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The Pull of the Past

Interview with Richard Russo, the Author of "The Pull of the Past."

Q: Jack Griffin, the 55-year-old narrator of your novel That Old Cape Magic (Knopf), can't find the right spot in which to spread his father's ashes. At one point he frets that "a strong gust might come up and he'd be wearing his father." Was that image deliberate?

A: My editor felt that line should be more literal, but I wanted Grif to be wearing his father, not his father's ashes. That is Griffin's metaphor for the inevitability that as he gets older—as we all get older—the laws of genetics will be obeyed.

Q: Griffin fears he is becoming his father. Do you fear you're becoming yours?

A: When I get out of bed now at age 60, I've caught myself making the same sounds my father used to! My lower back feels just like his must have.

Q: Was there a catalyst for this book?

A: Within the past 18 months, both my daughters got married, which may explain why a wedding anchors each of the book's two parts. For a year before that, I was hip-deep in preparations. These things don't come off overnight anymore.

Q: When will a Richard Russo novel feature a middle-aged male who is happy?

A: The happier a fictional character is, the less conflicted he is—and the less conflict, the less story. Contentment is the stuff of good living, not good fiction.

10 Stupid Questions for Richard Russo:

1) One critic has called you "our bard of the everyday verity." Is that "truth in labeling"?

A: Which critic was that?

Uh, that would be me. Just answer the question, please, sir!

A: I can answer a question with the word "bard" in it or a question with the word "verity" in it, but not both.

2) Does today's publishing scene inspire hope or dread in your soul?

A: It strikes dread in me for any young writer trying to get on this train that has slowed to a crawl. I just judged [with Anita Shreve and Stewart O'Nan] the 2009 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award contest [for "distinguished first book of fiction"], so I know there's blinding talent out there, but what's going to happen to it in this marketplace? Our daughter Kate is a painter and has also written her first one-act play, to be produced in London. How will new writers like her fare?

3) What's it like to win a Pulitzer?

A: It makes you believe that the very act of hanging up the phone causes it to ring again. We went to Spain around that time for four days because my Spanish publisher was bringing out Empire Falls, then we went to Venice so I could look at the original Bridge of Sighs [Russo's novel of that name appeared in 2007]. We were gone for a week, and the phone did not ring when we got back.

4) Because you hadn't hung it up recently?

A: What's your next stupid question?

5) Do you have any idea how funny you are?

A: Well, I don't crack myself up, if that's what you mean. Every now and then I will write something that seems deliciously funny, but usually it's something I've been working on for quite some time. It takes me three days to come up with a joke.

My serious answer—can I do that?—is that when I was in grad school, trying to become a writer, I didn't write anything funny—not a single guffaw—for the first year and a half. Then one day I wrote the scene of Dallas Younger looking for his teeth [which appeared in Mohawk, 2001], and it came alive on the page. "Oh, I get it," I remember thinking, "I can be funny—maybe I’m a comic novelist?" That's certainly how I look at the world, but I'd been writing for two years before it dawned on me that I might crack myself up on occasion.

All writers have certain revelations that have to do with [their] identity, and this was one of the final revelations I had: that making people laugh was okay, and that was as close to "truth" as I was ever going to get.

6) "Intrude" is a verb you've recently favored in describing human relationships. [See page ix of A Healing Touch, pages 218 and 358 of That Old Cape Magic.] If it's not too intrusive, may I ask what triggered that term—is imposition the heart of human interaction?

A: I wasn't aware that I was using that word any more than I've done in the past. Of late—maybe all along—I’ve been writing about that private place we all have where others are not allowed, even (especially?) those we love. Lucy, in Bridge of Sighs, fiercely defends that most private of places, so you may be onto something. To the extent that we really wish to imagine what it's like to be someone else—the novelist's first task—we're all intruders.

7) How pissed at you do you think Martin Amis is because Straight Man is funnier than his father's Lucky Jim?

A: I don't know whether Martin Amis has read Straight Man or not, but if so, he knows how much I revere his father's book. When I referred to my character as "Lucky Hank," it was an homage—no mistake!

8) The character of Sunny Kim in That Old Cape Magic feels like he wandered into the action from a soundstage nearby. What's up with him?

A: I don't think he wanders in any more than, say, Peter Browning, though it's possible they both do. In terms of the narrative, they may seem to wander in, but thematically they're at the heart of the matter, especially Sunny. That Old Cape Magic posits a rather old-fashioned notion: that marriage is a public institution, and that when marriages fail, the consequences are not entirely private. It's Sunny who understands this better than anybody except, maybe, Griffin at the very end... that something deeply private may be inextricable from something public. Sunny has fallen in love with Laura, with her parents' marriage, with America. It's Sunny who's not fooled by the encrypted message on the back bar wall.

9) The character of Joy, Griffin's wife of 30 years, "had many fond memories of… all-day Monopoly and Clue tournaments when it rained." But when Griffin goes to visit her family, his most anxious moment comes when "the dreadful board games came out—Monopoly, Clue and Life." Deliberate juxtaposition to differentiate their characters? Or were you forced to play board games as some sort of childhood punishment?

A: Actually, unlike Griffin, I love them all, except Scrabble—which, again unlike Griffin, I'm awful at.

10) The misspellings of "adrenaline," "reins," "stationery," and "fazed" in the review copy of this book don't constitute a very good advertisement for the Ph.D. program in American literature at the University of Arizona, do they?

A: No, they aren't a great advertisement—but the Pulitzer is. The typos will be gone by the final version; the prize is forever.

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