About The Author
Richard Russo is the author of seven previous novels two collections of stories and On Helwig Street, a memoir. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which, like Nobody's Fool, was adapted to film, in a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries. He lives in Maine. His new novel, Everybody's Fool, revisits the decaying American town of North Bath, ten years after the events of Nobody's Fool. Sully is still alive but wondering how much longer he might have to live, his son is back in his life - and so is police chief Doug Raymer, who is obsessing over the identity of his dead wife's lover. It's a wild adventure that takes place over the course of a weekend, with all the warmth and humour that characterised the earlier visit to North Bath, and now complete with not a little madness and mayhem.
Exclusively for Foyles, we chatted to Richard about what it was like revisiting his earlier novel some 25 years later, his personal credo that there are no small lives and striving for grace.
Author photo © Elena Seibert
Questions & Answers
Although Everybody’s Fool still has a lot of humour in it, it feels altogether darker than Nobody’s Fool. Does that reflect a change in how you yourself are seeing the world?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of water, much of it filthy, under the bridge since Nobody’s Fool was published in 1992. In most respects it’s the same old world we inhabit, but many of the mistakes we’re making now seem steroidal, as are their consequences. I remain a cautious optimist, but I’m also a grandfather now and more easily discouraged that I was back in ’92 when it seemed like there was plenty of time to fix what was broken. In other words, us. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to introduce serpents into Nobody’s Fool.
Did you know from the outset that a different character, Doug Raymer, who had only a very minor part in Nobody’s Fool, would be the focus of the book, or did you find him just taking over?
I was pretty sure the main character wasn’t going to be Sully, who was sixty in the first Fool and seventy in this one. I’ve always liked the idea of taking a minor character in one book and making him or her a major character in another. That dovetails nicely with one of my personal credos — that there are no small lives. Allowing a pawn like Doug Raymer to become a bishop or rook is a challenge to me, his creator. Once I allowed him the space to become fully human he responded by doing exactly that.
You changed the timing of Sully’s father’s death between the two books. When coming to write the second book how constrained did you feel about the set-up you were starting with? Were there other more fundamental things you wished you’d done differently?
Obviously, not terribly constrained. I wrote a lot of Everybody’s Fool before deciding it might be a good idea to reread the earlier novel. Like continuity errors in films, inconsistencies can be distracting, yanking you out of the fictive dream. On the other hand, there are all kinds of mistakes. If you make a mistake in an earlier book, should you remain loyal to it in a subsequent one? If a better idea occurs to you, should you suppress it? Is consistency 'the hobgoblin of small minds', as Whitman suggested, or a moral obligation? I prefer Big Jim’s demise in Everybody’s Fool, and almost no one remembers the earlier version.
You are very forgiving of your characters’ foibles. Do you agree with Beryl Peoples that ‘We don’t forgive people because they deserve it…. We forgive them because we deserve it.’
I agree with Beryl Peoples on just about everything, including forgiveness.
Sully, and indeed quite a few Bath residents, have very clear insight into the actions and motivations of others but far less into their own. Is that ultimately the novel’s main driver?
It’s not only the novel’s main driver, it’s Life’s main driver.
Although many of the characters spend large parts of their time together – often at bars or cafes – and usually arguing or winding each other up, there is an overarching sense of community, and actually, when it comes to it, they are more often than not there for each other. Do you think places like Bath still exist and do you regret that life isn’t more like that today?
It’s not an accident that the new novel is set in either 1999 or 2000, at about the time even pretty remote places like Bath were being transformed by technology (cell phones, the internet, e-books, etc.). The more time we spend looking at screens, the less time we have for each other and the more the real world recedes. I don’t mean to sound like an old fart here. Our need for each other is unlikely to disappear because of Facebook and Twitter. When significant changes occur, we get that familiar jolt that reminds us about what’s important. In the days after the recent U.S. election, the streets of the city where I live were thronged with people, the lines in every coffee shop out the door, people taking the time to give each other hugs, their screens suddenly worthless. Already, though, we’re slipping back.
You’ve always written sympathetically and with great insight about older characters just going about their daily lives, as well as about the ageing process itself. Beryl aged with great grace whereas Sully is not going down without a fight. Where do you position yourself and does writing help you accept the inevitable?
Grace is something I strive for but which does not come naturally. I tell myself I don’t fear death and I believe that’s mostly true. But I do hate diminishment. Being a step slower this year than I was last — either in a foot race or in terms of mental acuity — pisses me off more than I can say. But, yes, writing helps. The truth is I’ve never been swift of either foot or mind. My virtue, if I have one, is that in the end I arrive. If it takes me twice as long to do half as much, so what? The work seems as vital as ever, even if the worker has lost a step.
Do you envisage returning to North Bath and if so, is it going to be even more decaying than ever or will it be in for a regeneration of sorts?
I think I’m done with North Bath, but then again I thought that after Nobody’s Fool. I’ll say this, though; the town that Bath is based on, the one where I spent my youth, is beginning to show some green shoots of hope. Did I say before that I’m a cautious optimist?
Which of your books do you feel the most affection for, and why?
The Risk Pool was written when my father was dying; Empire Falls when I was particularly terrified by what the world might have in store for my teenage daughters. I recall both of those books with special fondness, but I suspect that affection has less to do with the books themselves than with the circumstances that generated them. I also have a special fondness for whatever book I’ve just begun or am about to begin. Why? Because it’s perfect. The character flaws of its author have not yet been made manifest.