Richard Russo on Painting a Canvas With His Novels

When did you start work on "Empire Falls," the novel?

Actually, I've been working on "Empire Falls" coming up on a decade now. The idea would have gone back at least five years before that. What usually happens is that when I start getting close to the end of a novel, something registers in the back of my mind for the next novel, so that I usually don't write, or take notes. And I certainly don't begin. I just allow things to percolate for a while.

Most of my novels begin with a character in some sort of dramatic situation that I don't know how to solve. One of the first things that I had with "Empire Falls" was this notion of Miles Roby, a character that I was interested in. And I think from the start I thought of him as a man trapped not only by circumstance, but by love as much as by anything else. Mrs. Whiting has got Miles trapped. She's got him running that restaurant that he's promised to run until she dies, at which point she'll give him the restaurant. But she comes from a very long-lived family, so while he might want to do other things, as long as he's good to his word with her, she's got him trapped right where she wants him.

But the more important thing, the thing that always intrigued me about Miles was that he wasn't so much trapped by economic necessity, although that's the way he talks about it. He says, I can't move until the restaurant is mine, until I can sell it, I don't have the money. That's a theme that I'm sure is not new to me, but you don't see it all the time. And it interested me that a man in middle age could be trapped by a couple of different kinds of love. One of which resides in the past, and the other sort of in the future.

He's trapped by his affection for his dying mother, and what her dreams for him were, and not trying to betray those dreams. He gets into this situation coming home to Empire Falls and taking over that restaurant because of his love for her, and his refusal to abandon her when she gets ill. So he's trapped by the past, and by decisions that he's made in the past.

But the other great love of his life, of course, is his daughter. And it's her future that he's thinking of all the time. Even as he can think of things that he could do to make himself happier, they all seem to compromise his beloved daughter, Tick.

So the central characters in it are compromised by a past, and a future that are impinging upon the present all the time.

Do you usually have specific themes in mind that you want to explore?

No. It's usually the other way around. When I look back over my novels what I find is that when I think I'm finished with a theme, I'm generally not. And usually themes will recur from novel to novel in odd, new guises.

There's a way in which my early novels centered around fathers and sons, and male behavior, but the idea of family was kind of central to them. "Empire Falls" is, in a way, my first father daughter story. Which was, I suppose, inevitable given the fact that I have two daughters who were junior high school and high school age when I was writing this novel.

So it's not all that surprising that my interest in family, in the relationship of parents and children, which had manifested itself as fathers and sons in earlier work, and is now fathers and daughters in this novel.

It wasn't that I sat down in the beginning and said, oh, it's time I wrote a father daughter story. It's just I was interested in this character of Miles, and then suddenly his daughter was right there. And she began to take on the characteristics of my own daughters. And my devotion to my own girls began to play itself out in some sort of fictional form.

And lo and behold, I was writing again, coming from a slightly different direction on some things that I had been writing about in "Straight Man," and in "Nobody's Fool," and in "The Risk Pool." Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don't have to go looking for it. [LAUGHS]

How do you approach structuring a story with so many complex interwoven characters?

That's a good question, because I'm struggling with it right now in a new novel where I'm doing exactly that. My belief, and sometimes beleaguered belief, is that even when I try to write a small, contained story, it's just the nature of my imagination for things to expand outward.

And so I've kind of learned over the years that usually my efforts to contain things don't work out very well. It's the reason I write so few short stories. And the reason my novels, even when I think that they're going to be short when I begin, ultimately turn out to be longer.

I see a character, and then I know suddenly who his father and mother were, and who his uncle was, and who his siblings were, and who his best friend was when he was growing up. And suddenly I've got what seemed like a very small painting now is a much larger canvas with a lot more people on it. And my belief has always been that if you follow these characters, they will tell you what their relationship is to each other, and to your story, and to their themes.

And so you just kind of have faith. You give them life, you set them loose in the world, and you have to trust as much as you can that they will come back to you with the answers that you don't possess. And will, ultimately, surrender themselves to a structure once that structure has been made known to you.

If that all sounds kind of mystical, it's because I really don't know how it works, but I trust that it does. I try to write the way I read, in order to find out what happens next. What these people are to each other, and what they are to the story. And structure is one of the things that I always hope will reveal itself to me. Because ultimately they do. They all have to work together eventually.

What was the process like, turning your novel into a screenplay? Did you have to kill a lot of your favorite children, as they say?

Well, no. I mean, the fact that we were doing it for HBO, and that we were going to have three and a half hours to spend made my job, um, I was going to say easier. In fact, what it actually did was made it doable. If it had been a two-hour movie, I would have had to turn it over to somebody else. I just couldn't see how it could be done.

The most difficult thing about writing the screenplay for Empire Falls was what I alluded to earlier. Was that the screenplay was based on a novel that had already cost me more than any other novel I'd written, emotionally.

When I finished with the novel I felt drained, in need of a blood transfusion. I decided to put together a collection of short stories just to avoid beginning another novel. I was so exhausted I just couldn't see my way clear to starting that.

I was working on another screenplay, and looking forward to somebody else, actually, doing the screenplay for Empire Falls. Because I thought, at the time, what it needed more than anything else was a pair of fresh eyes. I was toast, I thought, at that point, and did not look forward to what I knew was not going to be an easy adaptation, even if we did have three and a half hours to accommodate the novel's complexities. It was still going to be difficult.

And I told Paul Newman when he was trying to convince me to do it that I just wasn't sure I was up to it. That I was tired, and I had given these characters everything I had. It was Paul, really, that talked me out of that, and said, of course you're tired now. But it really should be you. Nobody's going to know it as well as you do. And you're going to be surrounded with good people.

All of which I knew, but I needed some convincing on that point. I wrote a draft or two, which I shared with Paul. And then Marc Platt came on board, who was enormously helpful. I did several drafts with him, and with Scott Steindorff.

And just about the time that I was thinking once again that I was out of gas, we took it to the studio and got very good notes from HBO. I mean, HBO is really famous for hiring good people and staying out of their way until they ask for help, or need it. And that reputation is earned.

And then the final piece of the puzzle was (director) Fred Schepisi, who came in really at a time where everything seemed stale. Everything that I had done seemed a reworking of something that I had done before. I just couldn't see anything fresh anymore. And Fred came on board, and sat down with me over the script. And we'd actually done a couple of things that he thought were taking it in the wrong direction.

Fred got me to see things with those fresh eyes that I'd been looking for right from the start. And here was yet another new set of fresh eyes.

And so it was really, largely a matter of people keeping me as fresh as they could, and as enthusiastic, and as energized as was possible at the end of what was, for me, a very long road. I mean, there's always difficulty when you're adapting your own novel to the screen, which is why most writers don't adapt their own work.

What do you hope the audience will take away from the movie?

I guess I would retreat to what is both my glib and my truthful answer. I can be glib and truthful all at once here. [LAUGHTER] I remember when I was teaching at a state university in the Midwest. And the university would bring in one major figure to give a lecture. And the writer that we brought in to visit the university that year was Isaac Bashevis Singer. And he gave a wonderful reading that night. But during the day, all the honors students got together for an hour and a half just with Mr. Singer. And the students kept asking Mr. Singer, 'What is art?' And, 'What is the purpose of literature?' And he said, 'The purpose of literature is to entertain,' he held up one finger, 'to entertain and to instruct.'

Then he let his voice fall. And another student said, 'Well, yes, but shouldn't literature also...' And he interrupted him. He said, 'To entertain, and to instruct.' Three or four other students tried to get him to elaborate on these two principles, and even asked him, 'Which is more important?' And he said, 'I gave them to you in the order of importance'...

And here's this eighty-five-year-old man. And you just could not budge him. He had been asked a simple question, and he was giving a simple answer. And it was one he had been thinking about all his life: the purpose is to entertain and to instruct.

So, I would hope that people would first of all be entertained. Because I think it's very funny. And I think people will see that. They will marvel at these wonderful performances.

But I hope that if the purpose is to entertain and to instruct, that they will take something away from the movie that was at the center of the novel. I think when horrible things happen, people kind of look at each other and say, 'Why? Why did this have to happen? Help me understand this.' And the answers that they get are very often sociological. And often offered in a not a terribly helpful way.

You know, you say, 'Why did Columbine happen?' Well, people on the right say it's because of violence in movies and video games. People on the left say it's because of the availability of guns. And the argument goes on as if we have to choose between these explanations.

But really what people are asking is, 'What does it feel like when something like that happens? What does it feel like to be a parent? What does it feel like to be a child? And that's what stories do. They bring you there. They offer a dramatic explanation, which is always different from an expository explanation.

And I think that if people are instructed about anything, it should be about the nature of cruelty. And about why people behave so cruelly to each other. And what kind of satisfactions they derive from it. And why there is always a cost, and a price to be paid.