A Conversation With Richard Russo
The series' headliner — who'll speak at VCFA on July 2 — is novelist Richard Russo. Even if you haven't read his work, you may know it as the source of two memorable showcases for the older Paul Newman: Nobody's Fool and the miniseries Empire Falls.
The author's latest work is a memoir. He has plenty to say about characters who surprise their authors, making a story up as you go, and his in-progress sequel to Nobody's Fool. Here's Walsh's complete conversation with Russo, not all of which we had room to print.
SEVEN DAYS: I wanted to start by talking about your most recent work — your memoir, Elsewhere. In your short story "The Whore’s Child," Sister Ursula is writing a memoir-type piece in a fiction-writing class. To be vague for those who haven’t read the story (but should), I'll just say that she discovers there’s a fine line between fact and fiction; that sometimes we create fiction in our own retelling of the “facts.” In writing Elsewhere, which was your first memoir…
RICHARD RUSSO: And last! [Laughs.]
SD: [Laughs.] Was there a similarly surprising process of discovery for you as you wrote Elsewhere? Did you realize things that you wouldn’t have otherwise, had you not written it?
RR: I’m so happy that you picked up on that parallel, because my experience in writing this memoir was not unlike Sister Ursula’s. She discovers, in telling the story — and having other people respond to her telling the story — that of course her memory is flawed, and she’s forced to confront something about her life that I think she may have known some part of in the back of her mind, but very deep in her own need to believe something else. And I discovered in writing Elsewhere, not that there was any great secret, so much as the fact that I just didn’t really understand, until writing this book, some aspects of the story of my own life, and the story of my mother’s life.
People are always asking me, “Why’d you go all the way to the University of Arizona for college, when you could have had a full scholarship to any school in the state of New York?” I always just told people that I wanted to study archaeology, and the best place to do that is in the American Southwest. But when I started to sit down to write this story, I realized that that wasn’t true. Or it wasn’t completely true. That I went to the University of Arizona was something that my mother was at least as responsible for as I was. She’d drop little seeds of information as I would need them, and I realized that as much as I wanted to go to Arizona, she wanted to go there even more, for all different kinds of reasons — for very personal reasons.
You know, I wrote this book not because I knew the story, but because I didn’t. And I suspected that — I suspected, after my mother’s death, when she was on my mind a lot, and the more I thought about her, and the shape of her life, and the things, those parts of my own life when I was young and before her illness began to diminish her... Because she was on my mind so much, I was just telling myself this story and trying to make sense of it. And so writing this story was the first time that there were certain aspects of my own life that finally made sense.
SD: How is that process of discovery, or perhaps rediscovery, different when you were writing your memoir than when you’re writing a novel?
RR: Well, when you’re writing a novel, and you discover something like I discovered while writing the memoir, it’s wonderful because you’re learning about fictional characters. And the more you learn about them, the more real they become to you. And yet, they’re always full of surprises. And when you feel these surprises — when you get these insights about your characters, something you didn’t know about them before, it fills you with joy. It’s just wonderful. With all of my books — to follow Lucy Lynch around, and Robert Noonan around, and Miles Roby and his daughter Tick around — I mean, these people are so real to me. And every time they reveal themselves in ways that were totally unanticipated, there’s a sense of marvel, and a sense of joy, and a sense of profound understanding. And it’s mostly joyful.
Unfortunately — you know, you can have that same experience writing a memoir, and you discover something about your own life that you didn’t know. The difference is that it’s not nearly so joyful. Instead of feeling smart when you figure something out, you feel dumb for not having figured it out before. [Laughs.] You don’t get quite the sense of revelation and the sense that “Oh, isn’t this good; I understand something.” You feel profoundly stupid for not tumbling to the truth sooner.
SD: What about the difference between writing a short story and a novel? The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said that writing a short story, for him, is like tending to a garden, and writing a novel is like planting a forest. Is this true in your experience?
RR: For me, writing a short story — which is something I don’t do often, and when I do, the results are not always great (most of the stories I write never see print) — for me, the difference is that I can see a short story almost whole. And so, for me it is a question of holding the reins pretty tightly, and not allowing myself to digress. And there’s nothing more that I love to do in the world than digress. And novels allow me to do that. They allow me to digress, and to find my way back to the spine of the book — to its central narrative.
When I’m writing a novel, I hold the reins very, very loosely. I let things go, with the idea that ultimately — you know, 800,000 pages later — I can grab onto the reins again, pull tightly, and then go in and tend to the garden — pull out all the stuff that really doesn’t work, the digressions that don’t work, and you get rid of them, and you make all the ducks line up and face the right direction. Well, the gardening metaphor is getting muddied. But for me it’s a question of how tightly you hold the reins. The shorter it is, the more tightly I have to hold on; and then the longer the work, the more I feel that I have the freedom to let go of the reins and hold them really loosely, to hopefully encounter some surprise.
SD: It’s an exercise in restraint, then.
RR: It is, because you can often see the beginning, the middle and the end before you begin; you really do have an obligation to get there. So yeah, I just cannot indulge what I normally think of as my strengths as a writer, and also that aspect of my personality that just likes to kind of wander. So yeah, short story writing is an exercise in restraint.
SD: Do you find that that exercise makes it a bit easier to grab hold of the reins if you’ve become a bit lost when writing a novel?
RR: Yeah, but being lost is the fun part! [Laughs.]
SD: All right. Speaking of being lost, then — and while we’re quoting other novelists — John Irving once said, “How can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first?” He says he likes to “back into” a novel, and knows exactly where it’s going to go. But you’ve said, “Part of a fiction writer’s job is to make it look like he knew exactly what he was doing right from the start,” which implies that maybe you don’t know where you’re going when you begin.
RR: Oh, I almost never know. And that John Irving quote is very famous, and I love it, even though I don’t work that way. I wish I could. He does; he very often knows the last sentence of the book will be the first that he writes. And I just have a world of admiration for anybody that can write a book that way. But you know, I have no statistics to back this up, but I suspect that there are probably as many people who stumble around in the dark like I do, trying to figure out the size and the shape of the room, as work the way he does.
But I’ve been forced to work the way [Irving] does from time to time. When Robert Benton and I sat down to write a screenplay for a detective movie called Twilight, we knew the script was going to be about 120 pages, and somewhere along the line — about 60 or 70 pages into it — we looked at each other, and I think Benton said to me, “Do you know who the murderer is?” and I said, “No I thought you did!”
And we realized we were just going to have to arbitrarily decide who did this, and why. We were going to have to start at the end. Or we were going to have to revise knowing who did it from the end. But by then we already had 60 pages of really interesting characters that were doing interesting things. But instead of allowing them free range to roam, which I think they cheerfully would have done for another 150 pages, we kind of had to pull in on the reins and say, “OK, where’s the guy that did it? We have all these interesting things we’ve found out about these characters, and we’ll find a way to weave them into the script, but we really have to write with the ending in mind.”
And so all I can say is, whatever works. If you can write A Prayer for Owen Meany using any method, do it. That’s the short version.
SD: And you knew exactly where you were going to end up with the memoir?
RR: Well, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to just invent things in it, but I thought almost from the start that I was going to have to begin the book very near the end. That it was going to begin in a scene; it was going to begin a year after my mother’s death, when we were scattering her ashes in Martha’s Vineyard. I knew that that’s where the story would begin and that I would circle back to it.
And I knew that, in addition to this being the story of her life, and the story of my life, it was also the story of this town that we had in common. And so I knew that very near the beginning I was going to have to account for Gloversville, N.Y., and its hold on my mother’s life; the way it shaped her life, and the way it shaped mine. And that the story was going to have to return to this place that had shaped both of us. So, in terms of the memoir, I had what I almost never have when I begin work on a novel, which is a sense of its structure.
SD: Backing up a little bit: You’re coming to VCFA’s MFA program. In a 2010 interview with Willow Springs magazine, you said that, for a variety of reasons, you wouldn’t have fit into an MFA program — not least because, you implied, your MFA-bound peers were reading less classic literature and more contemporary experimental fiction like Vonnegut, Stanley Elkin and John Hawkes. When you’ve taught at MFA workshops, do you try to teach classes into which you would have fit?
RR: Actually, I did go to an MFA program. But the rest of it is true. I think what I was talking about there was the fact that, because I did a PhD in Literature first, I entered my MFA program with a very different kind of grounding as a reader than a lot of my fellow MFA students. They were reading postmodern — you know, in addition to those writers that I mentioned, they were reading Calvino, Borges, and really going to school on those writers, whereas I was going to school on Dickens and Twain and Steinbeck. But with that in mind, what was your question?
SD: Well, in that case, when you’ve taught at MFA workshops, do you try to teach classes in which this kind of experimental, language-focused fiction is less the focus? Are you teaching Steinbeck over Vonnegut?
RR: Well, it depends on what level you’re teaching. When I’m teaching at the undergraduate level, I like to teach the most straightforward, conventional, traditional stories. Because I want students — if they’re going to violate those conventions — I want them to understand what the conventions are. If you’re teaching in art school, I think ultimately you’re going to want to help your painters find their own voice, and if they want to end up abstract artists, that’s fine, but in the beginning you want to teach them how to draft. You don’t want them to become abstract because they don’t know how to draft. Picasso began with wonderful drafting skills.
But by the time you get a writer who’s been writing for a while, if it seems pretty clear that they want to work more abstractly and “nonlinearly,” if there’s such a word, and if their real love is Borges-like, postmodern writing, then I don’t think you would be a very good teacher if you tried to come between them and their passion. Even if it’s not what you’d do, you try to help them do what they want to do, you know, assuming that they have put their time in; that they’ve at least had a run at the conventional stuff.
SD: How is teaching different from and/or similar to being a student, and in what ways are you still a student?
RR: I’m almost in all ways still a student. I think one of the great difficulties of teaching is that the more classrooms you stand in front of, the more convinced you become of your own wisdom. And I think that’s dangerous.
It’s been a while since I’ve taught, but I was just, strangely enough, at a writers’ conference in Bulgaria, of all places, and there were some younger writers working on sometimes their first and second novels. And I found it to be just wonderful to be talking with young writers again — something I haven’t done an awful lot of in the last five, six, seven years. But it was wonderful not just talking to them, and to see if I could help them in some way; it was wonderful just to be around young writers who are learning. It helps me to go back and find out what I didn’t know when I was their age, and what I may still not know. The trouble with teaching is that it can have that effect of closing you off from new experiences and new possibilities.
SD: If you hadn’t become a writer, what would you be?
RR: It’s funny, I mentioned my friend Robert Benton before, and I asked this question of him a couple of years ago, at a function where I was kind of interviewing him. I knew how much film had meant to him, and it really shaped his life because it was a way for him to tell stories. He had grown up dyslexic, and being able to tell stories visually — that that was a possibility — it just made his life. Because he wanted to tell stories, and it’s a terrible handicap to be dyslexic if you want to tell stories. But film allowed him to do that. And I asked him the same question you’re asking me. I said, “If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be? Would you have made something else?”
And the first thing he did was what we all do when we’re asked that question. He made a joke. He said, “Like what, wooden decoys?”
I said, “No, but would you have made something? It seems to me that you’re a maker.”
He said, “Yes, I have no idea what I would have made, but it’s very difficult for me to imagine my life not making something.”
And I think I would have, too, if I hadn’t found a way to write books. I’ve watched my daughter, who is a painter, an artist, and her husband, my son-in-law, who is also an artist. I’ve watched them work. I’ve seen correlations between what I do and what they do. I used to paint and draw a little bit when I was young. I might have found my way there. I used to sing and play guitar. I could see myself possibly being a songwriter. Or some sort of musician. But I think I would have found a way to make something. I just know I wouldn’t have survived in an office. There are all kinds of good, honest work that people can give you — we don’t all have to be artists. But I think there is something in me that wants to make things.
SD: So, you’ve written books of fiction and nonfiction, and a few screenplays. Can we expect a book of poetry to round things out?
RR: No, no, no. [Laughs.] I think not. I think for all kinds of reasons. Number one, I’d have to figure out how it’s done! It’s just one trick too many. I’m turning 64 this year. Screenwriting came along at just the right time. I was ready to learn a new trick, but I think I’m all done learning new tricks. [Laughs.] I have enough trouble with the old tricks, the ones I’ve supposedly mastered.
SD: What about works for the stage?
RR: Well, now that’s interesting. Because I have thought about that from time to time. One of my daughters has written and had produced a couple of small, one-act plays, and run them in small theaters, and she enjoyed doing that. We have a project that we’re going to do together that we think is going to be a screenplay, but maybe not! An awful lot of it seems to take place in one house, with a couple of rooms. And when you have something that’s that tied to just a few rooms, it’s an awful temptation to write it as a play. It seems to want to be one.
SD: Finally, what are you currently working on?
RR: I’m working on a sequel to an earlier novel of mine. I’ve never done this before, but I’m working on a sequel to my novel Nobody’s Fool, which is called Everybody’s Fool.
SD: A direct sequel?
RR: It’s an indirect sequel. The main character of that novel is not the main character of this one. But he does play a part in it. The main character was a minor character in that book. Sully’s nemesis in that book, a dumb cop, has become the chief of police. And this is his story. I’m 200 pages into it, but that could be 200 of 400; I could be 200 of 600, or 200 of 800. But I don’t have a real sense of whether I’m half done, a quarter done, an eighth done. Your guess is as good as mine.
SD: You have to let the reins go a bit.
Photo of Richard Russo by Elena Seibert.