Richard Russo’s latest, That Old Cape Magic, returns to the novelist’s longtime topic of choice: family, and all the endlessly fascinating narrative and dramatic tension that topic allows.
Its very Russo-ian protagonist Jack Griffin — a sixty-something former Hollywood screenwriter who now teaches at a small Northeastern college — is going through an existential crisis of sorts, set off by the death of his mother and the marriage of his only daughter. A typically dense narrative rife with sense of place and caustic humor follows.
CityBeat recently phoned the novelist and first-time grandparent (one of Russo’s daughters had given birth the day before) to briefly discuss his evolving writing process and the unexpected birth of a novel hot on the heels of 2007’s Bridge of Sighs.
CityBeat: You’ve been writing novels for 25 or 30 years now. How has your approach changed, if at all?
Richard Russo: (Laughs) Really? That long? My approach has changed. As a younger writer, I had a great faith and a great tolerance that this novel that I had no idea where it was going or how long it would take me to write, that everything would work out. Lately my process has changed in that I’ve become more of a worrywart.
When I’m 100 pages into a book like Bridge of Sighs and I feel lost, it causes more anxiety than it used to. In part, perhaps, because I think to myself, “God, Russo, how many novels have you written now? You’re supposed to know how to do this.” And when it becomes clear, as it does with each book that I write, that I don’t know how to do this, that I’m going to have to figure it out all over again, it causes me enormous anxiety where it didn’t before.
And so my process is longer now.
CB: How has screenwriting impacted your writing?
RR: It’s the exact opposite of what you’d suppose. Some writers, especially expansive writers like I am, when they start writing screenplays and you know that it has to come in at 120 pages, you immediately start to condense. What happens to a lot of writers is that their novels become like screenplays — more dialogue-oriented, less dramatic stuff that takes place in the past, less descriptive, less time in the characters’ thoughts.
What happens to me after I’ve written a script and I spend all that time in the present and all that time with dialogue is that when I write a novel again it’s like opening a tool box and discovering all those tools I hadn’t been using. Bridge of Sighs is the perfect example. It was my most 28 expansive, most digressive, most novelistic novel, and it was written after I had worked on a number of screenplays.
CB: Most of your books seem drawn from your own life, but with That Old Cape Magic that seems to be the case in an even more overt way. Why were you interested in paralleling your own life so closely this time?
RR: The autobiographical elements are definitely there. I think part of the reason was that this was never intended to be a novel. I had just come off Bridge of Sighs, which was in its own way my most autobiographical novel — it took place where I grew up and was just a big behemoth of a book — and when I finished that I was really exhausted. I thought I didn’t have enough gas in the tank to start another novel, so I thought, “Well, I’ll write a short story or two.”
But as I was writing the story I had two daughters getting married within the next 12 months. The other thing is that I was still mourning the loss of my mother, who had died just a few months before. And so as I started writing this short story, in my own life I was both looking forward to my own daughters getting married and looking backward at my mother’s life and what genetic gifts she had given me and what genetic gifts I was giving to my daughters.
The fact that it turned out to be a novel — no one was more surprised than I. If I said to myself, “I’m going to write about a guy my age, about a guy who is thinking about a lot of the things that I’m thinking about,” I probably would have said, “Nah, I’m not going to do that.” But it snuck up on me.
RICHARD RUSSO speaks at 7 p.m. Monday in McMicken Hall (room 127) on the University of Cincinnati campus. Get event and venue details here.