Thursday, September 29, 2011

Richard Russo on "Bridge of Sighs"

On the first day of kindergarten, Lou C. Lynch is given the unfortunate nickname of Lucy, a name that will stay with him for the rest of his life. Lucy is the narrator of Richard Russo’s new novel “Bridge of Sighs”(Knopf, $27), which covers six decades in the life of the fictional Thomaston, a dying mill town in upstate New York, a place divided by race and class.

“Bridge of Sighs” is an epic novel of fathers and sons. While Lucy is well-loved by his milkman father, his best friend Bobby Noonan is locked in a battle of survival with his own father, an abusive and sometimes violent postman. Where Lucy never leaves Thomaston and remains there as a small businessman, Bobby leaves as soon as he can, escaping to Europe, settling in Venice and becoming a renowned painter. As both men turn 60, they explore their very different childhoods in Thomaston and life choices. It is small-town life viewed without nostalgia, with racial violence and class hostility. As the factories die, for many people the American Dream dies, as well. In his poignant and often witty novel, Russo captures the fading working-class hopes and how people continue to love and function, even with regrets.

Russo, 58, was raised in Gloversville, New York, and educated at the University of Arizona. He is the author of six other books, including “Empire Falls,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. He is married and lives in Camden, Maine. Russo spoke by telephone from Boston with freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. You pick two boys from very different backgrounds--Lucy, who has had love and trust throughout his life, and Bobby, whose abusive father made him a wary survivor from the beginning. Why did you write such different boys?

A. It seemed to me that they had to be opposite ends of the spectrum. You have a boy, Lucy, who stays, and Bobby Noonan, who leaves. That raises the question, why do people stay and why do people leave? It also raises questions of Lucy, who adores his father and can’t hear a word spoken against him, and Noonan, who has demonized hs father. At the opening of the novel, both men have turned 60. Lucy is beginning to realize that his love for his father and his father’s love for him was so profound that it has stunted his growth. Noonan has realized that in painting his father, he sees his own eyes staring out from that face. It forces him to reevaluate his father. It was interesting to look at two very different children whose destinies were put in motion at an early age. Some of the hardwiring of life happens so early that all we get to work out is the software.

Q. With Thomaston, you return to a dying mill town, like Empire Falls. You focus on class and race divisions in the town. How?

A. In “Empire Falls,” a lot of my feelings about class, race and the American Dream crystalizing. I wrote a different town in this book, a town that is deeply divided against itself in a way that Empire Falls was not. In Thomaston, the main street was Division Street. I needed a town that had its West End and East End. Lucy then becomes the character that moves from the poor West End to the East End, then finally the wealthy Borough neighborhood in one generation.

What I remember about race in my own small town was that African Americans didn’t exist. You saw them, but you didn’t interact with them. I don’t think it was different from other places.

Q. Lucy is the victim of a horrible prank, where other children lock him in a trunk and pretend to saw the trunk in half. He has “spells” where he withdraws. How does this effect him?

A. He shuts down. His mother says that part of Lucy never really came out of that trunk. That’s pretty close to true. The effect of Lucy being locked in that trunk has something to do with the fact that he doesn’t go far. He’s never left Thomaston and he’s happy with the familiar world.

Q. Lucy’s wife Sarah, though happy in her 40-year marriage, speaks of regrets and feeling cheated. Why?

A. After the death of Jerzy, a neighborhood tough guy, what all the characters are thinking about in the novel is that you only get to live one life. She is happy with Lucy, but when you get to be 60, you look at the pattern of your life. You can’t help but think of alternative versions. What if this hadn’t happened? What if Bobby Noonan’s kiss on the stairs with Sarah had led to another life? It is human nature to feel cheated.

Q. In Venice, Robert Noonan has his adulterous affairs and becomes a world famous painter. Lucy is terrified of leaving America to go there. What effect has Venice had on your book?

A. It’s exotic, it’s romantic. It’s labyrinthine. Ten years ago, my wife forced me to go there. I immediately fell in love with the city. Venice is a dark city. Even in the middle of the day, many of the canals are filled with shadows. Also, Noonan left one town with polluted waters for another halfway around the world. Both of these places have water as a metaphor and a rich history of poisoning.

Q. How do your characters view the old mill, that is probably poisoning them?

A. As people point out in my novel, those dyes dumped into the stream gave birth to the town to begin with and gave the town sustenance. When Noonan thinks that he may have poisoned himself from his paints, he remarks “We die of what we love.” I know first hand from living in old mill towns that people don’t get worried when the river runs red. They worry when the river runs clear because there is no work.

Q. As a novelist, you champion small town, working-class characters that many other writers ignore. How did this evolve?

A. My desire to write about these characters became so strong because of the years I spent trying to escape from my own past. At 18, I wanted to get as far away from Gloversville as I could, so I went to the University of Arizona. I did my B.A., my M.A. and Ph.D. there. What I was doing was distancing myself through education. When I wrote my first unpublishable novel, my writing teacher told me the only part that rang true was set in a small upstate mill town. After running away from my origins, after using education to escape class, I finally learned my lesson. If I was ever going to be a writer, this was the kind of writer I was going to be. I just turned around and embraced it.

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in October 2007)

No comments: