Giving advice to aspiring writers isn't as easy as it used to be, Richard Russo says. "The advice, I think, is changing, because everything about a writer's life is changing. With nobody knowing what's going to happen in the world of publishing — especially those who claim to know — we're in a world of flux."
Russo will be talking about the writing life Saturday night as keynote speaker for the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, six other novels and a short story collection has been publishing fiction regularly since 1986, to both critical and popular acclaim. He's also an accomplished screenwriter whose credits include the Emmy-nominated teleplay for HBO's production of Empire Falls.
By phone from his home in Maine, Russo says his connection to Writers in Paradise is its co-founder Dennis Lehane, bestselling author of Moonlight Mile, Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone, Baby, Gone (and an Eckerd graduate).
"I asked him a number of years ago for a favor," Russo says. "My wife is on the board of a school for disadvantaged kids here, and we asked him to do a reading. He's the kind of guy who is incredibly generous, and if you owe him you have to track him down. So I feel like now I can square the ledger."
Writers in Paradise, now in its seventh year, is an intensive eight-day conference for writers. Co-founded by Lehane and Sterling Watson, head of the college's creative writing program, the conference boasts an all-star roster of authors leading its workshops by day and presenting free public readings by night. Russo joins a list of previous keynote speakers that includes Stephen King, Richard Price, David Simon, Stewart O'Nan and Anita Shreve.
Russo has plenty of experience working with aspiring writers, having spent a couple of decades as a university professor. "I quit teaching anything like full time about the time the movie of Nobody's Fool got made," he says, referring to his beguiling and moving 1993 novel.
He hesitated to leave, he says, because of his next novel, Straight Man, a hilarious and cutting satire of academia. "I wasn't sure, if I got out of teaching, I could get back in." But Straight Man surprised him by finding fans in the ivory tower. "People would give it to someone who was becoming department chairman, and department chairmen would give it to someone who was becoming dean. It was kind of a 'be careful what you wish for' gift."
Russo's most recent novel, the comic That Old Cape Magic (2009), also takes plenty of shots at academia. "This time I had two satiric targets. I got to skewer the Hollywood screenwriting world I work in, too."
He says that, for him, the relationship between writing novels and writing screenplays is counterintuitive. "For a lot of writers, after they've worked as screenwriters, their novels become more spare. There's less about the past, less about characters' thoughts.
"For me, it's the exact opposite. Screenwriting plays to my strengths; I've always had a better ear than eye, so I'm good at dialogue. In a screenplay, you can't go inside someone's head, and you don't have to describe anything, because the camera takes care of that."
When he switches back to novel writing, he says, it's "a chance to use all the tools." He says that the books he has written since he became a screenwriter — Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic — are "my most interior books. I also think when I write them, 'I pity the poor bugger who has to write this screenplay.' Of course, with Empire Falls, that poor bugger turned out to be me."
Russo says he has been reading many younger writers lately, having served as editor for Best Short Stories 2010 and as judge for the 2010 Hemingway Foundation/PEN award for best first work of fiction. Among the best of those writers, he says, are Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End), Lauren Groff (Delicate Edible Birds), Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief), Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad), Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower), Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned) and Karen Russell (Swamplandia!).
As for his own work, right now Russo is writing a novel. And a screenplay. And a first for him: a work of nonfiction.
"I'm about 150 pages into a new novel. I'm returning to the world of Nobody's Fool, checking in on some of those people." The screenplay is a pilot for HBO based on "a lovely memoir," J.R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar, about growing up in a neighborhood tavern.
The nonfiction book comes out of his own childhood. "I hesitate to call it a memoir, because I'm not in it so much. It's about the small town I've called by a lot of different names in my novels," the upstate New York town of Gloversville, named for its principal industry for more than a century, glovemaking.
"My grandfather was a glove cutter there," Russo says. "I'm writing about what it was like for him, for my mother and father. It's about the kind of work these people did, and what it was like for me to grow up there.
"It's also about America, I hope. How this town has fallen in on itself and failed is instructive."
Is there any overlap among those three projects, novel, screenplay and memoir? "Yes, I expect there will be plenty of bars in each of them."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.