Published: May 31st, 2015
Richard Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winning American author who also writes short stories and screenplays as well as taught English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His novel, Empire Falls, earned the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction which was adapted for HBO.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Russo: I'm pretty metronomic in my habits. I write every day, usually a session in the morning and then one in the afternoon. Neither session is terribly long: a couple hours, max, but I work seven days a week. A good day is three pages. I generally write longhand in the morning. Afternoons I put on disc what I wrote in the morning and expand upon that.
Howl: What is your editing process like?
Russo: The older I get, the more I revise and the more pleasure and insight I derive what from many writers think of as the most tedious part of the process. I can work longer hours when I revise than when I'm generating new material. The amount of revision required depends on what part of the book or story I'm working on. The first third may go through twenty significant revisions, the middle third will get far fewer, the final third might only get three or four.
Howl: How do you suggest budding writers handle criticism and rejection?
Russo: Writers need many things: talent, a good work ethic, great stores of optimism. But more important than any of these, I think, is a thick skin. Rejection is like a loss in baseball; no fun, there's another game tomorrow. Criticism is no fun either, but it's important for a young writer to determine its ultimate source. If the advice offered — no matter how brutal — derives from good will, the desire to help you become a better writer, then you have to accept it, even if you disagree with it. Criticism that intends to wound, to undermine the writer's confidence, must be ignored. Hard to tell the difference in the beginning, but most people get better at it.
Howl: What is your best overall advice for budding writers?
Russo: Write every day; no excuses. And read, read, read. Not just for its own sake, but to see how the best writers play their best tricks.
Howl: What makes writing your creative medium of choice, assuming it was by choice?
Russo: I come from a long line of bullshitters, is part of it. I often wonder, though, if it weren't writing, would it be something else? My younger daughter is a painter, and sometimes when I see her holding a brush I'm jealous of the tool. I'd like to be able to do that. For me, I think it comes down to the process of making. I have a painter friend who also makes cellos. The sheer act of making is itself satisfying if you're the right temperament.
Howl: What are some of the greatest joys and challenges of being a professional writer?
Russo: The greatest challenge is that you'd think writing would get easier the longer you're at it, but the reverse is true. You do derive a certain amount of confidence from having done it before, but you're also more aware of just how many things can go wrong, how many moving parts there are, some of which you have no control over. What worked in your last book may not (probably won't) work in this one, so your experience is of less help than you'd imagine. The day-to-day joys of writing are pretty muted. Stumbling over the answer to a thorny problem that's been baffling you all week, discovering something new about a character you thought you understood completely, that sort of thing. But there's also the kind of joy that comes from running across someone who tells you that a book of yours got them through a long stretch of chemotherapy or the loss of a loved one.
Howl: You have two daughters, Kate and Emily, and you just came back from visiting one of them in London. Kate even illustrated Interventions. Your novel, Bridge of Sighs, deals with an chain of convenient stores about to be passed on to the next generation. What do your daughters think about your writings and has some of your literary nature been passed on to them?
Russo: Neither apple fell all that far from the tree, as it turns out. Emily is a bookseller, and one of the most voracious readers I know. There's nothing she enjoys more than finding and championing a new writer. As I said above, Kate's a painter, but she also writes. She's had a couple one act plays produced in London, and she just let me read a screenplay of hers that I didn't even know she was working on.
Howl: Back in the late 1960's and 70's you earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Arizona. It's a fascinating education for a writer. How do you believe your philosophical beliefs have weeded into your writings and how do you think your education in this particular field has influenced your writing?
Russo: My "Doctor of Philosophy" is actually a PhD in English, though I did take a few philosophy courses. I think all that study of literature was excellent training, especially my studies in the 19th Century British and American novel. While most of my friends were reading the post-moderns, I was cutting my teeth on Dickens and The Brontes and Twain and James. Dickens and Twain and Poe and Fitzgerald turn up in my work all the time. Like them, I'm first and foremost a storyteller. I love beautiful sentences but they have to be in service of something.
Howl: As a writer of novels, short stories, TV/HBO shows, and film is there a particular genre you prefer (perhaps for a specific type of theme or character dynamic) over the others?
Russo: My first love is the novel. I love the fact that it's okay not to know what I'm doing for the first couple years I work on it. I love the moment when I discover what the book's about and then have to go back to the beginning and make that happen. I even love the fact that all my novels seem to delight in hollowing me out, sapping my last ounce of strength, my last coherent thought. I love writing for film and TV because it doesn't do any of that. It demands that you write good dialogue (my strength) and it forces you to collaborate with others (a joy after the loneliness of working on a novel).
Howl: What's next for Richard Russo?
Russo: I just delivered a new novel to my editor; there'll be lots of housekeeping (editing, etc.) work on that. I'm finishing up a long essay that will, I hope, anchor a book of them. And I'm one story shy of a collection. That'll take me roughly through my 70th birthday, and it would be hubris to think much beyond that.