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Powell’s Q&A: Richard Russo

Describe your latest project.

From the publisher:

In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo gives us the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.

That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter's new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written.

÷ ÷ ÷

Why do you write?
I always tell people that I write for the same reason I read — to find out what happens next. That may sound a bit glib, but the older I get the more I realize that, for me, writing isn't so much what I think as howthe older I get the more I realize that, for me, writing isn't so much what I think as how. I'm particularly aware of this when I talk to film people. Not long ago, I was in a roomful of very smart people discussing a project we were hoping to develop into a TV series. Over two days, we discussed our principal themes, fleshing out a couple dozen characters we'd follow over the course of the first season. We talked and talked. One person took feverish notes. Everybody had good ideas, and it was all very exciting, and by the end of day two I had my marching orders for writing our pilot. Before we adjourned, though, I had to come clean. I had a blueprint, yes, but I couldn't guarantee I'd be able to follow it once I started writing, because it was only then that I'd be truly thinking in the odd way writers, or at least novelists, think. Good writers are seldom faithful to good ideas if better ones come along, and the very best come along on the page, not at the conference table. That has to be at least a little disconcerting to people who are about to risk real money — theirs, not mine — on a story that may turn out to be different from the one agreed to, the one the writer initially pitched. In another business, that would be called "bait and switch," and, as such, unacceptable practice. But a good writer knows that the best stuff is often buried deep. The good news is it wants to be found. Just not right away, and not casually.

What's the best television show of all time?
I'm not sure it's the best, but lately I've been thinking about The Honeymooners. I didn't start watching the show until I was in graduate school, when it was on a local channel in late-night reruns, which begs an obvious question: Why didn't we watch it when I was a kid growing up? The answer, I suspect, can be found in what we were watching. Perry Mason. 77 Sunset Strip. Bourbon Street Beat. Hawaiian Eye. What these shows had in common was their sound-stage renderings of exotic locations (California was exotic if you lived in Gloversville, New York) and their unflagging belief in America as represented by its justice system: lawyers like Mason who cared nothing for money, only truth, and a legion of smooth, sophisticated private eyes who cared every bit as much about truth and justice as Perry Mason, plus they got to shoot people. Week after week, these shows told us that we need not worry. If we worked hard and loved our country, America would love us in return. Our future was bright. Things got dicey only when you broke the law.

The Honeymooners was different. There was nothing glamorous about the work Ralph Cramden (bus driver) and Ed Norton (sewer worker) did, nothing glamorous about the lives of Alice and Trixie, their wives, or of the tenement apartments they lived in. Moreover, there was nothing to suggest that anybody was looking out for the Nortons and the Cramdens but themselves. That's what made Ralph's big dreams so poignant, their inevitable implosion so devastating. The man never learns. Week after week, he keeps coming back for more, not because he's stupid, but because he just doesn't know how to stop dreaming. He's not a fool, just an American; dreaming is his birthright. The Honeymooners was the comic version of those great Richard Yates stories about people you wish would understand just how badly the deck was stacked against them and give upThe Honeymooners was the comic version of those great Richard Yates stories about people you wish would understand just how badly the deck was stacked against them and give up, accept what slender solace their modest lives offer. Ralph Cramden buys into the same American dream that motivated my maternal grandfather, a glove cutter, and my grandmother, who stored canned goods in the pantry throughout the Depression, and my mother who tacked on an hour commute each way to her eight-hour work day. My father probably would have believed the same thing if Normandy hadn't altered something in his circuitry. My point is that my family should have loved The Honeymooners. It told us what we already knew — how lucky Ralph was to have a woman like Alice, how lucky she was to have him, never mind that he was a bit of a buffoon. When their bedroom door closed at the end of each episode, we knew what happened. And we knew, too, that America was built by people like the Cramdens and the Nortons, people like us. But it was too close to home, I suspect. Like Ralph, my family had big plans, and we feared that maybe they were foolish, and so seeing Ralph's shredded up every week wasn't our idea of entertainment. How great was The Honeymooners? We refused to watch. That's how great it was.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
Excepting (obviously) politicians, writers are the best liars, especially when we're writing. We have an obvious advantage in that we admit up front that we're lying, which ironically causes our readers to suspect that we aren't. (You can't have made that up, they say, when something rings vividly true to their own experience of life.) That the best of our lies add up to something very like the truth doesn't hurt either. I suspect lying is like everything else. Practice makes perfect, and spending long hours every day trying to make words stand in for the reality of human experience is a kind of training, which means that in real, ordinary life, the authenticating detail often offers itself effortlessly to the writer when he needs it. Scary, really, how easy it is to access a plausible falsehood. Much easier, sometimes, than to remember the factual details of the truth.

How do you relax?
I walk a lot. A good long walk, during which I try not to think about the problems of whatever I'm writing, eases my mind, especially the front of the brain, where I've always imagined my analytical faculties reside. Sometimes, reducing the clutter up there allows the back part, where intuition and imagination hide in the shadows, to whisper what I need to hear. I also like to cook. After I've spent the better part of the day in my head, what's more therapeutic than chopping a carrot? And then you get to eat the therapy.

Describe an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
When Empire Falls came out, the first stop on my book tour was Denver. Perhaps because the school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky, was the real world inspiration for the brutal climax of that novel, it didn't occur to me that there might very well be people from Littleton at my Denver reading. There were. The first woman I spoke to after I read from the book was clearly livid. She told me she'd always loved my work, but when she read Empire she'd flung the book across the room as hard as she could.She told me she'd always loved my work, but when she read Empire she'd flung the book across the room as hard as she could. Then she called all her friends, telling them, "You won't believe what Richard Russo's done to us." All that was a few days earlier, but she was still quivering with rage.

I don't remember much of what I said to the woman, except that I was sorry my story had opened old wounds and caused her pain, which of course hadn't been my intention. I might have explained that the book was mostly done by the time Columbine happened, but that wouldn't have been a real defense, certainly not one I could comfortably use, for instance, in Paducah. I also might have told the woman that I'd never done anything harder than writing the school shooting scene. I'd based the character of Tick Roby on my own daughters, and didn't know until I'd finished writing the scene that Tick would survive the massacre. I was talking here to a woman who clearly knew people who hadn't survived a real one. I might also have argued in my own defense that literature frequently does precisely this, that a writer who didn't have the stomach for the often ugly truth of human behavior ought to find another line of work, but my sense was that this woman already knew this. She was an avid reader, had read tough books before. But this was the first time she'd ever been gutted, and I was the one holding the knife, or so it seemed to her. To be honest, right then it felt like that to me, too.

If you could have been someone else, who would it be and why?
The best job and life in the world is playing center field for a major league baseball team. As a kid, I played baseball every day it didn't rain, all summer long. Most kids today, chauffeured from activity to activity by moms in minivans, have no idea what summer is, what sport is, what freedom is. Baseball is the perfect mix of these things, and center field is the biggest chunk of it. In my late thirties, back when I was still teaching — it must have been my third academic posting — I was invited to play in a regular Saturday afternoon softball game. How long had it been? Well, I had to borrow a mitt. That first Saturday when I trotted into the outfield, I felt something stir deep inside, and the very first inning a high, lazy fly ball was launched in my direction. When the ball nestled into the webbing of my glove, I could have wept. How could I have forgotten that joy? How could I NOT have played ball at every opportunity for the past 20 years? What could have possessed me to waste my life in college and later graduate school? What sane person spends his days filling up blank pages with words when he could be out playing such a glorious game? Imagine being paid to do so. The very next day I bought a mitt, an aluminum bat, some rubber cleats, and settled in to wait for the following Saturday, checking the long-range forecast every day, feeling my heart sink at the possibility that the weekend would bring rain, and it would be two impossibly long weeks before we would play again. Feeling, in other words, like a kid, for the first time in over two decades. Or, rather, like a kid with a tricky lower back.

Is there anything you believe in completely and without reservation?
Yes. Laughter.

÷ ÷ ÷

Richard Russo lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and in Boston. In 2002 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Empire Falls: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  2. That Old Cape Magic
    Used Hardcover $5.95
  3. Bridge of Sighs (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  4. Straight Man: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $1.95

Richard Russo is the author of That Old Cape Magic

4 Responses to "Powell’s Q&A: Richard Russo"

    Chuck Augello August 14th, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Russo is a great novelist, and "Empire Falls" was a beautiful work of art, perhaps the best novel I've read over the last ten years. I haven't started "That Old Cape Magic" yet but it's already on my desk. I'm kind of sad to see him talk about working on a television show because it's a waste of his talents. I've noticed a trend among novelists who begin writing screenplays: the quality of their novels diminishes. I hope this doesn't happen to Russo, who seems like a genuinely likeable guy. "Bridge of Sighs" was a good read, and "Nobody's Fool" and "Straight Man" were almost as good as his masterpiece "Empire Falls."

    Noble K. Thomas September 10th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Funny that Russo should mention The Honeymooners as I'm currently reading Bridge of Sighs and in my mind's eye Lucy Lynch's parents are Ralph (maybe a slimmed-down Irish version) and Alice (this is spot on!).

    Noble K. Thomas September 10th, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Addendum to prior comment: on second thought, make Lucy's dad a combination of Ralph for his unwavering belief in the American Dream and Norton for his knuckle-headed good-naturedness.

    Dr. Ron Bernard July 6th, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Straight Man:

    I have a question that I do hope some kind soul will be able to answer using my e-mail address, since I am sure to lose this site's address.

    My question revolves around a scene in the book Straight Man at the end of chapter 24.

    In that scene, Marjory, the Dean's secretary, begins braying like a donkey, and addresses both Henry Devereaux and the Dean with "I'm so sorry."

    Marjory, a senior secretary, has tears in her eyes.

    I have no idea what this scene means.

    Is Marjory saying she is sorry about the Dean's upcoming marriage to Gracie? And, why would she slit her own throat given a knife? And, why would Devereaux need to be looking at the Dean?

    I just have no idea what this scene is purportedly doing, and would really appreciate any and all help.


    Dr. Ron Bernard lccollege at lindachristas.org

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