|PULITZER PRIZE WINNER: FICTION|
May 7, 2002
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Richard Russo for "Empire Falls." It's a novel of big themes set in a small Maine town whose shirt factory has gone south. The main character, Miles Roby, finds himself caught in a life he hadn't wanted. Richard Russo makes that knowledge and all its rich limitations come alive. Russo is the author of four other novels, including "Straight Man" and "Nobody's Fool."
Congratulations, Mr. Russo.
RICHARD RUSSO: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You make Miles Roby such a decent, ordinary, and yet heroic guy. Tell us how you did that and what you wanted to accomplish through Miles Roby.
RICHARD RUSSO: Well, that's kind of my, that's my forte, I think, is turning characters that are somehow beneath the radar... because they're not terribly dramatic people necessarily or successful in the ways that we like to measure success, and yet see in their everyday lives a kind of heroism.
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York and did a lot of work among exactly such people doing such jobs as road construction and bartending and lots of jobs with a kind of repetitive motion to them and watched people work really hard at these kinds of jobs, and it always seemed sort of like a kind of heroism to me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wondered if there wasn't something of you in Miles Roby. Your grandfather was a glover cutter, right? And your mother wanted to make sure you got a good education, which his mother did, too.
RICHARD RUSSO: Yeah. I think that the most... where I see myself most in Miles Roby is in his absolute and unequivocal love of his daughter, Tick. This novel, more than any other of mine, is... derives, I think, from a kind of fear, really. The book was written mostly when my daughters were in high school. They're both in college. One is getting ready to graduate right now, as a matter of fact. But in high school, I was really worried about what the world was going to have to offer them. I was quite confident about them and the kind of young women that they were, but I was a little bit worried about what the world had in store for them. And this novel is big, it's complex, it's sweeping, but at its heart it's a father-daughter love story, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we won't give it away, but there is a shocking act of violence at the end.
RICHARD RUSSO: Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you started this novel, did you foresee it, or do you start a novel and work out as you're going, the story, and what happens at the end?
RICHARD RUSSO: Usually I don't know very much at the beginning of a novel. I like to figure out who my characters are, set them in motion and let what happens happen, but I have to admit, in the case of this novel I had a pretty good idea where I was headed, not necessarily in the details. I knew there was going to be this violent act. Right up to the end, however, what I did not know was exactly whom it was going to happen to, what the results would be, and I found myself the closer I got towards this denouement of this novel, the closer I got to it, the more panicked and constricted and just terrified I became because it was beginning to feel at that point absolutely inevitable. And, of course, that's what you want to feel in a novel, that things... that things could not be any other way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Russo, would you read from the novel for us?
RICHARD RUSSO: Oh, I'd be delighted.
"In the fall of Miles Roby's junior year, his father flush with summer house painting money bought a secondhand Mercury Cougar, the idea being that Miles would soon be old enough to get his license. By thanksgiving, however, Max had received three speeding tickets and run over a cat. Miles had been with him for the latter and seen, as Max had not, the animal streak under the wheels, and he turned in time to see the cat continue to run frantically around its own head, which had been flattened by one of the Cougar's rear wheels. 'What the hell was that?', Max said a few seconds after he felt the thump. He'd been leaning forward, one hand on the wheel, the other pressing the lighter to the tip of his cigarette. 'A cat,' Miles sighed, disappointed in himself for not seeing the animal in time to alert his father and save its life. When he rode anywhere with his father, Miles always felt a deep kinship with anything alive that couldn't run as fast as Max drove which, since there were no cheetahs in Maine, was just about everything."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That reading sort of gets to the heart of it. Max is actually a comic figure. We won't give this away either, but lots of funny things happen with Max. There's something very sad in this, a cat and a very graphic description of a cat's death. And then there are these very big scenes that are just touched on and that become part of this novel.
"Empire Falls" is the title. It's the name of the Falls, the name of the town, but it's also about an empire that falls in the same way that these little towns failed in New England. Did you mean all that at the beginning, too? Did you head out, did you start out with that in mind?
RICHARD RUSSO: No, that was one of the things that I was pleased to stumble across as... as I was writing the novel. Originally, actually, the title of this novel was not "Empire Falls," and the name of the town was "Empire Mills," but there were big events that were going to happen at the Falls. And I recall one day, many hundreds of pages into the book, for some reason or other I'd mistyped the name of the town and... because the word "Falls" was going to come out later in the sense and I wrote "Empire Falls," and I thought, "wow, I really like that a lot" because there are lots of towns in Maine that actually do have the title "Falls" in their name, the word "falls" in their name.
So this was a fortuitous accident. And like most writers, I think we're not always smart enough to figure things out and invent them, but we have to be smart enough to recognize them when they happen serendipitously, and that's what happened in this case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You started writing-- at least this is what I read-- when you were a graduate student at Arizona, and your first attempt at a novel was about Arizona, but it... somehow you went back to the towns in upstate New York and Maine that you've been writing about ever since. Why do you think that happened? Why are you staying in those towns?
RICHARD RUSSO: Well, one of the things that I learned in that first aborted... although it wasn't aborted soon enough. I continued, I continued to follow that mistake right straight through to the end. But one of the things that I learned, and a very kind and wise writing teacher taught me, was that the vast majority of that novel, which was set in Tucson, was really written with the eye of a tourist. I have a reasonably good eye, and I see what I'm looking at, at least part of the time. But there's a difference between seeing something with the eyes of a tourist and seeing something from the inside out.
And these towns that I write about are towns that I don't have to research. I don't really even have to be observing all that carefully anymore because they're kind of in my blood and in the rhythms of people's speech. These are the rhythms that I've been listening to since I was a kid. And I just know these folks, and I know these places, and I know how people get from one place to another in them. I have a geography in my own mind with all of these places which, in some cases, I've made up to a degree, but they're very real to me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Russo, just briefly, will this award change the way you live or work, do you think?
RICHARD RUSSO: Well, the best news, the best news after the prize itself, is that I was fortunate enough to have gotten about 75 or 100 pages into a new novel. I might very well have been paralyzed if I had gotten... if I'd gotten the prize and then had to think, "Well, what do you write after you get a prize like this?" But blessedly, I already had a book started. It's a book that I'm already convinced of the characters in. I can't wait to get back to. So, and I will be doing that at my first opportunity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Richard Russo, congratulations again, and thanks for being with us.
RICHARD RUSSO: Thank you so much for having me.