“For a writer, there's a real difference between learning one’s craft and discovering what one has to say.”
Talking with Richard Russo
When Richard Russo does a book reading, he holds the crowd in the palm of his hand. The great warmth and humor of his writing come through abundantly, and he is always a hit.
With respect to audiobooks, the question is so obvious that one member of a recent audience even asks it: Why doesn't Russo read his own works on audio?
“I’d really like to,” he answers. “But they’ve never asked me!” With a twinkle, he adds, “I’ve got a book of short stories coming out next year. Perhaps if enough people ask, my publisher might think to let me read it myself . . . ”
Russo's latest book, EMPIRE FALLS, is his first to take place in his adopted state of Maine. “I’m a little nervous about it,” he chuckles. Russo knows that even though he’s lived in Maine for 10 years, he’s nowhere near a Mainer to the natives, whom he describes as “fiercely territorial. I'm worried that they’re going to find all kinds of ‘mistakes’ that got past me and my editor!” But these small details, whatever they might be, are just the kinds of details that Russo the creative writing teacher—who still teaches now and then—would tell his students not to obsess over in favor of focusing on what's really important—the hearts and minds of his characters.
In that area Russo remains on familiar ground. The new book, like all his previous works except STRAIGHT MAN, a send-up of academia, focuses on what Russo calls “the vanishing America”—expressing his concerns about class, family, community, and “the America that used to make things.” The book takes place in a dried-up manufacturing town, whose mill has been bought out and relocated for cheaper labor, leaving behind a husk of a town and a cast of characters trying to makes lives for themselves in it. “Essentially,” says Russo, “this book is a lot more about class than place.”
Russo says it took him a long time to find his material as a writer. “When I was in graduate school, I yearned for success, and I would have written whatever it took to get it.” Eventually, he found his material in the blue-collar characters of his youth, characters like Sully of Nobody’s Fool, made famous by Paul Newman’s portrayal in the highly successful movie that put Russo on the map. “For a writer,” he says, “there's a real difference between learning one’s craft and discovering what one has to say.”—Elizabeth K. Dodge