INTERVIEW

Award-winning author Richard Russo discusses life as a writer

Richard Russo won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Empire Falls. He will be the guest speaker at the 2019 Annual McKinney Contest awards on April 3 at 8 pm in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. Following is a transcript from Russo’s phone conversation with student Hazelle Lerum, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

HAZELLE LERUM: I suppose that I might be a little different from people who have interviewed you in that the only thing that I have read by you is your most recent book, Trajectory, a short story collection.

RICHARD RUSSO: That’s okay, I’ve been interviewed by people who haven’t read a word. [laughs] So we’re fine.

LERUM: Good, okay. I didn’t want to do that to you. I can understand how that could be frustrating. So do you want to talk a little bit generally about Trajectory, to have a description?

RUSSO: Yeah, okay.

Even though the stories are written a fairly long time apart—I think between the most recent of those and the earliest, there was at least a decade—what I find kind of interesting about it is that when you look at the stories, they’re kind of all about the same thing. In the sense that all four of the main characters have reached a point…The four major characters have all come to a point in their lives where they’re beginning to look backwards as much as forwards, and trying to figure out how in the world they got to be at this point in their lives because they all seem to be wondering if there’s way that somehow, rather, they’re living somebody else’s life and not a life that they intended to live—hence the title, Trajectory, which has to do with the trajectory of all of our lives.

And you’re a pretty rare person if by the time you’re fifty, or sixty years old as these characters are, if by the time you get to that point in your life you’re not looking at your life and thinking: is this what I planned to do? Or is that kind of how life ended up as. So it’s all about destiny. And what I was saying that I find interesting about that is that obviously I’ve been obsessing about that without really knowing it. I’ve been obsessing about that for the last ten, twelve, fifteen years. And the lifespan—the span of all of those stories. And then when I finished that I wrote a book called The Destiny Thief, which is a book of essays about the same subject.

LERUM: Interesting. So when I was reading about your other works compared to Trajectory, it seemed like a lot of people were surprised that it was different in the subject matter—compared to small towns, stuff like that. Did you ever feel like you were pigeonholed into the genre?

RUSSO: Well, I did more as a younger writer than I do now. After my first two novels were set in the same small town in upstate New York, which I called Mohawk, and my third novel was also going to be in upstate New York, I remember writing my agent and saying “what happens if I get ‘pigeonholed,’” as you say, and people expect me to always be writing about this one subject matter: mill towns in New York, blue-collar workers—people that do not have much education or money or opportunity. And my agent said, you know what? Don’t worry about that—people expect certain things of writers. When you pick up a [Charles Dickens] book, you’re expect to be familiar with the terrain of a Dickens novel, and you actually look forward to that. And I thought that was wise counsel. And so my third book was another of those.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize what a privilege it was to write about these people in this place. That’s my terrain, it’s not very large; for the most part it’s not very broad, a little bit like [William Faulkner]—he had his little patch of dirt down there in Mississippi that he liked to scratch around in, and I’ve got my patch of dirt that I scratch around in in upstate New York. But every now and then I do get off the reservation! And that’s what happened. Somebody obviously was not tending to me, and I wandered. I just wandered outside of my usual terrain, and found myself writing about people who had a bit more money and a bit more education and more of the ability to travel. My favorite of those stories is the one that takes place in Venice. But with [Trajectory] I kind of got off the leash, and was able to wander around a bit in the wider world, something I don’t often do. It was kind of fun.

LERUM: I enjoyed the one in Venice too. I find it interesting that you write about upstate New York, because I’m actually from Portland, but the other Portland on the West Coast, and the area is unfamiliar to me. I look forward to exploring more of the area through your writing soon. A more general question now…how did you know when you became a real or “legitimate” writer?

RUSSO: I don’t know if anybody ever really feels like a “really legitimate” writer, you know? There’s an old story—I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s been reported—about the great writer Richard Yates, whose work meant an awful lot to me when I was trying to become a writer. There’s a story about him when he was teaching in Iowa, and this is the author of Revolutionary Road, for heaven’s sakes—he was a writer’s writer and much beloved by people who wanted to be writers. He was teaching at the University of Iowa at the time, and a student who had just gotten into the program saw Yates one night at a bar. Yates was at that point in his life an older man and he was drinking a lot, and could be found almost any night in this one particular bar in Iowa City. This kid went in and saw him sitting at the end of the bar, staring into his amber-colored fluid, and went up to him and said “Mr. Yates, you don’t know me but I just got admitted to the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. And your work means a lot to me,” and he said to Yates, “I just want you to know that I really, really want to be a writer.” And Yates kind of looked at him and said “Me, too.”

And so you said—“when do you feel like a legitimate writer?” I think the work itself is so humbling, and it defeats you so often on a daily basis. You somehow most days can’t quite say what you mean to say, what you want to say, and it’s hard to ever feel like you know what you’re doing and you’ve “arrived,” because every day, you know, that white piece of paper is staring at you and it doesn’t get any easier.

But I do remember at the other end of it that I was very close to finishing my PhD; I was probably 28, 29 years old, finishing a PhD in American Literature, with no intention whatsoever of being a writer until one day I kind of looked around—I was in an office with eighteen desks, because there were 36 of us in there—we were all teaching assistants. And there were all kinds of people in there, American literature people, English literature people, folklorists, English as a second language, you know: all the usual suspects in an English department. The only people who seemed to me to be having a lot of fun were the writers. The fiction writers and the poets. They all seemed to be having a great time, and they all went out for beers afterwards. And the rest of us just seemed like kind of drudges. Going through the motions. Just out of curiosity, to find out why should they have all the fun, I signed up for a fiction writing course. And it was like I was bitten by a bug or something—I just couldn’t stop. Once I started, it felt so urgent, like I finally found what I wanted to do, after all this time of finding out what I didn’t want to do. But here it was at last. There was no looking back from that point.

LERUM: How important would you say that classes like those are in upper education for students today? [RPI] is a school that puts a premium on STEM subjects, and there is an extremely limited number of classes we can take in [English]. Do you have any feelings about the shift away from the humanities and towards STEM in education today?

RUSSO: Well, I think there are a lot of different ways to become a writer. I think one of the principle advantages to taking courses in literature and creative writing both is that if you want to become a writer, it seems to slow the amount of time that’s involved in an apprenticeship. So once you get it into your head that you want to be a writer, you can do it the way people did before there were writing programs—just go off by yourself and try to learn how to do it. I have a good writer friend of mine who is completely self-taught, learned how to write novels simply by reading them. So you can do it that way, but the advantage to taking classes is it seems to cut the amount of time. If your apprenticeship would take you five years, say, since the time you started your first novel to the time you found somebody to publish [it], if your apprenticeship would normally take, say five years—by taking classes, particularly workshops, you could trim that five years down to three. Because as you work with other writers, you get to see your own mistakes but you also get to see theirs. So you’re probably learning twice as fast. And that’s the real advantage. A lot people think they’re going to make connections there, somebody will find you or an agent, or they’ll send you to their publisher—that almost never happens. You’ll have good teachers, but it won’t be your teachers as much as your fellow students that really help you move along that apprenticeship [prerogative?] at a fairly decent clip. So that’s the advantage, I think, to classes in literature and especially workshops, is that it speeds the process. And god, the process can be forever. A typical apprenticeship is closer to 10 years. You could go to law school, med school; [laughs] probably both law school and med school quicker than you could become a real writer.

LERUM: Assuming that I am interrupting your schedule right now, would you like to describe your daily [schedule]? As I understand you are now a full-time writer, as opposed to a teacher.

RUSSO: I am, yeah. I’ve been a full-time writer now for about fifteen to twenty years, and I’m one of the blessed! One of the few who’s been able to sustain myself, put my kids through college, do all the stuff that you need to do when you’re a writer but also a husband and a father and all of those things. I’m one of the few, the blessed who are able to do this full time.

So what’s my daily schedule like? So now you’re trying to embarrass me! Right now my schedule is fairly hectic because I just turned in a new novel; I’ve gotten my edits back from my editor, I’m plugging them in. When you’re towards the end of a project, if you’re working on a novel, the closer you get to the end, the longer your hours. Because, when you’re at the beginning of a book, you’re still trying to feel your way through. When I’m starting a novel, if I work two or three hours a day, if I work a couple hours in the morning and then spend another couple hours in the afternoon putting what I have written out in longhand into the computer and kind of revising as I go, a typical day might be only four hours long. And I spend the rest of the time reading and doing other kind of writing-related things but not writing itself.

But the closer you get to the end, you find yourself putting in much longer hours because it’s less invention, less…I don’t want to say imagination because there’s imagination involved in it all the time, but there’s more text in front of you. You find yourself, once you smell the finish line, you find yourself working a bit longer hours and then when you get there and you have a draft, and you start bending towards the revision process, which is the longest part of the whole process of writing a novel. You can draft a book in a year but you might spend another two or three years revising it until it kind of [perks?] right along. The reader has it easy. So the closer you are towards the end of a project, the longer your days become and when you [Hazelle] called just now, I was glad to hear the phone ring because I’ve been working since this morning and I’ll be putting in more hours until dinnertime and then after dinner I’ll probably go out and work a bit more to get all these edits in. So now my days are pretty long. If you had spoken to me about it three years ago, or two years ago when I was beginning this project, I would have said “gosh, it doesn’t feel like I’m putting in that many hours.”

LERUM: I am glad to have provided a reprieve, then.

RUSSO: Yeah, you did! [laughs] Can you call me tomorrow about the same time?

LERUM: Speaking of questions that you’ve probably been asked a lot…[a lot of people] want to know how you felt about the HBO series that resulted from your books, and how closely you worked on them, if you watched them, how you felt about them…

RUSSO: The HBO series of Empire Falls I loved. Both of my novels that were made into movies turned out to be terrific. The movie of Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman, I had a chance to see it again recently after 20-something years and boy does it hold up. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful movie. I can say that because Robert Benton was the director and he wrote the script—and it’s just a gorgeous piece of work. I felt really fortunate about that even though I wasn’t involved in it, I did some script doctor work on it but I wasn’t involved in it. The HBO mini-series I wrote the screenplay for, and was really involved in the process from start to finish. I was even involved in the editing. I went into the editing room with the director and his cinematographer for cuts, and we had some narration work to do. There’s a narrator in that, and I was writing narration for the movie just weeks before they finally put it all together and it premiered on HBO. So I was very involved with all of that. I just loved it. That astonishing task they put together, all of them. Ed Harris and Newman again, and Robin Wright. It was just—Phillip Seymour Hoffman! How in the world—I don’t think you could ever get that group of actors together again for a single production. And they were all brilliant. I felt very fortunate.

LERUM: That was a very lucky thing.

RUSSO: Yeah! They don’t all turn out that way.

LERUM: Anyone who’s ever complained about the book being better than the movie, I think, can relate to that fear.

RUSSO: Yeah…

LERUM: Do you have any tips for anyone who is used to writing in prose but is going into writing screenplays?

RUSSO: For me, screenwriting is mostly dialogue. It’s your ear that’s going to get you through, not your eye. The camera’s the eye; you can describe uphill and downhill and it doesn’t amount to anything because that camera’s going to see what’s out there in the real world. So you don’t waste much time on description. Whereas in a novel you might go deep into your characters’ heads to tell us what they’re thinking, and feeling. But in the screenplay, whatever it is that they’re thinking and feeling has to come out of what they do and what they say. So it’s kind of a form of shorthand storytelling where dialogue and action rules the day and whatever your character is saying, what’s eating at them, what they hope and fear, it’s all got to come out of that dialogue. Best to think of it in those terms: what are these people doing and what are they saying that will reveal who they are?

LERUM: Another topic: I understand that you play a pretty important role in the Author’s Guild organization. Do you want to talk about that?

RUSSO: Yes. I’m actually vice president now; I will be cycling off the board. I’ve been a board member and vice president now for going on a decade, so I’ll be cycling off pretty soon. But for me the best part of that has been watching and helping some emerging writers to emerge [laughs]. First and second book authors who have not yet become household names, or whatever—there’s a wonderful talent in the pipeline right now and one of the things the Guild does is to help these talented younger writers who haven’t made their name yet find their way and it’s increasingly difficult these days for that to happen; the writing life has contracted an awful lot since I broke through, and so it’s more of a challenge.

The Guild’s mission is to protect the writing life and to make sure that the generation of talented young writers who are in the pipeline now still have a profession to go to. Since the digital revolution, all of the pressure has been on lowering the price of books, and, when you lower the price of what we make, that makes making a living more difficult. It’s a challenge. It’s more of a challenge now if you want to be a writer than it was when I broke in. My being a part of the Guild, being on the board allows me to give a little bit back because, y’know, I was lucky enough to break in when I did…it’s now a chance for me to pay back a little bit for younger writers who don’t have all the advantages that I had when I was breaking in.

LERUM: For more a playful question: a lot of [students] at RPI like to read science fiction. Would you ever consider writing something in the genre of science fiction?

RUSSO: Well I would never say never. But the genres in general—I’m pretty happy, as I say, in my own little patch of dirt. I think that for me it seems unlikely that I would write science fiction because science fiction is very kind of idea oriented, concept oriented. People who write in the science fiction genre—they’re very often kind of intellectually the smartest people in the room. [laughs] They’re certainly not afraid of ideas, they’re not afraid of big ideas, and they march those ideas out across the page in sometimes really exciting ways. I always admire it without exactly wanting to go there because my own imagination just doesn’t work that way. I think that the people who write science fiction have their ideas before they even start their books. It’s ideas that have generated the book, and usually for me whatever ideas are in my books I discover slowly as I make my way inch by inch across the page, and sometimes will discover halfway through the book I’ll say to myself, “oh, okay, now I know what this book is about.” And that’s a little bit different, I think, from working [in the genres]. In most of the genres, you kind of have to know what it’s about beforehand.

LERUM: Speaking of questions that you’ve probably been asked a lot…[a lot of people] want to know how you felt about the HBO series that resulted from your books, and how closely you worked on them, if you watched them, how you felt about them…

RUSSO: The HBO series of Empire Falls I loved. Both of my novels that were made into movies turned out to be terrific. The movie of Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman, I had a chance to see it again recently after 20-something years and boy does it hold up. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful movie. I can say that because Robert Benton was the director and he wrote the script—and it’s just a gorgeous piece of work. I felt really fortunate about that even though I wasn’t involved in it, I did some script doctor work on it but I wasn’t involved in it. The HBO mini-series I wrote the screenplay for, and was really involved in the process from start to finish. I was even involved in the editing. I went into the editing room with the director and his cinematographer for cuts, and we had some narration work to do. There’s a narrator in that, and I was writing narration for the movie just weeks before they finally put it all together and it premiered on HBO. So I was very involved with all of that. I just loved it. That astonishing task they put together, all of them. Ed Harris and Newman again, and Robin Wright. It was just—Phillip Seymour Hoffman! How in the world—I don’t think you could ever get that group of actors together again for a single production. And they were all brilliant. I felt very fortunate.

LERUM: That was a very lucky thing.

RUSSO: Yeah! They don’t all turn out that way.

LERUM: Anyone who’s ever complained about the book being better than the movie, I think, can relate to that fear.

RUSSO: Yeah…

LERUM: Do you have any tips for anyone who is used to writing in prose but is going into writing screenplays?

RUSSO: For me, screenwriting is mostly dialogue. It’s your ear that’s going to get you through, not your eye. The camera’s the eye; you can describe uphill and downhill and it doesn’t amount to anything because that camera’s going to see what’s out there in the real world. So you don’t waste much time on description. Whereas in a novel you might go deep into your characters’ heads to tell us what they’re thinking, and feeling. But in the screenplay, whatever it is that they’re thinking and feeling has to come out of what they do and what they say. So it’s kind of a form of shorthand storytelling where dialogue and action rules the day and whatever your character is saying, what’s eating at them, what they hope and fear, it’s all got to come out of that dialogue. Best to think of it in those terms: what are these people doing and what are they saying that will reveal who they are?

LERUM: Another topic: I understand that you play a pretty important role in the Author’s Guild organization. Do you want to talk about that?

RUSSO: Yes. I’m actually vice president now; I will be cycling off the board. I’ve been a board member and vice president now for going on a decade, so I’ll be cycling off pretty soon. But for me the best part of that has been watching and helping some emerging writers to emerge [laughs]. First and second book authors who have not yet become household names, or whatever—there’s a wonderful talent in the pipeline right now and one of the things the Guild does is to help these talented younger writers who haven’t made their name yet find their way and it’s increasingly difficult these days for that to happen; the writing life has contracted an awful lot since I broke through, and so it’s more of a challenge.

The Guild’s mission is to protect the writing life and to make sure that the generation of talented young writers who are in the pipeline now still have a profession to go to. Since the digital revolution, all of the pressure has been on lowering the price of books, and, when you lower the price of what we make, that makes making a living more difficult. It’s a challenge. It’s more of a challenge now if you want to be a writer than it was when I broke in. My being a part of the Guild, being on the board allows me to give a little bit back because, y’know, I was lucky enough to break in when I did…it’s now a chance for me to pay back a little bit for younger writers who don’t have all the advantages that I had when I was breaking in.

LERUM: For more a playful question: a lot of [students] at RPI like to read science fiction. Would you ever consider writing something in the genre of science fiction?

RUSSO: Well I would never say never. But the genres in general—I’m pretty happy, as I say, in my own little patch of dirt. I think that for me it seems unlikely that I would write science fiction because science fiction is very kind of idea oriented, concept oriented. People who write in the science fiction genre—they’re very often kind of intellectually the smartest people in the room. [laughs] They’re certainly not afraid of ideas, they’re not afraid of big ideas, and they march those ideas out across the page in sometimes really exciting ways. I always admire it without exactly wanting to go there because my own imagination just doesn’t work that way. I think that the people who write science fiction have their ideas before they even start their books. It’s ideas that have generated the book, and usually for me whatever ideas are in my books I discover slowly as I make my way inch by inch across the page, and sometimes will discover halfway through the book I’ll say to myself, “oh, okay, now I know what this book is about.” And that’s a little bit different, I think, from working [in the genres]. In most of the genres, you kind of have to know what it’s about beforehand.

LERUM: Do you have a first reader that you give your writing to?

RUSSO: My wife Barbara has been [my first reader] for the last forty-five years. And she’s a wonderful reader. That’s something that I don’t actually recommend to younger writers, because you really don’t want your first reader to be someone who’s reading it because they love you. [laughs] It’s an unfair burden to put it on anybody who loves you. But I think after you become a published writer, when you’ve got a book or two out, then it’s perfectly fine for someone who is a good reader to [be your first reader]. Now Barbara knows me, and I know that I’m not going to be hurt, you know, if there’s something she doesn’t like. All of that has, after forty-five and fifty years’ worth of marriage, a lot of those worries just disappear on both sides.

LERUM: How do you go about cultivating that thick skin as a writer?

RUSSO: I don’t know but there’s nothing more important, I can testify to that. Thick skin is a writer’s best tool. Mine is pretty thick after all these years.

LERUM: One of the questions I wasn’t sure about asking was “what’s the meanest thing anyone’s ever said about your writing” but—

RUSSO: You know, if you write for a long time you’re gonna get a lot of bad reviews, you’re gonna get a lot of good reviews, if you’re a good writer—hopefully you’re gonna get a lot of good reviews. You’re going to get some bad ones. When people don’t like my books, that’s fine. And when they say mean-spirited things about them, that’s also fine—that’s their job and their opinion. I don’t bristle at that.

One of the things that I do bristle at, however, is when people say unkind things about my characters. I never have any desire to defend myself, but I remember when Empire Falls came out and there were a couple of reviews that suggested, “why in the world would we want to spend 600 pages with a loser like Miles Roby?” And I just went ballistic, because I felt this tremendous loyalty to this fictional character. Number one, he’s not a loser! He’s such a fine and such a decent man, he’s trying to do the right things and he keeps coming up short, but it’s not for lack of courage and it’s not for lack of trying. So when people attack my characters, it’s like they’re attacking my loved ones in real life. And I become volcanic in my anger [laughs] when people I care about are attacked in that way. But that’s pretty much it—otherwise, if they think I’m a good writer, a bad writer, that’s their opinion and I’m pretty good with that.