Living Writers: Richard Russo

If someone ventured to Persson Hall to attend the next lecture in the Living Writers series last Thursday, they would have found it devoid of anyone. And for good reason: the lecture given by Richard Russo took place in Love Auditorium to accomodate the sheer number of people who attended. The auditorium was filled with students, professors and local fans of the author. And that doesn’t account for the people watching via live webcam, an alternative offering of the lecture series so parents and alumni can enjoy the incredible authors that come to campus every fall. This week, the audience was treated to an author who Professor Jane Pinchin introduced as “the patron saint of small-town fiction.”

One could almost feel in the auditorium how excited people were that Richard Russo was actually at Colgate, about to read from one of his own works.

Indeed, as Professor Pinchin said in her introduction of Russo, after reading his book Straight Man, “I was hooked and, like so many people in the audience, began my life and times with Richard Russo. I am not the only one who is hooked. Indeed, in the past week, a dozen friends, colleagues, stu­dents, neighbors, have come up to me and to Jennifer Brice to announce that they’ve read it all.”

Richard Russo has written numerous books, many of which are set in small towns not unlike our own Hamilton. This comes as no surprise, since Russo grew up in this very area in Gloversville, NY. His small-town background was part of the inspira­tion for one of his most well-known works, Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002.

However, a more recent work was chosen for the featured book of the lecture: Bridge of Sighs, which, as Russo puts it, “is about a boy who stays and a boy who goes.”

Alternating between the two narra­tives, the book follows the story of each. Russo read a rather lengthy excerpt from one narrative and a shorter one from the other, and it was quite an experience. The audience was able to fall into the story, even if they hadn’t read it before (I was included in this group – a minority in the auditorium). Russo read in a relaxed, unas­suming manner, getting several laughs out of the audience.

In the Q & A that followed, one audience member asked about Russo’s writing process. To this he replied, “I’m always reluctant to talk about my writing process be­cause it reveals how lazy I am.” It seemed he spoke in the same way he writes – with humor and hon­esty. When creating a character, he tries to find one he’s interested in, since he spends so much time with his protagonist. He likes to cre­ate a character that has a problem that he himself has no idea how to solve. He doesn’t like to know what happens next. Based on his fan base in Hamilton alone, his writing style seems to be working for him.

In addition to writing numerous books, Richard Russo has written screenplays both for film and TV, including the HBO miniseries based on his own work by the same title, Empire Falls. After retiring from teaching literature at Colby College, he moved to Camden, Maine, where he still lives with his wife. Although no longer liv­ing in central New York, based on his stat­ed delight to be once again in the area, it still remains dear to him.

Contact Margaretta Burdick at [email protected].