Busted: Richard Russo

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist discusses fathers, sons, a vanishing America and Bridge of Sighs

Some believe him to be the “Bard of Main Street USA.” Throughout the six novels he has published since 1986, Richard Russo has created stories of small town American life worthy of Sherwood Andersonthe twentieth century American author of Winesburg, Ohio to whom Russo is ofen compared.

Six years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel Empire Falls, Russo returns with Bridge of Sighs, another richly observed rendering of a fictional small town, Thomaston, NY. Like other worlds of Russo’s making both as a novelist and a screenwriter (Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls) Thomaston comes alive with the author’s gift for enormously descriptive detail. In true Russo fashion, the characters who populate Thomaston, are complex, deeply human, utterly flawed and entirely memorable.

BustedHalo: In the beginning of Bridge of Sighs the main character, Lucy [Lou C.], makes the comment that you don’t need to travel the globe to have a fulfilling life. You can live an incredibly rich life within the confines of a small town. That seems emblematic of a lot of your writing like Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls. There’s a sense of this little universe being everything one needs. How conscious are you of that theme in your work?

Richard Russo: I think it’s probably more subconscious than conscious. It’s the world I grew up in as a kid which was incredibly rich. I didn’t—for the first 15 years of my life at least—suspect that the larger world outside of Glovers Mill, NY would be all that different from the world I was in. It seemed like a perfectly good place and I was surrounded by people who cared about me. I lived with my mother (my parents were separated) and my grandparents lived downstairs. And I had cousins and uncles all over the place. I played baseball, rode my bike and did all those things that kids do. We didn’t have much money but we didn’t know that. And nobody else had much money (laughs) so it seemed perfectly fine.

I’ve always felt that what you know during those first 12 or 15 years of life, the reality that you know at that time is kind of your hard wiring and the rest, after that, you’re just tinkering with the software. So that world before I graduated from high school and went all the way to Arizona and off to college, that’s the stuff I would never have to read up on or research. I am kind of my own little authority in that world. Since becoming an artist, a writer, I might take little forays off into such places like Venice as I do in this book but I am only a tourist there. This small world of my childhood is also the world of my imagination and it is for this 58 year old writer, perfectly rich. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this world that I live in imaginatively from novel to novel, virtually every novel I’ve written.

BH: You mention going to Venice, which is where your new book’s secondary plot takes place. It almost seemed like a stretch for you. It’s so different for you and your world. Did you feel like you needed to break out of the small town/Main Street, USA?

RR: It wasn’t that so much, it was breaking out of Lucy’s consciousness. Because Lucy is so conservative by nature and so cautious because of what was done to him as a kid. This was a kid who was terrorized by a group of young thugs and he’s been put in a box. And as his mother says, “there’s some part of that kid that never got out of the box.” I think it’s no mistake that this kid who was confined in a small place as a child has lived his entire life in Thomaston, NY this other small place. And not only doesn’t have any desire to leave that small place, he’s actually afraid to.

And what I found out about Lucy and his devotion to certain things that are very close. That are still within the box. As much as I love and his world and the world of Ikey Lubins and all of that, it was growing claustrophobic in there (laughs) and going to Venice with Noonan, despite the fact that it was halfway around the world and Noonan is worried about many of the same things Lucy is worried about.

He’s worried about whether the water is polluted and causing him to have night terrors and his bouts of inexplicable grief. And he’s wondering if you can possibly die from what you love; wondering if his paints might be poisoning him just as the residents of Thomaston are wondering if the water is polluted and that they might be dying from what they love. Nevertheless, getting out of Thomaston from time to time and going halfway around the world was a relief from that sense of confinement, that sense of claustrophobia that I was feeling. I don’t know about you reading the book, but I was feeling it writing it. It was good to get out for there for a while.

BH: Absolutely, I also felt that, even though some criticize your novels by saying that your women characters are one-dimensional, I think the true depth, in terms of love, comes from the women. Sarah and Tess are nowhere near as open and loveable as Lou and Lucy but they’re less shallow in many ways.

RR: They drive the action of the story, too.

“I’ve always felt that what you know during those first 12 or 15 years of life, the reality that you know at that time is kind of your hard wiring and the rest, after that, you’re just tinkering with the software.”

BH: The men were more vulnerable and weak than the women who were smarter and in many ways, the moral center of that universe. There’s this sense that these women really love fiercely. Tess is like the Catcher in the Rye, catching everybody who is about to fall off the face of the earth throughout her whole life. She’s almost a healer.

RR: Yes, and I don’t think there is any doubt that Ikey Lubins would have been an abject failure if she had not come in and shown her husband how to do it. Because he’s done a very, very foolish thing and she realized that and through her heroic efforts, not as Big Lou says because he’s a darn good worker and so is Lucy; it’s really Tess’s imagination and her smarts that saves that family. Just as it’s Sarah’s ability to deal with her loose cannon mother and her out-of-control, ambitious father. It’s her early training in caring for others that she the one who calls her husband, Lucy, back from the Bridge of Sighs and she’s kind of been doing that all her days.

BH: In your books, your characters exist in a world that really doesn’t have to be 2007, it could be 1957. It’s almost as if the world around them, the political landscape, technological revolutions don’t exist. Are you conscious of the fact that, in some ways, this is a very sealed world?

RR: Yes. And that is very conscious. We were talking before about what writers do that is conscious or unconscious. I try to keep as much out. I think of places like Thomaston and Mohawk and Empire Falls as being essentially timeless and so I keep references to time out of them as much as possible. I don’t even have my characters going to places like McDonalds because they seem like such shortcuts. There are references to supermarkets, but they’re in Ikey Lubins, this idiosyncratic place because I want to describe it.

I don’t want to take any shortcuts like where I name McDonalds and everybody knows exactly what it looks like because they’ve been there. So I want it to be timeless and in this novel, the only exception is that so much of it was written during the George W. Bush presidency that I simply couldn’t keep some of that out. He has this marvelous ability to radicalize people that don’t want to (laughs). So there are some references to that, but otherwise, I do like to keep these places as timeless as possible.

BH: How do you explain how your books resonate with so many people in this globally-connected world that we live in?

RR: I’d be only guessing, of course, but I think it’s a function of memory. I’ve always thought of these books as snapshots of an America that I love and I see just disappearing.

BH: Has it already disappeared in some ways?

RR: We’re struggling with that, certainly. These characters in this novel who have crossed Division Street from the poor end of town to the more affluent side of town and then Lucy, who by the time the novel opens is 60 years old…he has in a sense fulfilled his father’s version of the American dream because he now has a house in the borough. This is, in a sense, the story of my family. My family’s crossing over our own Division street into a prosperity that my grandfather probably never would’ve dreamed for me or for his daughter.

My mother worked at General Electric in Schenectady and she worked as hard as anybody, having an hour commute both ways each day. She would arrive home at 6 and I would’ve already eaten with my grand-parents each night. My mother would come home and make her dinner and do the laundry, and whatever else needed to be done for me to go to school the next day. She was up at 6 o’clock in the morning off to work and probably didn’t finish until 9 at night. So she worked as hard as anybody.

These were people who thought of work not as an obligation but as a privilege and took great pride in the work they did. They didn’t expect to be rich at the end of the day but they expected to be able to pay their bills and keep their heads up. My mother expected a certain kind of loyalty from GE. It was a relationship between her and the company that she worked for that doesn’t exist in America any more. Whether it’s at General Electric or anywhere else. She died this summer and it’s an America that she didn’t really recognize anymore. She didn’t recognize the greed, the expectation or the sense of privilege.

Nor did my father or my grandfather. The America that my father and grandfather fought for was something, by the time they died, they were feeling they didn’t have a complete understanding of anymore. Toward the end of her life my mother was still sharp but increasingly marginalized. She was living in a world she didn’t understand. My grandfather actually bought the 2 family home on the other side of Division Street when my mother got pregnant with me. That was the purpose in crossing Division Street to begin with. It wasn’t only to provide a nicer house for my grandparents in a nicer part of town, it was also to provide a home for my mother, father and me.

BH: That’s akin to what happens to Lucy as a child. Though I assume you weren’t locked in a trunk by thugs?

RR: No. (laughs) Blessedly no…or we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation…

BH: Yes, you’d probably be in a padded cell somewhere…

RR: (laughter)