An Open Door: A Profile of Richard Russo

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

Russo recalls Empire Falls as a particularly difficult “night sweat of a book” to write. After spelunking into the confusing caverns of father-son relationships for previous novels, a father-daughter story became the novel’s emotional center. While a father of sons, he explains, often wonders, “What will they do?” Russo’s own daughters had entered high school, and he was wracked with the fear every father of daughters suffers: “What will be done to them?”

We all understand that memory is tricky, and I think the trick to writing a good memoir is always having that in mind. And to not suggest more moral authority than is fair to the person you’re writing about

The novel quickly evolved into his most ambitious work, as he set the relationship of divorced diner-owner Miles Roby and his teenage daughter, Tick, against the larger historical and social context of Empire Falls: its boom from logging town to factory town under the leadership of the wealthy Whiting family, and then its sharp decline to a town on the edge.

“I think I understood in the undertaking that this was a new dimension to my work, and I think I understood that because it was so much more difficult,” says Russo. “Every time I worked at the history of Maine, of Empire Falls, of the Whiting family, I was coming up against the limits of my knowledge and my experience.”

The Acknowledgments page of Empire Falls personifies the glimmer of gratitude often seen in Russo’s smiling eyes. He thanks at length his younger daughter, Kate, for reminding him “by means of concrete details just how horrible high school can be, and how lucky we all are to escape more or less intact.” And he jokes that thanking Fistketjon at too much length would just create more prose for the editor and “he’s worked too hard already.”

The phone rings. In the kitchen, Barbara Russo is trying to cancel airline tickets and rebook new flights. But so is everyone else who needs to fly out of the northeast in the next forty-eight hours, and seats are disappearing quickly.

Russo followed Empire Falls with his first short story collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, which Knopf published the next year, and then two novels, the brooding Bridge of Sighs (Knopf, 2007) and the satirical That Old Cape Magic (Knopf, 2009). The author himself summed up how the latter novel contrasted to the former in his 2012 memoir Elsewhere: “Compared with the book that preceded it—my darkest, written and revised during my mother’s long, final descent—this new novel was a breezy tale that seemed to suggest I was finding my way back to the cautious, hard-won optimism that characterizes my fiction.”

This assessment of his writing, says Russo, owes a great deal to his long association with director Robert Benton, who adapted Empire Falls for the screen and worked with the author on several other film projects. “He has always said that I am the most optimistic writer he knows…but I don’t think I am nearly as optimistic as he thinks I am,” chuckles Russo. Benton offers as evidence an important scene in Russo’s oeuvre: At the end of Empire Falls, Miles Roby’s glove box falls open (its broken latch has been a running gag) and he says to his disheveled, vagabond father, Max, that it’s broken and can’t be fixed. To that, Max replies, “Don’t be an idiot, anything can be fixed.”

Russo appreciates Benton’s assessment, but he’s skeptical. In fact, to briefly sum up his memoir Elsewhere, it is about confronting something that cannot be fixed: relationship with his obsessive-compulsive mother. “I spent all of my adolescence, the vast majority of my young adult life, and then into my life as a husband and a father, trying to fix something that could not be fixed by me,” says Russo. His account of their lifelong bond and her codependency is often harrowing: Where his fiction balances the comic and heartbreaking, the memoir is fraught with pain and a frustration bordering on anger. This is so often brushed against but avoided in his fiction but is explored, if not embraced, in his nonfiction.

Elsewhere is Russo’s book, but it is his mother’s story. He never took the obligation lightly. “The teller of the tale in a memoir has all the advantages,” says Russo. But writing the book was an exorcism of sorts. “We all understand that memory is tricky, and I think the trick to writing a good memoir is always having that in mind. And to not suggest more moral authority than is fair to the person you’re writing about.”

The phone is silent. But there is a knock at the front door. Kate, Russo’s younger daughter, arrives. She and her husband, Tom Butler, are both visual artists and met while studying at London’s acclaimed Slade School. They have dropped in to say goodbye: They are scheduled to leave in a few days to live abroad for several months. In 2012 the pair collaborated with Russo on Interventions (Down East Books), a print-only, slipcased collection of four chapbooks, designed by Butler, that feature a mix of Russo’s fiction and nonfiction with art by Kate.

Between novels, Russo remains busy working on screenplays, polishing scripts, and attending to other projects. In 2010 he edited the annual Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and unsurprisingly brought an infusion of humor to the series. In 2013 he published Nate in Venice, a digital-only novella, with Byliner.

Russo made himself even busier when he joined the Authors Guild about five years ago. His affiliation with the guild began with Amazon, when the Internet retailer released its Price Check app and encouraged readers to use independent bookstores as showrooms but make purchases online. Russo penned a scathing op-ed about the practice entitled “Amazon’s Jungle Logic” for the New York Times. Amazon’s move felt “bloody personal,” says Russo, whose older daughter, Emily, was an independent bookseller at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. In short order, Russo became the vice president of the Guild’s council and has regularly spoken publicly about the organization’s stance against what it calls Amazon’s predatory practices. His platform at the Authors Guild has allowed him to focus more on another area of interest too: emerging authors.

“If the Authors Guild is going to remain vital and urgent today,” says Russo, “in addition to things like protecting copyright, it has to be of more service to emerging authors, and that’s been my particular emphasis—so few of the advantages I had as an emerging author exist anymore.” His voice fills with awe and admiration when he mentions the talent of young writers he has read and supported in recent years, including Téa Obreht, Karen Russell, and Hannah Tinti.

“He really sets the bar higher than anybody I’ve ever come across, in terms of not only generosity of time but also a genuineness of interest,” says Fisketjon. “And he doesn’t just do shit because it’s the right thing to do, he does things because he’s actually interested.”