More than 20 years after exploring the high-spirited hijinks of the small community of North Bath, New York, in the bestseller Nobody’s Fool (1993), Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo revisits the town and his now-iconic characters.
Everybody’s Fool takes place over a very eventful two-day span in the lives of North Bath’s residents. Donald “Sully” Sullivan is staring down some bad health news and wondering how to break it to the important people in his life. But in the background, the intrigue and drama of small-town life—romantic affairs, financial struggles, gossip—rumble on. Russo’s comic ability and his nimbleness when it comes to laying bare the human heart have never been more powerful. We asked the author a few questions about his new work and why he can’t stop writing about Upstate New York, the “place [he] left behind.”
What made you want to revisit the character of Donald "Sully" Sullivan 23 years after you created him in Nobody's Fool?
My pal Howard Frank Mosher, to whom Everybody’s Fool is dedicated, has been after me to write another Sully novel for over a decade and I finally gave in. But the book’s real genesis was a great story somebody told me several years ago about a local cop. In his wife’s car he found a garage door remote that didn’t open their garage and he leapt to the conclusion that she must be having an affair. The guy actually went around town with the remote, hoping to find out whose garage it would open. Thinking to myself, “Who would do such a thing?” I remembered Office Raymer, Sully’s old nemesis from Nobody’s Fool. And I was off to the races.
Did you have any trepidation about doing that, especially after any Academy Award-nominated performance by Paul Newman that might fix him in the mind of some readers?
I had all manner of trepidation, and not only about Newman, who was not just fixed in the reader’s mind as Sully, but also in my own. There was also Jessica Tandy as Miss Beryl and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who played Raymer (and who I thought of the whole time I was writing this novel). But it’s a book about memory—the whole thing takes place over a Memorial Day weekend—and writing the book was a way of keeping not just my characters alive but also the talented actors who brought them to life in Robert Benton’s great movie.
You apply a comic sensibility to subjects that include aging, illness and death and what seems like the irreversible decline of the town of North Bath, New York. What were some of the challenges as you tried to make that mood and subject matter work together?
I learned from Twain that if you’re going to go to dark places, you’d best go armed with humor. The dead in Bath are in open revolt, their caskets lurching up out of the ground, whole sections of the local cemetery coming untethered. Both the town and its inhabitants appear to be circling the drain, the result, often, of some broken faith, some mistreatment of the earth. Among the citizens, Chief Raymer’s descent is both the most alarming and, I think, the funniest. From the moment he faints into an open grave, his trajectory is pretty scary. His choices seem guaranteed to deepen the fix he’s in, but he tries so hard to do the right thing that we have little choice but to sympathize with the poor guy.
Much of your fiction has been set in small, struggling upstate New York towns not unlike your childhood home of Gloversville. Though you've lived elsewhere most of your life, what is it about this territory that has so captured your imagination as a writer?
It’s true that my imagination has been captured by these struggling towns, but in the end it’s more the people than the setting. As a young man I left Gloversville determined to find my destiny in some finer place. I loved the University of Arizona and my life in Tucson, loved the idea of living the life of the mind among people who shared my newfound values. But summers I returned home to work road construction with my father, and gradually it came to me that, while I was attracted to my new friends and my new life out West, the people I loved most—my grandparents, my father and his pals, my cousins, some old friends—were all in the place I’d left behind. The larger world was ignoring these folks, the lives they led, their struggles to find dignity in hard work and family, their kindness and modesty.
After your highly praised memoir, Elsewhere, how did it feel to return to novel-length fiction?
I never wanted to write Elsewhere. It just felt necessary to do so. Returning to novel writing, though, was exhilarating. Unfettered by facts, my imagination could once again slip its leash. That said, the new book offers up a very large canvas with a lot of characters, all of whom wanted their say, their moment. Trying to fit all their stories and backstories into that two-day time frame just about drove me crazy. For about six months I was ready to shoot myself, convinced there was no way to make it all work. But then, as usually happens with novels and novelists, just when you’re ready to give up, some solution occurs to you and the pieces begin to fit and you see the pattern that’s previously eluded you. The scary thing about writing novels is that they’re all different. What worked last time, won’t this time, and there’s always that little voice that whispers to you that this time you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, located the very story that will show you who’s boss (not you).
This novel is nearly 500 pages and in the past you haven't avoided writing lengthy novels. Do you have any concern about doing that in an age when readers' attention spans are supposed to be shrinking to the size of tweets?
I suspect it’s true that people’s attention spans are shrinking, and it’s also true that the world is noisier than ever before. But people still love to dream deeply. Throughout the ages Art has always demanded that we slow down, and the faster our lives go, the more we seem to appreciate the reprieve that Art—good writing, good paintings, good films, good photographs—offers. Do tweets offer real, lasting satisfaction to anyone? Does Instagram?
Are there any writers who serve as literary role models, or works that you return to for inspiration for your fiction?
Like many readers I was deeply saddened to lose Kent Haruf last year. He was not only a great writer, but also a great man. He went about his work with great seriousness and modesty, caring not one iota about fame or fortune, but only the work, always the work. It, not him, was the important thing. He felt fortunate to be the one holding the tools and was ever grateful for the opportunity to wield them. I’ve never known a kinder man or a more honest one.
How do feel about the current state of American fiction and who are some of your favorite writers working today?
I couldn’t be much more bullish on American fiction, especially the young writers in the pipeline, the ones just beginning to make names for themselves. I say this with great confidence, having fairly recently judged a first novel contest and been a guest editor on Best American Short Stories, where I discovered writers like Hannah Tinti, Karen Russell, Rebecca Makkai, Michael Dahlie, Lauren Groff, Tea Obreht and Maggie Shipstead. What I’m less optimistic about is the state of American publishing. Digital platforms continue to erode and undermine the economic model for print, and large publishing houses are now often part of even larger entities that sell lots of other stuff at much bigger margins, causing publishers to wager big money on what they believe to be the most commercial books, often at the expense of “smaller” more important ones. The result is diminished careers, especially for emerging writers. Today’s young writers may be as talented as any that have come before them, but what good does that talent do them if their opportunities are seriously diminished? And in the end, of course, readers lose out as well.
Can tell us anything about your next project?
Next up is a collection of short fiction, and after that a selection of essays about imagination, destiny, and the writing life. My daughter Kate and I are also hoping to collaborate on a screenplay based on the last few years of Shirley Jackson’s life, when she was writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle.