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Novelist Richard Russo

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls which was also a national bestseller. His subject matter is working-class unpretentious people, but as one reviewer writes he transforms 'every day people and seemingly ordinary events - into the quintessential'. He's written five novels in all, including Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Nobodys Fool (which was made into a film starring Paul Newman). His latest book is a collection of stories, The Whores Child and Other Stories.

35:01

Other segments from the episode on August 19, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 19, 2002: Interview with Richard Russo; Obituary for Larry Rivers.

Transcript

DATE August 19, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Richard Russo discusses his writing
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back from vacation. My thanks to Barbara
Bogev for hosting the show while I was gone.

My guest, Richard Russo, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his
best-selling novel "Empire Falls." It recently came out in paperback and is
on the best-seller list. Russo also has a new collection of short stories
called "The Whore's Child." Most of Russo's fiction is set in upstate New
York in small, working-class towns where there hasn't been much work since the
factories closed down. Those fictional towns are inspired by Gloversville,
New York, where Russo grew up. His novels include "Mohawk," "The Risk Pool"
and "Nobody's Fool," which was adapted into a film starring Paul Newman.
Russo's satirical novel "Straight Man" was inspired by his experiences
teaching at five colleges. The final one was Colby College in Maine, where
Russo still lives.

The title story in his new collection, "The Whore's Child," is also set in a
college. It's told from the point of view of a professor who was surprised to
find an elderly nun has gate-crashed his creative writing seminar. Her name
is Sister Ursula. Here's a reading.

000
Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Author, "The Whore's Child"): `She appeared in class that
first night and saddled herself at the very center of the seminar, despite the
fact that her name did not appear on my computer printout. Fiction writing
classes are popular and invariably oversubscribed at most universities, and
never more so than when the writer teaching it has recently published a book,
as I had done the past spring. I'd gotten quite a lot of press on my recent
book, my first in over a decade, and my fleeting celebrity might have
explained Sister Ursula's presence in my classroom the first chilly evening of
the fall semester, though she gave no indication of this, or that she
recognized me as her neighbor.'

`After class I did explain why it would be highly unprofessional of me to
allow her to remain in the advanced fiction workshop. After all, she freely
admitted that she'd never attempted to write a story before, which I explained
put her at an extreme disadvantage. My mistake was in not leaving the matter
there. Instead I went on. "This is a storytelling class, Sister. We're all
liars here. The whole purpose of our enterprise is to become skilled in
making things up, of substituting our own truth for the truth. In this class
we actually prefer a well-told lie," I concluded, certain that this would
dissuade her.'

`She patted my hand as you might the hand of a child. "Never you mind," she
assured me, adjusting her wimple for the journey home, "my whole life has been
a lie." "I'm sure you don't mean that," I told her.'

130
GROSS: THAT'S RICHARD RUSSO READING FROM HIS NEW COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES "THE WHORE'S CHILD." WHY DID YOU WANT TO PLACE A NUN IN A WRITING CLASS TO GET THIS STORY STARTED?

Mr. RUSSO: Well, actually this story has a strange genesis. It was actually
a part of my novel "Straight Man," which was an academic satire and rather
light, I think, in comparison to this story. And she was originally one of
Hank Devereux's students in that novel, and when I turned the novel into my
editor, I said, `What do you think about Sister Ursula here? I love her and I
love her story, but it's kind of a dark one.' And my editor agreed and said,
you know, `I love her, too, but we've got to get her out of this book, because
we're never going to be able to get back to the tone of that novel.'

But I think even as it stood in "Straight Man," I think that somewhere--I
don't think I probably had figured this out in any kind of, you know,
analytical way, but I think I had, in the back of my mind, that we were going
to get to the heart of Sister Ursula's story through fiction; that that was
the only way she was ever going to be able to get at the heart of her story,
was by trying to write the truth about it, and then having, in some way, the
truth come out through some sort of back door, through the very act of
storytelling.

300
GROSS: ONE OF THE INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT THIS STORY IS THAT THE NUN WHO
COMES TO THE WRITING CLASS HAS A TRULY TERRIBLE STORY TO TELL. SHE'S BEEN A
NUN HER WHOLE ADULT LIFE, BUT SHE IS THE DAUGHTER OF A PROSTITUTE. SHE NEVER
REALLY KNEW HER FATHER, AND THERE'S A LOT OF MYSTERY TIED UP IN HER FEELINGS
ABOUT HER FATHER AND IN WHO HER FATHER REALLY WAS. SHE FEELS, IN SOME WAYS,
HER WHOLE LIFE HAS BEEN A LIE. AND SHE'S TRYING TO GET THIS ALL DOWN, BUT
SHE'S ACTUALLY A TERRIBLE STORYTELLER AS A WRITER. YOU WRITE IN THE STORY,
`HER STORY SEEMED TO BE MOVING FORWARD WITHOUT EXACTLY GETTING ANYWHERE. IT
REMINDED THE STUDENTS OF STORIES THEY'D HEARD OTHER ELDERLY PEOPLE TELL, TALES
THAT EVEN THE TELLERS EVENTUALLY MANAGED TO FORGET THE POINT OF, NARRATIVES
THAT WOULD EVENTUALLY PETER OUT WITH THE WEAK INSISTENCE THAT ALL THESE EVENTS
REALLY DID HAPPEN.'

SO I'M WONDERING WHAT IT'S LIKE AS A TEACHER, AS A FORMER TEACHER NOW, TO DEAL
WITH STUDENTS WHO HAVE THESE REALLY URGENT STORIES TO TELL AND CAN'T QUITE
EXPRESS IT IN WRITING.

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. I mean, it can be excruciating for both them and the
teacher. It can also be very funny. Despite the fact that Sister Ursula's
story that she has to tell is a brutal and cruel one, the story, as related in
"The Whore's Child" is also very funny, because of the ways in which the
students try to come to terms with the story that she is telling them. And
it's much like that between teacher and student, because the student has, very
often, a series of true things, a series of true events, and so the first
thing that the teacher has to do is honor the material by suggesting that,
`Yes, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the material, and yes, a story can
be made out of this. But you're going to have to turn this into something
artful, which means that at some point or other in the story, what actually
happened is going to fail you, because all that will ever be is a sequence of
events, but it won't be a sequence of events that is, as in the section that
you read, actually going anywhere. It's proceeding without getting anywhere.'
And the teacher is really at this kind of ground zero of storytelling and
getting students to understand that happened will not be sufficient to the
story.

533
GROSS: DID YOU EVER FEEL THAT YOU INADVERTENTLY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED A STUDENT THROUGH YOUR CRITIQUE OF THEIR WRITING.

Mr. RUSSO: Oh, I'm sure of it. I mean, I can't think so much of a particular
instance. I remember one case, I suppose, at Colby College, it was a very,
very smart young woman who had turned in a story that just wasn't very good
and it wasn't very good in a way that was approachable. I mean, you could
explain to her at what level it was failing, but there was no way to do it
with as much--well, you just kind of had to say it, `Here's what's wrong.'
And I know that she was terribly wounded by that. She was on the verge of
tears leaving the class. And as often happens, those tears turned to rage the
very next day in my office. And, you know, we went through the whole thing
again, after she finished telling me what was wrong with me. But by the end
of that office hour, we had managed to go back to the story and get it on
track in a way that would work for her without compromising the thing that was
most important to her in telling the story to begin with.

So, I mean, yeah, these--and I'm not really sure from a student's point of
view whether the serious work that a real writer is going to do can be done
without that kind of criticism and sometimes even without that kind of, you
know, pain that you have to come through.

720
GROSS: DID YOU GO THROUGH THAT KIND OF PAIN YOURSELF FROM CRITIQUES WHEN YOU WERE A STUDENT?

Mr. RUSSO: Oh, you bet.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. I know that from first-hand experience. I was not a quick
study as a writing student. I had come to--I had been reading literature
seriously as a PhD student through what is the opposite end of the telescope,
and when it came time for me to write, I had a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad
expository habits. I wanted to both write the story and write the Cliff Notes
of the story at the same time.

GROSS: To tell what it all meant...

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...what it symbolized?

Mr. RUSSO: It was pretty ugly. And, you know, I had to be told that not just
once, but repeatedly. And, yeah, it was very wounding, but absolutely
necessary. So yeah, as I said, I was not a quick study at all, and so I
recognize the problems, many of them, when I see them in students, because
most of the mistakes that are out there to be made I made as an apprentice
myself.

835
GROSS: WELL, YOU DID GOOD. YOU WON THE PULITZER PRIZE THIS YEAR FOR YOUR NOVEL "EMPIRE FALLS," WHICH, I MIGHT ADD, IS NOW OUT IN PAPERBACK. SO WHAT DOES THE PULITZER CHANGE AND WHAT DOES IT NOT CHANGE WHEN IT'S TIME TO SIT DOWN TO WRITE?

Mr. RUSSO: Well, it's, you know, a wonderful validation. Somebody asked me
the other day if it was the greatest achievement of my career, and without
wanting to in any way diminish what the prize has meant, because, you know, it
is given this particular novel, and also my back list, wings out there, so
it's been absolutely wonderful. But it was certainly no more thrilling for me
than my first story, which was published in a literary magazine with a
circulation of about 300, and I was paid in, I think, seven contributors'
copies, which was a smaller number of copies than there were members of my
family to send it to.

But I remember being absolutely just insane with pride at somebody saying yes
to a story of mine. The thrill was--you know, I can still feel it of that
first story. And the first time somebody said yes and published a novel of
mine, my first novel, "Mohawk," was a similar kind of validation. And I think
all of these kind of--when wonderful things like this happen, what ultimately
it does is that it suggests to the novelist that, you know, `You've done the
right thing. You've made the right career choice. Go ahead, write another.'

What it doesn't change, of course, is that the pages, when I sit down to write
in the morning, are still empty until I fill them up, and it doesn't make the
process any easier. I'm just as prone to, you know, making mistakes as I ever
was. But by and large, it's just a wonderful validation that gives you the
kind of, you know, courage to start another book. 1100

FLOATER
GROSS: My guest is Richard Russo. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Empire
Falls" is out in paperback, and he has a new collection of short stories
called "The Whore's Child." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Richard Russo is my guest. He won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his
best-selling novel "Empire Falls." Now he has a new collection of short
stories which is called "The Whore's Child."

1150
WELL, "EMPIRE FALLS" IS ABOUT A MAN IN HIS 40S WHO HAS RETURNED TO HIS
HOMETOWN AND THERE HE RUNS A RESTAURANT. IT'S NOT THE WORK THAT HE REALLY
WANTED TO DO, IT'S NOT REALLY WHERE HE WANTS TO BE LIVING, BUT IT'S BECAUSE
BASICALLY OF FAMILY COMMITMENTS AND WANTING TO BRING UP HIS DAUGHTER THERE
THAT KEEPS HIM THERE. DO YOU WANT TO READ THE OPENING PARAGRAPH FOR US?

Mr. RUSSO: Sure. 1221 READING: `The Empire Grill was long and low-slung with windows that
ran its entire length. And since the building next door, a Rexell drugstore
had been condemned and raised, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter
and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and
its adjacent shirt factory. Both had been abandoned now for the better part
of two decades, though their dark, looming shapes at the foot of the avenue's
gentle incline continued to draw the eye. Of course, nothing prevented the
person from looking up Empire Avenue in the other direction, but Miles
Robie(ph), ****FINGER SNAP- BASS NOTE @ 1300 ********the proprietor of the restaurant, and its eventual owner, he hoped, had long noted that his customers rarely did.'

1307
GROSS: THAT'S THE OPENING PARAGRAPH OF RICHARD RUSSO'S PULTIZER PRIZE-WINNING NOVEL "EMPIRE FALLS." WHY DID YOU WANT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER TO RUN A
RESTAURANT?

Mr. RUSSO: Well, he had to do something. I'm not sure. I wanted--you know,
it could have been a restaurant. He could have been an insurance agent. He
could have been doing anything, I suppose, that contrasted with the way that
he had seen himself when he was young, which was, perhaps, as a college
professor. He is a young man who went away from a small town to college and
found out that it was really his world, and had looked forward to living the
life of the mind. And so I just wanted some sort of profession for him that
would contrast with that.

But, as you know, probably from reading other novels of mine, I'm very fond of
restaurants and diners, especially in small towns, because of my interest in
community.

1420
GROSS: WHY DON'T YOU DESCRIBE THE TOWN YOU GREW UP IN.

Mr. RUSSO: Oh, the town that I grew up in was Gloversville in upstate New
York, and it was, as you would expect, A TANNERY TOWN. My grandfather was a
glove cutter. My father cut leather from time to time, among myriad other
jobs that he performed, and that I performed with him when I was growing up.
But at the time when I was growing up, it was a one-industry town that had
already pretty much bottomed out in terms of that industry. It was like a lot
of my towns, unlucky, in that after World War II women stopped wearing gloves
at about the same time men stopped wearing hats. And when you're a town that
doesn't do much besides glove cutting and a whole generation of women stop
wearing gloves, you're in a little bit of trouble.

1517 And also, of course, the other thing that was happening, too, was that where
gloves used to actually be cut in Gloversville, a lot of them now were being
made overseas, and in some cases actually shipped to Gloversville all made,
except for maybe a button or something to be stitched on, and once that was
done they could claim that the glove was made in Gloversville. 1540 So it was the
tag end of, you know, an era for a town. And once that industry began to go
south, there wasn't an awful lot to replace it, and what did come in to
replace it certainly wasn't of the same sort of jobs that had left.

1600
GROSS: NOW YOU LEFT HOME--YOU WENT TO COLLEGE AND YOU LEFT HOME, SO YOU
DIDN'T MAKE YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE IN THAT KIND OF SMALL TOWN, AT
LEAST--YOU'VE TAUGHT IN SEVERAL PLACES; PROBABLY SOME OF THOSE WERE SMALL
TOWNS, BUT IT WASN'T THE POST-INDUSTRIAL SMALL TOWN THAT YOU GREW UP IN.

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, right. Right.

GROSS: BUT YET YOUR CHARACTERS ALWAYS ARE THERE, OR USUALLY ARE THERE. WHY HAVE YOU KEPT YOUR CHARACTERS IN THAT KIND OF TOWN THROUGH THE YEARS?

Mr. RUSSO: Well, I'm not sure how many writers out there are giving voice to
the kinds of people that I write about. When I was going to college and doing
a lot of various kinds of construction work with my father, I think it was
probably in between my junior and senior year, I was a laborer, but I was
working with carpenters. And if you're a college kid and you're working with,
you know, laborers, carpenters, people like that, in the summer, they ridicule
and berate in a very good-natured way because, you know, they know that you're
going away. You're going back to a world of books and ideas, and they're
going to continue doing this very hard work that they've been doing for a long
time. I liked these men a lot.

And one of them that summer, I remember saying to me--I said, `Well, I'll see
you next year,' or something like that--`I'll see you soon.' And he looked at
me--because, of course, that was a lie, and it was just a way of saying
goodbye--and he looked at me and said, `No. No, I'm never going to see you
again. You're never going to see me again. You're going to become educated
and you're going to get a job somewhere teaching kids and you're going to have
a good, easy life and you're going to forget about me and all the guys like
me, and that'll be that.'

And he didn't say it in such a way that he thought that that was a bad thing.
He said it in a way that suggested that that was what it was about; that that
was what he hoped would happen. And in a way, I mean, what he said was partly
true, because I did--you know, I finished that degree and did another and then
did another after that and educated myself out of the kind of very hard,
back-breaking work that I used to do in the summers with my dad. But he was
wrong about forgetting these people. And I find myself, in my imagination,
for reasons that I don't entirely understand myself, going back into this
world and giving voice to the kinds of people who I still have an enormous
amount of respect for, and also understanding of. I sometimes suspect that I
understand the people in places like "Empire Falls" probably better than, you
know, any other world that I have inhabited since then, and I've inhabited,
you know, the world of academe and some other worlds. But this the one that I
know kind of way below the skin.

GROSS: Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Empire Falls" is out in
paperback. His new collection of short stories is called "The Whore's Child."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: Coming up, we remember painter Larry Rivers and listen back to a 1992
interview. He died last week at the age of 78. And we continue our interview
with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Russo, and talk about book clubs,
book blurbs and writing in restaurants.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Richard Russo. He won
the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year for his best-selling novel "Empire
Falls." It recently came out in paperback, and it's back on the best-seller
list. His previous novels include "Mohawk," "Straight Man" and "Nobody's
Fool," which was adapted into a film starring Paul Newman. Russo has a new
collection of short stories called "The Whore's Child." Let's pick up where
we left off.

You know, you have said before that when you started writing, it was as if you
were writing what you were writing and the Cliff Notes for it at the same time
because you were doing so much explaining of the meaning and everything.

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, now your books are actually used a lot in book clubs. In fact,
the USA Today Book Club shows "Empire Falls" as its first book club book.
What have you learned about your readers and what people read into your books
from the book clubs and how people interpret or even misinterpret your books?

Mr. RUSSO: I have to say, Terry, I'm not sure I even understand these various
book clubs. I was talking with a writer friend of mine the other day who was
saying, with a rather melancholic expression, that these book clubs are
keeping an awful lot of us writers afloat these days, you know, and I think
that's true. And many of us have a great deal to be grateful for in that
respect. But it's a phenomenon that I have to say I don't entirely
understand. Do these people miss their own high school English classes so
much that they want to come back and re-create the experience of talking about
novels? And I always think of reading as one of the most intimate of
experiences. I mean, I just--it's like sex. I'm not sure it improves in
groups.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSO: It gets weird out there. But on the other hand, I mean, it's
wonderful that people are excited about books, all kinds of books, and there's
certainly nothing wrong with a group of people getting together with a glass
of wine, although I think the wine is essential to a lot of these gatherings,
and talking about books and being excited about them. I'm excited about
books, too, although I have to admit--probably I'm jaded because I spent so
many years in the classroom talking about books in the same way that book club
members are now talking about them. And so probably as somebody who did that
professionally, I don't feel any great urgency--you know, I feel urgency about
books--when I read one I love, you know, I thrust it into the hands of my
friends and say, `You have to read this.' So I'm excited about the book, but
I don't have that feeling that after they've read it that we then have to sit
down and talk about it. I feel like I've discharged my duty in giving it to
them and they discharged their duty in reading it.

GROSS: Now I haven't seen it yet, but I understand that there actually are
the equivalent of Cliff Notes being published now for reading groups.

Mr. RUSSO: Oh, of course, yes. That coincides, I think, with the paperback
publication of--a lot of, you know, quote, "serious" fiction these days gets
published in editions that will have, you know, kind of readers' group
questions attached to them specifically for this purpose.

GROSS: Have you seen any of those things for any of your books?

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I...

GROSS: What was that experience like?

Mr. RUSSO: I don't know because I didn't read them, but I know that they're
there.

GROSS: Why won't you read it?

Mr. RUSSO: Well, as I say, I don't read for credit anymore. I'm 53 years old
now. I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. You know, I also don't read interviews. I read reviews of
my novels because you'll often learn things in those, but I can't read
interviews that I've given because it's like staring at yourself too long in
the mirror. And I feel the same way about the readers' guides that come out
for my own novels. I don't think I'd have any objection to reading--I might
enjoy, actually, reading the reader's guide questions for somebody else's
books, but to look at them for your own, again, it's just a little bit like
staring lovingly in the mirror. I don't think I'd care to do that.

GROSS: Now the main character in "Empire Falls" runs a restaurant. You are
reported to do a lot of writing in restaurants and cafes. What do you like
about writing in a public space?

Mr. RUSSO: I don't know if it's actually that I like. I've just been doing
it so long now, it's just part of my modus operandi, I guess. And I certainly
didn't start doing it because I enjoyed it. I was teaching at the time and
teaching, you know, lots of courses and, you know, I was probably going over
to the school cafeteria to steal an hour and a half between classes and, you
know, wolfing a hamburger and then trying to steal an hour, with all the, you
know, cafeteria-type nonsense going on around me because it was the only time
I had to write. And I think that, you know, at the time I used to think, `My
God, won't it be wonderful if I ever get to the point where I can have a
study--you know, I can actually have a place to work? It'd be quiet, and
won't that be great?' And, of course, I now have such a place and I can't
work in it. It's too quiet. And I've just gotten--it's just become part of
my ritual. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anybody. You know, it's just
something that has always worked for me.

And I have to admit, the nicest thing about writing in a public place is that
when you come out of your trance, because I can work in a place that's very
busy and not know anything that's going around me for, like, a couple of hours
at a time--when you come out of it and there are other people around, it's
kind of nice, because you're just immediately back in the real world and there
are people going about their lives. And it's different from coming out of the
trance, you know, in the middle of your own study where it's quiet and you
see, you know, that two hours have elapsed and there's nobody around. Writing
is kind of a lonely business and lonely endeavor, and if you can do it, as I
do, in a public place and then kind of come out of it into the world, into the
real world, with real people, that's actually quite nice.

GROSS: Now I'm wondering if it's almost easier for you to sit down to write
in a public space. You know, a lot of writers have to go through a lot of
self-deception before sitting down to write, like, `Oh, this isn't going to be
that hard.'

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: `I'm only going to do it for a half-hour.'

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah.

GROSS: But if you're doing it, like, in a cafe or something, well, you know,
it's a nice social setting, people are going about their business, you're kind
of...

Mr. RUSSO: Right. And if the phone rings, it's not for you.

GROSS: That too, right.

Mr. RUSSO: That's the other thing, too...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RUSSO: ...is that, I mean, there are all sorts of things going on, but
none of it means anything to you. And if you're not going to write, I don't
really have any reason to be there. So unlike at home, you know, you find
yourself staring into the refrigerator, you don't even know how you got there,
you know. You've been upstairs, you were going to work, suddenly there you
are with the refrigerator door open staring in there. Stephen Dobbins has a
wonderful quote about a middle-aged man staring into the refrigerator as if
that was the place where the answers were kept, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSO: So, you know, if you're out somewhere, you know, you don't have
to worry about the television or the telephone or the refrigerator or check
your e-mail or any of those things, and it's great advantages to having all of
those distractions, you know, a couple of blocks away.

GROSS: One last question. What are you reading this summer?

Mr. RUSSO: You know, I don't read hardly any books anymore that are actually
bound books. I've been reading manuscripts. I've been reading galleys--bound
galleys. They come any more at the clip of about four a week. Once a book is
actually between covers, I stand much less of a chance of reading it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSO: By the time a book is published, I'm probably not going to be able
to get to it, and so...

GROSS: Is this because everybody wants a blurb from you?

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, sure. Sure. But I've read really--I've had a good summer
in terms of my reading. I liked Julia Glass' novel "Three Junes" a lot, and
Jean Harfenust's book, "A Short History of the Flood," is terrific. Those are
two that I can recommend and a couple of others that won't be out yet for
another six to nine months or so, so I won't recommend those right now because
they're not available. But...

GROSS: You have no problem with blurbing new books?

Mr. RUSSO: No problem? I've benefited early in my career--John Irving, who
doesn't give blurbs anymore, I understand, said some kind things about
"Mohawk" and Pat Conroy said kind things about "The Risk Pool," and those came
at a time in my young writer's life when they were just enormously helpful to
have a writer of that stature say something nice about my work. And so I've
tried to, whenever I can, return the favor.

GROSS: Right. Be generous, but be honest?

Mr. RUSSO: As much as--yeah, I mean, I think everybody realizes that the
blurb industry is what it is. I don't think that--a lot of what happens in
the blurb industry has nothing to do with even the public. I think it's
individual editors in individual houses trying to get up enthusiasm for the
publication of this book within their own, you know, house, getting the people
in advertising and marketing as excited as the people are in editorial. So
the blurbs are used for all sorts of different reasons and, you know, it's a
part of the landscape.

GROSS: Right. Well, Richard Russo, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RUSSO: I enjoyed it, Terry, as always.

GROSS: Thanks.

Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Empire Falls" is out in
paperback. His new collection of short stories is called "The Whore's Child."

Coming up, we remember painter Larry Rivers and listen back to a 1992
interview. He died last week. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Larry Rivers discusses his career as an artist
TERRY GROSS, host:

The painter Larry Rivers died last week of liver cancer. He was 78. We
waited until today for our remembrance so that we could devote more time to
it.

As Carrie Rickey put it, `Rivers wedded representation with abstraction,
parodied art history, anticipated by a decade the concerns of both the pop and
color field painters, and prophetically engaged in what post-modernists might
call appropriation and deconstruction.' New York Times art critic Michael
Kimmelman wrote, `Rivers helped change the course of American art in the '50s
and '60s, but his virtues as an artist always seemed inextricably bound up
with his vices, the combination producing work that could be, by turns,
exhilarating and appalling. He had an omnivorous curiosity about life, sex,
drugs, politics, history and culture.'

Larry Rivers' good friend the late poet Frank O'Hara, summed up Rivers this
way: `Larry entered the scene like a demented telephone. Nobody knew whether
to put it in the library, the kitchen or the toilet, but it was electric.'

I spoke with Larry Rivers in 1992.

Now often when you paint a figure, there's, like, a feature that's missing,
you know, like...

Mr. LARRY RIVERS (Artist): Yeah.

GROSS: ...there's one eye...

Mr. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...but the other eye is kind of blank. It hasn't been painted at all.

Mr. RIVERS: Right. Yes.

GROSS: How did you start doing that?

Mr. RIVERS: Well, I think there was a certain spontaneity in my work. In
other words, no matter what I was doing, I wanted it to come off sort of
quickly or without too much trouble and, you know--as yet I hadn't right up to
the point where I wanted things to look labored and that I really did a lot of
hard work, which would be a reflection of a certain kind of good character.
So the first eye, you don't have to worry about where you place it. I mean,
you just put it down somewhere below a brow or something like that. But when
you come to the second eye, you really have to make calculations about how
wide they're apart for it--there's no way of putting in a second eye unless
you're Picasso to make it realistic without sort of real close judgment and
changes and things that would slow you down, would make your hand work, let's
say, from the knuckles instead of an arm movement.

And I think that I just left it out at first for those reasons. I didn't
think it was necessary--really what it amounted to. And I think there are
other parts of the body missing, too, but people notice it in the face because
the face is so clearly, you know, an image that we know all the parts of.

GROSS: Something else you've done throughout most of your career is write on
paintings. Sometimes the letters are stenciled, sometimes handwritten.

Mr. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Sometimes parts of letters are missing or blurred. How did you start
using words on paintings?

Mr. RIVERS: Well, I think that--now don't forget, the cubists had the word
journal--I mean, they would have a newspaper in their painting. So in other
words, I didn't do anything that was that, you know, new. The only thing is I
think I was bolder about it and didn't hide it in a certain way, and then in
certain paintings, it's almost the point of the painting. I did these
vocabulary lessons, which obviously are words and features, and I thought that
there was something sort of ironic, I suppose, in all that. And please
forgive me for trying to be ironic, but that was one of the reasons--also my
hand is a very, you know, artistic one in the sense that I make gestures with
my paint and they're, like, loose, flowing and things like that, whereas a
letter has sharp edges and it's much more definite than the painting. So the
combination of this very definite thing plus this loose, you know, arty kind
of work with colors all over the place seemed to make me happy.

GROSS: You married when you were pretty young.

Mr. RIVERS: Yes.

GROSS: Your girlfriend got pregnant...

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: ...and that's how you ended up getting married. She already had a
son.

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: But you didn't want a family. In fact, you wrote, `My life was not
going to be about living. It was going to be about art.'

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: So you felt pretty trapped by having a family.

Mr. RIVERS: I guess so. Given my personality, I probably didn't even feel
trapped. Nothing was going to stop me. I mean, I felt a little bit of
something. Don't forget, I never really gave them up, and eventually, I
really brought them up. I brought up these boys and lived with the woman's
mother. I lived with my wife's mother. I didn't live with the wife. So it's
complicated looking it over. I mean, I was not going to be stopped from what
I wanted to do, but at the same time, I wasn't going to abandon the boys or,
you know, the mother and we lived together. And they were very helpful in
many ways.

GROSS: Do you think that you couldn't have become an artist without being
somewhat selfish?

Mr. RIVERS: That's right. I think I model myself on my distorted notion of
what Picasso was about. I thought that somewhere along the line I had heard
that, without reading it, somewhere that Picasso, you know, walked away from
every relationship and children, things like that, and all that life was about
was art. And I felt that that model was something that was of interest to me.

GROSS: Looking back, do you think that you behaved badly toward your family?

Mr. RIVERS: Some people might. I don't think I behaved badly. I made up
for--in one way I was sort of, you know, on my own, selfish, things like that,
but at the same time I provided for them. And so it's not very different than
what most men are about. They go to offices eight, 10 hours a day and they
come back and `Don't bother me.' They're looking at television or a newspaper
and they're drinking a beer or whatever it is, and then the child walks in,
they give them a two-minute kiss and maybe once a year they go somewhere for
three weeks or something. I don't think life is that different, you know, for
myself and other people.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1992 interview with the painter Larry
Rivers. He died last week of liver cancer. He was 78. We'll hear more of
the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: The painter Larry Rivers died last week at the age of 78. He had
liver cancer. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 1992.

Now your mother-in-law, who you lived with for many years, you painted her
naked a couple of times.

Mr. RIVERS: Yes.

GROSS: And I'll just describe her physically briefly. She was, you know, an
older woman...

Mr. RIVERS: Yes.

GROSS: ...kind of heavy and almost what we'd describe as peasant-like body.

Mr. RIVERS: OK.

GROSS: Fair?

Mr. RIVERS: I never heard that expression about a body.

GROSS: No? OK.

Mr. RIVERS: Go ahead. But...

GROSS: No, no, OK. Yeah.

Mr. RIVERS: But anyway, you mean the painting that's in the Whitney Museum.
It's "Bertie Twice"?(ph)

GROSS: "Bertie Twice," yeah, yeah.

Mr. RIVERS: Yeah, right.

GROSS: Now why did you want--you know, it seems like a real taboo, don't you
think, to paint your mother-in-law naked?

Mr. RIVERS: Well, I told my mother-in-law--if you read the book, that part,
I said to Bertie--she sort of said, `Why do you want to paint me?' You know,
she had the simple notion that an artist wants to paint beautiful things. She
looked at herself, she didn't think she was beautiful. So I said, `Rembrandt
painted older women'--oh, I forget her name. Anyway, she's got her two feet
in a stream and she has a kind of gown raised up and she's not a young woman.
Now you didn't see her breasts, but there are others that Rembrandt did where
you do see this older woman. I thought that I had a very special opportunity.
I was able to get someone that age close to me who actually I could really
look at and see what was going on.

So it had two levels. I painted it to make a painting and things like that,
but I couldn't help be aware of what, you know, happens to the body. I was
actually amazed that it looked that good. What I mean, I'm talking about on a
sexual level. She didn't really seem to me to be unattractive.

GROSS: Were you uncomfortable or was she uncomfortable when she was posing
for you?

Mr. RIVERS: I certainly wasn't uncomfortable. I felt that she--maybe the
first few times, then she sort of--it was OK. It was her son-in-law, you
know, she thought that anything she could do to help. I told her, you know,
that `Maybe we'll sell that painting,' or something, so she actually thought
she was posing for the good reason of a working-class woman who thought that,
you know, we would make some money or something like that and...

GROSS: Did you?

Mr. RIVERS: Did I? I think when I sold those paintings, they weren't very
expensive and things like that. I made something, sure. But I wish I had a
lot of them today. I would have made more.

GROSS: Now you also did a naked painting of your son Joe.

Mr. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...when he was 14. And there's a part in your book where he talk
about what it was like...

Mr. RIVERS: Yes.

GROSS: ...to be painted by you. And he wrote that he wanted to be
immortalized in your paintings, but he didn't really want to hang around and
pose nude for it. He was 14 at the time.

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: In the painting he's nude except for his socks.

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: He says his pubic hair was just coming in.

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: Then the portrait was shown at the Southampton Gallery in Long Island,
New York, and half of the high school from that area had their parental
permission to go to the gallery...

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: ...and he was very embarrassed until...

Mr. RIVERS: You had to get--in other words, in order to walk into that
gallery, they had to have a note from their parents that they could walk into
that gallery. Go ahead.

GROSS: And then finally the police removed the painting...

Mr. RIVERS: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...of your son and he was relieved, and he says to this day he has a
twinge of embarrassment when he sees it.

Mr. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you realize he was going to feel that way; that, you know, at the
age of 14 it was going to be kind of embarrassing?

Mr. RIVERS: No, no. It was all very jolly, like I suppose a lot of families
in which, you know, you don't--there's a central pot everybody's dipping into,
and that's sort of the ones that don't speak of the dark things. I think that
he may have felt that way, and maybe I even thought about it, but I didn't
think it was anything too much to ask of a child, truthfully speaking, and I
think he actually--you know, he did it. He knew I was a painter and that's
what I do, and that he would be useful. If he was embarrassed, I'm sorry.
You know, so what?

GROSS: So how did you feel when the police took the nude portrait of your son
away?

Mr. RIVERS: I wasn't surprised. Actually, I thought, you know, it's the
United States of America and that's what they do. I thought it was following
a certain pattern. I actually got a boot out of it. Like, in other words,
when do you start hearing of people? Only when they do something sort of
like--no one heard of Mapplethorpe until those things were shown and everybody
got into the act about how horrible and pornographic and, you know, base it
was and things like that. So I probably thought I was following a certain,
you know, path of the avant-garde, like you do a painting, there's a lot of
clamor, take it down, and then it ends up in the history books, `When that was
first painted, thousands of people protested. Now look, it's a masterpiece.'
I must have thought all that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you thought maybe it was a good career move.

Mr. RIVERS: Well, not exactly career move. You mean that they took it down?

GROSS: That they took it down, yeah.

Mr. RIVERS: Maybe.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RIVERS: I didn't think exactly that way, but it got a lot of attention
because of it.

GROSS: You were very close with the poet Frank O'Hara.

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: You were lovers for a while even though you don't think of yourself as
homosexual and have, you know...

Mr. RIVERS: That's right.

GROSS: ...been married twice and...

Mr. RIVERS: I was so straight, I could be homosexual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But you write that you started thinking of yourself for the first time
as sexually attractive...

Mr. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...when you started hanging out in homosexual circles.

Mr. RIVERS: Right.

GROSS: How did that affect you?

Mr. RIVERS: How did it affect me? Well, I just said it. To feel sexually
attractive is rather pleasant. But I think that I didn't get that--I'm not
saying that that's why I got interested in men, but that there was that
difference, in my existence. That women didn't talk about, you know, some guy
with a great ass or, you know, a great basket as the homosexual talk at that
time, and the area around the fly, as it's telling you what's going on inside
it. But it was sort of interesting. I mean, it brought me up to another
level about sex that I, too, could be, you know, exciting to someone, is
really what it amounts to.

Now I really wanted it to be with women. They would go to bed with you, but I
never got the feeling that they went to bed with you because you were sexually
exciting. I don't know why. I mean, it's kind of silly. I feel now like a
baby. I can't see how they could have not thought that way. Then why would
they go to bed with me? Probably they wanted to have sex with me. But I
never interpreted it that way.

GROSS: When you were younger, you were part of a circle of artists,
musicians, poets and--I mean, there were even, like, artist bars to hang out
in. Is there anything in your life like that now?

Mr. RIVERS: No. No. I have a band, but there's no place--you have personal
friends. I don't go to bars. It's embarrassing.

GROSS: It's embarrassing because people know you or...

Mr. RIVERS: No, not because people know me. It's that you--I thought bars
were a place to go to try to pick up someone, forgive me. And the idea of
sitting there with this notion in my mind, looking the way I do and, you know,
getting the treatment of `Mr. Rivers, oh'--you know, where you're no longer a
possibility for a liaison, but just some, you know, respected citizen of
Southampton or wherever you are, or they don't even know--it's too obvious,
and I think that it just doesn't work anymore.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. RIVERS: So I stay home and paint.

GROSS: Larry Rivers, recorded in 1992 after the publication of his memoir.
He died last week at the age of 78. He had liver cancer. The Corcoran
Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has extended its retrospective of Rivers'
work until August 25th.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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