Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who lives in Portland, watched with astonishment as Donald Trump won the election to become U.S. president. Russo had agreed to appear on National Public Radio the morning after the election and anticipated talking about Hillary Clinton’s victory and what it would mean for America.

When Trump won, Russo scrambled. He got two hours of sleep as he sorted his thoughts.

“Most everybody I talked to was terrified about what happens next, but I almost immediately went backward. People were talking about the future, but I could not get my father and my grandfather out of my mind,” Russo said. “I just started thinking, here are these two men who risked their lives and saw good men die in defense of their country. I woke up with the feeling, as much as anything, that I had let them down.”

Those men had fought in the world wars that made America great, and Russo felt shame that Trump’s election occurred on his generation’s watch.

Russo wrote about his father and grandfather, and his complicated feelings about them, in the short story “Top Step,” which appears in a new anthology, “It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art.” The collection explores the fundamental rights and principles that Americans take for granted. In addition to Russo’s, the book includes contributions from Maine writers Lily King and Elizabeth Strout.

Russo and King will read from their stories and talk about the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Print: A Bookstore on Congress Street in Portland. The publication of the anthology coincides with the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and includes original short stories from the likes of Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, Joyce Maynard, Mary Higgins Clark and Louise Erdrich. The book also features artists, cartoonists and graphic novelists who cover political, social and cultural issues, including Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast and Marilyn Minter.


This is a political book, with writers and artists who openly resist Trump and his policies. Proceeds benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. The anthology is predicated on the notion that writers and artists are best suited to explore the ideals of a free, just and compassionate democracy, said editor Jonathan Santlofer, a New York novelist who proposed the idea of the book to Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., and recruited the writers and artists.

Like Russo and a lot of others, Santlofer emerged from the election confused about his country and its direction.

“After I pulled myself up off the floor, I thought, ‘What can one person do?’ I know a lot of writers and I know a lot of artists, so I tried to bring them together,” he said.

He believes in the power of stories and wanted to create a book that people would enjoy reading and that would survive the moment. He wasn’t interested in a political book per se; he didn’t mind the idea of politics but was more interested in recruiting writers to create longer-view fiction to speak to the ideals and aspirations of the country.

Santlofer has long admired Russo and reached out to him right away. He had just become familiar with King from reading her novel “Euphoria,” which “knocked me out,” he said, “so she was someone in my head as someone I wanted in the book.” And Strout, he said, “is another writer I just love. I wrote to all of them, and they all said yes. It’s pretty exciting when writers you respect and admire are willing to participate. And when their stories start appearing in your inbox, that’s pretty amazing.”

Russo called his story “Top Step” in reference to how far the grandfather in his story is willing to go to defend his family and his home from the racist tendencies of neighbors who circulate a petition to keep a black family from buying a house on the street. The grandfather orders the petitioner off his porch, backing him down and drawing a figurative line right there “on our front porch, just one short step from the top.”


Russo ends his story with a first-person essay that he wrote in the days after young white men waving Nazi flags arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and were not denounced by Trump.

“Is this the country my father and grandfather fought for?” Russo asks in his essay. “My father and grandfather both believed, and not without justification, that America was the light and hope of the world.”

King also turned to her family for inspiration for her story, “Arlington Street.” It’s about a young activist coming of age in a conservative “harbor town,” one that has voted Republican since 1875. She set her story in Massachusetts in the early 1960s, with references to Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and, later, Richard Nixon.

King, who lives in Yarmouth, debated many approaches to her story. “It was hard to know where to stab the beast,” she said. “There were so many satirical, New Yorker-ish ‘Shouts & Murmurs’ you could have done that would be more direct and fun. I even toyed with the idea of being in Ivanka Trump’s head.”

Instead of humor, King ultimately turned to fictional biography, using her own mother for inspiration, just as Russo looked to his dad. “I went back to my own political roots in my small town in Massachusetts and my mother and her political activism in a Republican town, where there really were four Democrats. In the end, it felt the most natural to me to explore that idea,” King said.

King began thinking about her story as Trump began talking about imposing travel restrictions on people from predominantly Muslim countries. The news was filled with images of lawyers rushing to airports to help people affected by the chaos. It was in that environment that Santlofer’s email arrived, asking if she would like to participate.


When King learned the project would benefit the ACLU, she was on board. In her heart, she said, she believed the foundation of America was at stake.

If nothing else, she had to participate to continue the work her mother began a generation before her.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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