Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale. Part Two.

Richard Russo's visit to Butler was the grand finale of the year's Visiting Writers' Series. In my last post I wrote of part one of hits grand finale: Russo's jaw-droppingly instructive roundtable discussion of the five finalists in Booth's First Chapter Contest. I also mentioned a recent personal grand finale in the form of my son's bar mitzvah, the culmination of more months of planning than I care to admit. Part one of Sam's bar mitzvah began with this photo of my husband's ancestors.

Can't even remember where I got this gem; might have come from one of the piles of old photos my mother-in-law had squirreled away in her attic; might have been sent by dear Uncle Beryl. What matters more than its provenance, though, is the image itself, so textured and complex. This is what enchanted me: the multitudes of stories, all mysterious, held within this single frame. The landscape is barren, but each one of the faces superimposed on it hints at worlds of hardships, sorrow, and love. Part one of Sam's bar mitzvah concluded with stacks of vellum and a mess of satiny, sepia-colored ribbon, which dressed up the photo, transforming it into the invitation to my son's big day.

Part Two of Russo's visit was the reading he gave to the packed crowd at Atherton Union. The reading was as multi-faceted as the picture of Charles's ancestors. Russo began by telling us that he had never understood why readers want to know about the personal lives of authors. Recently, though, he said he has come to understand that people bring a curiosity to the relationship between the author and his work. It was this notion, Russo said, that informed the pieces he chose to read that night. Trying something new, he picked a few nonfiction pieces, so he could share a bit about his life, and then followed those up with some fiction, so we could see the relationship between Russo and the stories he writes.

It was a well thought out plan that made for a fascinating reading. Russo's nonfiction was every bit as compelling as his fiction, and it was astounding to see the myriad points of connection between the two.

When Russo finished reading he made some general comments that addressed this connection. He noted that every author uses similar imagery and phraseology within his/her work. For the author these repetitions exist at the molecular level, and are about as close to the author's soul as one can get. Just as Dickens writes about orphans, Russo said, his own work speaks to the despair of small towns past their prime, and the price paid by the men and women who work to sustain them.

Here are a few comments from the Q&A that followed the reading:

When asked about a passage from "Bridge of Sighs" that inferred that men are needier than women, Russo replied that in order to go beyond a surface, intellectual understanding, and reach a bone-level understanding, men may need to experience the same thing multiple times. And in addressing the differences between the sexes from another angle, Russo said that literature doesn't exist as men's writing or women's writing, and that writers must be able to transcend the deep boundaries so as to not be trapped in their own experiences. In Russo's most quotable quote of the evening, said that what he believes in first and foremost is imagination.

When speaking about his short story collection, "The Whore's Child," Russo remarked that his protagonist needed to overcome seemingly insurmountable conflict, and that this is required for all great writing. Dramatic urgency. Russo reinforced that the necessary ingredient for a successful story is a conflict he can't figure out how to solve. Writers investigate territory where there are no answers, he said.

Russo spoke about his writing process, saying he begins by reading, to get words in his head. Then he writes for 2-3 hours, longhand, which produces about 2-3 pages. Then he revises. And then he repeats the sequence over and over.

Russo's reading was epic, I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but it couldn't hold a candle to part two of Sam's bar mitzvah. Russo spoke about creating insurmountable problems in his work. One of the practically insurmountable problems in bar mitzvah planning is that Indianapolis has no hotels within walking distance of the synagogues. Try figuring out how and where to house the good-hearted and generous uber-observant cousins who can't drive on the Sabbath seemed like a hopeless task.

Family and conflict; they go hand in hand, don't they? Looking back, everyone -- including myself -- behaved reasonably well, but that doesn't mean the event passed without a few great stories.

I'll save those for part three.

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