Friday, October 12, 2007

Richard Russo on Bridge of Sighs

Well into the writing of his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo told his agent he thought he was writing a trilogy. The problem was that Russo had three main characters and in order tell their stories – from the past to the present – he’d written more than 600 pages “with no end in sight.”

Russo’s agent said no, the book wasn’t a trilogy. Russo simply had lots of rewriting to do, rewriting that would significantly alter the structure of the book. Russo told his agent why his suggestion wouldn’t work, then went home and began to do exactly as his agent had recommended.

The result is a complex structure (very un-Russo-like, the author admits) with a story that weaves between time – the past to the present to the past again – and space – from a small town in upstate New York to Venice.

A complex structure, but a simple story, Russo said. In its simplest terms, he said, the novel is the story of boyhood friends; one who stays and one who goes. The friends, Lou C. Lynch – who has the unfortunate nickname, Lucy – and Bobby Marconi – now Noonan – are both 60, as is Lou’s wife, Sarah. “60 is the age when you look at life,” Russo said, which is what all three characters are doing.

Lou and Sarah remained all their lives in Thomaston, New York, where they run a series of convenience stores. Bobby has fled America for Europe, changed his name and become a well-known painter. “He’s given up on marriage,” said Russo, “but not on married women.” In Bridge of Sighs, Russo returns to the theme of small-town life as he explores the relationship between Lou, Bobby and Sarah as well as the boys’ relationships to their fathers. Lou is excessively devoted to his father. Bobby loathes his.

In the present, Bobby (Noonan) is painting a picture of his father that everyone assumes is a self-portrait. The famous Venetian Bridge of Sighs is in the distance. In legend, the view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice out the window before being taken down to their cells.

In Bridge of Sighs, Russo said he wanted to explore “that depth of feeling common to all people . . . a sense of complexity. What I’m after, if not universal, is nearly so.”

Bridge of Sighs is Russo’s six novel and seventh book. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his last novel, Empire Falls.

Russo came to writing late, only realizing in his late 20s that writing might be something he could and wanted to do. He said much of his style of writing was shaped by his reading. While would-be novelists of his acquaintance consumed contemporary literature, Russo was reading Dickens, Twain and Fitzgerald.

“I was trained as an old-school writer,” he said. Dickens taught him the importance of a large canvas and the value of minor characters. Twain showed him that if you go to dark places – racism, ignorance, brutality – that you had best go armed with humor. Twain also showed him the importance of irreverence toward authority.

From Fitzgerald, Russo learned to write about the quintessential American story, that our lives need not be determined by who our parents are or where we are from, but that we have the right to reinvent ourselves.

The lessons of those authors are all on display in Russo’s Bridge of Sighs.

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