month before richard russo was born. what tore the city apart during the years of his youth and adolescence, we witnessed first hand, from afar.i look forward to reading his account

message 5: by Mary-katherine (new)

Mary-katherine Rogers I have read, and will read, anything by Mr. Russo. He is a genius. It would be hard to write anything funnier than Straight Man, one of a handful of books I've read twice, but I am looking forward to the comedy that comes after Elsewhere. Having grown up in a west coast Gloversville, my entire family appreciates the quirkiness of the small university own.

message 6: by Mike (new)

Mike Reuther Richard Russo's "Nobody's Fool" and "The Risk Pool" remain among my favorite novels. These are books about real people, regular folks who make for great stories.

message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary I look forward to reading this book.

message 8: by Linda (new)

Linda Like Mary-katherine, I have read all the Russo books I could get my hands on. I return to Nobody's Fool when I need a good dose of humanity. I am so happy to have read this interview and I look forward to reading the memoir.

message 9: by Karen (new)

Karen Russo's Straight Man is a brilliant combination of laugh out loud funny and suspense within an intricately woven plot. He is just the best. I am looking forward to reading this memoir.

message 10: by Mike (new)

Mike Reuther I thought a movie was in the works for Risk Pool but it never came off to my knowledge. Anyone have any information on that?

message 11: by Joan (new)

Joan I love Richard Russo and his characters who are so recognizable. I devour his books and will certainly read this new one. I'm struggling with a similar "memoir" about my life that turns into a story about my mother. These mother's can really fool us, can't they?

message 12: by Mike (new)

Mike Reuther Russo's books are definitely worth re-reading. I'll have to read the memoir.

message 13: by Kate (new)

Kate Corcoran Thanks, Jade, for interesting insights from one of my favorite authors. I would have shied away from a memoir. Now I'll read it.

message 14: by Victor (new)

Victor Shapovalov Tell can i receive Russo books in Ukraine ?

message 15: by Dick (new)

Dick Wilkin I had the privilege of sitting in a writer's workshop at the Puerto del Sol Writer's conference in Las Cruces, NM under Mr. Russo. Mohawk is still one of my favorite books. It has been great to watch his career through the years since then. It is inspiring to think that I was talking with a future Pulitzer winner.

message 16: by Mike (new)

Mike Reuther Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool are two of my favorite novels. I have re-read both of them.

message 17: by (new) listen to Russo read his memoir, Elsewhere. It is unforgettable to hear his voice read this material

back to top