Richard Russo on life and writing

‘The Destiny Thief’ gives us some rules for the road.

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There’s nothing like an overnight success to make our hearts leap up.

Best-selling, Pulitzer prizewinning novelist Richard Russo became an overnight success in 2001 with the publication of his fifth novel, “Empire Falls,” which won him the Pulitzer, became a hit HBO miniseries, and moved him to the novelist A list.

Of course, overnight is a relative term. Russo, now 68, had been banging away at the Underwood and on the laptop for well over 20 years before the boffo hits came. His first novel, “Mohawk,” was published in 1986 to encouraging debut novel reviews. His third, “Nobody’s Fool” (1993), impressed the NYT reviewers, got real commercial traction, and became a movie.

His latest, “The Destiny Thief,” is a nonfiction twofer on life and writing, and it’s a good one. If you don’t care about being a writer, his story will illuminate best practices for living well through knowing yourself. If you are dying to write or already write, this is a special treat that involves the same self-knowledge process.

Russo is an authentic man and writer: honest, funny, sometimes profane, who writes clearly what he means to say. While he’s got a Ph.D. and has taught writing in colleges, he is a blue-collar kid from an upstate New York factory town. He is not an Olympian, mystical figure. Nor will “The Destiny Thief” scold you on the pitfalls of the gerund or warn of dangers of the pluperfect tense. None of that.

Instead we get Russo’s Rules for a Good Life:

 

  1. Search out the kind of work you would gladly do for free, and then get somebody to pay you for it.
  2. Find a loving mate to share what life has in store …
  3. Have children. After what you’ve put your parents through, you deserve them.
  4. If you have a sense of humor, nurture it. You’re going to need it, because, as Bob Dylan has observed, “People are crazy and times are strange.”

 

He tells you what he did to become a writer, what happened, and what he believes will happen to us if we work at it. He believes, for example, that 95 percent of good writing can be learned by instruction, trial and error, and practice, practice, practice.

The other 5 percent — the voice great writers have — comes from scouring your insides to learn who you are and what you stand for in your life. Yeesh. To paraphrase the current U.S. president, “Who knew writing could be this hard?”

Russo, with 13 books, eight novels, two movies, and eight screenplays, is grateful to be able to write full-time these days from his home in exotic Portland, Maine. He’s got another novel well underway, and he’ll journey down here on Monday, August 6, to talk about his craft with novelist Geraldine Brooks at the “Islanders Write” conference, sponsored by this newspaper and Arts & Ideas magazine.

Russo took some time to speak with The Times about “The Destiny Thief.”

Why a book on writing?

I was looking at some of my writing — and some go back a while — various pieces on writing, friendship, and life. They looked suspiciously like a book. While not on the subject of destiny, they are related to that. People in middle age looking at lives lived but not planned, and [who are] as mystified as I am.

Richard Russo’s latest book explores writing and the writer’s life. —Elena Seibert

“The Destiny Thief” reads as a combination memoir and thoughts on writing.

I hope that’s true. Some books on writing are a little mystical for my mind. I aimed for the general public, but I hope it helps aspiring writers looking for ways to write. Some wisdom, for what it’s worth, to younger writers who are on a tougher road than when I broke in. I also hope it serves as a kind of comfort.

You use metaphors, like the medieval guilds and your grandfather’s development as a master glove cutter, as part of the writer’s road as well. What about the notion that great writers are born, not made?

I come from a different place, from great respect for complex tasks and [the value of] imparting craft and skill. Of course writing can be taught. It takes years to make it right. Ninety-five percent of writing can be taught. The other 5 percent is learning your character, who you are, what you want to devote your life to. It’s like that circular buffering you get on your computer when you’re searching, and talented writers are often being buffered until their search is complete.

That 5 percent is often hiding in plain sight. I had a student 25 years ago who was talented and very funny in her interactions, but her writing was very dark. I asked her one day why, if she was so upbeat and funny, her writing was so dark.

She reacted as though I had punched her in the face. She believed that no one had ever taken her seriously, and that people wouldn’t take her seriously unless she wrote serious, dark work. Sometimes it takes someone else to help you see.

What’s the fiction landscape look like today?

Realistic maximal fiction is roaring back as the minimalist postmodern phase dwindles. There’s talent in the pipeline. I see it in the literary magazines, and I’ve read some breathtaking first novels.

 

Richard Russo will speak, along with Pulitzer-prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks, at “Islanders Write” on Monday, August 6, and will sign books at the event. For a schedule and more details about “Islanders Write,” visit islanderswrite.com.

“The Destiny Thief,” by Richard Russo, Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.