On April 26, I had the privilege to attend Pulitzer-winner Richard Russo’s presentation for WEST HARTFORD READS! – an annual reading initiative encouraging town residents to read the works of one notable author.
Like many of his characters, Russo came across as an amiable everyman, a product of a dying New York mill town of Gloversville, where he grew up and which served as the inspiration for his settings. He read an essay entitled, “The Boss in Bulgaria,” which will be published in a book of essays planned for this year.
The essay described his visit to Bulgaria for a writer’s conference. After his original flight was cancelled he pondered returning to his home in Maine. He changed his mind when he was told by a conference staffer that he was the star of the event. He eventually arrived at the conference and discovered the aspiring writers in the former Soviet bloc country, where freedom of speech was repressed, carried a burning hunger to learn all they could about writing. “What if you hadn’t been allowed a voice your entire life?” he said. “Do you go directly to the big subject–what life was like under a totalitarian regime?” Which begged the bigger question for new writers. “What if there’s no ‘you’ yet? What if your voice has yet to be invented?”
Returning to his room each night, Russo would hear singing coming from the courtyard below. First, it would be songs in the native language of the Bulgarian writers. As the night wore on, they would sing American rock and pop tunes. He recalled hearing that familiar chorus from an old Bon Jovi song, “We’re halfway there. Living on a prayer!”
Later, as a televised interview panel show with Russo was coming to a close, the house band struck up the Bruce Springsteen song, “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” A huge fan of Springsteen, Russo was touched by the thoughtfulness of the gesture. He concluded his presentation by saying writers must believe they are halfway there. Writers must believe they can catch that train, “the one that carries their hopes and literary dreams.”
During the question-and-answer session, Russo described how his writing process has evolved over the years. “As a younger writer, I would start each book with an unwarranted optimism that the story was going to work. I would begin with a decent handle on who the main character is and what is the problem he needed to solve. If I run into a problem, I figure I can fix it in the revision process. I used to have that belief to get to the end of the story as quickly as I could and then revise and revise until it worked. I never worried about awkward sentences.”
Now, he said, at the age of 67, Russo has become more of a “language oriented” writer. “Now I have this terror that, what if I get to the end and I can’t fix everything?…I’m so much more anxious as a writer now. I spend long hours revising earlier in the process than I ever did earlier in my career.”
Russo said he begins writing in the morning and writes for several hours each day, seven days a week. “If it sounds like drudgery, it is,” he said.
The author of eight novels, two collections of stories, and Elsewhere, a memoir, Russo’s latest work, Everybody’s Fool, was published in 2016. It is a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, which was adapted into a film. Russo co-wrote the 1998 film, Twilight, with the director Robert Benton, and in 2005 wrote Niall Johnson’s film, Keeping Mum, which stars Rowan Atkinson. In 2002, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Empire Falls, which, like Nobody’s Fool, was adapted to film.