• Birth—July 15, 1949
• Where—Johnstown, New York, USA
• Education—B.A., M.F. A. and Ph.D., University of Arizona
• Awards—Pulitzer Prize
• Currently—lives in Camden, Maine
Prizewinning author Richard Russo is regarded by many critics as the best writer about small-town America since Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. "He doesn't over-sentimentalize [small towns]," said Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air." Nor does he belittle the dreams and hardships of his working-class characters. "I come from a blue-collar family myself and I think he gets the class interactions; he just really nails class in his novels," said Corrigan.
When Russo left his own native small town in upstate New York, it was with hopes of becoming a college professor. But during his graduate studies, he began to have second thoughts about the academic life. While finishing up his doctorate, he took a creative writing class; and a new career path opened in front of him.
Russo's first novel set the tone for much of his later work. The story of an ailing industrial town and the interwoven lives of its inhabitants, Mohawk won critical praise for its witty, engaging style. In subsequent books, he has brought us a dazzling cast of characters, mostly working-class men and women who are struggling with the problems of everyday life (poor health, unemployment, mounting bills, failed marriages) in dilapidated, claustrophobic burghs that have—like their denizens—seen better days. In 2001, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, a brilliant, tragicomic set-piece that explores past and present relationships in a once-thriving Maine town whose textile mill and shirt factory have gone bust.
Russo's vision of America would be bleak, except for the wit and optimism he infuses into his stories. Even when his characters are less than lovable, they are funny, rueful, and unfailingly human. "There's a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it's some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that," Russo said in an interview. That ability to envision himself in the bars and diners of small-town America has served him well. "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life," said the fiction writer Annie Proulx. "And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are."
From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview:
• In 1994, Russo's book Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis. Newman also starred in the 1998 movie Twilight, for which Russo wrote the screenplay. Russo now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.
• When he wrote his first books, Russo was employed full-time as a college teacher and would stop at the local diner between classes to work on his novels. After the success of Nobody's Food (the book and movie), he was able to quit teaching—but he still likes to write in tight spots, such as the Camden Deli. It's "a less lonely way to write," he told USA Today. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet."
• When asked what his favorite books are, he offered this list:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens—All of Dickens, really. The breadth of his canvas, the importance he places on vivid minor characters, his understanding that comedy is serious business. And in the character of Pip, I learned, even before I understood I'd learned it, that we recognize ourselves in a character's weakness as much than his strength. When Pip is ashamed of Joe, the best man he knows, we see ourselves, and it's terrible, hard-won knowledge.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain—Twain's great novel demonstrates that you can go to the very darkest places if you're armed with a sense of humor. His study of American bigotry, ignorance, arrogance, and violence remains so fresh today, alas, because human nature remains pretty constant. I understand the contemporary controversy, of course. Huck's discovery that Jim is a man is hardly a blinding revelation to black readers, but the idea that much of what we've been taught by people in authority is a crock should resonate with everybody. Especially these days.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald—Mostly, I suppose, because his concerns -- class, money, the invention of self -- are so central to the American experience. Fitzgerald understood that our most vivid dreams are often rooted in self-doubt and weakness. Many people imagine that we identify with strength and virtue. Fitzgerald knew better.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—For the beauty of the book's omniscience. It's fine for writers to be humble. Most of us have a lot to be humble about. But it does you no good to be timid. Pretend to be God? Why not? (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
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