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Author Spotlight: Richard Russo

Mention author Richard Russo and what comes to mind is his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls, later adapted into an HBO movie. Empire Falls embodies the best traits of American fiction. It is the story of a divorced, middle-aged man and his quest for contentment in a rundown, blue-collar town in  Maine. In many ways it is the story of the impact of the decline of the manufacturing sector on the people who worked in the factories of the 20th Century.

The novel chronicles the slow decline of this New England mill town and the struggles of a rich and varied cast of characters, each one scheming in some way to reclaim a sense of personal glory and redemption.

One of Russo’s strengths as a writer is an eye for dark comedy. In an interview on the website www.failbetter.com Russo rejected the idea he is a comic writer. “I’m simply reporting on the world I observe, which is frequently hilarious. Here’s the thing. Most of what we witness in life is too complex to take in whole. Because of this we unconsciously edit what we see, select what to really record and what to ignore, which is why people who look at the same thing don’t necessarily see the same thing…Comic writers don’t so much invent funny things as strip away the distractions, the impediments to laughter.”

Speaking about Empire Falls, Russo observed, “I don’t think this book presented any ‘new’ challenges as a result of its scope. Think of it, rather, as a juggling act. The number of objects that have to be kept in the air at one time, along with the variety of their shapes and weights, is what determines the degree of difficulty.”

His newest work, Elsewhere,” is a memoir published in 2012. It focuses on his family’s struggles in caring for his mother over a long period of time.

Much of Russo’s work deals with the decline of small industrial towns and the sagging fortunes of the people left behind as they cope with the loss of dignity and purpose in life. The human suffering he writes about provides a wellspring for dark humor. In an interview on http://willowspring.ewu.edu , Russo said, “I think the best humor is related in some ways to suffering. Most of the time, if you think about them in adjacent rooms, the door adjoining suffering and humor is very often wide open, but as we get closer and closer to suffering, the doorway adjoining the rooms gets smaller and smaller and smaller, because you just can’t stand it otherwise. Or you just seem to be making bad jokes, or cruel jokes, at somebody’s expense. So it has something to do with distance, too.”

In the same interview, Russo was asked what kind of truth he is striving for in his fiction. “Well, when you reduce something it always comes out sounding…reduced. But I think it’s the truth of the human heart. It’s when Miles in Empire Falls after fighting with himself throughout his life, realizes that being a father, and a good father, to Tic, and being an adult in Empire Falls, is better than being a child, because his mother wanted him to have a different life, and he’s always in some way or other, because of her sacrifices, felt that he’s failed her and failed himself, and he’s tried to escape. That moment when he realizes, after almost losing Tic, that everything he wants is right there, that’s the truth of his heart…It’s the truth of his own experience in life.

“At the end of a book, I always want to meet  at a kind of crossroads where there’s an understanding,” he said.

Russo’s novels include Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, Bridge of Sighs, and That Old Cape Magic. He has also published short stories and is a screenwriter and teacher.

 

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Author Spotlight: Alice McDermott

In a 2006 review of Alice McDermott’s novel After This, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Ms. McDermott gives us an affecting meditation on the consolations and discontents of family life — the centripetal and centrifugal forces that bind husbands and wives, parents and children together and fling them ineluctably apart.”

That astute observation applies to all of her brilliant work. Alice McDermott is a master at the craft, an author who never wastes a single word. Her novels are not long (most are under 300 pages), but are packed with penetrating insights into family, loss of innocence, dreams and disillusion.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Alice McDermott is the author of six novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998), Child of My Heart: A Novel (2002) and After This (2006).

McDermott is best known for Charming Billy, winner of an American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1999. In an interview with National Public Radio, McDermott talked about the character, Billy, who is introduced to the reader at a dinner held in his honor after his funeral. “He died an alcoholic and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented,” she said. That dream centered on a girl from Ireland, who Billy fell deeply in love with and vowed to marry. His best friend told him a white lie about the girl when Billy asks what happened to her and why she failed to respond to his inquiries. The girl’s ghost haunts Billy all his life, even after he later finds out the harsh truth.

Speaking about Billy, McDermott said, “He’s that stereotypical lovable Irishman, drinks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everyone else has gone home and with tears in his eyes, tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death and no one can stop him.”

Charming Billy is “ultimately a novel about faith, and what we believe in and, above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about…They need to make something more of his life.”

Her stories are rooted in the Long Island suburbs where McDermott grew up as an Irish-Catholic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The themes of faith and loss run through McDermott’s work. Family members grow up yearning to break free, but them find themselves trapped by circumstances and loyalties, bound to a life they never envisioned. Billy is a dreamer who pines for his lost love in Ireland, while struggling to cope with his every-day existence.

There is a sense of duty and decency to her characters that, in spite of their flaws, evokes sympathy in the reader.

McDermott once described writing as an obsession. In a New York Times interview after That Night was published, she said, ”I suppose I don’t know any other way of living. Not even just making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers. But I just don’t know any other way of getting along in the world…When I’m not writing -and I have considered many times trying something else – I can’t make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and writing fiction is the only way I’ve found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I’ve made that much of an attempt.”

Alice McDermott’s novels make sense out of the frailties and mysteries of family life.

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