Q&A With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Richard Russo

The piece in the October 18 Westword about author and screenwriter Richard Russo, who visits the LoDo Tattered Cover on Monday, October 22, merely scrapes the surface of the interview on which it’s based. Enjoy the entire Q&A below.

Russo, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel Empire Falls, returns to the novel-writing game with Bridge of Sighs, a sprawling narrative that takes many of his quintessential themes in new, and darker, directions. The tale is set in the fictional small Northeastern community of Thomaston, whose economy had once been driven by a tannery that employed a sizable percentage of the local workforce even as it polluted the local waterway. In present day, with the tannery shuttered and the town in decline, Russo’s protagonist, Lou C. Lynch, looks back on his past even as he relucantly prepares for an impending trip to Venice with his wife and lifelong love, Sarah. Meanwhile, in Italy, Lou C.’s childhood friend, Bobby, who has become a well-known painter, contemplates his mortality as he, too, considers the ways in which the events of his youth molded his character, for better and for worse.

In the past, Russo has described himself as specializing in funny business, not its dour flipside. But as he acknowledges early on, Sighs is hardly a yukfest. During the conversation, which Russo peppers with frequent bursts of laughter, he discusses the sadness of the tale and the ways in which that quality is amplified by Lou C.’s incurable optimism; the challenges and satisfactions of creating a largely passive protagonist, and the difficulties of putting complicated characters on film; Russo’s disinterest in personally adapting his latest novel for either the small or large screen; the ways in which seemingly minor events can take on greater importance as the decades fall away; his strong feelings for a pair of recent films he helped shape, neither of which found an especially large audience; and the pressure he felt not to follow up his Pulitzer-winning benchmark with something lousy.

No danger of that:

Westword (Michael Roberts): You’ve often referred to yourself as essentially a comic novelist. But for me, the new book was so deeply melancholy that even the scenes that might have played as comedy in other context didn’t. Was that something you set out to do? To take the story in a different direction so that people could look at your fiction in a new light?

Richard Russo: No, I don’t think so. But of course you’re absolutely right in your observation. This is a deeply melancholy book, I think. And I’m not sure that I would label it as a tragedy, exactly. When I talk of myself as a comic writer, part of what I mean is in the sense of comedy versus tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. But in the more conventional way that we use that term, comedy, this is the first book of mine that’s probably tipped over into, if not tragedy, then into a deep and abiding sadness, certainly. I’m not sure that’s something I intended to do. It’s just where this material took me. The Bridge of Sighs, I think I knew if not consciously, then subconsciously fairly early on, that it was going to end up symbolizing sadness, or more than sadness. Despair. So there’s no way to turn that into comic material.

WW: You anticipated my next question, which was, “Is this something you set out to do?” But it seems to have developed along the way.

RR: Yes, very much so.

WW: For me, the sadness was only magnified because your protagonist, Lou C., is such an optimist. He’s described at one point as an innocent, as well. Yet he doesn’t seem to have that much to be optimistic about, and there are plenty of opportunities for him to lose that innocence. How in your view does he maintain those qualities despite all that happens to him?

RR: I think it’s largely attributable to the depth of his love for his father, who was even a greater optimist than Lou C. is. I think Big Lou is the quintessential American optimist, and that point of view, that very literal application of the American dream – that the American dream is essentially a happy story, a hopeful story, and if you’re honest and hard-working, only good things will happen to you – Big Lou believes that in a kind of literal way. And I think Lou C. throughout his life, because he adores his father, he tries to be as literally optimistic as his father is, and I think that’s probably responsible. His devotion to the man makes him devoted to the ideology as well.

WW: There’s always a danger of assuming that a character in a novel symbolizes something greater. And in this case, it would be tempting to suggest that Big Lou and Lou C. symbolize the ways America once looked at itself, and that at one point, Big Lou’s optimism was well placed, but as time has gone on, it’s been diminished by circumstances. Is that something you were thinking about?

RR: Oh, absolutely. Sure, sure. I think that my parents’ generation, when my father and his friends and the men who were lucky enough to come back from the Second World War – for those who made it, the world looked great. There was considerable optimism even in the town I grew up in, even though I think everybody knew that it was past its prime. The town I grew up in was a mill town and it was already on the downward slope. But there was such an enormous sense of optimism after the war. It was economic optimism, it was optimism about the nation as a whole – that the experiment in Democracy was working better than anybody could have imagined. There was a sense, certainly among the Irish and the Italians and the other immigrants, at least where I grew up, that they had moved up in the world. Lou C. and Bobby are children of that optimism.

WW: And yet we’re in a period when, if someone displays that level of optimism, the majority of us might look askance at them, as if they’re delusional in that way.

RR: Well, a lot has happened (laughs). I think we would look at them like that with some justification. A lot of the optimism that I associate with my parents’ generation has been outsourced along with the work they used to do. So yeah, you would look at somebody who had that sort of literal interpretation of the American dream… these days, you would look at them as delusional. We could talk about all the ways that optimism has been compromised in the past thirty or forty years, but I think we all know what we’re talking about

WW: Writers generally find passive characters more difficult to write than ones who instinctively take action in any situation they find themselves. Was that the case for you with Lou C.? Or did his character help those scenes write themselves in a sense?

RR: I run across this passive character dilemma all the time because not only do I write novels, but I also write screenplays, and there’s nothing that producers hate more in a screenplay than a passive character. As soon as you make someone complex, they say, “He needs to act more! We need to be able to root for him!” (laughs).

WW: That calls to mind Pauline Kael’s description of movies as mainly being kiss-kiss-bang-bang.

RR: Yeah (laughs). One of the nice things about writing a novel is that you don’t have a producer looking over your shoulder at all times (laughs). So I kind of got into Lou C., although most of the drama in this book is driven by the women on the one hand. And Bobby, of course, once you shift over to his point of view, he’s more of a do-er and less of an introvert. Lou C., he thinks about things. He mulls things. His national state, well, if it’s not inertia, it’s close. When the book opens up, he’s sixty, and a very, very introspective man. Not so much wanting to do or even go. When this book starts, he’s contemplating a trip to Venice, which he just dreads. Not only doesn’t he want to do it, he doesn’t want to go. So at this point in his life, he’s more in the mode of remembering those times in his life when things were still happening – when he was doing things and things were being done to him. He wants to know what all of that adds up to. But no, it’s true that he’s a very passive character. And to go back to your question, I don’t think it was that hard. Once I knew who he was, it seemed like the natural thing. So it wasn’t more problematic to write than it was to write Bobby or Sarah.

WW: If I remember correctly, I read somewhere that you didn’t have a lot of interest in adapting this book to the screen.

RR: That’s true.

WW: Was your reason in part because you could imagine those conversations with producers saying, “Come on! He’s got to punch somebody in this scene!”

RR: That’s right! (Laughs). There would be that. But my experience with Empire Falls which is really more to the point: I loved the novel and I loved the work that was done on the HBO miniseries. But that was, between novel and the screenplay, and I was really involved in that straight through to post-production, and when I look back on it, I realize, “My God, that was a decade of my life devoted to one story.” And I think, especially in this case, this is a book that took me over six years in the writing. And knowing it as I do, and knowing how the story is put together, and knowing how I’d have to take it apart and put it back together for something like a miniseries, I just don’t have the energy. I’d love for someone with fresh eyes come in and look at it, and I’ll go off and do something else. I’ll go adapt somebody else’s book into a movie.

WW: And I assume you’ve got more stories of your own that you’d like to tell in the decade it might take to bring this to the screen.

RR: That’s right. I’m working on a screenplay now, but after the first of the year, I want to start a new book. And I don’t want to spend the next four or five or maybe more years doing what probably would be a more difficult task for me than for any other screenwriter.

WW: You mentioned that you grew up in a mill town. And in the case of Thomaston, the town in the book, it’s literally poisoning itself. Yet Lou C. is a booster of this town. Should there be more Lou C.s in small towns like Thomaston, and the one where you grew up? Or is Lou C. not really seeing the whole picture?

RR: The poisoning that you speak of is both literal and metaphorical. The tannery has been dumping dyes into the river. But as the citizens of Thomaston make very clear, they worried more – when Lou C. was growing up, they worried more when the water ran clear than when it ran read, because that meant there were no jobs. And Noonan, later, when he’s talking about his own illness, and discovers when he goes to New York that part of his problem may be that he’s got some nerve damage as a result of the cadmium that’s in some of the paints that he uses… as a result of that, he says, “We die of what we love.” So the question of poisoning and self-poisoning and of polluted water both in Venice and in the stream that runs through Thomaston, it takes on, I think, by the end of the book, a metaphorical quality. Among other things, we ask, “Who’s poisoning us? Did other people poison us? Are we poisoning ourselves? Are we complicit in our own poisoning? Or is this just what life does?”

WW: And if it’s the last conclusion, that certainly adds to the melancholy cast we spoke of earlier.

RR: It sure does. It would be so nice, wouldn’t it, if it could be clear cut. This is a book that does that right from the very start. We see three characters who are wondering what ails them. Noonan is wondering what’s the cause of his night terrors and his inexplicable grief. Lou C. has been wondering what’s the cause of his spells, even from the time when he was a kid. And Sarah’s had a kind of strange experience, really, when she goes back to the apartment house that her mother lives in. And all of these characters are wondering, “What ails me?” And it would be so nice, it would be so clear cut, it would be so wonderful to just blame other people – to say, “This happened because these boys put Lou C. in a trunk,” or “This is because of the dyes that were in the river,” or “This is because the polluted canals in Venice are getting to Noonan.” If you can blame somebody else, wouldn’t it be nice? If we could say it’s somebody else and not because of something within ourselves.

WW: You spend a great deal of time with these characters in their youth, and while some of the incidents that take place are very big, like the trunk incident you just mentioned, there are also other smaller humiliations along the way – the kind of things that a lot of us who grew up in small towns try to put out of our mind when we move on. But you seem to be telling us that everything that happened to us, even if they don’t appear to be big things, have weight. Is that one of the messages this book sends? That everything we do and is done to us leaves a mark?

RR: Absolutely. The first day of kindergarten, Lou C. gets his nickname, and it’s with him for the rest of his life. How fair is that? (Laughs.) But I think early events in our lives, even if they may not seem like big events through the other end of the telescope – they may look miniscule. But when they’re happening, they do have weight, and they do stick with us, just like Lou C.’s nickname sticks with him. I always think that early stuff is the hard-wiring of our lives. We manipulate within the frame of a lot of those early incidents in the first fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of our lives. We spend the rest of our lives trying to reprogram the software. But the hardware, a lot of the hardware is in the womb, is in early childhood experience and adolescence. Noonan is, at age sixty, painting a portrait of the father he beat the crap out of at eighteen years old. And I don’t think he even realizes all of that rage that’s still in him as a result of the humiliations he suffered at the hands of his father when he was a kid.

WW: Given the overall tone of the book, I was expecting a very downbeat ending. And yet it concludes on what felt to me like a very hopeful note. After going through all the struggles of the book, did that feel right to you as an author as well as feeling right for the story?

RR: Yeah, it felt right for the story. I felt that these people have all learned, if not a happy ending, but they’ve all struggled in what seems to me to be good faith. Even Noonan, his struggle with that painting and the redemption that comes from his painting of Sarah: I think all of these people have struggled really valiantly with the past and with themselves, and while I don’t have either Lou C.’s or his father’s great, buoyant optimism, I am myself a cautious optimist. I’m probably more in Lou C.’s camp than I am in Noonan’s in that respect. I think the optimism of this novel, cautious though it is, is hard won, and I think these characters deserved it. They earned it, and far be it for me to take it away from them. I think they struggled valiantly.

WW: You mentioned that in addition to being a novelist, you’re also a screenwriter, and one of the films on which you worked not too long ago was The Ice Harvest

RR: Yeah.

WW: I found that film to be very enjoyable, and yet it did almost no business at all. Is it frustrating to work so long and so hard on a project like that, and then it finally gets made, which in itself is an accomplishment in Hollywood, and then it doesn’t find the audience it deserves.

RR: Yeah, and I made another one after that – one I worked on with a British producer and director, called Keeping Mum. And it was just a delicious, wicked little movie. It was released, if you can call it that, here in the United States, and played only in a few cities. And those two pictures – I love every frame of both of those movies. But, you know, I would put it in perspective. I have a lot of friends who are poets, and if you want to talk about people doing good work for whom there is absolutely no audience, you only have to look at the poets of the world. They say over and over again that a big printing in poetry is 2,000 volumes. So when a movie like The Ice Harvest, which now that it’s come out on DVD has kind of become a cult movie – people are coming to it saying exactly what you said: “Why didn’t anybody see this?” (Laughs.) “Why didn’t we all go to the theater,” which is even more frustrating! (Laughs.) People come up to me and say, “What the hell happened? You made this movie, and it was funny and it was dark and it was great. I saw it on HBO the other night.” And then they look at me and say, “Why didn’t I go see that?” (Laughs.) As if it were somehow my fault! (Laughs.)

WW: You’ve got enough on your plate already without having to worry about how to market the thing.

RR: That’s right! (Laughs.)

WW: In terms of the screenplay-versus-novel question, you get a lot of financial compensation for screenwriting: In general, it’s more lucrative than novel-writing. But in some ways, is the pleasure you get on a pure writing basis from novels greater than it is for screenplays?

RR: You know, I love them both and I see in the future that I will continue to do both. You’re right: Screenwriting is lucrative. But the kind of screenwriting I do isn’t lucrative in the way that writing studio movies is lucrative. But the studios are doing so little work that’s of interest to me that I end up doing work like The Ice Harvest and Keeping Mum and a couple of other projects that I’m working on right now. I end up, usually, doing them on spec, and I do end up being paid for them eventually, when they sell. But usually they’re going to production companies or minor studios like Focus Features or Fox Searchlight or independent producers. They’re not big budget deals like Spiderman movies or anything like that. The spread between what a good novel will do and what a movie like that will do, it’s not that much different. I like them both. Writing screenplays is a little like cheating, because they’re mostly dialogue, and that’s what I do most naturally anyway. For me, it’s like being asked not to do all the things that I have to spend a lot of time and thought on. I’m not a naturally beautiful sentence writer. To get my prose to be as graceful as I want it, I have to work long and hard on passages and descriptions. And this book in particular, because Lou C. is so introspective, spending a lot of that time in his mind: Those are things that slow me down and I have to work really hard at. And then I go and write a screenplay and it’s just people talking to each other and doing things. And that’s cheating for me. I can do that easily, at least compared to novel writing. But then I finish the screenplay and get back to work on the novel and I think, “Wow, this is so much more expansive.” I have so many more possibilities. I can open up my toolbox and use everything in there, instead of just the hammer and the wrench.

WW: You noted that you spent six years writing this book, and a lot of people have speculated that it had something to do with the Pulitzer Prize and the expectations that come along with it. But it sounds like at least as much if not more of the reason for that were the factors you just mentioned.

RR: Yeah. I think the harder the book is, the bigger its scope, the more ambitions of the story itself: This is my widest canvas, certainly. So I think it was the nature of the project itself that was mostly responsible. But I will say, the Pulitzer, wonderful as it was, did make me very careful, because I wanted this book to be my absolute best work. I didn’t want the Pulitzer to look like a fluke, or that the judges were deranged by coming out with a crappy book after that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts