The Newburyport Literary Festival–Part I–Richard Russo
From the looks of things, I would have to say the first annual Newburyport Literary Festival was a smashing success. We arrived just in the nick of time to get seats for the Richard Russo reading, which was held in the beautiful UU church.
Richard Russo was immediately charming in that he told the audience he was nervous when he was first introduced to the place he would be reading because he was offered the high pulpit to read from. He declined saying that he would need to tell a story of Jonah and the whale from up there. He has a terrific reading and speaking voice from which there was not one ounce of condescension.
He read from his collection The Whore’s Child, specifically, selections from the humorous and poignant short story, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart.” After the reading, Russo took questions from the audience (many of which started with, “This isn’t really a question, more of a comment… ” grrrooooaaannn!).Russo was gracious and interesting in his responses.
When asked something about moving from novel writing to short story writing, Russo discussed how he is a novelist “by inclination and temperament” and that the short story form is difficult for him. He said that this collection had been in the making for him from approximately twelve years and that he finds that when he’s working on a novel and then a section starts to take over or diverge, he removes it and sets it aside.
These orphans are then often transformed into other things–such as short stories. In fact, he said that at least three of the stories from this collection had once been parts of novels. For example, Sister Ursula from “The Whore’s Child” had originally been William Deveraux’s student in Straight Man, but that her story was too dark and so he and his editor decided to take her out (Actually, when Russo brought his concern about her bit being too dark to his editor, his editor responded with something like, “Off the nun.”)
When asked whether he’s known any of his characters in real life, Russo (who took the question as a compliment), said that if you succeed in creating a believable fictional character that people become convinced that you must know/have known this person in real life. Russo said that yes, real people can provide a starting point but you are never going to know a person well enough to make a character based completely on him/her.
Finally, Russo was asked many, many questions about the movies made of his books (and also, you may not know that he is a successful screenwriter, and so he spoke to that as well, saying that he now spends his time between writing novels and screenplays).
As far as seeing his work on screen, when it’s one of his novels that has been adapated, he says he feels in the beginning a “slight dislocation” because the character he envisioned may not immediately conform to the actor. However, the “dislocation” lasts only momentarily because then the actors take over and he is drawn into the film.
Essentially, it’s no longer his book. It’s someone’s film. And so, when audience members balked at how the screenwriter had changed the ending of that particular film, Russo said, “His job was not to make my novel. My novel already existed.”
He talked a bit about setting (particularly how you write it for a novel vs for screen) and finished up with much thanks to the audience and the organizers of the festival. All in all, a great reading.