MONTPELIER, VT: If you were a writer, what would be the first question you would ask a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist? I’m having a hard time narrowing my list down to that one question, but Vermont College of Fine Arts President Tom Greene chose to open a public discussion here at our MFA in Writing residency with Richard Russo with this question: “Tell me about the day you won the Pulitzer?” An understandable question, as perhaps every writer has fantasized about what that day would be like for them. It’s also a difficult question to answer in an interesting way. But Russo is a masterful storyteller, and his answer set the stage for a great discussion in which Russo turned each question into an opportunity for a short story answer filled with scene and humor.
Russo won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Empire Falls (he also wrote the screenplay adaption of that book for the 2005 HBO mini-series starring Ed Harris and Paul Newman), and has published other novels and a memoir. A product of a hardscrabble failing mill town in upstate New York, he entered the world of academia as a literature professor (which he skewers in Straight Man) and then moved on to a life of full-time writing. The best way to capture his Q & A with Greene, I believe, is simply to bullet-list some of his “answers.”
- The day he got the call about the Pulitzer: There’s no short list for the Pulitzer, he said, so he had no real clue as to his chances. He knew the day the call would come if he were to win, however, and rather than wait by the phone, he and a friend went and played tennis, an unusually tight match that took exceedingly long to complete. When he returned home he saw his wife Barbara “standing on the front porch with a look on her face I had never seen before. I decided either someone had died or I had won the Pulitzer.” She had been fielding calls for a half-hour–from the Pulitzer board, from reporters and professional colleagues, from the world, really–but Russo and his wife escaped the onslaught of calls the next day due to a prearranged trip to Spain to promote the publication of Empire Falls in that country. When he returned a week later the phone was silent again: “It was gone.”
- What winning the Pulitzer meant to him: “For me, it gave me a great deal of confidence that I was doing the right thing in my life.” That statement drew gasps of disbelief from the audience of writers and lovers of literature, who were collectively stunned that Russo hadn’t already figured that out. But I think his next statement will resonate with many Artist’s Road readers: “When you don’t come from an artistic background” of people in your family who wrote or painted or composed music, “when you don’t have a blueprint, you are probably much more needy for reassurance. I felt validated, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll write another.’”
On embracing being a writer: Russo didn’t leap into fiction writing. For some time he focused on teaching literature over his own creative writing, but grew envious of the writing instructors at his university, who would go out drinking after their work days. If his colleagues gathered after work it was to argue in someone’s home about literary critique. But Russo was hesitant to declare himself a writer before he was published, because then people say, “‘Oh, you’re a writer, where can I get one of your books?’ Perhaps you might say you are writing.”
- His growth as a writer: Russo reiterated what every writer knows, that you’ve got to write out of your system at least 1,000 bad pages before you get to the good ones. He was told early in his writing career that because he was an academic, he’d first have to write 2,000 bad pages.
- On his writing habits: Russo has always done first drafts longhand. He always has a favorite pen and paper, although those have changed over the years. Interestingly enough, he composes screenplays entirely on computer, but he explained he came to that form of writing much later, when computers were more prevalent. He used to love writing in coffee shops–”I liked the noise around me, none of it about me”–but he feels chased out by the distraction of people talking on their cell phones. He now is trying something new, writing at home: “It’s not working very well.”
- On balancing writing and professional obligations: Russo was asked by a writing instructor in the audience how he found the time and creative energy to write while he was teaching. I felt his answer worked for anyone with a “day job” in addition to their personal writing. “You have to be sufficiently selfish. You have to put your own work first.” He said it’s tempting to first grade those student papers, to get that off of your list and tell yourself you’ll write after that. But that never works. What he’s found is that if he starts his day with his own creative pursuits, “I come out of that with tremendous energy I can then bring to my students.” I was heartened to hear that, because that is exactly how I approach each day.
For anyone who has attended a q and a with an accomplished writer, the answers Russo gave were insightful but expected. What this blog post can’t capture is the easy way he took any question, solid or sketchy, and turned it into a mini-essay of humor and warmth. Some people just “sound” like writers, and not in that pretentious way of using big words and overly convoluted sentences. In fact, when asked if he had a favorite sentence of his own, he paused a bit, and said his favorite sentences are not memorable, because they come when he takes a long passage he’s been struggling to articulate accurately–often the “longing” of one of his characters–and finally boils it down to just a few tight words. That, more than anything, resonated with me. I too enjoy the thrill of communicating a lot with a little.
If you too have won a Pulitzer Prize, feel free to share the story of how you learned of it! But I’d really welcome your thoughts on any of the topics he discussed.