Richard Russo was asked recently, for a magazine piece, to name a book that helped shape his life.
Recalling the query while sitting in the front room of his 1817 brick home on the fringe of downtown Portland, he stopped short. “Let me show you,” he blurted out and then rose from the couch to speed into another room. He returned cradling “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson, which he first read while growing up in Gloversville, New York.
Russo quickly thumbed the pages to a short poem called “Foreign Lands,” about a child climbing a tree to gaze upon the mysterious world beyond his own garden wall.
“It’s all about a child’s sense of wonder, it’s that emphasis on the wonders of the world that open up through stories,” said Russo, 66. “I’ve often thought about whether I would have been a writer without the Gloversville library. Hard to say, but I think not. I was like that little kid (in the poem), and the library was the tree I could climb up into to get a glimpse of the outside world.”
Russo has built his successful 30-year career and literary reputation largely writing about the kinds of people, places and shared values he saw growing up in Gloversville, a formerly bustling leather factory town. His latest novel, “Everybody’s Fool,” is due out in May and it’s the seventh novel he’s set in a town modeled on Gloversville.
The book is a sequel to his 1993 novel “Nobody’s Fool,” about a likable, 60-year-old handyman named Donald “Sully” Sullivan, living payday to payday and dealing with family, friends and life in a dying mill town. The sequel shows Sully at 70, but the focus is more on a minor character from “Nobody’s Fool,” insecure policeman Doug Raymer, who has risen to chief of police. “Nobody’s Fool” was made into a 1994 film starring Paul Newman as Sully.
Russo’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls,” though set in Maine, takes place in a version of Russo’s forlorn hometown. He says he mostly set it in Maine because he wanted a character to be able to work for wealthy summer folks along the coast. That book was also made into a film, for HBO, starring Newman again, with Ed Harris and Joanne Woodward.
Though he’s been in Maine for more than 25 years, and he and his wife raised their two daughters here, Russo continues to write about his hometown.
“There’s nothing I can do about the fact that my imagination is most fertile in that particular ground,” Russo said. “I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet. There’s still stuff there that’s completely intriguing to me. I feel about it the way I suspect (William) Faulkner did about his fictional county in Mississippi, or the way (James) Joyce did about Dublin.”
Russo was raised by his mother, his grandparents, with other family members living on streets nearby. He credits the library, the schools and the strong sense of community there with helping shape his view of what’s important.
Following well-planted hints from his mother to get out and see the world so she could tag along, Russo went to the University of Arizona. His mother didn’t have a job lined up in Arizona and didn’t drive, yet she was determined to go with her college-bound son.
In his 2012 memoir, “Elsewhere,” Russo writes about his mother’s longing to get out of Gloversville and her mood swings and often-odd behaviors. He cared for his mother until her death in 2007 but didn’t realize she was likely suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. It wasn’t until his own adult daughter, Kate, was diagnosed with the condition that Russo started to truly understand his mother had it too.
In the memoir, he writes about coming to the realization and feeling “horrible” guilt about his mother’s struggles. After reading about the disorder, he also sees some symptoms in his own behavior. Just as his mother couldn’t stop fidgeting with a coaster or the drapes after someone had re-arranged them, he can’t stop re-writing a sentence that anyone else would call “good enough.”
“I was just lucky my obsession has not been destructive,” Russo said. “It’s not easy in this world to find an obsession that won’t kill you.”
After getting his doctorate in English and American Literature from the University of Arizona he taught at several colleges, including Southern Illinois University and Colby College in Waterville, before being able to quit in the mid-1990s and write full time.
Russo said he never considered being a writer until near the end of his doctoral work, when he noticed how much more fun the creative writing people in the English department seem to have compared to the lit folks. He wanted to have the same passion for his work that they had.
So he started writing. He made an attempt at a novel and submitted it to a university teacher, writer Robert C.S. Downs. Downs told Russo the work was essentially “inert.”
“He said ‘you’re setting it in a place you have a tourist’s knowledge of and nothing is coming to life, with the exception of these 40 pages of back story that takes place in this mill town in upstate New York. You had me there,'” Russo said, breaking into his loud, fast-paced laugh.
A RESPECT FOR COMMUNITIES, IN FICTION AND FACT
After giving up his teaching job at Colby to write, Russo said he and his wife chose to stay in Maine in part because “Maine’s culture of hard work and unpretentiousness suited me.” Russo lived in Camden for a dozen years before moving to Portland about three years ago. Their daughters’ families, including grandchildren, live nearby.
Russo and his wife, Barbara, live downtown because they like walking places, including bookstores and restaurants, and they like the sense of community. For years in Camden, Russo famously did a lot of his writing in coffee shops. He does that less now. He says he can tolerate lots of folks chatting over coffee, but a person having a cell phone conversation can break his concentration completely.
When Russo is not writing about gritty communities, and the vanishing middle classes that once thrived there, he’s often working to preserve the writing community, as he sees it.
He joined the Authors Guild a few years ago because he was concerned that online giants like Amazon and Google were devastating the livelihood of authors by underselling traditional bookstores and offering the written word online for free, often without paying authors.
The Authors Guild had been waging a copyright infringement lawsuit against Google for several years when Russo decided to join, and he is now the group’s vice president. The guild’s argument is that authors and publishers need to be paid by Google when their work is used online. Google has argued that copying work to an online format should be protected under the legal doctrine of “fair use,” since it offers a public benefit and may actually help people find books they want to buy.
Last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, ruled in favor of Google. Now the Authors Guild is asking for a Supreme Court review, Russo said.
“Our charge is to protect the writing life, or what’s left of it, which I take to mean making sure there’s something left for the best of today’s young writers, who are coming into a publishing landscape much different than the one I entered,” Russo said.
Part of his effort includes helping younger authors sell their books. In recent years, he was asked to write jacket blurbs for two up-and-coming authors, Eddie Joyce and Lori Ostlund, and ended up loving both books. So he wrote the blurbs, but he also got on the phone and called their respective publicists. He invited both authors to come to Portland and do live events with him, as he interviewed them before an audience. Joyce’s event was last March at Think Tank and Ostlund’s was in October at Space Gallery.
“Writing is such a lonely profession, so when Richard Russo welcomes you into the fold, you feel like a writer,” said Joyce, 40, of Brooklyn, New York. “Whenever I get depressed about writing I think, ‘Well, Richard Russo liked my book.’ And that is a powerful thing.”
Joyce, whose book “Small Mercies” is based on his childhood neighborhood on Staten Island, said that reading Russo’s novels about working-class people with recognizable struggles was a revelation to him. Before that, he didn’t have a clear sense that fiction could be about “regular people” and not just millionaires, spies or wizards.
THE STORY GOES ON
Russo loves a good story. He says his father, who worked road construction and was separated from his mother, was a “wonderfully entertaining” man who spent much of his time telling stories to other working men in bars.
Russo’s father could take a story that Russo himself had told him, and re-tell it so often, with so many changes, that eventually the story was about Russo’s father.
Russo gave that quality to Sully, the hero of “Nobody’s Fool.”
The idea for his new book, “Everybody’s Fool,” came to Russo because of the re-telling of a story. While living in Camden, Russo said he was told of a town police chief who suspected his wife was having an affair, solely based on the fact that he found a strange garage door opener in her car. So he went around town trying out the opener on every garage he could find.
“I thought it was a wonderful story, I didn’t care if it was true or not,” Russo said, admitting he doesn’t know. “It made me wonder who would do such a stupid thing. Then I thought, ‘I know exactly who.'”
He thought of North Bath Police Officer Doug Raymer, a small character in “Nobody’s Fool,” portrayed memorably in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Raymer fires his gun in Sully’s general direction after he can’t get Sully to stop driving his truck on the sidewalk. When Sully then punches the cop in the face, everyone seems to understand.
In “Everybody’s Fool,” Raymer is now chief of police and his story, including the garage door opener dilemma, is a strong focus. But so is Sully, now 70.
Making Raymer’s story even stranger is that his wife is dead, yet the garage door opener continues to haunt him.
“I knew I was going to like this guy a lot more, I knew there was a reason he did stupid things,” said Russo of writing about Raymer. “Because I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, I have a real affection for fools.”
When asked to list a few of those stupid things, Russo broke into his piercing laugh again, saying, “Oh, those are my secrets.”
Located about an hour from Albany near the Adirondack Mountains, Gloversville was the glove-making capital of the nation until about 1950. At that time, the population was around 23,000. Today the population is about 15,000. The median household income was about $26,000 in the 2010 census.
Russo has not lived there since he was a teen, though he’s still very close with a cousin there. After his memoir came out, some locals complained of his depiction of the town’s past, painting a picture of dangerous work at low pay and pollution fueled by corporate greed.
But Russo has never wavered from the emotional ties he feels for the place, especially the debt he feels he owes its people and institutions.
When he got a call about a year and a half ago asking him to be honorary chairman of the committee raising money to renovate the Gloversville Free Library building, he accepted immediately. The library opened in 1905 and had been donated by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It has never had a major renovation.
So far, the committee has raised about $5.5 million of the needed $7 million-plus, and Russo’s help has been “indispensable” said Betsy Bachelor, the committee’s co-chair. On more than one occasion Russo has driven the six hours from Portland to Gloversville, and back again, in one day to attend events, she said. One was a meet-and-greet with area school teachers, another was for the announcement of a large donation.
“When he comes to town and talks to people, you can tell he’s in love with this town,” Bachelor said.
Russo says he doesn’t mind trading on his name to help the library, though he wouldn’t do it for just any cause. He thinks libraries are more important than ever today in a place like Gloversville – which Bachelor called “a very poor community, an abandoned community” – because they provide information and life-changing resources to people who need them the most and can afford them the least.
Russo buys all the books he wants, so doesn’t often visit the Portland Public Library. But he points to the people crowded into the computer terminal area there all day long as an example of the vital role libraries have as economic disparity grows.
In an address he gave at the Gloversville library in October of 2014, he called that library his “lifeline” growing up, given that his mother had no household budget for books. He talked about feeling free there, how it was the same feeling as getting his driver’s license, because it allowed “freedom to travel without adult supervision.”
“In America, we love stories of self-made men who pull themselves up by their boot straps and no doubt there are such men, but I’m not one of them,” Russo said at that time. He talked of his father paying his union dues, his mother constantly pushing him toward college, and, “just as important, I am a product of public education, government-backed student loans and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library.”
“Do I have myself to thank for my success?” he said. “Don’t make me laugh. I don’t even know where my boot straps are.”