Vintage WD Interview: Richard Russo, Master of the Tragicomedy

From the WD archives, this 2003 interview with Richard Russo includes his perspective on winning the Pulitzer, crafting characters, and his first reader.
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Chances Are..., the newest novel by Richard Russoreleased the U.S. in July 2019 but was released in Australia this week. In looking through our archives, we discovered this February 2003 WD Interview with Richard Russo by Jane Friedman in which she talks to Russo about his 2002 novel Empire Falls, winning the Pulitzer, and the importance of his first reader. 

You can also read about Jane's experience interviewing Richard Russo here.

Richard Russo quote

Validation: That’s how Richard Russo describes the impact of winning the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his fifth novel, Empire Falls (Knopf, 2001).

“It gave me permission to continue. It said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Russo’s epic story of a declining New England small town has been hailed by critics as the last great American novel of the 20th century. It was the inaugural selection of the USA Today book club and named 2001’s best novel by Time magazine.

Empire Falls tells the life story of an unpretentious nice guy, Miles Roby, who’s spent all his life managing the town’s greasy spoon, Empire Grill. The first chapter opens with Miles waiting at the restaurant for his teenage daughter, Tick, to return from school. She eventually appears hefting a load of books.

“The overarching metaphor is at the book’s opening—Tick and her backpack,” Russo says. “The larger theme is how kids are carrying too much weigh, and what will the weight be in the end. It turns out it’s cruelty.”

Russo modeled Tick on his won two daughters, who were high-school age when he wrote Empire Falls. In some ways, Russo says, the story is a father-daughter love story, but one that ends with a father’s worst nightmare: cruelty against his own child.

“ I was hoping [the school shooting] wouldn’t be the climax. I knew where it was headed, and I didn’t want to go there,” Russo says. “I used a fair amount of my daughters in the character of Tick—I had grown to love this child. And to turn around and put this fictional child in that kind of mortal jeopardy! But it’s a multigenerational book. Everyone’s hurt or abused in some way.”

As grim as the subject sounds, Empire Falls overflows with humorous scenes and characters, for which Russo’s earlier novels are well known. Straight Man is an academic satire and Nobody’s Fool (both Random House) is another small-town life novel with tragicomic elements. The latter was made into a motion picture starring Paul Newman; Russo wrote the screenplay.

Whether he’s detailing the lives of intellectuals or blue-collars, Russo always builds a vivid setting. Sense of place is crucial in all of Russo’s work, particularly so in Empire Falls. The dying town envelops Miles’ activities, taunting him for never escaping. In The Complete Guide to Novel Writing (WD Books), Russo says, “Place and its people are intertwined, place is character.”

Typically, Russo works on a novel for several years, and during that time often returns to the story’s beginning to add passages or reshuffle scenes.

“In art, effects often precede the cause. I try to make the novel appear like that’s what I was doing all along,” he says.

Richard Russo | Empire Falls

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Empire Falls features lengthy flashbacks including a 14-page prologue relating the town’s history. But Russo says chapter one—set during the present day—was his start. As he progressed, he saw the need for a backstory, so he started writing about Miles’ childhood and the town’s history. He later decided to place the flashbacks in italics as separate sections, to deliver the information.

“I realized how much the past impinged on the present,” Russo says. “I have this analogy: If you’re building a house and you start digging, and you run into this rock, you have two options. You can either try to dig the rock out, not knowing how big it is or how deep it goes, or you can build around the rock and make it an architectural part of the house, as if it really belongs there. And that’s kind of what these flashbacks are like.”

Once Russo finishes a novel—which he revises and revises until he can’t make it any better—he shows it to his wife.

“She’s the first reader, a good reader and generous reader. She tells me when the book loses her attention,” he says.

After his wife’s read, Russo sends the work to his agents, Nat Sobel and Judith Weber.

“Every single one of my books they’ve made better, but we don’t always agree on what needs to be done. The secret to the relationship is that they’re never insistent,” he says.

Russo’s most recent book has taken a different direction. The Whore’s Child (Knopf) is a collection of seven short stories—some new, some old.

Although Russo finds that short stories pose a lesser risk (“If short stories fail, it’s a month out of your life—damage control.”), they are much more difficult for him to write.

“They are all about control, which I’ve never had a lot of. I’m a creature of digression. You can’t allow yourself to be distracted.”

Yet distraction is exactly what Russo goes after in his writing environment. He prefers to write in diners or busy places, where his mind can wander and make connections. “You can end up where you didn’t mean to go, but it’s probably more interesting than where you mean tot go in the first place.”

Russo’s advice to novelist in particular is this: “Whatever you’re working on, take small bites. A few pages at a time. Whatever you’re working on should be the most exciting thing. The task will not be overwhelming if you can reduce it to its smallest component.”

Also: “Don’t keep a journal because you’ll think what you remembered to write down was important when it’s actually not.”

Richard Russo | Chances Are...

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