Thursday, October 10, 2013

Richard Russo finds himself – and his readers

Through an essay-in-memoir called “The Identity Thief,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo tells the story of how he became a novelist. 

Richard Russo
Russo is from an upstate New York town called Gloversville, the setting for many of his novels. Probably you have seen Nobody’s Fool, the poignant, funny 1994 movie with Paul Newman and Melanie Griffith. It is based on a Russo novel set in Gloversville. His Pulitzer-winning book, Empire Falls, was set in Maine, but as he told the crowd in Newport, N.H., the other night, he used Maine because the plot required a coast. The real setting was Gloversville.

“The Identity Thief” is the story of how Russo ran away from Gloversville and then had to find it again to become a writer. Russo read it to a rapt audience in Newport.

As a student at the University of Arizona, he wanted to get as far from Gloversville as possible. Like many a young person from a small town, he posed as a worldly sophisticate and lived in fear that others would see him for the rube he was.

Russo sacrificed his authenticity. What he sought most as an aspiring writer was praise and validation. He wanted his professors and peers to like him and appreciate his voice, but “as yet there was no me to like, much less a voice to admire.”

It took time for him to realize this. The first clue was a manuscript he wrote in graduate school. The professor found most of it “inert on the page” but liked one 40-page stretch. After graduation Russo taught at several colleges and universities but clung to his dream of becoming a novelist. Eventually he shaped and expanded the 40 pages into his first novel, Mohawk. It was published in 1986, the year Russo turned 37.

Tower of the Newport Opera House
In writing Mohawk, he discovered what he wished he had realized all along. Rather than a provincial backwater town, Gloversville was alive with a human story that transcended place. And in itself the actual place was not crucial to Russo’s work; his real subject was class. That is why the title town of his Pulitzer winner, Empire Falls, could as easily have been anywhere in the far northeast.

But for the lack of an ocean coast, it could certainly have been Newport, a former woolen mill town on the Sugar River. Newport’s best-known historical figure is Sarah Josepha Hale, the 18th century magazine editor who suggested to Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving be a national holiday. That was in 1863, 150 years ago next month. (A park and statue are to be dedicated to Hale at the town's Richards Free Library on Nov. 23. You can read about it here.)

Russo was in Newport Saturday as the 2013 recipient of the Sarah Josepha Hale medal, which a committee associated with the library bestows each year on a literary figure with a New England connection. He thus joined a long line of worthy winners that began in 1956 when Robert Frost received the first Hale medal.

A nice crowd turned out for the presentation in Newport’s 127-year-old red-brick Opera House. After Russo read his essay, several of his listeners asked about the details of his books. Their affection for his work made it clear that years ago, when Russo overcame his fear of being a yokel and reclaimed his identity, he also found his audience.

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