By Peter A. Smith
Photographs by Jarrod McCabe
Discussed: The language of Hollywood, book publishing technology, downeast accents, hot sex, real estate, and the Pulitzer Prize
Richard Russo is packing up for a trip to Amherst, Massachusetts, to see the latest, most exciting addition to Russoland, his one-month-old granddaughter Molly. Because hes also been flying to Los Angeles, traveling on book tours, and going on vacation to visit his daughter Kate in England, Russo and his wife, Barbara, have been spending winters in Bostons Chinatown. Folks in Florida must get a real kick out of hearing that, he says; just the mere thought of a Boston winter is sure to elicit a snicker.
Hell be back in Camden this summer, where the coast is just the way he likes ita little rough, a little raw, a little more honest.
Russo is in the midst of a dozen projectsputting finishing touches on an essay for Granta, reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, editing The Best American Short Stories 2010, writing a new novel about our obsession with the better places, shopping around a script about natural gas reserves in the Catskill Mountains, and polishing up three screenwriting projects.
The protagonists in Russos novels are often middle-aged men stuck in ruts, but the author, on the other hand, is on a roll. And he has a big barrel laugh to prove it.
Maine: Tick, the young girl in Empire Falls, is based on your daughters experience in high school. Your daughters marriages played into That Old Cape Magic. How much Richard Russo is there in Jack Griffin, the books protagonist?
Richard Russo: I was a novelist who came to screenwriting late, and Griffin is, essentially, a young screenwriter who came to teaching and writing fiction later. Id like to think that Im not quite as lost as Jack Griffin. Hes very much like an earlier character of mine, from my novel, Straight Man, Hank Devereaux. These are both novels, essentially, about middle-aged, white guys kind of circling the drain. Theyre out of control, theyre trying to mix things up, theyre about to lose the very things in their lives that mean the most to them, and they dont seem to understand that. That part is not autobiographical. I havent been in that position, but to put a character in that position, especially a middle-aged, white guy, and just watch him, just totally lost trying to find his way back to the people and the things that mean the most to himits a wonderful device.
M: The book takes some jabs at the academy and you call screenwriting a betrayal of genetic gifts. How much of that is drawn from your own experience?
RR: Im still doing a fair amount of screenwriting, and thats another way in which this is not autobiographical. For Jack, hes not been blessed with the kind of work that Ive been blessed with, working on Empire Falls or Nobodys Fool. Jack has been kind of a journeyman screenwriter whos done a couple of marginal movies and then gone into doing TV, movies, crappy Movie of the Week type of stuff. Then, I think, the last we hear of him, hes written something like a game show before he moves on. I have been blessed with working with really good directors and wonderful actors. Its been lucrative work; its been rewarding work in almost every way. But Im one of those really, really rare novelists whos been treated that way.
M: Like Jim Harrison or Richard Price?
RR: Yes, they both have done well. Russell Banks and my friend Dennis Lehane have done pretty well. But you can almost let your voice fall there. The number of writers who have been abused by Hollywood, the list goes on and on. So, I have been able to throw some gentle jabs at the whole world of screenwriting. Not so much the world of screenwriting as the world of deal making, which I havent had to do a lot of, but I know its out there. Ive had my share of movies and TV pilots go belly up, so I know how quickly a producers outrageous optimism can turn in a heartbeat. When somebody says to you, I think this draft is really a step in the right direction, that often means, Youre fired. Thats the language of Hollywood, which is so wonderful. I had a chance to play with some both first- and secondhand screenwriting experiences.
M: Is it a problem to do screenwriting and also to work on novels?
RR: So far, it hasnt been a problem. I just did a panel with a writer buddy of mine out in Spokane, Jess Walter. He says that novel writing is like a relationship; screenwriting is hot sex. Theres an element of truth to that.Theyre not mutually exclusive, when Im working on a novel and I come up against the wall and I have a choice either between staring at it and getting nowhere and saying, All right, Im going to take six weeks off here and go write a screenplay. Youre just so much better off with six weeks of hot sex than staring at something that you cant fix. If you go away for a while and come back, youll find that often, by not working on it, youll solve some problems. So for me, the two have crossed over in a fairly healthy way.
M: How did you end up coming to Maine?
RR: Nobodys Fool had an option for a film. I was getting to the point where I was finally making some money as a writer. But, with two little girls, I couldnt yet quite make that plunge that would say, All right, I can make it as a full-time writer. Colby College offered me exactly the kind of job I was looking for. I took a part-time job, which allowed me to continue teaching and allowed me to devote more time to my writing. I immediately took advantage of all of their flexibility and I was only there for a few years. Id had a number of academic postings by that time. I loved my job at Colby, but I was ready to stop repeating myself in the classroom.
M: Is that when you researched Empire Falls?
RR: In so far as it was researched, yes. The
Hathaway shirt company was still in business at the time. As I was writing Empire Falls, I was just becoming more and more outraged by the way those women were being treated. They were bought out by a multinational company, Warnaco, and they were all told that they could keep their jobs if they work extra hard and if their unions made extra concessions. They went along with all of it to save their jobs, and I think, really, what happened was that they became profitable again and the company took all of those profits, put it in their pocket, and shut the mill down. Thats a very familiar story to me, growing up in Gloversville, New York. But it was like watching the events of my childhood play out in a particularly ugly way in Waterville. Of course, there were other industriestextile, paper, ropeand they were all on hard times in Maine at the time.
M: Some of your other novels have places named North Bath or Thomaston. Does being in Maine affect your writing?
RR: To be honest, I dont think it has shown up nearly as much in anything that Ive published yet, as it is likely to in the future. As I watched people that I lived with on the coast of Maine, as I observed them, and their behavior starts making more sense to me, it seems only logical that Maine, whatever we mean by Maine as a state, as a state of mind, as a physical place, as a place where people work, the kind of work that they do the longer you live in a place, the more you observe, the more it becomes part of your own rhythms. So I suspect that if youre
seeing, in various ways, Maine turning up in my fiction and Empire Falls set in Maine. So was a little bit of That Old Cape Magic.
M: Writing about a place thats territorial and strong-minded can take a lot of courage. I feel like youve done Maine justice so far, but then again, Im from away.
RR: Empire Falls was received in Maine with much more generosity than I could ever have dreamed, knowing how fiercely territorial Mainers are about their place. They used to be made fun of and condescended to, by writers from away, and filmmakers from away, television shows from away, and theyre rightly suspicious, I think. I fully expected a drubbing, and didnt get it. Even though Empire Falls is set in Maine, I didnt try to do Maine. I made very conscious decisions, for instance, to include no Maine dialect at all. There isnt a downeast talker anywhere in that novel. I was writing about the rhythms of peoples work lives that were pretty much the same between Waterville, Skowhegan, all those Central Maine towns, and were just very close to what I was writing about in all those upstate New York novels. So, people said about Empire Falls that Richard Russo, he really got Maine right on the first try. No, I dont think I got Maine right, I think I got class right. I think I got mill towns right. I think I got the kind of work that people do and the kinds of problems that they have as a result from the kind of work that they do. I got that right, but Ive been watching that my whole life, not just in Maine.
M: Your latest novel is something of a departure from these small-town narratives?
RR: What I was interested in is Americas ongoing obsession with what we think of as finer places, no matter where we are. Were always looking for the finer place. Ive been noticing for years thatand I love where I live in Mainebut when you log on to your homepage in the morning, therell be a little thing up there that says, Ten Best Places in the World to Live or Ten Best Small Communities. Like everybody else, I always click on those things.
My grandparents and my extended family grew up around the corner from each other in this small town in upstate New York. We all knew there were other finer places in the world to live, but thats where we lived. That was back in the time when people would work for a company like General Electric. Now that we dont identify with our employers, and now that families have to break up in order to follow jobs everywhere, where were just dispersed all over the country, thats contributed to an attitude of since nothing is permanent, then lets keep looking for the next best thing and then the next best thingalways looking for that magical place. The character in this book is somebody whose parents were that way and hes kind of that way, too. Happiness is always someplace else. You havent quite gotten there yet but you will be happy if you only just find a way to get there.
M: What will you be working on this summer?
RR: Im finishing up a long short story that is set in Maine. Its about a realtor. My wife is a realtor. Its about somebody doing work in Maine, that involves Maine, that involves selling Maine. So, its allowed me to distill some slightly deeper, wiser understanding of Maine than I would have been capable of a decade ago. You cant make your main character a Maine realtor without having probably a little more than surface knowledge of what gets sold when youre selling Maine real estate.
Another one of my projects is going to be a coffee table book with really nice production values that will feature my daughter Kates art and her husband Toms design. I think well include the realtor story, and probably maybe one or two other stories. Ive come to think of it as a kind of anti-electronic book. Something that there would no reason to sell electronically because the whole idea would be to have a beautiful object in your hands. I think books may need to become more beautiful as more words are backlit on an iPad or a Kindle. Jeff Bezos at Amazon would like to put bookstores out of business. He thinks of the book as obsolete, basically. Were going to find out in the next, probably, five, six, seven years, all of uswriters, readerswere going to find out whether hes right.
M: Are you thinking about starting a bookstore?
RR: No. We already have two bookstores in Camden. Were bookstore rich, compared to most of America. I think it will be suicidal to
lose bookstores. I think that the Internet is really good at selling very cheap things that people already know they want. In 1986, nobody
knew that they wanted a Richard Russo novel
because Mohawk was just being published then. Who the hell was Richard Russo anyway? Probably, nobody ever would have known that they wanted to read a Richard Russo novel if it hadnt been for really small independent bookstores handing customers the book.
M: Like this years Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Paul Hardings Tinkers?
RR: Exactly. That was a small-press book sold by hand in small independent bookstores.
M: The last 15 years of Pulitzers seems to have a disproportionate number of novels that are either set in Maine or written by authors who lived in MaineAnnie Proulx, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Elizabeth Strout
RR: Theres a new license plate. Its not The Way Life Should Be, its Come to Maine If You Want a Pulitzer.
M: Do you think theres anything behind that? Or does the Pulitzer just favor small-town Americana?
RR: Maine has long winters. Theres really noreason not to fill up empty pages with words. I have long thought that what I like best aboutMaine is that it is essentially outside the culture. Its one of the few places in America. Whatever is going on in the country is going on in Maine. But, for some reason, you can almost feel it. You just cross the bridge from New Hampshire into Maine, and it does feel like some of the culture begins to fall away. I dont know how that can be, but I appreciate the fact that it does feel that way. Its amazing how many people, when youre out and about in America, youll hear people say, You know, if it gets bad enough, were just going to sell everything and move to Maine. There is that sense, I dont know whether its earned or not, I dont know whether its just part of the air and the water. Theres something about Maine that feels a little bit less like the rest of America.
M: And thats what brings you here?
RR: Yes. I love my country but the things that make me craziest about this baffling nation that we live in seem less in my face everyday in Maine than they do almost anywhere else I go.