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Richard Russo chosen for One City, One Story

The Boston Book Festival organizers announced today that they've chosen Richard Russo's story, "The Whore's Child," for Boston's second-annual "One City, One Story" program.

Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Empire Falls. He has written a number of other hilarious, touching novels, as well as one collection of short stores, The Whore's Child, from whence the titular story comes.  Russo and his wife divide their time between Boston and Maine. I spoke with him at his home in Maine on Monday.

How does it feel to have your story selected?

It's wonderful. It's thrilling. It gives the entirely mistaken impression that I'm a good short story writer.

I'm very proud of that story, but I'm a novelist by temperament. Essentially, I can't hold the reigns on a story tight enough to make it stay within the parameters of a standard 25-page or so short story. And, on those rare occasions when I'm able to do that, I'm just absurdly proud.

Winning the Pulitzer also seems like a mandate for everyone to read your work. Does it feel the same? 

The Pulitzer suddenly made my name kind of a household name. But I'm a novelist, I'm supposed to be good at that.

I have one slender collection after all these years. I'm going into my fourth decade of professional writing, and at the end of that-is it that long? Maybe my third (Ed. note: it's his third). Anyway, I've been working all of this time and I have a number of novels now-and screenplays-but one slender collection of short stories.  

There are six or seven stories in it, one of which is actually a novella, so it's not even a short story. Three of the stories in that collection are actually outtakes from my novels, parts that I couldn't fit in. I have really only just three or four examples of stories that started out as stories and ended up stories.

I'm not very good at it, but I just love the short story form. One of my great thrills over the last few years was being a judge for Best American Short Stories this year.  

I felt the same sort of absurd pride when they came to me and asked me to be the judge for that. As a novelist with very slender credentials, in short stories myself, I was just beside myself with glee because I do love the form.

What circumstances predicate you writing a short story?

What usually happens is what happened [with] my most recent novel, That Old Cape Magic. That started out as a short story. I had in mind, really, a 17 to 25 page story in which this protagonist is going to drive up to Cape Cod and scatter his father's ashes, and he would discover he was able to do it without his wife's help, or he wasn't able to do it. And that would be the end of the story.  

The story just kept going, and I finally threw up my hands. It went from a short story to a long short story to a novella to a long novella. Finally, at some point, I started to realize I was just writing a novel. That's usually what happens.

To write a short story, I just lose control completely, and just finally throw the reigns overboard and let the vehicle go where it's going to go.

You seem to admire constraint. Who are your favorite short story writers and do they show a good amount of constraint?

I'm always bowled over by Alice Munro's short stories. She's probably the master of the form, at least on this side of the Atlantic. I think the knock on short stories is that they can be slight when compared to a novel, but you always feel when reading an Alice Munro story that there is a novel there that she has condensed, somehow, into 30 or 35 pages, and the characters are just as rich as characters you meet in novels.

I think Richard Yates was a master of the form. I go back and reread him. . .  

I have read all of his novels and none of his short stories. 

I think he's an even better short story writer than he is a novelist. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is one of the best short story collections ever written. I urge you, today! Hang up the phone! Get lost!

I also love the great contemporary-ish Irish short stories writers now too. John McGahern, who's gone now, and Trevor, of course, Frank O'Connor-those great masters of the form. I'm not sure what exactly they all had in common.. . . but they all had that wonderful gift. 

Are you working on a novel right now?  

I'm working on a couple of things right now. I'm 150 pages into what turns out to be a kind of sequel to Nobody's Fool.

I'll get back to that sometime in the fall. The book that's  on the front burner, simply because it's much shorter and I'm nearer to the end of it-I don't want to call it a memoir because I'm not in it that much, but it's about the town that I grew up in that I've been giving fictional names for three decades. I'm writing about it and calling it by its true name, and it's about my family and the kind of work that they did.

It's going to be be fairly short, I'm kind of on the homestretch of that.

People always ask, "Where do you get your ideas from?" This is a book that, in its own sly way, accounts for what sorts of things that writers latch onto, what sorts of things they discover, how they discover certain things will be their themes throughout their careers-the kind of answers the question you might have had for Dickens, "Why so many orphans?"  

That's what I'm trying to do with this book, to shed a little light by telling the story of my family and this town and the kind of work that was done there. What has seemed to be the through-line, the essence of these mill-own novels, now that I have written a number of those over the last three decades.

 When did your family arrive there? 

My two grandpas, maternal and paternal grandparents, came as young men. My grandfather came down from Canada and apprenticed to become a glove cutter, which is why he moved to Gloversville, New York.

My other grandfather came from Italy. He heard about this town in upstate New York which was all things leather. He was a shoemaker. He settled in Johnstown [New York] imagining he was going to make Italian shoes for the people in that region. Then of course, he became a shoe repairman. It was about the only thing he could do-people were not buying Italian shoes in Glovers, New York. He had no idea where he was going.  

One of the two things that he brought with him to upstate New York was an opera tape. He thought that he'd be going to the opera.

 Was he disappointed?  

I never got to know him terribly well. He died when I was little, and my father's side of the family I never got to know that well.

I remember visiting on holidays when I was a little boy. I'd go sit on his lap. On Sunday afternoons, he always used to sit in a darkened living room while there were card games and everything else was going on all over the house. He would sit with all the blinds and the heavy curtains and the doors closed, and he would listen to his opera, which would come over the radio on Sunday afternoons.  

I would mostly see him on holidays, and he would listen to hour upon hour upon hour [of opera] in the living room-he was the only one in there. When I would go over, I would be ushered into the room, and he would call me up. I would sit on his lap for like a minute, and he would have had enough of me. I'd get shoed back out into the light.

Was that a special honor? 

Each grandchild would come in and sit on Grandpa's lap for thirty seconds, and that was the last you'd see of him.

Do you like opera? 

Alas, no. Not for longer than 30 seconds.

Is this your first stab at nonfiction?

Yes, it's my first foray into nonfiction. My default mode is that usually, when I don't know something, I make it up-that's what novelists do, and that's what I've always done.  

Since this is about real people-not only real people, but real places and real people that I love, that I owe a certain fidelity to the truth of their lives-I've had to switch gears. It forces me to realize that I'm after a different kind of truth. This kind of truth still should be good storytelling, but I can't invent it wholesale.

Even if everything you said is literally true, there's still going to be a range. You need to decide what comes first, what rubs up against what, and how things are going to play off one another. 

Those are all fiction writer's techniques. Even if what you said was all literally true, you would still be altering the truth a little bit, at least, simply by virtue of the structure you chose to tell the story-where you begin, where you end, where you break chapters, where you put what next to what, what you choose to summarize, what you choose to put in scene. All that storytelling stuff is part of good nonfiction as well as fiction.

Are you looking to any writers to guide you? I've talked to so many writers who think memoirs are trashy. Did you have to get over a hump? 

I've tried to keep mine unconventional just by keeping myself out of it as much as possible, which is pretty difficult to do.

Really, the emphasis isn't on me. The complaint about so many memoirs is navel-gazing. By keeping yourself out of it as much as possible, that helps a little bit. 

I've been reading a few memoirs lately, and I've read some wonderful ones. Gail Caldwell's memoir [Let's Take the Long Way Home] was just lovely. Reading it, one of the first thoughts in my head was, if you're going to do something like this, here's how it's done. I probably made, without thinking about it, a few mental notes.

How does your family feel about you writing about them? My family's been on me to write a book about them ever since I sold my first article. * 

The people that I would have been most concerned about-my grandparents, my mother and father, are gone now-so there's no longer the possibility of doing them a disservice or an injustice. I'm trying as best I can to be as true as I can to the spirit of their lives.

It's a book I probably couldn't have written ten years ago. I published the first part of it in a magazine called Granta. It was published last fall. There were some grumblings and grousings back in Gloversville.  

I am, I suppose, like Steinbeck and Monterey and other writers who come from fairly small places, associated with a particular place. Some people are thrilled that I told stories about this place, and other people would prefer I hadn't. I don't always have a Chamber of Commerce view of these towns that I write about. There will be some mixed feelings about the book.

One thinks of Andre Dubus's recent memoir, Townie. 

Oh God, wasn't that a wonderful book? Speaking of great memoirs that are all courage! I think Andre's Townie is one of the most extraordinary memoirs I've ever read, and one of the most astonishingly honest contemplations of violence that I've ever encountered. It's just a brilliant book.

Ever since it came out, Andre and I have been talking about what went on in the writing of that book, since I'm going through some of the same things.

*Author's note: My family is definitely reading this. In fact, when I told them I had met Richard Russo (in my old job as Events Director of the Brookline Booksmith), they were over the moon. Not that I wasn't thrilled to death myself -- Richard Russo is the best possible spokesman for bookish Italian Americans, and he and his wife are terribly nice. Yay, Richard Russo!

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