Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, spoke to PHAWKER about what spurs him to write about small-town life, class and it’s relation to geography in his new book, Bridge of Sighs, and his newest screenplays. He will be speaking at the Free Library tonight.
PHAWKER: How has winning the Pulitzer changed how you live and write?
RICHARD RUSSO: Well I got caller ID. [laughs] That’s one way it’s changed how we live. I think it changed my writing more; it was just such a wonderful thing to happen that I kind of I really wanted to justify it. I don’t know if you can ever justify the success of one book with another book, but I was very conscious of the blessing of that award so this last, since 2001, all this time that I’ve been working on “Bridge of Sighs” I’ve been working with a sense of the weight of it. It was not a paralyzing weight or anything like that. In fact, I’ve gotten more done in the years since the prize probably than ever. Cause I wrote this monster of a book and I wrote several screenplays. So I’ve really been extraordinarily productive, it hasn’t frozen me in any way. But it’s really made me want to do my very best work. Nobody wants to come up with a crappy book after someone’s been nice enough to give you a prize. So its really renewed my sense of purpose and I guess my gratitude for a lot that has made me want to do the very best work that I can in what’s left of my artistic life.
PHAWKER: What is it about blue-collar, small-town life that draws you to write about it?
RR: Well, I’ve spent most of my life in towns like that. There was a short period in Tucson when I went out west to go to school that I lived in a city. Other than that I’ve spent a lot my life in these places. So that’s part of it. The other thing, probably more important, is that I’ve always been a writer who is interested in class. And the great thing about small towns is that all the classes are right there. They’re all in the same couple miles square radius and you know, rich people like Mrs. Whiting from “Empire Falls” have to deal with those who have the very least in the world like John Voss. And their stories intersect and they don’t get to hide from each other. These are not gated communities. So if you’re interested in class, as I am, there’s no place better to tell stories than in small towns.
PHAWKER: Why focus on small towns in the northeast rather than the Midwest or West?
RR: I lived in the Midwest for a short period of tie when I was teaching out there. The thing that always stuck me about it was that I didn’t understand it very well. [Laughs] I tried my best to understand what was going on out there. But the whole Midwest kind of escaped me somehow, despite my efforts to understand it. This is where I’ve lived; this is what I know the most. I will say that when I go back to the Midwest on book tour and taking books about my upstate New York mill towns with me, when I’ve been to the Midwest and even the Deep South sometimes, people tell me, “Boy, it feels like you were writing about my home town.”
PHAWKER: Do you think the small-town experience is something that’s fading with the development of technology and suburbia?
RR: Well, certainly those things are not helping — small towns are becoming less and less like small towns because technology puts you into the larger beast out there somehow. There are all sorts of other encroachments on small towns. I don’t think they’re disappearing so much as changing. The kind of towns that I write about are some of them seem to be disappearing, others of them just seem to be transforming, they’re becoming something different. That’s kind of why I’m interested in writing about these place that mean so much to me. They feel like snapshots, but 50 years from now people are going to be reading these books, if they’re reading them at all, they’re going to reading them the way you look back at old photo albums, and think to yourself, “Boy, did people really dress that way?” It’s important to me to capture these towns while they’re doing what they’re doing now before they get taken over completely by different kinds of work and different kinds of people. And of course, some of them are just getting subsumed in suburbia. As cities sprawl into greater and greater mash, a lot of little towns get gobbled up. It certainly happens in Chicago and in upstate New York. If you build a highway, everything changes. People have access they didn’t have access [to] before.
PHAWKER: Do you consider your writing to be nostalgic for small town life?
RR: I don’t think its nostalgia from what I’ve gathered from people who are reading these books. They don’t think of these. … If they were nostalgic, I’d be looking at them like, how why don’t we go back to this kind of living? And it’s not like that at all, they are portraits of towns and the towns and people in them are kind of warts and all. I’m far too realistic a writer for that. But I think what these people used to be is what’s recording.
PHAWKER: You said in one interview that you think you write more about class than place, but the two seem to be intertwined in many of your novels. Could you speak about that?
RR: When I was writing, I talked about that a lot in the past few years because my novel Empire Falls, which is set in Maine, I expected people living in Maine, they’re very protective of their Maine and they have a very strong sense of place and when outsiders come in and write about Maine and they get things wrongs, they’re very proprietary. I expected to get absolutely clobbered because I got Maine accents wrong or because it was clear I was from away because I didn’t understand this about Maine or that about Maine. And none of those things happened. In fact, I had Mainers coming up and telling me how much of the real Maine I had got for having not lived there for a very long time. And I was explaining to them and to the reading public that the reason I got Maine right was because I wasn’t really writing about Maine, I was writing about class. The class seems to be the larger entity. Place and class do get confused. If you get the class thing right, people think you got the place right.
PHAWKER: Do you think “Bridge of Sighs” reached the standard of excellence that you wanted to reach?
RR: Yeah, I’m very proud of it. It’s not for me to say how good it is or anything, but I know I worked real hard on it. I think it’s my most ambitious book, and that’s not a critical assessment because people have all kinds of ambitions. To say you’ve written an ambitious book is not to say you’ve written a good one. … It just fills some of my deepest convictions about race and class and the American dream. In this novel, I’m very pleased with the way it turned out. I’ll leave the question of how good it is to the critics.
PHAWKER: What or who inspired “Bridge of Sighs”?
RR: I’m a lot like Lucy Lynch in this book. If it were up to myself, I’d never go anywhere. But Barbara my wife about a decade ago managed to get me to renew my passport and dragged me off to Venice. And she told me that I was going to absolutely fall in love with it. She was right. I wasn’t there very long before I realized that this was a wonderful place to set a story or part of a story. I’d already begun work on this new book, or at least the sketches. … So Venice with its water, and its whole history of poisoned water, and I was writing about a town on the other side of the world that also had poison water. So there was that. And Venice is a city of bridges. And I had already began to realize that with this book that I’d been working on bridges were going to be important; water was going to be important. And it gave me the most beautiful title that I’ve ever had for a novel, I think in “Bridge of Sighs.” It’s like one line of poetry, one brief line of poetry. … And I was writing a book [which had] themes of despair, so I had a very potent metaphor for all of that, so it wasn’t just any one thing, it was just a convergence of just a number of different kinds of interesting things. Major pieces of the puzzle just fell together after my wife and I went to Venice.
PHAWKER: If there was a soundtrack to your writing process, what would be on it?
RR: I have no idea. Other people have told me it would be Copland. [laughs] Aaron Copland’s “Theme to the Common Man” or something like that. I suspect it would be a mix of songs from the ’50s that have been important in my life. There’d be a little Del Shannon in there. There’d be a little Everly Brothers in there. And there’d be some good, hard rock n’ roll. There’d be some jazz. I think it would be very eclectic, I think it’d be all over the place, drawing a little bit… let’s say it would be fusion.
PHAWKER: One interviewer called you “the bard of Main Street USA.” What do you think about that?
RR: I’ll take that. That sounds find to me. I hope he meant it as a compliment.
PHAWKER: Working on any new screenplays lately?
RR: I am working on a screenplay right now that I’m just wildly excited about and that I’m going to have to hit it up now for two or three weeks now that I’m on book tour. But I’m hoping to start a new novel, but not until the first of the year. Right now I’m working on a screenplay based on a serious of Richard Yates stories. Richard Yates was a very important writer to me when I was in graduate school and first writing, first finding my own voice. His stories in particular, although I love Revolutionary Road, (which) is being filmed right now, or maybe they’re finished shooting it, Yates, who unfortunately never had the huge audience he deserved to have when he was alive, is beginning to have it now. Because I think there are two movies, that and “Easter Parade,” are both in production. I’m convinced that this screenplay that I’m writing on the basis of four of his short stories. I have a feeling that it is really coming together. I’m really excited about that. And another screen project of mine, the best work that I’ve ever done for the screen, I think, is based on Nicholas Rinaldi’s wonderful novel called the “Jukebox Queen of Malta.” That’s a screenplay that’s already done, but it looks like it’s finally, hopefully, going into production sometime this spring. I’ve got my fingers crossed. … The director is likely going to be a guy named Niall Johnson; he’s a very talented young director; he’s a Brit. And this is kind of a British kind of a story. He actually directed a movie I wrote a few years ago, called “Keeping Mum.” He was the director on that and the producer who I think is going to do this “Jukebox Queen of Malta” movie was also the producer on that. So we’re kind of putting the band back together [laughs], like the Blues Brothers. We’re gonna put the band back together and make a new movie.
[As told to MAVIS LINNEMANN]