Careful: Laboratory tests confirm that Richard Russo's prose promotes addictive behavior among committed readers of fiction. His fifth novel, Empire Falls, turns its own pages.
Booklist noted, "Russo follows up his rollicking academic satire, Straight Man (1997), with a return to the blue-collar milieu featured in his first three novels and once again shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles."
In fact, Empire Falls infuses the blue-collar landscape of Russo's earlier work with the high comedy of Straight Man. The result is a compassionate and hilarious story, the most ambitious novel of his career. "These books seem to be getting bigger both in the number of pages and the number of things I'm tackling," the author admitted during his visit to Powell's. Notably, the new novel presents his largest cast of characters yet. Sample any two reviews of the book and you'll discover that few readers agree who is best.
Salon.com calls Tick "surely one of the most appealing adolescents ever to grace the pages of fiction." The Baltimore City Paper likes Max, whose "confidence is almost touching, a warped expression of unconditional parental love." The Detroit Free Press can't decide: "Even relatively minor [characters] - Tick's vastly untalented art teacher - are fully formed. Russo's eye and ear for small-town life are evident on every page."
Empire Falls, Maine, is a shell of its former self; of this there can be no argument. The dying factory town is controlled by a domineering widow who seems to relish its demise. One might say the same of Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, above which Miles lives now that his soon-to-be ex-wife's fiance is sleeping in his bed. Thank goodness for Tick, then, his daughter, who'll one day escape the doomed town if Miles has anything to say about it.
"Writing about blue-collar folks is something I've been doing right from the start," Russo explained. "It's a world I know pretty well, and its people seem worth talking about to me. I like most of these folks quite a bit."
Dave: I first encountered your writing in Straight Man, an academic comedy which is quite a bit different from your other novels. Still, I found it interesting that you followed up that novel, from the point of view of a college professor, with this one, whose main character's great regret is that he never finished college.
Richard Russo: As is the case with most people, Miles' dreams are based upon something he didn't do. If only he'd read Straight Man, he wouldn't have felt so bad about missing out on that experience.
Dave: What made you take a different path for Straight Man?
Russo: Straight Man was my long goodbye to the academy. I needed to expel that from my system.
Dave: Because you'd stopped teaching at Colby, where you'd been for a while.
Russo: I'd been living in Maine for close to a decade, and I have to live in a place for a while before I can write about it. Sometimes I think I write more about class than I do about place, anyway, but it took me until now to have the courage to set a book in Maine. Mainers are notoriously guarded about their home. They consider it very much their own. But the class stuff, writing about blue-collar folks, is something I've been doing right from the start, with the invention of Mohawk. It's a world I know pretty well, and its people seem worth talking about to me.
I like most of these folks quite a bit. They're connected, the Miles Robys of the world and the other people of Empire Falls, somewhere deep in my imagination, as a result of growing up in that kind of town in upstate New York. These towns I write about, even Railton in Straight Man, are swept up in changes the people there don't begin to understand. They don't know what to do about it. And they confuse the present with the past and the future, which I find fascinating.
One of my favorite scenes in Empire Falls is the first time we meet Mrs. Whiting in the Planning and Development office. When Miles sees her model of the town, he thinks at first that it's some kind of great development plan, until he realizes that it's a model of what the town was, before it began to decay.
The future and the past are repeatedly getting mixed up in people's minds. They think that which is gone is going to come back.
Dave: There's a lot of common ground between this book and the earlier novels - the towns, as you say, for one thing - but in Empire Falls, the tone felt different to me. Kinder. I don't know why exactly, whether it was the perspective of the narrator, that hovering eye, but right away the first chapter opens and Miles is looking down Main Street toward the closed factory from inside the Empire Grill. It's such a classic Americana opening.
Russo: I think you're right. Risk Pool is a first-person narrative. Whatever we're seeing in that book, we're seeing through Ned Hall's eyes. There is an omniscient narrator in Nobody's Fool, as there is here, but in Nobody's Fool, you don't get the complete sense of omniscience; the narrator can go to various people, but for the most part, it's time-present. We can go from what Sully is doing in time-present to what Miss Beryl is doing in time-present.
This narrator of Empire Falls right from the start has the ability not only to enter different people's consciousnesses, but also to go back in history. In this book you have the weight of the town's history, going back to the various Whiting males. This one has a more thoroughgoing omniscience. I'm not sure how that would relate to the sense that the eye is "good," or benevolent, but there's a different way of looking in this book.
Dave: Maybe it's simply the nature of Miles and the other main characters; they're likeable despite themselves. Even Max, who has few redeeming qualities. Reading reviews and commentary about the book, it's clear that each reader relates to different characters. One reviewer didn't like Max much but loved Janine. Another said exactly the opposite.
Russo: Isn't that odd? I've noticed that, too. One reviewer said the only drawback for her was that Tick was a great creation and she wanted to spend more time with her. She said that by sticking with Miles, the father, it skewed the book; I should have been spending more time with Tick. That jolted me because Tick is my favorite character in this novel. I thought, Maybe this was really Tick's book. Maybe I slighted her. So I brought this up with two people, and they both said, "No, that's not true! You should have spent more time with..." and they named another character!
I don't know what that means. I love Max, but I didn't want to spend any more time with him. Maybe at some point I'm going to have to revisit some of these characters.
Dave: It's a big enough canvas. Particularly in relation to Straight Man, which rushes forward without digressing much at all.
Dave: Here, the vision is much more broad. There's a lot going on. There are a lot of father-child relationships in this book, for example: Max and Miles, Miles and Tick, also the Mintys and the Meyers. Was Miles the centerpiece from the start?
Russo: He was. In previous books I had mined a lot of father-son relationships. The Risk Pool is a father-son relationship from the point of view of the son, and Nobody's Fool is presented from the father's point of view. Having two teenage daughters when I started writing this book - they were both in high school at the time; they're both in college now - I thought it was high time I tried a father-daughter story.
The Miles-Tick story was the start of this book in my mind as well as on the page. If you skip past the Prologue, the first thing we see is Miles looking down the street waiting for his daughter to come around the corner, establishing the fact that he's worried about her. The Prologue was actually written when I was a couple hundred pages into the book. I thought, I'm going to have to give this a little myth, add a little historical context for the personal story.
Dave: I've been reading books by two other authors these last few weeks, both of which I'm enjoying immensely, but it was Empire Falls that I had to put down for periods at a time so I wouldn't finish too long before we spoke. The voice was addictive, but I thought maybe it just suited my taste until someone in our office today said the same thing: she couldn't stop reading. The book moves forward with a momentum that's hard to fight.
To be blunt, what the hell is doing that? In Straight Man, a series of events steamrolls the story along, but that's really not the case in this book. What's driving the story?
Russo: I hope it's your being completely convinced of the reality of these people. If you were being purely analytical about it you could say that there are hints planted in the book designed to create suspense. You can't see a weapon and not know that at some point it's going to be used, so when Tick puts the Exacto knife in her bag, if the author's worth anything, that Exacto knife is going to get used, and that builds a certain kind of suspense.
Having said that, my sense is that most readers are going to forget about the Exacto knife for long stretches of this narrative, which means that whatever's driving the book, it's not that. It's not that kind of plot device.
So what is driving this book? Humor may drive some of it - you may be having a good enough time watching these people behave, and misbehave. This is a book about hopes and dreams, and about how difficult even the simple ones are to achieve. Everybody in this book wants to be someplace else, so maybe one reason to read on is to find out if any of them are going to get anywhere near where they want to be. Some of them want such simple things. Janine isn't complicated. What she wants is fairly simple, and yet you have the feeling she's not going to get it. So maybe you read to find out if any of these people who want such clearly defined things are going to have any chance of getting them.
Dave: You've also been writing screenplays these last few years. Clearly, you're not lost for words.
Russo: When authors who write "literary" fiction begin to write screenplays, everybody assumes, Well, that's the end. Here's another who's never going to write well again. The speed, the pacing, popcorn-chewing prose. From now on this guy who wrote long, dense books will be writing thin, thin books. Something is going to fundamentally change as a result of writing screenplays. He'll either not write novels anymore or not write them as often. Someone like Richard Price comes to mind, a really good writer of both novels and screenplays, but for a long time he didn't write novels because he was writing a lot of screenplays.
In a screenplay, the story has to be contained in a hundred twenty pages, and most of those pages are white. The screenplays are so spare because they have to be. For me, when I go back to writing a novel, it's as if I can finally let go of all the stuff I've been holding back. My God, I can use all this stuff now! It's not just seeing and hearing anymore, I can spend time in my characters' minds as opposed to reducing everything to action and dialogue. So for me, the big effect of writing screenplays is that it causes me to let it all fly in my novels.
I wrote a couple screenplays while I was in the middle of Empire Falls, and every time I came back to this, the challenges and the demands of the novel as a form, as compared to the screenplay, were so exhilarating, so completely liberating, that I was constantly stunned. It was a good thing, too, because with everyone speculating, you start wondering, yourself, Am I going to hurt myself? Am I going to lose a skill by not using it? For me at least, it's the exact opposite. I come back to the novel with all guns blazing.
Dave: It's interesting that you mention the white space on the pages. When Jane Smiley was here a few months ago, she specifically said that the reason she hates screenplays is because filling in the white space is all she cares about. Your books aren't entirely different from hers, big novels about American families, but for one thing, yours are more based in dialogue.
Russo: That's true. Jane's principle strength, I think, is her narrative skill. She's a great narrative writer. You can be interested in a Jane Smiley novel whether or not anyone says a word. She enters into her characters' thoughts with great understanding and depth. I go back to The Age of Grief - my God, what a gorgeous book that is, and there's very little dialogue. Or Good Will. I'm not sure anyone ever speaks in that book! So I can see where the screenplay would hold little interest for her.
Dave: What fiction have you been reading lately?
Russo: All kinds. I just finished Mark Winegardner's novel, Crooked River Burning, which is just terrific. Mark's interested in many of the same things I am: a sweeping sense of history, a large canvas. Crooked River Burning, I understand, is the first of three huge, panoramic novels about Cleveland.
But I also read a lot of people whose books are very different from my own. I like a poetic writer like Michael Ondaatje. It's not the sort of thing I do, but I can be seduced by the beauty of narrative language as well as the next person. I read pretty voraciously. If I sense that a book is using language to cover up the lack of story, that makes me squishy and I'll look for something else, but I read in the genres sometimes and I read "serious" fiction. If it's good, I don't care what it is.
Dave: What do you think about your earlier novels now?
Russo: I haven't looked at Mohawk, really, since it was written. Usually by the time I finish a book tour I've just about had it with the book.
The Risk Pool I read with great trepidation about a year ago. That book has a real place in my heart; it was written when my father was dying. There were ways in which life and art bled into each other during that time. It's my wife's favorite book of mine up to this point, and a lot of people like it the best of my novels. I read it about a year ago because it looked like a movie project might come out of it and it's the one book that I'd said, "Not unless I write the screenplay." That meant, if I wouldn't let anyone else do it, I had to go back and reread it.
I had a mixed reaction. I was pleased that it held up in the most important ways: I felt that its emotional center was still valid and true. And yet I found myself sentence-to-sentence saying, "I wouldn't do that! I would certainly find a different way to approach this problem!" But like most writers, we either learn new tricks or tease ourselves into thinking that we have. The way we go about things is different as we progress through something like a career.
I'm certainly not mortified by it like I am by my earlier short stories. Next year I'm bringing out a collection of stories [The Whore's Child]. I don't write a lot of them - it's taken me the better part of twelve years to fill a slender volume - but I looked back at some of my earlier published stories with genuine horror and remorse. I got thinking, How many extant copies might there be, who owns them, and do they keep their doors locked? So I don't know how I'd feel if I went back and read Mohawk.
Dave: What about looking forward? Are you working on another novel?
Russo: I'm going to start another novel very soon. I just delivered the book of short stories before coming on tour, and I've got a couple screenplays that I'm under contract for. Both of my daughters still being in college, it would be a good thing to do those, I think. By the first of the year at the very latest, I hope to be working on a new book. I have some ideas simmering, but I don't think it's such a bad thing to let them simmer for a while before I put pen to paper.
Dave: How do you handle working on various projects at once? Do you set aside time for one or the other?
Russo: Screenplays, for the most part, are juggernauts, in that as soon as you sign to write one, you pretty much have to devote yourself to it. You generally have six to eight weeks to complete a draft, which is pushing it for a first draft. All of your invention, your important decisions, all the dialogue, everything has to be done. Six, eight, sometimes you can get ten weeks for that first draft, but once I decide to do it, that's it. Everything is time-sensitive, unlike novels.
I've never been under a deadline for any novel I've written. I've had two book editors, both of whom have said, "Give it to me when it's done, when it's the best you can make it, next year or five years from now, as long as it's the best you can do."
With a screenplay, the editor will call in the evening - "How did it go today?" - which is something a book editor would never do. If there are two or three producers, they'll pretend they're not talking among themselves. The next day, another producer will call to ask how it's going. Then the next day, the third producer will call. It's good to do it and get it out of the way. Then I can get back to the novel.
Dave: Do you have a vision of how your novels will evolve? Are there any particular challenges you've set for yourself? Shorter books? Revisiting old characters?
Russo: I always think of The Horse's Mouth, Joyce Cary's novel, about Gulley Jimson, the artist. Alec Guinness plays him wonderfully in the movie. Gulley is a total rapscallion, but throughout the course of his career he's gone from painting little things that hang on people's walls to much bigger things that require the whole wall, to canvases that won't fit on anybody's wall. Of course he's always trying to find money for paints because the paintings are getting bigger and bigger. You leave him at the end of the novel on some sort of a boat, drifting down the Thames, contemplating the side of a battleship!
I think at times, Maybe, God help me, that's where I'm headed. With the exception of Straight Man, these books seem to be getting bigger both in the number of pages and the number of things I'm tackling. I don't know where it's going from here, but I'd dearly love to be able to write the kind of book some of my fellow writers can, people who manage to write a 250-page book every time. I so admire them.
Russo: I haven't read the new Delillo yet but I understand it's terrific.
Dave: It's completely different from his earlier novels, particularly Underworld, the most recent. It's more like the plays he's written recently. Does that idea intrigue you, writing something off-course, something short, for instance, or stylistically different?
Russo: I love the idea of writing a shorter book. The last story in my collection comes in at about sixty-five pages. It's a very long short story, but even there I started out with an idea for a ten or fifteen page story. So what good would it do me to have an intention?
Dave: Maybe if you shot for thirty pages?
Russo: I could. I could have two intentions, with the hope that I'd fool myself into writing a novella. I'd love to be able to sell a short book. It's a great idea.
Dave: Well, it's interesting that you can put yourself into that block when you're writing a screenplay and produce a hundred twenty pages. Do you just need an editor who demands the novel by Friday?
Russo: Maybe. I don't know. You have to be able to watch a movie in two hours, but with a book there are no such constraints. I don't know if an artificial limit were imposed whether that would work or not.
Dave: I'm not sure your readers would appreciate it, regardless. I think part of the pleasure of reading your books is to immerse yourself in these worlds. Part of the fun is staying with the characters over the long haul.
Russo: A couple years ago now, I read a wonderful novel, Salt Water by Charles Simmons. It's about a hundred thirty-five pages, and it was elegant. If I could write that book I would because, despite its brevity, it had all the weight and depth of a big novel. It was somehow just made small.
I think about so many of Alice Munro's short stories like that. You finish one of her short stories and you feel like you've encountered something with the weight and the heft of a lot of novels. Those stories in The New Yorker, by the time they come out in book form, are about thirty or thirty-five pages, but they have a tremendous density to them. So it is possible to be immersed in something shorter.
Dave: It's different. And Alice Munro is in a class by herself. There aren't a whole lot of writers whose body of work is so consistently impressive. It doesn't really matter which collection of hers you pick up, it's going to be amazing. Then you consider how many stories she's written...
Russo: I was talking earlier about writers who are very different whose work I nevertheless find myself gravitating to. She's another. She writes the most gorgeous prose I've ever read. That anybody can write sentences like that... She's terrific. I'm very drawn to it despite the fact that I know whatever it is she's about and after, it's not something I'm about or after, and it would be senseless for me to try to take my writing to those places.
Dave: Maybe, but she probably won't be writing a long novel anytime soon, either. So you're safe.
Russo: Yes, we have a working arrangement, Alice Munro and I.
Richard Russo visited Powell's on June 6, 2001. It wasn't until after our conversation that I realized he reminded me of James Lee Burke. He carries himself with the same easygoing manner: the author as wizened country gentleman. Been there, done that. Having lived in Maine these last twelve years, Russo exudes a distinctly non-New York City, apart-from-the-publishing-world attitude, as if he might be your neighbor talking over the fence on a lazy weekend afternoon.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State