This is Part 1 of a two part series.One could argue that, among other themes, a major division in American Literature exists between novels set in urban areas and novels set in rural areas. Would you agree with that, and why are a number of your novels set in small towns?
That’s a good question. I have to think about it for a second. I think part of it has to do with the way America became America, in the sense that if you were a writer in France in the 19th century, and you wanted to be a writer, clearly you would go to Paris. You would become a city person, in a sense. And if you were a writer in England, you would go to London. America being bigger, there was always that division between the cities and rural areas and there wasn’t one city that you would go to to become a writer. A lot of writers went to New York, but certainly you could become a writer in Chicago – a lot of big cities. And the same thing was true if you wanted to be a writer in this century, and you were going to study to be a writer. You were just as likely to be in Iowa, at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop as you were to be at NYU in New York. So I think that rural areas – but I don’t know…maybe that’s just avoiding the question. It seems to me that America is so geographically diverse – that it’s such a big country – that’s it made for more diversity in the literature.
You know, when I first started writing my small mill town novels, I definitely felt like I was part of a tradition. For me, the book was Winesburg, Ohio, and this is still an enormously important book, much more than Sinclair Lewis, who was also doing small town books. Sinclair Lewis was so down the nose about it; whereas in Winesburg, Ohio, you get the feeling that Sherwood Anderson was writing about people’s lives that were every bit as rich, multi-dimensional, full of the same dreams, fears and anxieties as big city people. There has certainly always been since the 19th century that rich tradition of small town books. But when I first started publishing in 1986 – my first novel was 1986 – I remember thinking that my first novel Mohawk¸ my second novel Risk Pool, I didn’t feel all alone out there writing about small towns or mill towns, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t a terribly crowded field. My book came out at the same time as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which I remember reading vividly and thinking “Why don’t I have experiences like that to write about.”
So, I remember when I first started writing, I didn’t feel like I was doing something that had never been done before in American Literature or anything like that, I was very aware of Steinbeck, certainly, and there were lots of other people who had done what I was doing, but, right then, in 1986, it didn’t feel to me like there were an awful lot of other people out there who were doing what I was doing. Raymond Carver was coming along and doing some of that, but in the generation before me, it was a generation of city writers, but there were also suburban writers. John Cheever’s Shady Hill stories. How do you classify that? It’s certainly not a small town novel, or small town setting, so now you have a third element come in to the mix: the suburban story. Richard Yates was very important to me, but he wasn’t writing stuff like this. So the field felt very small, and, for me, it was just the only thing I knew. The novel before my first novel I tried..I had done my graduate work, and I had spent almost a decade in Tucsan...I tried to set my novel in Tucsan, but I didn’t know a damn thing about Tucsan really. I was still a visitor there after ten years, but as soon as I went back to a place like the one I grew up in, I felt like I didn’t have to do any research. I just kind of knew it.
Do you think it’s changed at all – with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge being set in small town Maine – that the pool has expanded at all since you started?
Absolutely. It seems to me that certainly Elizabeth Strout, and there’s another, I think, going to be a very important book coming out next year by a writer – it’s her first novel, a novel in stories – her name is Beverly Jenson, and she’s written a book called The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay set in Maine and in New Brunswick, and it’s just a brilliant book about small town life. It seems to me that whereas the field wasn’t crowded at all when I started – I don’t know if it’s crowded now – but there are an awful lot more people out there who are being published well, too. It’s not the case that a New York editor finds a token writer from the hinterlands, you know. You’re seeing great work coming out of small towns of the Midwest and the South and the far West. So, yeah, I think the pool has expanded enormously.
The majority of your protagonists are male. Why? Do you ever see yourself writing about a female protagonist?
I started out, again, writing about what I knew, and my first couple books were very male centered, although the protagonist of Mohawk was a woman, though that said, a lot of the behavior of that novel – if you take Ann Grouse, the protagonist of that novel out – a lot of the drive that novel is specifically male oriented. Of course The Risk Pool is a father-son story told from the point of view of the son. Nobody’s Fool is a father-son story told from the point of view of the father. And then a big change happened in my life. In that my daughters were born, and my father had died, and suddenly I looked around one day and discovered that all the important people in my life were women, and so my in novels from that point forward, the women began to assume a much larger role, though often not point of view characters, or if they were point of view characters, they were not sole point of view characters. So you get in Empire Falls really dynamic women characters. In terms of Mrs. Whiting, but also Tick Roby and Miles wife Janey, whom I just adore. And back in Nobody’s Fool, Sully is the real protagonist of that, but there are times when Mrs. Burle takes over that book. Of course by the time we get to Bridge of Sighs, not quite a third, but maybe 25% of the book is narrated by Sarah, the woman who is in love with both the male characters and who is loved by both the male characters.
So I suppose, both in terms of point of view – though I’ve given over whole sections of books over to women characters – I’m doing the thing that male writers dread most risking and that is someone saying “That Russo just doesn’t know a thing about women” My reaction to that would be “Oh shit! It’s true. I don’t” Because I would cop to that. I would cop to that immediately because in fact in some ways one of the reasons I’m so proud of the character of Tick Roby is that not only am I writing from the point of view of a female, but she's a 15-year-old female. But still we only get to live in one body, and we only get to be one gender with very few exceptions, and so in a sense we’re all guessing beyond that one thing, we’re all guessing and relying on observation, but the experience is second-hand as opposed to first-hand, so I think we’re all scared – and I think women writers that I’ve talked to feel the same way – that we’re going really on faith and imagination.
Let’s talk about humor. Your novels are hilarious. Why is humor so prevalent in your work?
This might seem counter-intuitive, but I think I realized probably intuitively before I could ever put it into words that my writing was going to take me to dark places, and my reading of Mark Twain had taught me – as in Huckleberry Finn – you can put bigotry, ignorance, violence, every part of the American character that we wish weren’t there, all the things that make us cringe – you can go there if you go armed with humor. If you don’t, you’re going to find people putting down your book. So I think that kind of at an intuitive level, I knew, I realized that I could go places and people would follow me into places if I was making them laugh, that they just wouldn’t be there for the journey if I didn’t. People have different theories about humor. There are even people who think that humor is a form of aggression whereby you distance yourself from everything. Often satirical writers are accused of this. For me, it’s a tactic, among other things, but also, as I’ve said to people from time to time in interviews, I also discovered fairly early on that when the world isn’t busy breaking our hearts, which it does on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, it’s a damn entertaining place. When our hearts, guts, aren’t just being ripped out, you look around and you just have to laugh and often you’re laughing at the very thing that’s ripping your heart out. It seems to me to be healthier in the long run.
Read Part 2