Writer Wednesday: Richard Russo

Richard Russo thinks of himself as a comic writer.

I had the advantage of being able to interview Richard Russo for my newspaper’s entertainment section just as I was writing a craft essay about him for my MFA program.

Russo was coming to town this past June to discuss That Old Cape Magic. I had just finished reading Empire Falls, and I was very excited to speak with him.

During the interview, Russo surprised me by referring to himself as a comic writer. In fact, he compared himself to Mark Twain, with whom he appeared in Granta magazine this summer. That ran counter to my observations as a reader. Sure, there were moments of humor – pure slapstick humor, actually – within the 483 pages of Empire Falls. But the book was more of an American epic, not the work of a humorist.

I didn’t get it until Russo told me that he considers people to be funny.  Just watching people being people, he said, can be enormously funny. That made sense, because Empire Falls is a lot like sitting in your hometown, having coffee at the diner and watching everyone you know as they walk by, living their lives.

And he’s right – people are funny. We’re funny in the same way that our cousins in the monkey house at the zoo are funny. We have basically the same motivations, and our attempts to get what we’re after can be just as clumsy and brash. And that can be hilarious, or it can be horrible.

“I do gravitate toward folly,” said Russo. “Sometimes there are tragic consequences to human folly.”

For the full story, click this link. For the craft essay I wrote about Russo’s graceful management of multiple viewpoint characters, read on.

Richard Russo’s cast of characters in Empire Falls

In 2005, three years after Richard Russo’s Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, HBO produced a two part, three-hour teleplay penned by the author himself. The cast was impressive, containing, among others, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt and Robin Wright Penn.

No less impressive is the cast of characters in the novel itself. Russo wrangles the storylines of about 22 characters, a stunning feat, which he pulls off gracefully. What struck me most about the book was Russo’s ability to write about a very small town in such a way that the reader experiences of the town itself.

Russo does this by using a gradual introduction of characters, allowing the readers to meet the characters as a person who moved to a small town might actually meet them. First a visitor might be told about a person, then the person might be glimpsed from afar, then the person might be formally introduced, and gradually that person would become familiar.
Russo accomplishes this trick through the use of a limited omniscient viewpoint, which James Frey author of “How to Write a Damn Good Novel” defines thus:

…The author claims the right to go into the heads only of certain characters and not others. These selected characters, usually the protagonist and two or three others, are called “viewpoint characters.” (p. 104)

Most of the characters met in Empire Falls are viewpoint characters, but I’d like to begin my analysis of Russo’s style of introduction with one who is not: Francine Whiting.

We first see Francine on page 13 in flashback through the eyes of C.B. Whiting, who is then engaged to her. She is described as a young woman, slender, bright and ambitious, the daughter of a poor family cheated by her future husband. Though the reader might be tempted, at the outset, to think that the young Francine might end up being victimized by the older, wealthier C.B. Whiting, we learn in three pages that she will become the dominant personality in their marriage. When we next hear of her, fifty years has passed and Francine Whiting has cowed the entire town of Empire Falls, sucking it dry. The novel’s protagonist, Miles Roby, spends a tortured 36 pages avoiding her. Finally on page 59, we meet her in the narrative moment and understand why everyone in Empire Falls fears her. She sits in her office with a model of the town, talks about willpower and seems to know how to pull the strings of everyone who lives in Empire Falls. We see that the skinny girl we met on page 13 is much more formidable than everyone around her, and we spend hundreds of pages learning just how formidable she is, and why. One of the tricks employed by Russo to make Francine Whiting terrifying is this: unlike almost every other character in town, she is shown to us from only the exterior. We see her from several points of view, but we never are able to experience her own point of view. She is unknowable not only to Empire Falls, but to the reader as well.
I also want to take a look at the readers’ introduction to Empire Falls’ other unknowable, terrifying resident, the abused boy John Voss, the one element in town over which Francine Whiting appears to have no control.

John’s introduction comes from the point of view of Miles’ 15-year-old daughter Tick on page 78. He is in art class, and he is unsettlingly quiet, which scares Tick. We then see him through the viewpoint of reporter Horace Weymouth, although at the time we do not know who he is.

…there around back of the dark old house had secretly witnessed something that had rattled him to the core, something that went far beyond the selfish, greedy, unprincipled, venal utterly irredeemable shit-eating behavior he was used to and sent him stealing back out to the road as if he himself and not that sad alarming boy had been the guilty party. (p.124.)

For the most part John is a mysterious character, silent except for one uncharacteristic conversation with Tick (p. 185). We see him through the eyes of several different people as each tries to learn something about the boy: the principal, Miles, Tick and Zack the school bully all describe John to us. Still, we never see the world through his eyes.
The best example of Russo’s oblique introductions, I think, is that of Otto Meyer, Jr., the high school principal. We first hear about him though Tick, who is disgusted by him. She considers him, like most adults, to be hypocritical and possibly stupid.

You had only to look at Mr. Meyer to know that he’d been the kind of fat kid everybody made fun of and that lunch had surely been a torment to him. He’d either gravitated naturally to the leper table or sat by himself at a table designed for sixteen, a target for all the kids overcrowding the cool tables, the tables that were identified as cool by who had a right to sit at them, codes established the first day of school, the rules clear to everyone, no need for color coding. You had only to look at Mr. Meyer to know he’d spent all his high school years getting hit in the back of the head with all manner of throwable food, yet here he was worried that Tick was going to mss out on the important “socialization” aspects of a good secondary education. Some damn thing must have hit him in the back of his pointed head pretty hard during one of those lunches, Tick decided, because the man honestly seemed to have no recollection of them. (pp. 74-75.)

Despite Tick’s adolescent disdain, when we are introduced Meyer in the narrative moment 10 pages later, we see him taking care of her after she faints in art class. And later, through her father’s flashback, we discover that Tick’s cruel assessment isn’t entirely true: Meyer was a successful baseball player in high school.

We also see him in the narrative moment through Miles’ eyes, and we realize that Miles likes Otto. He respects Otto and trusts his daughter to Otto’s care, and he reveals details about Otto’s past that make the reader like the principal. Later, we follow Otto Meyer through his own point of view, which reveals him to be a decent, fair man, if an anxious one. He genuinely cares about the students and teachers in his school, and he is forceful in the way principals need to be forceful, reading an errant teacher the riot act and seeing through the lies of crafty bully Zack.

This unfolding of Otto Meyer’s personality is powerful – he begins as the irritating high school principal and ends the novel as a beloved friend. More masterly still is the fact that Russo was able to do the same with almost every character in the book. We start the novel having just heard their names, but by the time we leave Empire Falls, we realize that we will miss them.

4 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Richard Russo

  1. I love Russo so much! I wonder if you would have started with a different book if you would have understood why he considered himself a humor writer. I love how he described it to you and I totally get that. His humor is so real because it’s ingrained in his characters.

    My absolute favorite of his (and possibly one of my very fave funny books) is Straight Man. I love it like burning!

    I’m just reading The Risk Pool now. Have you read it?

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