A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Russo

I had the pleasure of meeting with Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo on October 28, 2016 during his trip to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors. I interviewed him about his writing career, which has spanned three decades from the publication of his first book Mohawk in 1986 to the publication of his most recent book Everybody’s Fool in May 2016. The book is a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, published in 1993 and made into a feature film.

richard_russo

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

What has led you to write each of your books?

The driving force of my books is the dissatisfaction I’m feeling with a previous book. Risk Pool, for instance, is a father-son story told from the perspective of a son. It was a melancholy book that I wrote when my father was dying. I was half-way through the writing when I realized that the story was told from the perspective of the son. I wondered to myself how it would be to tell the story from the perspective of the father. That thought led to Nobody’s Fool. Essentially, I decide to write a new book when I realize the limitations of a previous book. My books are determined less by what I know than what I don’t know.

Tell me about Everybody’s Fool.

It’s been fascinating with this book, because it’s a sequel 23 years after the fact. I’m revisiting characters from Nobody’s Fool. The protagonist of Everybody’s Fool (police officer Raymer) is someone who I considered a walk-on character in Nobody’s Fool.

everybody-fool

Who are your favorite authors?

Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, because I learned so much from them about who I was going to be as a writer. From Charles Dickens, I learned the importance of the exterior world and the presence of minor characters. I learned to people my books: to make sure that my landscapes were full of people. From Mark Twain, I learned that if I was going to write about dark topics like poverty in America, I’d better do it armed with humor.

Tell me about your book Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.

Pulitzer Prize-winning books tend to be ambitious. Empire Falls is a story about industrialization in America. It’s the story about a bankrupt town and a wealthy man, Mr. Whiting, who builds a mansion to separate himself from the rest of the town. In his wealth, Mr. Whiting finds a reason to separate himself from the people who have provided that wealth.

Why does much of your work feature small town America?

I’m from a small town in upstate New York. A lot of people think I write about small towns because of the axiom that you should write what you know. But there is some mystery about these places that no matter how much I drill, I can’t get to the bottom of that core of knowledge. The questions I ask in one book just lead to more questions, which lead me to write other books.

You also write screenplays. Where does that fit into everything?

Writing scripts is kind of like cheating for me, because screen-writing is about dialogue, and that is my strong suit. My ear is better than my eye. Writing for the screen allows me to play to my strengths. For me, screen-writing is kind of a lark. And then after writing a screenplay, when I go into a novel, I find that things that I’ve found hard—back story, character emotions—become easier for me. Novel-writing demands that you use all of your tools. After a screenplay, I have this incredible sense of power, of an ability to use every tool in my toolbox.

What does a regular day look like for you?

It begins at around seven o’clock. I have coffee and read the news online. Then I write for a couple of hours in the morning. I still work in longhand. My drafts are in notebooks. I take a break for lunch. In the afternoon, I type out what I wrote in the morning. That’s usually my first revision. I tend to work until mid to late afternoon. Then I go out for a walk or read until it’s time to start cooking dinner. My wife and I tend to linger around dinner, listening to the radio. We watch TV at night. I work seven days a week.

Have you held any jobs?

I was a teacher for a long time, a professor at universities. I also used to be a singer in grad school. I used to sing in a local restaurant. I am now part of the council of the Authors Guild, an organization that supports authors. I spend time thinking about how complicated it is for young writers to break out anymore.

What  advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I think you have to be a voracious reader in order to write, and you have to be disciplined. It’s not about writing a lot every day but writing every day. When I first started writing, I did not have much more than an hour a day, because I was also teaching. But if you write a page every day for a year, that’s a lot of pages by the end of the year. Having an hour a day should not be discouraging.

When I came into the business, there were a lot more opportunities for young writers than there are today. Today, it’s difficult for writers because everyone wants you to work for free. There’s something in the air and water these days that people expect writers to work for free. There are fewer writing and teaching opportunities. For every one successful writer, there are many whose books—even good books—descend into oblivion. But you have to keep the faith over the years. You have to derive satisfaction from a well-crafted story, a well-crafted sentence. It’s about the craft. Everything about art asks you to slow down. Everything else about the world wants you to go fast. Art means that you’re not going to make as much money as the people who are going fast.

What do you think of retiring?

For me, not writing would be like not thinking. My books are not what I think, but how I think. To retire would be to end my engagement with the world.