An Open Door: A Profile of Richard Russo

Joshua Bodwell
From the May/June 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The phone rings. Russo excuses himself. A winter storm is predicted to begin pounding the East Coast in the next forty-eight hours, and someone from Knopf is calling to adjust airline tickets so Russo, his wife, and daughter Emily, can fly out for the American Booksellers Association’s annual Winter Institute. Russo relays some information and shuts off. The situation looks hopeful.

I think what all [of my] earlier books have in common is their intimacy—you follow the characters in a fairly intimate way over a relatively short amount of time.

After writing a draft of Mohawk, Russo’s fate took a fortuitous turn when the literary agent Nat Sobel—who had worked for a decade at Grove Press before founding Sobel Weber Associates in the 1970s—read one of Russo’s short stories in the Mid-Atlantic Review. Impressed by the story, Sobel wrote and asked the young author if he was working on a novel. Russo returned the agent’s letter with a phone call. Even today, Sobel laughs when he recalls their awkward first conversation. Sobel said he’d like to read Russo’s novel manuscript—not yet titled Mohawk—and offer suggestions and edits. Russo bristled. “His very chilly response was, ‘You haven’t even read my novel and you already have edits?’” says Sobel. “I told him I haven’t read the manuscript of a first novel that didn’t need some work.” Russo mailed the manuscript.

Sobel read and admired the novel but had a major concern with one section. “I kind of dreaded letting Rick know I thought a highly dramatic moment near the end of the novel was confusing,” says Sobel. But he called Russo and stated his case. After an initially tense conversation, Russo rewrote the chapter.

“I didn’t really understand the chapter myself,” recalls Russo. “I was describing an event, but because I hadn’t thoroughly imagined it in my mind, I wasn’t going from true detail to true detail—I was kind of fudging it with flowery language to make up for what I hadn’t really thought through. And Nat called me on that!” he remembers with a laugh.

After more than a dozen rejections, Mohawk was accepted by then twentysomething wunderkind editor Gary Fisketjon, who had launched the industry-changing Random House imprint Vintage Contemporaries. The edgy imprint was just two years old but had already built buzz with the startling success of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and was bringing new readers to then-underappreciated writers such as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Thomas McGuane.

At a time when peers were writing bleaker realism, Russo staked out gentler turf as a more conventional but by no means old-fashioned chronicler of blue-collar malaise. “A shock of recognition is, generally speaking, not gradual but immediate,” says Fisketjon about his reaction to reading Mohawk. “It didn’t take me more than a handful of pages or so to say, ‘He really knows what he is doing.’”

As Fisketjon slowly edited the novel—he’s famously fastidious and edits perhaps five pages an hour with a green pen as he fills the margins with suggestions about punctuation, dialogue, and adjectives—he noticed Russo was artfully sliding between past and present tense in different chapters. “The whole notion of narrative momentum,” says Fisketjon, “is kind of like a boat in the water: In order to maneuver a boat you have to be going faster than the current or slower than the current—if you are going with the current, you’re going wherever the hell the current takes you—so that kind of speeding up and slowing down that Rick was doing, I thought, ‘This is brilliant!’”

Russo recalls Fisketjon immediately made a very memorable editing suggestion on the Mohawk manuscript: A single flashback, almost a hundred pages long, near the middle of the book was broken apart into multiple italicized sections and sprinkled throughout the story. “I wouldn’t have thought to do that, or known how to try it,” says Russo. “But of course not having that enormous chunk in the center was so much more aesthetically pleasing. It was the only time I had to learn that lesson!”

Mohawk was published in 1986 as a paperback original. While a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews snarkily remarked that the novel was “workmanlike writing for lovers of the well-atmosphered small-town saga with not a cliché unturned,” the New York Times called Russo’s writing “brisk, colorful and often witty. These qualities and the impressive scope of the novel bode well for Richard Russo’s future….” Today, Russo calls Mohawk his “most autobiographical novel.”

The first author to write a blurb for Mohawk was Howard Frank Mosher, renowned chronicler of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. “Mohawk took me right straight home to my small-town youth like no other book I’d ever read,” says Mosher. “It was immediately evident to me that when Rick wrote about small-town American life, he did so from the inside out. He evoked Mohawk and its run-down environs the way Faulkner evoked Yoknapatawpha County, writing with unsparing honesty and deep love about a highly specific place and the people who’d both shaped and been shaped by it.”

Thirty years later, Mosher’s esteem for Russo’s body of work has only grown. “No contemporary writer has given me as much reading pleasure as Rick,” he asserts. “I’d like to see him win the Nobel Prize.”           

Once Mohawk left his desk, Russo never stopped working. In fact, the summer before the novel’s autumn publication, he appeared alongside Ford, Robert Olmstead, Jayne Anne Phillips, Joy Williams, and others in Granta’s “More Dirt: The New American Fiction” issue, a sequel of sorts to Granta’s era-defining 1983 “Dirty Realism” issue. Russo’s story “Fishing With Wussy” would turn out to be the opening chapter of his second novel, The Risk Pool.

The phone rings. Russo walks to the kitchen. Bad news: His airline tickets have been changed but they’re not able to get his wife and daughter onto the same flight. They may have to book new tickets. “I knew this was gonna be a cluster from the moment the freezing rain started in North Carolina,” sighs Russo.

After the publication of Mohawk, Russo’s reputation and readership grew steadily with each new book during the next decade and a half: The Risk Pool (1988), Nobody’s Fool (1993), and Straight Man (1997), all published by Random House and edited by David Rosenthal, as Fisketjon had moved on to head up Atlantic Monthly Press. But it was Nobody’s Fool that made the boldest mark and quickly became his most successful novel to date. “The material in that book,” says Russo, “may be a little more ambitious, may be a little richer than my previous books. I think what all those earlier books have in common is their intimacy—you follow the characters in a fairly intimate way over a relatively short amount of time.”

The success of the 1995 film adaptation of Nobody’s Fool—for which Paul Newman received his final Best Actor Oscar nomination—allowed Russo to quit teaching and write full time, and Straight Man, his uproarious take on academia, arrived promptly in 1997. Soon after, for his fifth novel, Russo moved from Random House to Knopf to work with his original editor, Gary Fisketjon. Their first collaboration since 1986’s Mohawk would be Empire Falls (2001), the sweeping yet tender novel that would earn Russo a Pulitzer Prize. Written longhand at a table in a small deli on the Maine coast while locals and tourists ordered tuna melts and BLTs at the nearby counter, Empire Falls beat out Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days for the coveted award.