An Open Door: A Profile of Richard Russo

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

Indeed, Russo’s literary interests and tastes are wide-ranging: In 2001 he wrote the introduction for The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (Henry Holt), and late last year he turned in an introduction for Mark Twain’s Collected Nonfiction Vol. 2, due this autumn from the Everyman’s Library Classics & Contemporary Classics series. Lately he’s been savoring Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Arcade Publishing, 2015). He rarely misses the opportunity to recommend an overlooked noir writer such as James Crumley, or push Isak Dinesen’s oft-forgotten first U.S. publication, Seven Gothic Tales (Random House, 1934).            

Things have come full circle from the days when Russo the young debut novelist sought a blurb from Mosher. Now the Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s own blurb is highly coveted. Out of necessity Russo has become very particular about whose books he blurbs: He will only consider work by emerging authors who don’t yet have a national reputation or an established audience.

When Russo edited the Best American Short Stories, he plucked Lori Ostlund’s “All Boy” from the New England Review. Long a fan of the series as well as a devoted reader of Russo, Ostlund was stunned. “When I learned that my story was going to appear in the series and that it had been chosen by Richard Russo,” she says, “it was as if two important parts of my reading-writing world had come together. It was thrilling.” The story would not only appear in Ostlund’s Flannery O’Connor Award–winning The Bigness of the World (University of Georgia Press, 2009); in addition, the titular boy would become the protagonist of her debut novel, the big-hearted and hilarious After the Parade (Scribner, 2015). “When Scribner asked me for a blurber dream list, Rick was at the top,” says Ostlund.

“Later, I read his memoir,” she says, “in which he talks about the shelves of [advance reader’s copies] in his house that he didn’t have time to read or the heart to throw away. I remember reading that passage out loud to [my wife] Anne and thinking how lucky I was.”

The first chapter of Richard Russo’s much-anticipated Everybody’s Fool opens with a line that seems one-part Dickensian and one-part pure Russo: “Hilldale Cemetery in North Bath was cleaved right down the middle, its Hill and Dale sections divided by a two-lane macadam road, originally a Colonial cart path.” 

The new novel is as much simply a return to the street and denizens of North Bath as it is an explicit sequel. Set ten years after the end of Nobody’s Fool, a septuagenarian Donald “Sully” Sullivan is back, and he’s still warring with Raymer, who has somewhat inexplicably become the town’s chief of police. Sully’s handyman sidekick Rub Squeers has been promoted to town gravedigger, his old boss Carl Roebuck is still nursing resentments, and even though the beloved Miss Beryl, Sully’s former landlady, is dead, she still plays a major part. 

But Everybody’s Fool is not simply a continuation of Nobody’s Fool. “I would not have written this book if it was just Sully’s story,” says Russo. The gnawing idea for the novel came into focus when Russo heard a real-life story he immediately imagined had fictional potential: A police chief believed his wife was having an affair after he discovered in her car a garage-door opener that wasn’t for their house. The chief would drive slowly around town clicking the opener, searching for the door it opened. “What if Raymer were that police chief?” thought Russo.

“As a comic premise it just fascinated me,” he says, “and I wanted to write about a guy who does this and who will come gradually to realize what a dangerous fool’s errand this is. It calls into question all kinds of interesting things about what we really know—what does he know about his wife, what does he know about himself and his own motivations, what does he know about the way the world works.  

“It’s an open door to all kinds of foolishness. And of course to write a book with the title Everybody’s Fool after writing a book called Nobody’s Fool was very attractive as well!”

Russo had begun Everybody’s Fool when the need to write Elsewhere overwhelmed him. He’d never stopped one book to write another before, but after purging his system with the memoir, he returned with a passion to the novel and worked harder than ever. For long stretches he wrote not only in the morning but returned to his desk in the afternoon for several more hours. He was overcome with joy to return to the cast of North Bath. “I think it’s my most entertaining book in a long time,” says Russo. “There are serious issues in it but it wears them lightly. I don’t want to—after Bridge of Sighs or Empire Falls—feel like every book of mine has to be more and more ambitious. I want to be a storyteller.”

When Sobel first finished reading the manuscript of Nobody’s Fool, he already hoped there would be a sequel. He called Russo and said, “You have to promise me this is not the last we’ll see of Sully!” Mosher, the first author to write a blurb for Russo, has openly hoped for the sequel for years. “For the last decade,” says Russo, “every time I see Howard, he asks what’s going on with Sully and Rub, as if they’re real and I’d know. I guess the book is an answer to his relentless queries.” Russo has dedicated Everybody’s Fool to his old pal.

The phone rings. Russo’s wife Barbara announces from the kitchen that they’ll all make it to Denver for the ABA’s Winter Institute, albeit on separate flights. “Oh, well,” says Russo. The morning has been something of a lesson straight out of the author’s fiction: In life, we don’t get out of trouble, but if we’re lucky we learn how to deal with it.

Russo says that, with the publication of each new novel, he still feels lucky. “My overall sense is that certain things come easier—insomuch as a little confidence that you’ve done something before can be a balm—but I’m slower now. I’m much more meticulous in the early stages than I was as a younger writer, much more attuned to language, much less willing to let go of sloppy sentences by saying I’ll fix them later. I have to work longer and harder now to get less. I’m also much crankier and harder to please,” he says with a laugh. “Everything about the world now puts a premium on speed, and something seems wrong about that to me.”

While the changes in his writing life and routines seem inevitable, his friends say Russo hasn’t changed in a few important ways. “I’ve often thought in all these years since I first met Rick,” says Fisketjon, “that he is now what he was then: the same generous, heart-in-the-right-place, very well-read, very hardworking guy. Success and renown hasn’t changed him one iota.”

Russo’s own cautious, hard-won optimism has paid dividends over the decades. “One reason I’m not more pessimistic,” he says, laughter rising in his voice, “is that it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. His profiles for Poets & Writers Magazine have included Ann Beattie, John Casey, Andre Dubus III, and Richard Ford. He was recently awarded the 2015 Marianne Russo Award for emerging authors from the Key West Literary Seminar.