RH: The cliché is that comedy is hard. So tell me, how hard is
RR: I think it would be harder for me not to write comedy
because the comic view of things is the one that comes most
naturally to me. People often ask me how I make things funny. I
don't make things funny. I certainly don't sit there thinking, "Here's
something that my character will say. How do I turn around and
make it funny?" Most of the time, with my way of seeing things, as
soon as I see something I will see something funny in it.
Comedy is hard in that it's timing, and you have to get the timing
down, which requires a lot of revision, but at the same time you have
to be careful not to revise all the humor out of it. If you work at
comedy too laboriously, you can kill what's funny in the joke. For
some people it's impossible. It's easier for me to work on the comedy
and get it right than it would be for me to take it out.
RH: And your particular deadpan style is perhaps more difficult
than most others. Although there are unusual situations in
Straight Man, the comedy isn't really forced. It just emerges
naturally from Hank's reactions to these events.
RR: And a lot of the humor is tinged with seriousness, too. In
Straight Man, some of my favorite passages are the
conversations with Tony Coniglio where he's completely serious
about the outrageous things that he says like, "I have a lot to offer
women." He doesn't see any humor in the fact that he's a man in his
middle fifties, with a pot belly, who's already had one heart attack,
adjusting himself carefully into his Jockey shorts in the locker room,
saying he has a lot to offer women. That's exactly the way he sees it.
RH: Had you wanted to write an academic novel for a
RR: I was pretty dead set against ever writing an academic
novel. It's always been my view that there are already more than
enough academic novels and that most of them aren't any good. Most
of them are self-conscious and bitter, the work of people who want
to settle grudges. It's a challenge to open up a closed world like the
academic world, which isn't terribly interesting in itself. I'm thinking
of the academic novels that I've read and loved, and there aren't that
many. John Williams' novel Stoner is probably the only serious
academic novel I think is wonderful. The rest are comedies. David
Lodge's work is very funny. Michael Malone's Foolscap is
hysterical...Wow. I've already named more than I thought I'd be able
to. I'm probably missing some others, but for the most part, academic
novels are tedious affairs and I certainly had no plans to write one.
What I tried to do with this was to make sure that the academic
world was never more than a surface. When I was writing about
such things as tenure, tenure was always used in a metaphor for
what happens when you're pushing fifty and you've built the house
you want to build and you've got enough money and your kids are
grown, you're married to the woman you want to be married to, and
you've achieved the kind of security and safety you thought you
wanted -- and now you're casting around, wondering if this is what
you really wanted.
RH: When you start a novel, what's the first thing that you latch
RR: First I have to have a character worth caring about. In
Nobody's Fool, I knew when I started that book I'd be able to
live happily with Sully for the three or four years that it would take
to write the book. I tend not to start writing books about people I
don't have a lot of sympathy for because I'm just going to be with
them too long. If I have to spend too much of my life with characters
I don't like, I don't enjoy it, and I assume nobody else will, either.
Once you have that character worth caring about, I have to find a
dilemma that the character doesn't know how to resolve and that I
don't really have an answer for either. Sully's a man who spent all of
his life doing hard physical labor of one sort or other. It's all he
really knows how to do, and it gives his life a strange kind of texture
that he likes. He enjoys doing that kind of work, even though he
grouses about doing it. When he falls off that ladder and shatters his
knee, before the novel begins, he can't work that way anymore. But
he also can't not work. It's just not in him. He's not the kind of
man who can go back to school and learn another skill. For him to be
working on that damaged knee is crazy, but for him not working is
equally crazy. It takes away the one thing that makes him who he is.
And I had no idea how that was going to be resolved when I
RH: I can see an instant parallel with Hank in Straight Man;
these guys love to complain about what they love. Hank loves to play
the role he knows will start a fight. One of the first scenes, where he
explains how he got his nose torn apart by a spiral notebook, is such
fun to read because you're almost apalled at how he's nudging the
situation towards an explosion, but you have to keep watching to see
how much he'll go to do it.
RR: A lot of my characters in all of my books have a self-
destructive urge. They'll do precisely the thing that they know is
wrong, take a perverse delight in doing the wrong thing. The weird
sort of freedom that allows you to turn to your department's one
poet, who you know is insecure about her work, and ask, "Do we
have a poet in this department?" even though you know it'll get your
nose ripped off. Men like Hank and Sully love to stir things up, even
if they're the ones who are going to pay the price, because paying
that price validates their view of the world, the viewthat compels
them to do those things.
RH: You've been fortunate in that you've had your work adapted
for the screen in a reasonably faithful form, and that you were able
to take a positive role in that adaptation. I take it the experience was
good for you, since you're working on the screenplay for Straight
RR: I'm delighted by how Nobody's Fool turned out. It
was a rare movie in exactly the way you described it. I learned an
enormous amount from working with Robert Benton; if it hadn't been
for the experiences I had with him, I doubt I'd be writing
screenplays at all. He wrote the screenplay, I just did script doctoring
on it, but it taught me an enormous amount about screenwriting,
especially the ability to cut really huge sections from the work. How
do you cut two-thirds of a novel and have the remaining third still
be faithful to the original spirit? Benton's work was remarkable in
Even though Straight Man is a more compact novel, I still have
to follow the same principles of screenwriting. There's too many
characters in the book and no way to tell the story in the book in two
hours. Some authors have a very hard time understanding that in
order to be faithful to the spirit of the book, it's almost always
impossible to remain faithful to the text. You have to make changes.
RH: So you're okay with being brutal with yourself about what
gets tossed out? The monologue by Hank's father-in-law, for
example, is one of the funniest stories in any recent novel, let alone
this one, but...
RR: It's gone. There's no room for Angelo in this movie, and
even in a film version of a Richard Russo novel, you can't bring in a
major character like that when you're 80% of the way through. It's
too bad, really, because I enjoyed so much listening to him tell that
story, or rather not tell that story as he strung it out for God
knows how many pages it was finally.
RH: Has learning to write screenplays also affected the way that
you write novels?
RR: When you're working on movies, people need things
yesterday, and the writer's job needs to be done before any other
work can get done, so I did have to figure out a way to budget time
to get that work done and not completely put the novel aside, sure..
But in terms of screenwriting changing the literary technique of
novel writing, it seems to me that they're almost like using different
sides of the brain.
I was doing script doctor work on Nobody's Fool and working
on Magic Hour while I was writing Straight Man, which
was well underway when I took on those projects. There may be a
danger, and I'll have to see how this works when I start work on a
new novel, of screenwriting altering the way I write fiction. For me,
that danger would be that screenwriting plays into what has always
been a strong suit for me while it minimizes the elements that I've
always had to work hardest at. What comes easiest for me is
dialogue. Sometimes when my characters are speaking to me, I have
to slow them down so that I'm not simply taking dictation. I have to
constantly remind myself to see the story as clearly as I
hear it. The physical world in which these characters live is as
important as what they're saying and doing. When I let my
characters talk too fast, I make the kinds of mistakes that end up
costing me days of work.
Screenwriting encourages that speed -- dialogue is the stuff of
movies. People say that writing for the screen is all visual; what they
mean by that is that whatever characters are thinking and feeling
has to be translated into the visual. Screenplays don't spend a lot of
time describing what's there physically because the camera's going to
do what it's going to do anyway. It'll see what's there. You use simple
brushstrokes in a screenplay for things over which you would take
much greater pains in a novel.
RH: In getting caught up in the dialogue, you could also lose track
not only of the world in which they live, but the larger relationships
between them, maybe even the plot.
RR: You'd also have to worry about time. Movies have to
handle time very efficiently. They're about stringing scenes together
in the present. Novels aren't necessarily about that. They have a
much different relationship to time. If you write a lot of screenplays,
you might be tempted in starting a novel to simply say, "This is two
days in the life of a character, because that's how it would work as a
screenplay." There are novels like that, but that's not the only way to
write a novel.