Author Richard Russo, at his office in Portland, says he’s excited as ever about writing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Richard Russo says that by writing about his father – who died about 40 years ago – he feels like he’s spending more time with him.

That’s partly why he decided to write his newest novel, “Somebody’s Fool.” It’s the third book in a series he began in 1993 with “Nobody’s Fool” and includes the 2016 sequel “Everybody’s Fool.” The original book was made into a film with Paul Newman as Sully, a likable construction worker who is estranged from his son and divorced from his wife but has become caretaker to a variety of people in his small, depressed town. The character was inspired by Russo’s own father, whom he spent little time with as a child.

“Somebody’s Fool” comes out Tuesday. To launch the book, Russo, who lives in Portland, will discuss it during an author event on that day at Print: A Bookstore in Portland. His daughter, Emily Russo, is co-owner of the store.

In “Somebody’s Fool,” Sully is now dead but his memory is alive in many of the characters, and his life and actions continue to have consequences. Sully’s family and circle of friends are the focus of roughly half the book, while the other half focuses on Doug Raymer, who was an awkward young cop tormented by Sully in “Nobody’s Fool.” He rose to a capable police chief with self-esteem problems in “Everybody’s Fool.” In “Somebody’s Fool,” he’s retiring and trying to better understand himself and his romantic relationship with a fellow police officer, Charice, who is Black.

“Somebody’s Fool” goes on sale July 25. Photo courtesy of Knopf

Russo grew up in the gritty factory town of Gloversville, New York, and several of his novels are set there or in nearby upstate New York locales. “Somebody’s Fool” and its predecessors are set in the fictional North Bath, New York, and its more prosperous neighbor, Schuyler Springs. Those town are based on Ballston Spa, a popular tourist spot before many of the springs dried up, and nearby Saratoga Springs, which is a world-famous resort town and still has its springs bubbling. Both are very near Gloversville and that city helped inspire North Bath too.

Russo taught English at colleges in Pennsylvania and Illinois before moving to Maine to teach at Colby College in Waterville, but has been writing full-time since the mid-1990s. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel “Empire Falls,” which was set in a Maine mill town and was made into an HBO miniseries. It was filmed largely around Waterville and Skowhegan. That project again starred Newman, who also was a producer and worked closely with Russo.


Russo’s work was adapted for TV most recently as the AMC show “Lucky Hank,” starring Bob Odenkirk, which debuted in March. It is based on Russo’s biting and hilarious 1997 novel about academic politics in a small state university, “Straight Man.”

Russo, 74, spoke to the Press Herald recently about “Somebody’s Fool,” as well as his future plans and some of his past projects. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why did you want to update characters and stories you began writing some 30 years ago?

A: A lot of it actually had to do with the fact Sully was based on my father. I had never intended to write the second book in the trilogy much less the third – that was a big time gap. What I discovered in writing that was that I never really got enough of my father. Because my parents split up when I was young, I didn’t spend as much time with my father as I would have liked. We only got to know each other when I became old enough to drink. We worked road construction together for several years, when I’d come back from (college in) Arizona and help my grandparents with their house and work with my father.

We really got to be close during those years and then all too quickly he died. He had cancer, was a lifelong smoker. (Russo’s father died about 40 years ago, when Russo was in his mid-30s.) I just didn’t get enough of his company, so writing “Nobody’s Fool” was a way of kind of keeping him alive. Then I discovered writing “Everybody’s Fool,” again, it allowed me to have more of his company. So it was a way of covering in fiction a lot of territory we never got to cover in real life.

A poster for the HBO miniseries “Empire Falls,” based on author Richard Russo’s book, hangs in his office in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Q: Does that mean that Peter, Sully’s son, is based on you?


A: Peter is the last of the characters I warmed to. He’s my avatar in all of these books because he occupies the place and the circumstance that I occupied, but honestly I never really liked him. I like him a lot more now, because life has forced him to jettison the thing I didn’t like about him – he’s kind of protected himself with irony, the way educated people often do. (He has a Ph.D.) Irony was his defense against the world, and I saw that as a possibility for me. It was the thing about myself I disliked the most, now that he’s dropped that, as he becomes more honest about his feelings, I like him more.

Q: What were some of the challenges of continuing the stories of characters that began 30 years ago?

A: Raymer’s story was one of the bigger challenges. After George Floyd’s murder (in 2020) it was no longer possible to write a book, I think, in which two cops (Raymer and Charice) are basically the heroes of one of the stories. Raymer would now have to come to terms with the fact that this Black woman he’s in love with would not see the world in exactly the same way that he saw it. Part of this book is Raymer understanding that, if they did have a child together, that child would be Black in the eyes of the world.

One of the things I did to prep this book is I spent at least one year reading only Black and Brown writers. It seemed very important for me to do that, if I was going to write these characters now after George Floyd’s murder. I just had to steep myself in the experience of Black writers, old and young, because I think that’s part of the job. If you want to write something truly, you have to approach it with a kind of a humility. It also seemed necessary to have a really terrible cop (a new character) in this book.

Richard Russo at his Portland home/office, says writing a third book in his North Bath trilogy allowed him to spend more time his father, who died some 40 years ago. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Q: Are you thinking of updating or writing sequels to any of your books?

A: A number of years ago, I wrote a six-part miniseries based on “Chances Are” (2019). I loved that novel and the arc of the story is very dear to me. It’s set on Martha’s Vineyard. My mom introduced me to that island, and Barbara (his wife) and I spend time there every year with our family. I sent it off to some producers I respected very much and they said, “We love it but we can’t sell it.” They summed it up in four words: three old, white dudes. Which I understood. But the book is about class, not about race, and I wasn’t going to do that (change the race of one of the main characters).


Then, about a year ago, I thought about making the fourth most important character, a retired cop, Black. So I went back and rewrote the screenplay (which has not been sold). Doing so made me wonder about those three guys, Teddy and Lincoln and Mickey, between when the book takes place and the pandemic. I suddenly realized I’m not through with that island (Martha’s Vineyard) in terms of my fiction. I’m not through with Teddy. And I want to know, at a time during the pandemic when everyone wanted to move to Maine and everyone wanted to move to that island, what would have happened there. So I think I’ve got a sequel brewing there.

Q: Do you have any plans for a fourth novel set in Sully’s North Bath?

A: I think I’m finished with “Fool” books, but then, I’ve thought that before. Somebody just the other day was pitching me a fourth, with Will and Wacker (Peter’s sons) as the main characters. But I think I’ll leave well enough alone.

Bob Odenkirk in the AMC show “Lucky Hank,” based on author Richard Russo’s 1997 book “Straight Man.”  Photo by Sergei Bachlakov/AMC

Q: What is it like for you watching characters you wrote, like Sully or Hank (from “Straight Man”), played by actors in films or on TV?

A: Paul (Newman) and I had become friends and worked on a number of projects together. Paul’s portrayal of Sully had become so etched in my brain that, when I wrote “Everybody’s Fool,” I could no longer think of Sully as completely my own. A lot of what I remembered from “Nobody’s Fool” were memories, not from the book I had written, but from the movie.

That doesn’t happen all the time. With my novel “Straight Man,” so much time has elapsed since the novel (published in 1997) and the TV show. The whole world of the novel has changed so much. The academic world has changed dramatically. So when I’m looking at it, it’s as if it’s something I didn’t write, because in a sense, I didn’t. They had to create a completely different world, and because they shot it in Vancouver instead of central Pennsylvania (where it is set), a lot of the class stuff I had written isn’t there. When I was watching the show, I was really enjoying what Bob Odenkirk was doing with Hank, but it wasn’t my Hank. I wasn’t feeling territorial about it, it was just a different take.

Q: Do you still write as much as you did? Are you slowing down your pace at all?

A: One of the things this book taught me, and the pandemic taught me, and it amazes me, is that I still love what I do as much as I did at the very beginning. I cannot describe how much I love writing, and reading. There are other aspects of a writer’s life that I probably won’t do as much anymore, like the self-promotional parts. I think this will be my last book tour, for instance.

I’ve always felt an obligation to do those, because my publisher has always worked so hard for me, but I’ve come to realize I no longer have the physical stamina to do everything. So I’ve had to decide what’s most important to me in the time I have left. Since I’m still in love with and excited about writing, that’s what I have to concentrate on.

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