The Book That Changed My Life: Richard Russo

Richard Russo is one of American fiction's most acclaimed writers. He's won the Pulitzer Prize (for 2001's Empire Falls), and has earned praise for his chronicling of towns fallen on hard times, satires of academic life, and more. His new novel, Everybody's Fool, is a follow-up to 1993’s Nobody's Fool, which some of you may know from the acclaimed film adaptation starring Paul Newman. This new novel maintains the fictional setting of North Bath, NY, and moves the action roughly a decade ahead, shifting the focus along the way to Douglas Raymer, a police officer who also featured in this novel’s predecessor. We talked with Russo about books that have made an impact on his life, including one which worked its way into Everybody’s Fool.

What would you say is the one book that's had the most significant impact on your life?
I'm not sure that there’s one book that's had a more significant impact on my life than all the others, but if I had to select an author, it would probably be Dickens, and the book of his that haunts me most is Great Expectations, so much so that I let it also haunt Chief Raymer in Everybody's Fool. Though the book isn’t named, Raymer remembers reading the chapter where Pip meets Magwitch on the marsh, and it so terrifies him that he refuses to finish it, though Miss Beryl has urged him to, saying he'll identify with the young boy in it (which he does). Thirty years later, on his honeymoon, he brings the book up with his new bride, hoping she’ll tell him how the story ends.

How did you first encounter it?
I think I first encountered the book in eighth grade, as part of a textbook (maybe a third of the novel) and of course later in college. Since then I’ve reread and taught it many times, and my relationship to the book has changed. As a boy I fully identified with Pip. My own father came in and out of my life, as Magwitch does Pip’s. When Pip leaves Joe Gargery's house to live with Miss Havisham, and later goes to London to become a gentleman, he was only doing what I hoped one day to do myself — leave the grungy mill town where I grew up for some finer place, some better life.

How has your relationship to it changed over time?
Reading the book again in college was a completely different experience. You still feel for Pip, but his growing snobbery as a man about town and the shame he feels over Joe’s manners feel like unforgivable sins, and when Joe, treated so shabbily, says, "Ever the best of friends, ain’t us, Pip?" my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. To me, that line ranks right up there with Huck's “All right then I’ll go to hell." Now, in my sixties, I no longer judge Pip quite so sternly. Might he have been a better, kinder, more grateful man at key points in the story? Did he at times value the wrong things? Sure, but can’t the same be said of all of us?

In a recent interview, you mentioned that you're working on a screenplay about the life of Shirley Jackson. What drew you to her life and work as a subject?
The Shirley Jackson screenplay is a chance for me to work with my daughter Kate, who fell in love with Shirley’s novels and stories many years ago, and it’s her passion that will fuel the project, though I love Jackson’s fiction too. Our project has been greatly enhanced by a wonderful new biography by Ruth Franklin, out this year.

You've spoken about Everybody's Fool being an exception for you in terms of revisiting characters from your earlier work. Were there any books that you looked to as a model in terms of a satisfying continuation for these characters?
Well, if you’re a literary writer contemplating a sequel, it's hard not to think about Updike’s Rabbit books, and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels. But I’m just as fond of what Larry McMurtry's done over the years with the Lonesome Dove characters, though the sequels were as great as the original. And I particularly love the way he revisits Duane, whom we first meet in The Last Picture Show, every decade or so, in a new novel.