Richard Russo is the author of Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man and his newest novel, Empire Falls. He has also written the introduction to the recently published Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates and contributed an essay to Terrell Lester’s photography book, Maine: The Seasons. Russo has taught at The University of Southern Illinois, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Colby College. In addition to writing fiction, Russo has created numerous screenplays, some of which have even been made into films (Nobody’s Fool, Twilight). Currently he is putting together a short story collection and, of course, working on his next novel. Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his family.
Robert Birnbaum: Empire Falls is dedicated to filmmaker Robert Benton. Why?
Richard Russo: My standard line is that he changed my life by making Nobody’s Fool and then getting me into screenwriting and I wanted him to know that there were no hard feelings. (both laugh)
RB: That’s very kind of you. (RR laughs) You could have dedicated it to Paul Newman for being on the cover of the paperback of Nobody’s Fool.
RR: That crossed my mind as well. Of course, Benton and I have worked together on another project. We worked on Twilight.
RB: A terrific film.
RR: Yeah well…I wasn’t a hundred percent sold on it. Of course, I knew what was on the cutting room floor, too. Some of my favorite stuff got cut out of that movie.
RB: Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman?
RR: And James Garner, who was so goddamned good in that movie. He was just wonderful in that. That last scene — I was not a complete fan of the movie — that last scene with Garner explaining things to Newman’s character, I thought was just terrific. Benton and I are trying to get another project off the ground right now, based on a Scott Phillips novel called The Ice Harvest.
RB: What happened to Straight Man? Can you say?
RR: You remember the movie The Princess Bride, one of my favorite movies. Do you remember the scene after Wesley has been tortured to death on the rack of pain? The giant and the swordsman take his body into Billy Crystal and they say to him, “What do you think? He’s dead.” And Billy Crystal says, “I’ve seen worse.” (Both laugh) That’s what it is with Straight Man right now. It’s dead, but I’ve seen worse. (More laughter)
RB: Something a change in regime at whatever studio…
RR: I think it would take a change in regime in order to get it made. It was a Dreamworks project. There was terrific producer on it, Mark Johnson. And he and his people loved it. I did — god knows how many drafts of it — the final draft (or the next to the final draft) that I did, they loved. They went out and hired a director. We made some cosmetic revisions and took it to the studio and they said we don’t really want to make this movie. And they made Galaxy Quest instead. Which was probably smart, Galaxy Quest probably made more money than this movie would have.
RB: Is it a problem to do film work and write fiction?
RR: It’s the exact opposite of what I imagined would happen. What I imagined and what people warned me about — I was warned by other novelists — “Well, if you start doing that kind of work and you like it and it’s easy, your skills as a novelist are going to atrophy as a result of working in an inferior art form. You’ll find that when you come back it will be tough to do. You’ll find that after awhile that writing movie scripts is all you are fit for.” That struck me as quite possibly true. (laughs)
RB: Maybe it was true for the people that told you that.
RR: And maybe it was. I did three screenplays when I was writing Empire Falls, which I think is really some of my best work.
RB: Because it felt good to write it?
RR: It felt horrible to write it. It was a very painful book to write. But to get back to the screenplay thing, I would interrupt the book — usually at a time that was good — I was at a place where I could break and then go off for six weeks and write a screenplay — but I would go off and do that and when I came back to the novel, it was like I had gone someplace with a hammer and nails and built something over there and then got back and discovered my entire tool box. Going back to the novel, so much more was required. And that’s part of what people were warning me about. That if you do this other thing that is easy, it’s hard to go from an easier task to a more complex task. Actually, if you can do both, going back to the complex task is like breathing pure oxygen. It was a wonderful high to come back to it and still find it there and find the characters compelling. Which is not to say that screenwriting is easy. A lot of them don’t even get made and others get compromised. But, it’s…
RB: Not writing a novel…
RR: …it’s not writing a novel.
RB: You are writing a sketch for what someone else is going to do.
RR: I’m one craftsman involved in a project that ultimately is not going to be mine in any real sense at all.
RB: Is the most challenging part of screenwriting writing dialogue? And that usually gets transformed…
RR: Yeah. One of the reasons I have gotten into writing screenplays — one of the reasons it’s a natural — is that dialogue is my strong suit as a writer anyway — so making that bridge is pretty easy.
RB: I want to get back to the painfulness in writing this book that you mentioned, but let’s talk about Richard Yates first. What I know of Yates and what I got from your introduction to his Collected Stories got me to thinking about a seeming paradox of a writer appreciating a writer or being a fan of a writer, and even when that writer does not write like the person he admires. In this case that’s you and Richard Yates. There is no rule that you should write like people you admire, but still Yates, like Robert Stone, shows people in trouble who don’t get out of trouble. Also not your way.
RR: The thing that I would say about literature in general, the thing that I love most about it, is that when I’m in the world of a gifted writer I’m able to see that world through that writer’s eyes, not my own. I do love the work of a lot of people who are very different from me. I love Alice Munro’s work. Here’s somebody who can write one end of what turns out to be a twenty five or thirty page story in The New Yorker, sometimes without a single scene in it, with virtually no dialogue, in this gorgeous prose, pretty language. That in its astonishing grace — is just about as far away from the rhythms of the prose that I write, imaginable. Yet, when I’m in her world, I’m in her world. And the same way with Yates. What everybody says about Yates is that — I am such a cautiously but definitely congenitally hopeful person. My characters don’t so much get out of trouble as learn how to live with it — but Yates’ characters don’t even get that far. Yates’ characters go from bad trouble to worse trouble and end up in heartbreak the way moths go to flames. In very few of his stories is he ever able to achieve the kind of marginal hope that I arrive at in just about everything I write. So it is strange in that way.
But his work is so honest and his vision is so clear, so clear-eyed, that when I’m reading a Richard Yates story, I’ll go back to work on something of my own at the desk and I’m suddenly a different person. I see the world differently, and the story that comes out of me is not going be influenced in that sense by Yates, but while I’m there with him, his vision for that period of time is my vision, and it’s that way with most really good writers. The only time I object to another writer who sees the world differently than I see it is when, for one reason or another, it seems to me that what that writer is saying either isn’t true or that the writer doesn’t really believe it. That it’s a pose or something like that. When I sense that happening I’m gone. But somebody like Yates or somebody like Alice Munro…
RB: Both writers who are referred to — you alluded to this about Yates — as writers’ writers. What happens to such writers? Does Alice Munro sell books?
RR: We can look it up right now on Amazon.com. It’s one of the things that we can do now that we never used to be able to do before, is find out how many books these people sell…(laughs)
RB: No, no, no. I don’t believe that. I don’t know that serious readers use Amazon.
RR: No, that may be true but we can also…if we were in any end of the book business now…that’s the reason a lot of mid-career writers are having so much trouble right now publishing books — is that record of their sales is now pretty much public knowledge. They deliver a new book and somebody looks up the last three or four and crunches the numbers and they decide that this person is not making us a lot of money. So a writer’s writer like Alice Munro. I really don’t know. I think of her as selling millions because she’s so good. (laughs) How could everybody not love Alice Munro?
RB: I’m sure both of us place a high value on people who are writers…
RR: Yeah, yeah.
RB: Well, do you think that is a prevailing point of view in the world?
RR: Oh I think not. (laughs)
RB: How could that not be?
RR: Yeah, yeah and in much the same way, much the same principle is in effect in the movies. Think about Straight Man not getting made and Galaxy Quest getting made. One of the factors that may have had something to do with that was, that they may have looked across town and seen Wonder Boys was a month ahead of us in terms of production. And said to themselves, “Is there any great compelling need for two academic satires movies coming out within the same year?” Or may have been thinking just as logically, is there any need for one? Because in fact Wonder Boys, wonderful movie that was, people stayed away in droves.
RB: The soundtrack probably grossed more money…
RR: Yeah, so you have a wonderful writer like Yates who gets praised to the skies, who gets short-listed and wins major awards and is out print a decade after his death. What I’m trying to track in my mind is to what extent that happens to certain writer’s writers or is that a rule of thumb for writer’s writers?
RB: Probably that’s how we define them in part because they go out of print, only writers talk about them, their legacy isn’t about a broad readership…
RR: I’m trying to think of an exception to that.
RB: I can’t think of another writer’s writer at the moment.
RR: I have to say that if someone were applying that terminology to me I would have serious misgivings. (laughs) That certainly tells us something.
RB: How similar are Robert Stone and Richard Yates?
RR: Interesting. I’m thinking of books like Dog Soldiers and Outerbridge Reach. Stone’s characters are of the same type — their sense of their being utterly alone in the world. They are lonely. They are terribly lonely people. But strangely enough Yates’ stories are very social. In the sense that we see the way their loneliness is defined is in their relationships with other people. So you have the characters in “A Really Good Jazz Piano,” one of those typical Yates symbiotic relationship, where there’s the good-looking glib easy talking Carson who has his overweight buddy to go with him. And when they meet girls on the beach it’s just assumed that Carson will get the pretty one and the other guy gets the one who is always taking second best, all of her life.
To read Yates is to read these stories of these symbiotic relationships that are an expression of loneliness and the you watch as these people that have so little, just this one friend or something like that, and you see that ripped away. A lot of the alienation in Stone’s books comes directly out of something that’s going on in these characters’ souls. You see the guy in Outerbridge Reach whose alienation is not going to be dramatized by scenes with his wife. Rather he’s going to get in the boat and go off and he’s going to be alone. And you see that soldier in Dog Soldiers, that final trek that he makes alone…you have this great sense of these ancient mariner type characters whose relationship to the world is to grab somebody by the shoulders and say, “Listen to my tale!” (laughs) It’s a little bit different, too. Loneliness and alienation is certainly a central theme to both.
RB: I was thinking of Stone’s short story collection, The Bear and Other Stories. Almost all of them were bad situations getting worse…
RR: And the great one, the one about the alcoholic, Winter, where he keeps hearing the dogs out in the forest. You know these are not real dogs or they are but…
RB: …but they are not out there. Why was Empire Falls hard for you?
RR: This one was particularly hard to write because my daughters were both in high school when I started writing it. And it was, for me, right from the start, a kind of a night sweat of a book. It’s probably politically incorrect to say but it always seemed to me if you have sons you are spending a lot of time worrying what they are going to do. Will they get drunk and wreck the car? Will they do this, will they do that? If you have daughters you are afraid of what will be done to them. A lot of this book concentrates a lot of my fears as a father of daughters. Tick, who is my favorite character in the book, was formed in part because my younger daughter, Kate — when I was writing this and I knew that sections of it were going to take place in high school and all of that — she was really good. She would, every night at dinner, tell me what had gone on at high school. Not the kind of stories you necessarily tell your dad. Both of my daughters really, but Kate in particular, got mixed up in both the creative process and in my own head with the character of Tick that I knew I was going to have to take to a nightmare place. That’s why it was so hard to do.
RB: You acknowledged their contribution and go on to say how horrible high school can be and that life couldn’t get worse.
RR: I think that for those for whom it was bad there probably is nothing quite as bad. They are never going to feel…kids that age haven’t completely built up their defenses against life’s pain. They are more vulnerable and hurt more deeply and the wounds take so much longer to heal, if they ever heal. When violence erupts in schools or in people’s towns, people ask themselves, “How could such a thing happen in our community? What are the causes of such things?” I just want to say just go rent a movie called Welcome to The Dollhouse and watch and you’ll never ask that question again. It has in it everything you need to know about why such things happen.
RB: There is a conventional wisdom that is often touted that children are ‘resilient’? What is the evidence for that?
RR: The fact that we are still around at age sixty or whatever, I guess. Actually, kids are pretty resilient but they are so fragile. As they get older you realize that whatever it is that they are crying about is the tip of an iceberg that you are never gonna know, you’re never gonna understand. This is what they are able to put into words to you, but the real wound is somewhere deeper and something that in some cases you would really like to get at, that’s Miles’ [protagonist of Empire Falls] situation in this book. He’s got a kid that’s telling him that everything is okay. Everything is not okay. But there is no way for him to get there.
RB: In terms of viewing our ‘resilience’ as we get older, I believe that we are as frail as children…
RR: Resilience in the sense that it doesn’t completely kill us. We’re still ambulatory, we’re still putting up a good front. And we fool most of the people most of the time. That’s a kind of limited resilience isn’t it (bursts out laughing)…
RB: Inertia, entropy? You are basically a Northeasterner but have lived in southern Illinois…
RR: I was in Arizona for all of my education, between ’67 and ’79. And then lived in Pennsylvania and Connecticut and then in southern Illinois. And then up to Maine.
RB: I was thinking fictionally…
RR: Yeah, my fictional journey has been from New York, a couple of different places and then down to central Pennsylvania and then up to Maine.
RB: Central Pennsylvania was the setting for Straight Man.
RB: You’ve been living in Maine for the last ten years and teaching at Colby College until four years ago when you were liberated.
RR: When Paul Newman liberated me.
RB: Would the way you have populated your fiction been different had you continued to live in Illinois or Arizona? Does the Northeast provide you with something?
RR: I think that living in the Northeast is just better for me personally. I just like it better. I feel like understand my world better when I’m here. But interestingly…the logical extension of being close to something as we write about it would be…for instance, when I was writing those upstate New York books, I was not living there. But visiting, going back and spending some time in my hometown. If you think about it in those terms, should have been helpful. Actually, it’s not. I find that going back visiting — and I do from time to time because I have relatives there and loved ones — so I do go back. I find that those visits don’t give me anything that I can use fictionally. More than any thing else they tend to irritate some authorial membrane because I’ve told so many lies about these places now that when I go back the places themselves that the towns are based on don’t conform. (laughs) I find myself irritated by the fact that somehow these lies that I have told about them haven’t manifested themselves in some physical reality.
RB: Why do you call them lies?
RR: Well, they’re truths of a sort, I suppose but I’m just changing things.
RB: They are fictions.
RR: All right…(both laugh) lies.
RB: Are you just agreeing with me to be agreeable? Is it really the case that people in Maine call people from Massachusetts “massholes”? I’ve never heard that before. Of course, I haven’t been to Maine much.
RR: Well, come on up you’ll hear it…if you keep your ears open. Yeah, you will hear that from time to time.
RB: Any other cute names for people from New Hampshire or New York?
RR: I think it’s pretty much Massachusetts.
RB: So even if you are from New York City or whatever if they don’t like you you are a masshole?
RR: (both laugh) It maybe…
RR: In the upper Michigan peninsula you’ll see signs, “FIBS go home.” A FIB is Fucking Illinois Bastard. There’s something in Wisconsin…
RB: This is in the great American tradition of biting the hand that feeds you.
RR: Exactly. You see it in Maine, of course, the farther inland you get is where you see this resentment…
RB: Because the economy is in greater disarray?
RR: Money from Massachusetts and elsewhere has stuck closer to the coast. I know at Colby where I used to teach…along the coast of Maine, where live in Camden there is MBNA a credit card company that has come in and in towns all up and down the coast, Rockland, Belfast, they’ve gone in and created lots of jobs and revitalized some of those coastal towns. There is a good deal of resentment against them, too. Because they come in and they are throwing money around and changing the town.
RB: The Wal-Mart phenomenon?
RR: Well, except that this is well up market of Wal-Mart. You go inland about thirty miles and you have the same sort of towns that need the same sort of rescuing…when the former president of Colby College was trying to get the fellow who was doing all this MBNA work along the coast to take a similar interest in Waterville — a nice little college town, a former mill town — but people aren’t interested. When investment comes up to Maine it sticks right along the coast or Sugarloaf. So there is a kind of built up resentment of this money once you get twenty miles inland because: number one, it exists and it never seems to stray very far from the water.
RB: You see the same thing in the Caribbean, especially in the British Caribbean…I remember Jamaica Kincaid…
RR: Oh yeah, her book A Small Island just eviscerates that whole colonialism…that’s what it is, too. That’s why it’s massholes, because Maine is a colony. (laughs) It’s a god damned colony of Massachusetts and it was part of Massachusetts!
RB: When I talked to writer Van Reid [a life-long Mainer] I was surprised to learn how progressive Maine had been and how vital and vibrant it had been and now it’s a vacation home for the wealthy. This is, of course, a bigger problem. Around the country you have small towns dependent on one industry or business. What happens to the people when they leave or go out of business? You get an Empire Falls…
RR: Empire Falls is what happens. Mohawk is what happens. It’s funny, too, because if you talk to somebody as I have been — I’ve been on the West Coast before coming back here — I was talking to another interviewer the other day who was saying, “I understand what these books are about and I visit back there and I see it but it’s really foreign to somebody from California.” Or pretty much anywhere in the West because what’s happening to small towns in California is that they’re just growing by leaps and bounds. In the not too distant future every place in California is going to be a bedroom community of Los Angeles or San Francisco. All these little towns are just becoming part of a larger organism, and when you are on the West Coast, really from Phoenix or Vegas westward, all the way to the coast, you see this phenomenon of the organism just multiplying out of control like something in a sci-fi movie. Then you get to the Rust Belt in New England and you see where all those people are coming from.
RB: Will a map of population distribution of the USA in 2050 show everyone living in California, Florida, or Arizona?
RR: The thing that’s so tragic for a lot of these people is that change is taking place even in places like Empire Falls. At the end of this book the church has been converted to condominiums, a brew pub in the old mill and you do have a credit card company or something that’s come in a taken over part of the town. And other things, in Empire Falls I’m sure there will be a Gap, and there will be a Starbucks. There will be all of those things and the problem is that for these particular people, having spent their lives in one way, most of them are not going to have the skills to do what the new economy of Empire Falls is going to call for.
RB: Are they going to have the money?
RR: And they are not going to be able to afford to live in their own houses. The problem in the beginning of the book, in Empire Falls, is that nobody can sell a house because nobody wants to live there. Right? And there are too many houses on the market. But once the brew pub gets up and going and once a certain number of people are employed doing phone solicitation, once the Starbucks opens up, those same houses that you couldn’t sell at any price are going to be unaffordable to the kinds of people that have lived their lives in the shirt factory or textile mill.
RB: You read stories about Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard, The Hamptons, where working people can’t afford to live.
RR: It’s the same way with lobstermen along the coast of Maine. The people who need to be on the water have to move farther and farther inland because property taxes make it virtually impossible for them to live. There’s one peninsula not far from where we live in Camden — the St George’s peninsula, where Tenant’s Harbor is — and there are still a lot of lobster fishermen (you know Maine is all peninsulas, jutting out into the Atlantic) a lot of the peninsulas are absolutely unaffordable except to the very rich. This one peninsula will be that way before long. For now, there are still a lot of the real Maine lobstermen who have been doing this work for many generations. You wonder how much longer it will be before these people who make their living at the sea won’t be able to afford to live on or near the sea.
RB: Is Maine your home for the rest of your life?
RR: I’m not sure — I love it there. One of the things I love about Maine is that it seems to be so far outside the culture. I don’t whether it’s because we are a little bit behind up there or whatever. Popular culture, whether it’s in the form of music or TV videos or the obsession with celebrity or whatever it is that infects the larger organism, doesn’t seem to be as deeply rooted in Maine. In Maine there is still very much a community affect — people care about their neighbors, for the most part. People who lock their houses, in most of Maine, do so only because they watch television. Either that or they have lived someplace else. If they’ve lived someplace else they are still doing it out of habit. If they have lived all their lives in Maine, they nevertheless being watching television and know from the television what a violent horrible world it is. For that reason they are locking their doors, but there is no real reason to. People look after each other. A few years ago we had that horrible ice storm up there, I was never gladder to live in Maine than during that horrible storm because you would just walk outside and people who had the worst problems — your neighbors were all over there helping. When our street got power back we were scavenging in the neighborhoods for power cords so that we could run cords out of our house up over the fence into the next street so that people could have enough power on the next street to at least take showers. Maine is still a lot like that. People are courteous to each other, they care about each other. The kind of epic incivility that seems to be running rampant in a lot of the country now…life is slower, people don’t get as annoyed with each other.
RB: In the essay you wrote for Terrell Lester’s photo book, Maine: The Seasons you talked about worry and competence…
RR: “Worry is not competence, but we make do with the former since the latter may reside only in our imaginations — or in summer, when it’s really not needed.” In fall you worry about the winter and you do the kinds of things that help you believe that perhaps you are a competent man.
RB: You never quite get all the wood or cover all the contingencies…
RR: Or what you have is probably not what will be called for this particular winter.
RB: How did your contribution of an essay to that book come about?
RR: I did not know the photographer. I was sent some photographs by Paul Bogardz from Knopf. He contacted me, asking if I would be willing to do it. I said that I really shouldn’t because I’ve only been living there for ten years and as far as everybody in Maine is concerned I’m from away. You should look for somebody else.
RB: Richard Ford? Ann Beattie?
RR: That’s it, I asked who was writing the other essays? Bogey said, “Richard Ford, Anne Beattie and Elizabeth Strout.” And I said, “Hell, I’m as much a Mainer as they are.” He asked me if I had any ideas and once I got thinking about my grandfather we were off to the races.
RB: Let’s talk about Empire Falls. Were you tempted to make the prologue of the book where you give the family history of the Whitings, the family that has controlled area around Empire Falls, longer? Did you say everything you wanted to say about them?
RR: Yeah, pretty much. That came late, the beginning of the book for most of the first draft was the first chapter. When it finally became clear to me just how large the canvas was going to be — the first back story scene in the novel was the trip Miles and his mother make to Martha’s Vineyard — and then I realized I left them in a place that I couldn’t really leave them. I had to take them farther up than that. Then it suddenly dawned on me, “You know, this is a significant portion of the book, we have to find a structural device for it, we’ll put it all in italics. We’ll just expand that story and break it up to place in various parts of the novel.” Of all the back story parts that are in italics, that CB Whiting and the moose one was one of the later ones. Though it’s the first thing in the book, it’s not the first thing…
RB: I thought the story of the trip Miles and his mother make to Martha’s Vineyard could stand alone.
RR: That’s possible, it is rather self-contained.
RB: When you do readings from Empire Falls what do you read?
RR: I have four or five sections of the book that I read. I generally choose what I’m going to read that night according the kind of time frame, wherever I am, whatever they want. I’ll just say, “How long a reading are you thinking about?” I have a couple in each length so that I’m just not doing the same thing every night.
RB: Do you have any sense of who your audience is?
RR: The nice thing is that with each book there are more of them. Whoever the hell they are, there are more of them.
RB: Your new book has a large printing.
RR: So there’s that! I remember my first book tour very well. I remember reading in Chicago at Barbara’s Bookstore, it may have been my first stop, to the staff of the store.
RB: They probably treasure that moment now…
RR: Yes, (laughs) if they remember it and I’m sure they do…but there are more of them now. I am always a little bit surprised at the demographic of my readers. I had assumed, very naively of course, when I first started writing, that the people I was writing about and to my own way of thinking the people I was writing for, would be the people who would be reading my novels. It turns out nothing could be further from the truth. I thought that they might be small town people because I was writing about small towns. I thought that they might be working people because I was writing about working people. A lot of my characters don’t have an awful lot of education. It turns out my reading public has always been densely city, very much higher level of education than I would have imagined and most of them are not working people at all. They’re in education, the professions…looking back at it now I’m not sure why that surprised me so much. But I was very naive about it, in thinking that the people I was writing about would appreciate it. Whereas I’ve come to realize, of course, that people who live the kind of lives that I write about want escape from those lives. They don’t want to dwell imaginatively in the lives that they are living. They want their books to be set on Capri. And why the hell not! I think my readers are pretty much the same as they’ve been all along. Just more of them.
RB: Are you tempted to do what William Kennedy or William Faulkner have done, which is to create and populate a fictional locale that you continue to write about?
RR: Interesting question. I remember when I had written The Risk Pool, I had in mind after that, two books. One of which was the book that became Nobody’s Fool. The other was the book that became Straight Man. I had written fifty pages of one and seventy five pages of the other. And I sent them to my agent. Of the Nobody’s Fool book I said, “I have some misgivings about this. Having written two novels set in upstate New York, now I have another upstate New York novel. Another small town novel. Sully has a fair amount in common with Sam Hall. Are people going to think I’m in some sort of rut here, that I’m coming up against the borders of my imagination and talent and all of that?” My agent said, “No, this is the book, the Nobody’s Fool book, that you should write first. If you are developing a style, people will want to recognize a Richard Russo novel in the same way that you feel comforted by picking up any Dickens novel and knowing that you are in the world of Dickens. Broadening your territory and setting your books in different places, you can do that if you want but you have to remember that you are working on a career in which certain things are going to be recognizably yours. Your world, your style and you shouldn’t worry too much about that.” Your question is kind of the reverse of that. You are saying, “What if, by branching out — this book is in Maine, the other was in Pennsylvania…what Kennedy does and what Faulkner did was to go well beyond the historical thing that I’ve done in this book by creating a historical context for the story to take place in. That makes it a much less personal book than The Risk Pool, for instance. What Kennedy does is not to create history so much as myth. He is creating a whole mythos. What I’m doing and what people have noticed about this book, they’ve said “All right, yeah, it’s set in Maine but only because you call it Maine. This town isn’t really so different than your upstate New York town. Are you in essence writing upstate New York books?” My response is, “To the extent that I was ever writing upstate New York books.” Really, what I am writing about in all of these is, class and work. If Empire Falls has a lot in common with Mohawk and Bath and even strangely enough Railton [PA] Straight Man is a real departure in its tone and everything else and it’s in Pennsylvania, but Railton is another Russo town.
RB: This is quite minor, but you frequently note the makes of cars in parking lots to signal something about class: the Vineyard Haven chapel with its parking lot full of Mercedes and Lexus showing that people inside truly believe that god is in proper place in heaven…
RR: That’s right. Should I stop? (laughs) When I was teaching I would always tell students…they would want to write these stories, these novels and give me these very skeletal type things. I would say, “Go back, go back. See what’s there. See what’s there as clearly as you possibly can.” They’d say, “No, I’ll go back and fill that in later.” I would always say. “It’s not a matter of filling it in. What you see is not just an object, the objects in your fiction have to take you beyond that in to some sort of other realm…in the realm of pure meaning. You can’t go back and fill it in later. It’s a door that you have to open and walk through. The physicality of the world is a door that you will open and you walk through it and if you are not seeing it you are not going to get there. There is just no way to get there without seeing these things. Right from The Risk Pool, one of the ways we trace Sam Hall in that novel, is through his car. He starts out driving a great big gas guzzling old car. By the end, of the novel he’s driving a tiny little Subaru, the headlights of which don’t work. That’s not my interest in cars there.
RB: Russell Banks‘ recent novels have been set in the Northeast…
RR: We occupy a lot of the same geographic territory.
RB: But your points of view are quite different.
RR: Not a lot of laughs in Russell Banks’ books. He’s another writer, when I read him his vision seems as every bit as true as mine. I read through his eyes about a place that I know and would see entirely differently left to my own devices. But when I’m reading him I am not left to my own devices…
RB: Reading other fiction doesn’t impede your own writing. You can do movie work. You must be a well-adjusted person who knows what he can do.
RR: Oh Jesus, I wouldn’t go that far. I kind of know what I know. And I kind of know what I can do. I’d like to think that I don’t take myself so seriously that if I fail at something its going to…so what? I suppose adjusted in the sense of as Dirty Harry says, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” (laughs)
RB: You’re laughing, but it would seem to me lots of problems arise from people who don’t know what they don’t know.
RR: Yeah, and we recognize that in other people. All the time, “If there were any way to be honest with this person I would tell him exactly what his problem is.” And, of course, you can’t.
Copyright 2001, Robert Birnbaum. All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.