Busted: Richard Russo

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

BH: It sounds like you must have had a close relationship with your father. The father and son relationships, especially in this book, are very loving. So while your mother was a hero to you it sounds like your father was a big part of your life.

RR: Well, what I always tell people, and it’s pretty close to the truth is that my love of literature, my love of books, my devotion to the life of the mind—the fact that I’m a writer—all those things derive from my mother. What my father gave me was something to write about. (laughs) He was a charming rougue, as feckless and undependable as the day was long. But more fun to be with than you could possibly imagine.

BH: So he was a lot like Sully in Nobody’s Fool?

RR: Oh yeah. Sully and Sam Hall [Risk Pool] and then finally in later life like Max Roby [Empire Falls].

BH: Were your father or your mother big readers of your books?

RR: My mother read all my books. My father died just before Mohawk came out, so he knew I had a book coming out and he knew I was a writer, but he never read one.

BH: What did he think about your becoming a writer?

RR: I think it tickled him because he was such a bull-s—–r extraordinaire and I would come along and be just as full of s–t and yet find a way to turn it into a tidy living, which he was never able to do. He did it all for free! (laughs)

BH: What was your mother’s reaction? Did she have a chance to read Bridge of Sighs before she passed away this summer?

RR: She got very ill this summer when the galleys came out and she was at the point that she had to go into a nursing home and not long after had to go on morphine. I actually read about 75 pages to her because her eyesight was failing. But I began to realize that she wasn’t quire taking it in. On the one hand she wanted to hear it and on the other, she wasn’t taking it in. Also, in the early pages of the novel are fairly dark with Lucy in the trunk and all of that and I think what she needed at that point was not more darkness. I think she needed things to be a little more upbeat so I finally put it away as an act of kindness and she didn’t ask me about it again and I didn’t blame her.

BH: Did she ever comment at all on what you would write about and this sense of being alienated from the world that you both sort of shared?

RR: She was incredibly proud of the work and I think very often that part of the strange pact that parents have with their kids as part of the American dream is that they want them to become educated and to be more affluent than they were, but they want them to remain the same and remain true to the values that they were raised by. And they often don’t understand that those things are, if not impossible to reconcile, are not entirely compatible either.

I gave an address to the Colby graduates some years ago and I told the parents that sending a kid off to college is like putting them in the witness protection program. If they come out looking identifiably the same as they went in, then something has gone terribly wrong. But many parents, especially lower middle class parents who send their children off to college, they want them to become more affluent and better educated, but they don’t want them to change. My mother was very proud of the fact that I was a writer and living a more affluent life and that her sacrifices and those of my grandfather paid off in a way. But in some ways, by moving off into that different world, I had become, in some ways, unrecognizable to her but my fiction restored the kid that had changed in ways she wouldn’t have predicted.

BH: It seems clear to me that you deeply value the world you grew up in. It’s so much a part of your imagination. Are you personally very different from the characters you write about now? Do you think your mother felt you outgrew that world?

My grandmother used to be envious of my grandfather because he served in two world wars! Because he got to leave. He was too young for the first one and two old for the second but he was in both. In some ways, she never forgave him because she had to stay while he went off to see the world. She imagined having a good time!

RR: Some of all of that. I don’t think I’ll even choose. Those things all strike me as—if paradoxical—still compatible. There were certain things that I think were hard for my mother to grasp becasue the changes had been so great. The fact that my wife, Barbara and I would fly off to Venice; the fact that our daughters both would go off to college and spend their junior years abroad. My mother never left the U.S. expect when she visited us in Arizona and went to a border town in Mexico.

My grandmother used to be envious of my grandfather because he served in two world wars! Because he got to leave. He was too young for the first one and two old for the second but he was in both. He volunteered. In some ways, she never forgave him because she had to stay while he went off to see the world. She imagined having a good time! (laughs) Kamikaze pilots diving onto his ship and her feeling was ‘Yea, well at least you got to see the world!’ (laughs) She always wanted to go to Ireland. And here, her great granddaughters have been to far more places than my wife and I and we’ve been to many more places than my mother and my grandmother never even got to a border town in Mexico.

BH: Toward the end of the book, when Lucy is at his store talking on the phone to a reporter about Noonan, he tells the reporter about how he and Noonan used to surf in the back of his father’s dairy truck. And Lucy comments on how brave Noonan always was. The reported then asks Lucy ‘Do you have to be brave to do what Noonan does…to be an artist?’ And Lucy hangs up the phone. I wondered if that was you a little bit? The world you create is so beautifully small but it is not the world where people take life by the horns and take on the future. There is a romanticism for the past in your books. Did you resonate with Lucy in that scene?

RR: I’ve always felt midway between Lucy and Noonan. I have a great deal in common with both of them which means I must be both timid and brave at the same time. I’ve always thought that writing novels, at least writing the novels like mine isn’t for the faint of heart. They take too long and you have to have a kind of chutzpah. As I write from the omniscient point of view, pretending to be God, looking into everyone’s thoughts. It’s a different kind of courage displayed by my father in Normandy or Noonan moving to Italy at age 18. He just leaves everything he knows.

BH: One thing that strikes me about the book is the sense of inevitability in your characters. Mrs. Salvador says when her that when her no-good lover returns that she can’t stand him but by tomorrow morning she’ll be cooking for him, by tomorrow night she’ll be lending him money. And there’s a sense that a lot of people don’t have choices in their lives. It’s almost a sense of fatalism except for Noonan who is the one person in the book who invents himself, which almost seems like an impossibility in their world.

RR: Noonan speculates about Jersey Quinn’s obituary and the only thing that surprises him is how long it took for Quinn to cross that yellow line because that just seemed like a foregone conclusion to him at age 19. So ‘what took him so long’ was another question.

BH: And yet, there’s a sense of ritual in their lives that feels almost religious. People go through these things in thier lives and there’s almost a sacredness to it; I sense that ritual, ceremony, inevitability seem to be a part of your work…is this part of your life at all?

RR: I was raised a Catholic but I am not a Catholic anymore but what has remained is the language of Catholicism. I think you’re right. Noonan finds himself at the age of 60 a victim of night terrors and inexplicable bouts of grief and for reasons he doesn’t quite understand he’s begun this painting of his father only to discover that it’s his own eyes looking back at him and manages to finish that painting only when the light of Sarah’s painting begins to shine on it as it stands on the next easel.

And Noonan in Venice has become this nocturnal walker who walks the cestiary of Venice in the same order every night which has become for him a ritual in some ways, he says ‘almost like a prayer.’ He walks these streets in the same order every night so that he can be able to sleep and be able to paint. And those strike me as if not religious statements, as spiritual statements because that’s what Noonan needs more than anything else for his life to have meaning, He needs to be able to paint and so he’s found rituals that will allow him to use his imagination. And I think you go back to the Greeks and the sense of the Muses as being part of the pantheon of gods. Those issues are all tied together and have been in Western civilization and thought.

BH: In that sense there’s almost a sense of sacramentality to it, not unlike the way a songwriter like Bruce Springsteen uses those tools as well…

RR: Yes.

BH: The sense of desire for permanence which you portray in your book—it screams out in your books—that longing for faith or for eternity. Are you aware of that?

RR: Well, I keep naming characters in my books Grace, don’t I? (laughs) As I’ve said, that what’s left of my Catholicism is the language. Grace, original sin. Nothing make me more angry than to hear simple concepts that have been good and useful going back thousands of years, but now we can’t talk about good and evil anymore, we’ve turned it into good choices and bad choices. Well screw that! We don’t want to ground anything in morality anymore. We’re going to secularize the entire language? We’re going to neuter it?

BH: Well morality is clearly an important part of your characters and the world they inhabit. Thanks for taking the time to speak with BustedHalo and draw some of that out.

RR: Well thank you very much. This was one of the very interesting conversations of the last few weeks, so thank you very much for a very good interview.