Sunday, June 12, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale, Part Three.

Devora Mack, my great-grandmother, was one of the many faces from the past featured on a large poster board I displayed in the front of the synagogue the morning of my son's bar mitzvah. Devora, who passed in 1939, was known to my father as Babalompola (his child version of baba from Yompola). Thanks to my dad's stories, Babalompola has reigned supreme throughout the years when I dream of my ancestors, so imagine my thrill at getting my hands on her photograph! This pic came courtesy of one of Babalompola's granddaughters, Lorraine Raskin. Lorraine told me how scared she was as a child when she did her granddaughterly duty and bent over the ever supine Babalompola, to kiss her. Dad, on the other hand, tells of a kind, gentle, and not-at-all-scary Baba, one unable to get up off the couch as the result of the watermelon-sized tumor in her gut, supposedly of the "female variety."

Life and stories are like this: there's never one answer, one point of view, or one way of telling the tale. For instance, those uber-observant cousins who came to celebrate my son's bar mitzvah, the ones I mentioned in Part Two. I wrote you how crazy complicated it was to arrange walking-distance accommodations for them because, well, I'm a glass half-empty kind of girl. Sure, it was discombobulating to figure out how to make their visit possible, but if I was a glass half-full kind of girl, my story would have told how happy I was that my cousins made this trip to celebrate with me. After decades of estrangement we've reconciled, and this was a show of their love and support. So what's my point? I guess my point is this: when you peel back a story, there are always more layers.

Russo's multi-layered visit at Butler ended with a Q&A especially for Butler's English students. Here Russo shared more thoughts on writing.

He explained that in the beginning of his writing career he envisioned his readers as average, working people -- just like the characters in his books. It wasn't until much later that he realized the average, working person doesn't want to be reminded of the sadness and limits in his world; he or she reads -- if he or she even has time to read -- to escape. Russo said he now knows that he is writing for an educated and urban reader, one that may have a small town in his/her background.

Russo spoke about writing about women. He said that because women are in the forefront of his life, he finds himself writing about women more and more. This was scary at first, though, because he was afraid of being told he doesn't understand women.

In speaking about his nonfiction work Russo said he initially shaped his pieces as fiction even though they were factual. The thought of calling the work nonfiction was unnerving. In discussing the tangled boundaries between fiction and fact, Russo said that the question isn't Did you invent this? but How is this shaped? He mentioned Jenny Boyle, a memoirist he admires, a transsexual who transitioned from man to woman. In speaking about Jenny, Russo mentioned this quote: Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it's not true. Now that's a line to remember! Russo said his recent writing has made him realize that the distinctions between fact and fiction are blurred.

Russo said that a writer can't create fictional characters without first learning empathy, and that fiction in general is a complicated business, and many attempting it fail. Every artistic decision the author makes takes other options off the table, and further limits every other choice the author makes down the line. He noted that in the journey to becoming an accomplished writer, the last things to come are voice, and a sense of the author's identity and style.

Russo ended his Q&A by discussing the genesis of his novels, saying that each new novel is born out of the dissatisfaction of the novel that came before.

Russo's visit was richer than I could ever imagine, as was my son's bar mitzvah. My uber-observant cousins came, as did my brother, who I've only seen a few times in the past decade. After so many years of living in the land of family-hunger, everyone who has ever staked a claim to my heart found a way to come to Indy and join in my family's celebration. We shared Shabbos dinner the night before the ceremony, listened while my son read from the Torah during his bar mitzvah, and danced to raucous music way later that night, staying up way past our bedtimes. We laughed and reminisced. We bickered and disagreed. We are family -- the best device ever for introducing drama and conflict into a story. The weekend passed like a dream. Even though it's true that, as Russo said, something doesn't have to actually happen for it to be true, I think a version of the flip side also holds: When what you want most in life finally comes true, it may take awhile for it to feel true.

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