Thursday, August 13, 2009

Richard Russo Reads @ Politics & Prose

And I'm back! The first two months of summer have been hectic, hectic, hectic for me, and I'm enjoying August and trying to unwind a little bit before fall semester starts up. I may blog about my summer adventures in a future post, but right now I want to write about Richard Russo.

I had the opportunity last night to attend a reading by Richard Russo at Politics and Prose. (That's him reading in the picture.) If you're unfamiliar, Politics and Prose is a local independent bookseller in NW DC, and they do a lot of author events. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I'd never been to Politics and Prose until last night, even though I've lived in DC for over 5 years now - it's a real hike for me, considering that I live on the other side of the city and I have to take the Metro and a bus to get there. But I was willing to make the pilgrimage in honor of Richard Russo and the opportunity to get a book or two signed.

So far, I've only read Empire Falls (for which Russo won the Pulitzer). I liked it so much that I promptly purchased three more of his books, which are (of course) all waiting in my queue to be read, and I purchased his newest book, That Old Cape Magic, in preparation for this reading. After hearing Russo read, I've decided to bump That Old Cape Magic up to the front of the queue.

I knew this was going to be a big reading, so I got there an hour early to secure a good seat. There were already 30 or 40 people waiting, but I managed to snag a single empty seat in the second row. As I waited, the seats filled quickly and pretty soon it was standing room only, adn there wasn't much of that to be had, either. A woman behind me mentioned that this was the most people she'd ever seen at a reading at Politics and Prose.

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Richard Russo read, don't pass it up. He is charming, funny and a delight to both watch and listen. He mentioned that the big stores sell his books now - everyone carries your book after you've won the Pulitzer, he noted - but he never would have made it without independent booksellers like this one hand-selling his books, so he prefers to do readings at independent sellers over the "big stores". (He mentioned the "big stores" by name, but I'm not going to; you know who I'm talking about.) I really respect that, and it makes me respect him even more as a writer than I had before. I'm glad to see that he wants to bring them the business, to repay them for the way they supported him.

(On a side note, I immediately felt guilty for buying his book at a "big store" when it came out, instead of going to an independent seller ... I bought several books after the reading to try to make up for it.)

The passage that he chose to read was right on target: engaging and well-written (and well-read, as well; Russo has excellent delivery), enticing but not too revealing. The audience loved it ... as did I. I can always tell how much I enjoy a reading when my face starts to hurt and I realize that I've been grinning the entire time without realizing it.

Folllowing the reading, the floor was opened to questions. He was asked about his writing day (he writes for four hours, and then he reads until it's time to make dinner), his professional relationship with his editors (he's only had two in his career: his previous editor just gave him general feedback and he revised as he saw fit; his current editor gives him detailed line-by-line notes/edits and he revises as he sees fit); Jenny Boylan (a transexual fiction and memoir author who is a close friend), among other topics.

My favorite question was when a young woman asked him about his response to a recent accusation of misogyny in Newsweek (, not because of the question, but because of the answer. He said that he chooses not to respond to the article, but he did say that "books are arguments" that have to stand on their own, and he chooses to have his books do the same; essentially, if someone wants a response to the Newsweek article, then his books will stand as his response. His comment was very eloquent, and was an excellent explanation as to why as writers we need to be so precise with our language.

(For the record, I do not believe Richard Russo to be a misogynist.)

But the best part for me was when he signed my books. I waited forever - I always end up at the end of the line, somehow - but it was worth it. I always get tongue-tied and stupid around authors I admire, so I try to temper my star-struck verbal diarrhea. I told him I was a writer and that I was pursuing my M.A., and he said - very sincerely, more so that I might have expected - "That's really great. But you know, it's really tough out there right now." I said that I knew, but I was going to keep plugging away, and he responded, "If you keep at it, you'll make it." I thanked him for signing my books, and let him move on to the next person.

How great was that? Really great! He was so genuine about the whole thing, too, which I hadn't really expected. I didn't know what to expect, honestly - I'd lay odds that any number of people tell him they write fiction on a regular basis, so he just as easily could have blown me off. So, yet another reason to like him. I hope that I'll have the opportunity to meet him again someday and really talk to him, after I've read more of his books and when I'm not one in a line of 200 people. I have a lot to learn from a writer like Richard Russo.

Do you read Richard Russo's books? Which is your favorite, and why?

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