Richard Russo on The Whore’s Child

richard russo2 3 Richard Russo on <em>The Whores Child</em>Richard Russo won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his fifth novel, Empire Falls. He has recently published a collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories. Richard Russo still lives in coastal Maine with his family.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth conversation between Richard Russo and Robert Birnbaum since the publication of Nobody’s Fool. This might explain the frequent outbursts of laughter.Last year’s talk is also available here @ identitytheory.com

Robert Birnbaum: I gave someone a copy of Empire Falls. She e-mailed me, saying she really liked it very much but wanted to know why it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Richard Russo: (chuckles)

RB: Do you have any interest in answering that question?

RR: I wish I knew the answer to it. I don’t. Actually, I spoke to a couple of people on the committee during the [award] ceremony. If they had a clear reason, it wasn’t clear to me, other than it was the book they liked the best. One guy said that—he wasn’t defensive, exactly—”Well you know, we’re just readers here. We just like books we like.” As if to say, this is not an English Department award or anything like that. This is just the book they liked. I think if you compare it to some of my other novels, the way this one is different is that it has a bigger scope, more historical context. And I think the Pulitzer often goes to writers who are writing about America in some larger way than in writing about particular Americans. And Empire Falls was some sort of snapshot of some part of America, anyway, that may have appealed to them in some way.

RB: My conjecture was that—I don’t mean this in a pejorative way—it was a warmer and fuzzier book than the other books nominated. Not to mention that Franzen’s book was something that at least some people were extremely negative about.

RR: It’s strange isn’t it? I don’t know whether it was just the Oprah thing—it always amazes me that there are such failures of generosity among writers and among publishers. There’s a degree of venom, out there—I ran across it, in of all places, Barcelona. Somebody came up to me and said, “I’m so glad that you won the Pulitzer.” Then he went on to say, “Anything other than The Corrections would have been fine with me.” I thought, where in the world did that come from? Where in the world would that venom come from? I’ve only met Jonathan [Franzen] very, very briefly, but he seemed like a very nice fellow. And he certainly was very generous to me and the book is a terrific book. People like to stake out territory as if there are only a certain amount of books you are allowed to love. I don’t know what it is.

RB: It certainly occasioned strange reactions. I didn’t really appreciate The Corrections until I got close to the book’s end. I thought it was too clever, without heart. But at the end I really liked the book and had a good feeling about it. Maybe some readers saw some of the cleverness as grandstanding. Though I don’t know why a writer can’t do that in the service of their narrative?

RR: There’s no rule that I’m aware of that says you can’t do that. The other thing, too, is that it’s surprising how many people have said to me about Empire Falls that it was a book that they read not long after September. It was a book that took them away from the horror. I had a number of people come up to me and thank me not just for writing this book that they liked but also making a direct connection between that book and September 11. They said it was the first book either that they read or first book that they could read. Because it was a big book, it allowed them to live in it for a while and it became an alternate reality.

RB: Franzen’s book was a big book.

RR: As was John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead, the other finalist.

RB: So here you are, Mr. Big Shot Pulitzer Prize winner…

RR: (Laughs heartily)

RB: I thought you had it made doing all the movie work and now you have a big prize.

RR: So did I. So did I. You were not alone in thinking I had it made. I remember it being kind of an embarrassing question because I didn’t want to sound ungrateful or ungracious but somebody said, “God, the Pulitzer, this must be the greatest thing in your writing life that’s ever happened to you.” I certainly, didn’t want to sound ungrateful but the truth was—

RB: That sort of hems you in, doesn’t it?

RR: No, no, it wasn’t that but I remember when my first story was accepted. Back in graduate school and all of us—all of my friends—we were all trying to get published, all trying to get that first story published. My first story was published in a magazine with a circulation of about 300 and I was paid in contributor’s copies. 6 or 7 of them, not as many copies as I had family members to give them to. (laughs) But I couldn’t afford more than that and that was payment. I can remember bouncing off the walls when that happened. Because it was the first real validation that I had somebody else saying, “You’re a writer.” Somebody else giving me permission to go on and write another story. I fed off that publication for a couple of years. I had a couple of other really small successes but that first one was astonishing. After 20 some rejections of Mohawk—and Gary Fisketjohn at Vintage said yes to Mohawk—I had a similar reaction because that was the first story and this was the first book. The idea that I would very shortly be able to walk into a bookstore—presumably in a town other than the town that I lived in and be able to find a copy of my book (which I learned was not true [laughs] but I thought it was)—at the time I thought I would be able to walk into any bookstore, there would be nothing to prevent a book of mine from being there (laughs), there was no law against it. It was just astonishing. It was just the most incredible thing. I lived for a long time in a waking dream, waiting for that book to come out. [So]When someone says, "God, the Pulitzer, that must have been the greatest thing?," it was pretty wonderful but in its own way, no more wonderful that first story with a circulation of 300.

RB: I think that even the more prestigious prizes—the Pulitzer, the Book, the National Book Awards—are beauty contests and that there is great honor being on the short list.

RR: Oh God, yes.

russo2 2 Richard Russo on <em>The Whores Child</em>RB: Though nobody remembers the short list.

RR: Yeah, but you would if you were one of them. (Both laugh)

RB: This was last Spring, right?

RR: Uh huh.

RB: The Whore’s Child and Other Stories was already scheduled for publication.

RR: All these stories were written—the most recent was the last one, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart”—some of them go back a decade or so. The book was set and scheduled. Yeah, people who are not in publishing have a skewed sense of how these things come about. I have been asked a lot recently, “What made you turn to short stories after Empire Falls?” (laughs). This book has been in the works for a long time. It’s just taken me forever to get enough stories that I’m proud enough of to want to see in a more lasting format.

RB: That’s the criterion for the stories in this collection?

RR: That’s it, they form…

RB: Of all the stories you have written, these are the ones…

RR: These are the only ones that I cared to revisit in any way.

RB: You went back to stories and edited them again even though they had all been published and in some state of finality?

RR: Yes, there were mostly small changes and it was odd, some of the decisions I made when I look back on it now. The story “Poison,” which I like a lot, had two things that I changed in it—factual type things. The main character had bought this modest house in some place like Chilimark in Martha’s Vineyard and was living there when his friend comes to visit him. He [the main character] was a mid-list writer who suddenly made a lot of money writing a screenplay. I changed the dollar values in that story. That story was written and published about 10 years ago and suddenly the amount of money that that house on Martha’s Vineyard would have gone for now just seemed absurd—no one would believe that you could buy this house for that kind of money. Also I allowed him to make too little money on the screenplay, although when I wrote the story it seemed like an obscene amount of money. So I ratcheted some of those economic details up, by a decimal point. Otherwise, I left them largely alone. My editor, Gary Fisketjon, is a wonderful line editor, and he made suggestion as he does, with all of my work. Phrase-to-phrase, sentence-to-sentence—he can remember over 20 or 25 pages if I’ve used an unusual word or just a word that should not be used twice within 20 pages. Another interesting change that got made, in the story “Monhegan Light” was that when it first came out in Esquire the word ‘cunt’ was used on the first page, almost the first paragraph of that story, referring to the sister Jane, “cunt that she was.” My editor at Esquire said, “You know, I have no objection to the word. And if the word were used later in the story there wouldn’t really be a problem because we would already know, we would already have something invested in the character. But to have the word appear on the first page, we may lose a lot of readers as a result of that.” I kind of agreed on that, so I changed the word and turned it into something offensive but not quite as loaded. So when we came to do the story in the book, I asked Gary about it. I said, “Now this is the word I had originally.” And I explained why we had decided to change the word for Esquire. He said, “Now this is the second story in the collection and the readers are already in there. And besides, the first story is about a nun. So we have already established you are a good guy.” (Laughs) So we restored the word "cunt" to its rightful place in the first paragraph of the story.

RB: Someone might actually get to the second story in a story collection and give up because of one word? It does show some different editing concerns because in a way you are making a book instead of writing a book. That is in a novel, it’s co-equivalent with the physical object whereas in a story collection, after the stories are written, what’s the order they appear in.

RR: I wanted to begin strong and end strong, the way you want any book. But my feeling was that I didn’t put any stories that I had doubts about.

RB: How do you know how people will read a collection?

RR: That’s right. The order that you put them in is no guarantee that’s how people will read them.

RB: You have a gap in your day so…

RR: You look for the one that’s 15 pages instead of 30. I wanted, I suppose, some variation in terms of style and tone. It was nice to follow a story like “The Whore’s Child” with something like “Monhegan Light.” I wouldn’t have wanted “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” which is told through the point of view of a young boy, to be too close to “Joyride,” which is told through the point of view of a young boy. So it’s more a question of what do you want separated from what in the collection.

I think the Pulitzer often goes to writers who are writing about America in some larger way than in writing about particular Americans. And Empire Falls was some sort of snapshot of some part of America.

RB: Have you considered writing stories for a book that have some connective device? Or loosely weave the stories together?

RR: Several years ago what I had thought was that I might even write a book of stories that are all set on islands. There are several island stories in this one—what are there 3? 4? “Monhegan Light” is an island story, “Poison” is and “Buoyancy” is an island story.

RB: I found that story totally depressing.

RR: (laughs) Well, thank you, Robert. I’m glad it didn’t cheer you. So, I thought about that but then it was liable to be a posthumous collection because how many more islands stories would I write and when would they come out. Did I answer your question or one of my own?

RB: I forget what I asked you. I could run the tape back.

RR: Independent stories coming together to form a whole…

RB: Did you write these stories as procrastinations in between novels? Short stories are not a form you are prolific in or noted for?

RR: Three of the stories came from the novels. “The Whore’s Child” was originally part of Straight Man. Sister Ursala was one of Hank Devereux’s students. In that novel there are two or three students that we revisit throughout the novel. There’s the woman with the streak of white hair and the white eyebrow. There’s Leo, the misogynist—he’s writing the kinds of stories that cause Hank to tell him to “always understate necrophilia.” One of my favorite bits of professorial advice to his students. Sister Ursala was another of the students. Her story was so dark that when I gave it to my editor I said, “What should we do about Sister Ursala? I really like her.” David Rosenthal said,”I like her, too, but she doesn’t belong in this book.” So I yanked her out and then created a story around her because I couldn’t bear not to have her doing something.

RB: I thought Gary Fisketjon was your editor?

RR: This was when Rosenthal was still at Random House and Straight Man was my last book with David.

RB: And then, with Empire Falls you formed your unbreakable relationship with Fisketjon?

RR: Until he leaves and goes to take over Vintage in England or something. But anyway, there was that story and the story, “The Farther You Go,” the character is named Hank and it was the story that caused me to write Straight Man. I wrote that story and liked the character so much and I couldn’t let him go. I then went back and wrote Straight Man around that character.

RB: So is it the case when you start writing something you are not particularly clear what it’s going to be?

RR: Well, I’m certainly not always clear. And then, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” a lot of that was originally in Empire Falls. When Miles is a boy and goes to Martha’s Vineyard with his mother and brings his baseball glove, that whole scene—the catching the line drive was part of that novel. I written so much about that, even by my standards I had digressed too long. (both laugh) And you know I have very liberal standards of digression, Robert. (more laughter)

russo2 5 Richard Russo on <em>The Whores Child</em>RB: Maybe you should just write a thousand-word novel?

RR: You have no idea how proud I am of The Whore’s Child, just by virtue of the fact that it’s slender. It is quite a wonderful thing.

RB: Does it seem like there has been a change in the commercial viability of story collections? There seems to be a proliferation of short story writers.

RR: I don’t think I ever had much of a sense of the market in short stories except through a purely commercial and second-hand notion. My agent, for a long time, would not take on collections of short stories unless they were by authors that were already pretty famous. In Nat’s [Sobel] case the reason was that he was really tired of being heartbroken. He would put together these really marvelous collections of stories he believed in and couldn’t sell them. It was constant heartbreak, not only for him and Judith [Weber] but of course also for the authors. He felt as much for emotional reasons as commercial, that for a long time he would just not accept them. He let people know, “Send me a novel and after we’ve done a few novels together maybe we can do a collection.” That was an inviolable rule for a while. He just couldn’t do it any more. Couldn’t stand the heartbreak, you know. But he has started representing them again. So maybe you’re right, maybe the marketplace has changed. Or maybe he just couldn’t stand not representing them anymore.

RB: I see more of them. I don’t know how they sell. Then there was Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander…

RR: Those were two very, very strong collections too. Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing was a very successful collection.

RB: What does a publisher do if they have young writers and short stories is all they have written?

RR: Exactly.

RB: Where has Tobias Wolf been?

RR: Teaching at Stanford. I do see stories of his from time to time in The New Yorker or Harper’s or Esquire. But all of us who really like his work wish he was more prolific than he is. Bullet in the Brain was a fairly recent New Yorker story. A wonderful story. And yes, there are writers who are just not going to write novels. Alice Munro is not going to write a novel, is she?

RB: I think she has. But, I’m not familiar with it.

RR: Well, maybe she has but I don’t recall it. It’s hard to think Raymond Carver, had he lived, would have written a novel. He seems very much a short story writer. Antonya Nelson who is a friend and colleague—it’s interesting because she always thought of herself as a story-writer, was appalled at the notion of the novel. Among other things, she just said, "How could you start something that was going to be like that and not know for a year or two whether you had anything? I don’t ever want to do that." But she wrote one and then another. All she had to do was one…

RB: Where is she a colleague of yours?

RR: At Warren Wilson.

RB: Do you still go there?

RR: I haven’t done it in a few years but I’m going to go back.

RB: A low residency program?

RR: Yes, it’s the grandfather of them, actually. It’s the best of them, I think.

RB: Andrea Barrett goes there.

RR: Charlie Baxter goes there. It’s been a while since he’s been there. Robert Boswell. We’ve all taught there from time to time. It’s our most consistent and reliable way of seeing each other is to show up at Warren Wilson.

RB: Why does Iowa get all the attention?

RR: Warren Wilson has produced—I’ve lost track of how many novels and short story collections, not to mention individual stories published in good places—yes, they have a wonderful track record.

It always amazes me that there are such failures of generosity among writers and among publishers.

RB: So why does Iowa get all the attention?

RR: Iowa was the first, and they’ve always had wonderful people teaching there and always had the cream of the crop, it seems, of students go there. And Warren Wilson is a very different kind of program in that you go there for 10 days and then you go away—everybody goes away—and then convene again a half a year later. The students tend to be much older and they tend to be in other professions. Whereas students in Iowa and other conventional writing programs, they’re there. They live there, they are studying and teaching. One of the things that’s wonderful for the writers at Warren Wilson is that when the students leave, so do we. We don’t have to go to department meetings. (laughs) The only colleagues we have are other writers. The medievalist is not somebody we have to deal with on a daily basis, much less the sociologist or whoever. It’s a marvelous sense of camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose. And it’s very intense and it’s wonderful and in 10 days it’s over. (laughs) You go home.

RB: It must be beautiful there in North Carolina.

RR: It’s up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

RB: Any local writers teach there?

RR: I’m sure Charles Frazier doesn’t need to. He lives and writes not too far from there. I’m guessing he hasn’t taught there.

RB: North Carolina might have the highest density per square inch of writers in the country.

RR: It wouldn’t surprise me. I’m always astonished at how many there are in Maine, especially in the summer. There’s a fair number of writers where I live, now. Not quite enough to ruin the neighborhood, but the density is getting a little dangerous up there.

RB: You’re not leaving Maine, are you?

russo2 1 Richard Russo on <em>The Whores Child</em>RR: I don’t know there are times—my wife and I, we are both in our 50’s now and my daughter Emily has graduated since we last spoke, now living in Brooklyn, actually, and trying to get into publishing. My daughter Kate is going to be a junior at Colby this year and she’s going to be away half of next year in England for her semester abroad. So there’s only going to be another year she’s going to be home, even with vacations. So Barbara and I—we love Maine, we love where we are, but every now and then, especially when we come to Boston, which we do occasionally, we think, “You know, there is something to be said for a city existence.” Something to be said for not having a big house that’s a long way from the nearest airport. I’m an hour and a half from an airport that I don’t want to be at. (laughs) I’m one airport away from an airport like Logan that is actually going to take me where I need to go. There are times we think about what life in New York would be like or life in Boston and think about it rather longingly. And then we’ll spend a while and we come back and we see our house and we go out on the back deck and it’s quiet and the village is quiet except for July and August and it’s a pretty nice life. We have this city fantasy, but I’d hesitate to spend the kind of money we’d have to spend only to find out we couldn’t take it.

RB: That’s doing it in reverse, isn’t it? I thought people in their golden years retired to Maine?

RR: But in fact, what’s happening in a lot of big cities is that the interior cities are being reclaimed by people who don’t have kids and are interested in cultural things and want to be within walking distance of lots of good restaurants. That kind of cultural life is moving people back into the cities and anybody who has ever lived in a suburb knows why.

RB: Knowing something about your work ethic, I would imagine you are working on something now?

RR: Sure, sure. Well, I’m working on a couple of small projects. As soon as this book tour is finished the first order of business—and it is business—is to do another draft of the screenplay for Empire Falls.

RB: I thought it was already in production.

RR: I may have given you that longing impression.

RB: No, it was in USA Today…

RR: They have reported a number of things about the project which are not factual in origin. (laughs) Where we are right now is that a producer and a director are going to be hired in the next couple of weeks. As soon as a director is on board then I’ll be hitched to the sled writing another draft. Everybody professes to be happy with the first draft which means that I’ll get to write 7 more.

RB: Or they’ll fire you as they are saying, "We love it!"

RR: Speaking of fantasies. (laughs)

RB: Is this one of the small projects you referred to?

RR: No, no. I promised to do an introduction to Pickwick Papers for a new edition.

I’m reading more than I’ve ever been able to read before. And I’m writing more than I’ve been able to write before. That’s the life we all dream of, is to be able to read and to be able to write.

RB: For Everyman Library?

RR: I think it is, actually. I have one or two other small things, but the thing that I’m dying to get back to is a new novel that I am 75 or 100 pages into, that I’m just crazy about. That’s the big thing, it’s kind of on the back burner. I can catch a whiff of it every now and then and can hear it bubble. I am very anxious to get back to it.

RB: There was piece in the Times describing the way you write. Is that essential for you?

RR: I can write on the road, but I can’t draft a novel on the road. I could revise a novel on the road. I can write screen work, essays, I can write introductions. Non-fiction is easy to write on the road, on rare occasions when I do that. I can do all those kinds of things but there is something different about drafting a novel that requires me to work at the same time each day. I need to work in the morning, every morning, 6 or 7 days a week. I need that kind of routine to slip back into. I need to pick up right where I left off. I hate to miss a day. I need reliable blocks of time.

RB: Other than the introduction to that Richard Yates story collection and that Maine photo book I don’t recall having seen any non fiction.

RR: I’ve written not an awful lot of it. I wrote an essay for the NYT Magazine that was in that Millennium series a few years ago. I’m working on an afterword to another writer’s memoir. I suspect there will probably be a little bit more of that because I’m finding that I enjoy it, in ways that I didn’t years ago. I’m not sure that I’d write a book. I enjoy screenwriting. I like it as a break from novel writing. It would never replace novel writing but I like it as a change of pace and I like non-fiction writing for thew same reason. Smaller projects, something that I can wrap my mind around in its entirety that will take a few weeks or a month.

RB: As opposed to a few years. And the screen writing, I would guess, has the benefit of generating its own stories.

RR: That’s right. "Monhegan Light" is a great gift of having been involved in the movies a little bit. If for no other reason than I got that story out of it I’m happy to have written screen plays.

RB: Twilight was an original screenplay?

RR: Yes.

RB: How’s the future of your collaborations with Robert Benton?

RR: We have a project in the works right now.

RB: Do you call him Godfather or something like that?

RR: (laughs) I call him Yoda. (both laugh) I actually did a walk on in The Human Stain which he has been filming in Montreal.

RB: Is there no end to your talents?

RR: (Both Laugh) I know. Yes, and I think you are going to see it on screen. (laughs) The end of this particular talent. It’ll be interesting to see if I make it to the screen. One of the things I learned from Twilight is just how much can end up on the [cutting room] floor. We have this other project in the development stage based on Scott Phillips novel, The Ice Harvest. It’s a noir thriller set in Wichita, Kansas. The whole thing is set in Wichita on Christmas eve during a hellacious snow and ice storm and it’s about this shady lawyer going from topless bar to topless bar on Christmas eve in 1968. We updated the story so it takes place in contemporary times now. It’s hilarious and wonderful and dark. There’s that and we are always looking for something we might do together.

RB: Is he now your most likely collaborator?

RR: I think he’s most likely my only collaborator in that world. We do it because we enjoy each other’s company so much.

RB: Gee, what a terrible reason. Let’s see you keep doing stuff you like and you are having fun with the people you work with. How is it that he’s not working with you on Empire Falls?

RR: I’m not sure that it’s certain that he is not going to do it. He wanted to do it and as a feature film. He was not enamored initially of doing a 4 hour or 3 1/2 hour thing for HBO. He has not worked in television before and it’s a more rigorous shoot. Even for big-budget TV the shooting schedule is much quicker. Benton is a very deliberate filmmaker. He likes to have lots of back up and options. I think he’s wondering if he can do television at this point and work on a television schedule. He still has doubts, but he loves the book and he’s on the short list of the people they would love to do it. So he’s going to have to decide at some point.

russo2 4 Richard Russo on <em>The Whores Child</em>RB: It’s been an interesting Spring and Summer for new talent. What have you read that you really liked? You did blurb Julia Glass’ Three Junes.

RR: I liked that book a lot. That’s certainly one of the best books that I’ve read. I like Jean Jean Harfenist’s collection of stories, a story cycle: A Brief History of the Flood. I liked it a lot. I’ve been reading nothing but galleys.

RB: Has there been an up tic in the amount of book galleys coming your way?

RR: (laughs) That’s hilarious. That’s the true Pulitzer Prize, isn’t it? Congratulations. I’ve gotten to the point when the UPS truck pulls up in front of the house I run for the back. But they just leave them stacked up against the door.

RB: Any interest in teaching again?

RR: Um (long pause) No. No. I miss the students. But not enough. I miss the experience of the classroom.

RB: Writer-in-residencies?

RR: No. The truth is I’m having a ball. I’m reading more than I’ve ever been able to read before. And I’m writing more than I’ve been able to write before. That’s the life we all dream of, is to be able to read and to be able to write. If were to teach again I would have to diminish one or both of those activities, at least by some. The one thing that I may do is—not this year but next year—is my daughter Kate’s senior year at Colby—I might go back and teach a class during her senior year just because I know how uncomfortable I know it would make her to have me around. (laughs heartily)

RB: This, by the creator of parental characters who show great compassion and empathy for their children.

RR: Of course, of course. Yeah, but it would be nice to be on campus. I loved my years at Colby and I owe the institution a lot for the friends and the good years that I had there. I would be just a kick to be there during Kate’s senior year. She’s kind of a Big Girl On Campus now. It would be fun to spend one more year or semester on campus.

RB: A victory lap.

RR: I hadn’t thought of that.

RB: So, you’ve got it made. I thought you had it made last year.

RR: And you were right. I did have it made last year. I am very aware as a writer who does have it made right now of all those.

RB: That’s a provisional “got it made”?

RR: Right now. The same mechanism that turns the water on, turns it off on every faucet that I have ever encountered. But, I’m very aware of wonderful writers that are out there who have kept the faith and done this astonishing work and have not had my blessings or at least the number of them. Most writers who keep the faith and do good work do experience any number of blessings of the course of their careers but not to the extent that I have had over the last years and months.

RB: What do we call that?

RR: Grace. I keep coming back to Catholic themes. Grace, that thing which can not be earned but is nevertheless bestowed is as close as I can come to explaining what has happened.

People have asked how my life has changed since the Pulitzer and I say, probably too glibly, "I’ve gotten caller ID."

RB: Are you in any danger of becoming a public intellectual? Are you being called on to comment on things other than literature and story telling?

RR: I try my best to avoid such circumstances. People have asked how my life has changed since the Pulitzer and I say, probably too glibly, “I’ve gotten caller ID.” When I went to Spain, right after the Pulitzer I encountered Spanish journalists who are very different from American journalists. One way is that they are all very political. They want their writers to be very political. The first journalist that I met when I was there asked "Are you going to use your prize for political purposes?" I said, “Good Lord, no, I wouldn’t trade on it—I’m a professional liar. I tell stories. I make things up.” They were appalled. They made it very clear to me that that was the wrong answer and that it was further evidence of what was wrong with American authors and Americans, in general, was that we were insular. Which we are. And that we were not bearing our responsibilities in the world. And that fame that is ours has been wasted on people like us because we won’t use it for good purposes. American writers are probably far more insular than we should be, nevertheless I am very much of the other persuasion. That people should not talk about what they don’t know. When they do things publicly—there are those things you do publicly and privately. What I said to a lot of the Spanish journalists was, “If you want for us to have a political conversation off the record, if you want to go out and have a beer or something and talk about the Israelis and the Palestinians, I’d be happy to share what slender wisdom I have, with you. If you are interested one-to-one, person to person. But if you think I’m going to issue policy statements that you are going to run on the page next to Colin Powell (he was there in Barcelona the same days I was there), of course not.” What do you think about that?

RB: I think the Spanish writers haven’t listened to Barbara Streisand? (both laugh) But Europeans journalists are tougher and more persistent and not just interested in having lunch and being pals with people who will advance their careers. I think that you are correct in not issuing policy statements on things you feel you have slim knowledge of. Your bully pulpit is your writing.

RR: I think anybody who has read Empire Falls could intuit some of my own notions about globalization. But that’s what I do. I write Empire Falls; I don’t write books on globalization per se.

RB: This was wonderful. How long before we talk again?

RR: It’ll be a while. Until this next novel comes out, which I’m not very far into. And I suspect, knowing that it won’t be very long after I turn it in before I have to go on book tour, I may be holding it back for a while. (laughs)

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

pinit fg en rect gray 20 Richard Russo on <em>The Whores Child</em>
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