The Beatrice Interview

Richard Russo

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Richard Russo's third novel, Nobody's Fool, was adapted for the screen by Robert Benton, one of those rare movie versions of a book that retains the full sophistication and subtlety of the original material. Russo was invited to do some work on the screenplay during production; he and Benton found that they worked together so well that they immediately launched into an original project, currently titled Magic Hour, scheduled for release in the fall of 1997. And Russo's currently writing a screenplay for Dreamworks based on his fourth novel, Straight Man. It's the story of Hank Devereaux, Jr., a career academic who's not sure the life he's made for himself is the life he wants, but who is sure that he's surrounded by incompetents and fools. Russo lays out the dogpiling of Hank's personal and professional crises with his characteristic humor, creating situations that approach outrageousness without ever losing sight of reality and slipping into farce.

RH: The cliché is that comedy is hard. So tell me, how hard is comedy?

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 while?

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 onto?

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 started.

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 Man now.

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 that sense.

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.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Gish Jen | Douglas Adams and Terry Jones

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan