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Interview de Richard Russo - Assises Internationales du Roman 2011

Par Richard Russo, Clifford Armion : Professeur agrégé d'anglais - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 30/08/2011
Richard Russo won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize with his novel Empire Falls. In May 2011, he took part in the fifth edition of the Assises Internationales du Roman, organised by the Villa Gillet and Le Monde. He was kind enough to grant us an interview at the Hotel Carlton in Lyon.
 
 

http://video.ens-lyon.fr/eduscol-cdl/2011/ANG_2011_rrusso.mp4

Transcript of the interview

Clifford Armion: I would like to ask you a few questions on That Old Cape Magic. Most of your books are partly autobiographical and the protagonist of the book, Jack, is a screenwriter and a teacher, just like you. Is it necessary for you to reveal yourself in your books?

Richard Russo: Who was it that said that we should always write on the slant? Never too much straightforward... There are similarities between me and Jack, there are similarities between me and most of my characters. In order to write about them I have to understand them which means that to some extent I am them. Even when I write about an eighty year old nun, as I did in one of my short stories, I felt some connection to her that makes that character as much me as her. But with Jack... I don't teach anymore but I did for a long time, I write screenplays from time to time, and during the time I was writing this novel both of my daughters were getting married, so there were several similarities between the main character and the author. On the other hand, where the slant comes in, is that Jack had very different experiences both in the classroom as a teacher and as a screenwriter than I've had. Jack has been a fairly unlucky screenwriter in that he's never really had an opportunity to work with good people. I don't know whether he is a particularly good screenwriter, I think he's probably not. But he's gotten caught up in a world of writing kind of crappy third rank TV movies and he's always written with a partner who likes to chase various kinds of deals and for one reason or another he's never really made much of a success of his screenwriting which is why he gave it up, and also because he felt that screen writing was not allowing his greatest potential as a writer to come out. So he yearns to be a 'real writer'. I have never felt that way particularly. I think it's possible to do very good work both as a novelist and as a screenwriter. The other thing is that Jack, because both of his parents were teachers and academics, comes to teaching with a lot of baggage. Does he want to be the kind of teacher his father was? His father was lazy and would read long students essays and write at the bottom of them 'could be better'. His mother was much more rigorous and demanding and snobbish. So Jack comes in not knowing what kind of teacher to be. When I was a teacher, I think I was a pretty good teacher, but I also didn't have any of that baggage of my parents having been teachers. My mother, she would want me to tell you, was not the mother in this book, not an academic, and so Jack's parents and mine are very different sorts of people. So there are some parallels between Jack and me, but if he were any closer to me, I would feel awkward. Even when I'm drawing on aspects of my own experience, I need there to be enough difference between the person that I'm writing about and me so that when I get up in the morning to write I don't feel like I'm looking at myself in the mirror.

C.A.: At some point Jack explains his problems with creating screenplays and actually adapting his own life into a screenplay The narrator says he'd "hoped to capture what it felt to be impossibly happy and miserable at the same time, to be held in the grip of powerful new emotions you couldn't understand, but when he read over what he'd written, it all felt wrong. He wanted readers to fall in love with the Brownings as he has, but as written they felt like a TV sitcom family, especially Peter." Is it something that you sometimes experience, the fact of feeling that something is wrong, that you have failed to capture an emotion or a moment?

R.R.: It happens all too frequently. It's particularly difficult because when something is wrong, when you feel it's badly wrong, when you feel like Jack feels in this story that you've missed something important and that what you've written resembles something more like what you see on TV or at the movies, that it doesn't have a ring of truth of your own experience in it, I think usually one of two things has gone wrong. Either you've made a technical mistake, and that's the good news, if it's a technical mistake then you can figure out what that is and change it and get it to where you need it to be to have that ring of truth. If it's that you've chosen to write it in the third person for instance, and it really needs to be in the first person, then you're never going to get there until you figure that out: until you put it in the right point of view, the story is never going to work. So sometimes there's a technical explanation for what you've failed to do. More horrifyingly, as is the case with Jack's story here, the problem is not technical at all, the problem is part of your own character. I've had both kinds of errors happen in my own fiction but for Jack I think, the reason why he can't write the story is that there's something wrong with him that prevents him from understanding the story he wants so desperately to tell. He wants to write this simple story about a boyhood friendship, a kind of innocent boyhood love, and the parents in the story keep intruding and messing things up. Well that's exactly what has happened in Jack's life, and he's never understood that; the fact that his parents have been intruding. They want somehow to get into the center of things and he's always pushed them aside, as if he can live his life as though they didn't exist. He can't write the story until the very end of the book because this character defect has prevented him from seeing the truth of the story that he wanted to write.

C.A.: Some of your novels were adapted into films or TV series, and of course you've written screenplays yourself. What is different between writing a novel and writing for TV or the cinema?

R.R.: I think that there are just fewer tools. When you write a screenplay, it's mostly dialogue and you put characters in motion. Those are really the two principal elements. You get to do a couple of other things, in small amounts. But a novelist has to spend a lot of time bringing the world to life, describing the room that the characters are in, describing the real world, describing physical objects. There's no point doing that in a screenplay: the camera is going to catch what it catches. A novelist has to spend a lot of time on his characters' inner lives. What do they think? What do they fear? What brings them joy? All of that has to be articulated in the narrative. In a screenplay, it's pointless to do any of that because the camera can't see it anyway, no matter how brilliant you are at evoking what a character's inner life is. You just wouldn't do it because the camera can't see it. You have to bring that to light through what the character says and what he does. So for me writing a screenplay is a little bit like cheating, because my strengths as a novelist are in dialogue and just letting characters behave, letting their behavior speak for them. The two principal tools of a screenwriter happen to be the things that come easiest to me. When I go back to writing a novel, to me it's both wonderful and also daunting, because I have to open up that toolbox again and instead of just using one or two or three tools, I have the whole array of tools in the toolbox, some of which I'm not quite as proficient with as others but will be needed at some point in the construction of something like a novel. The novel writing to me is much more complex, there are more moving parts, and therefore a little bit more demanding.

C.A.: This reflection on novel writing and script writing in the novel made me think about a statement by Milan Kundera: "The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential." Would you agree with that?

R.R.: I agree that they are two very different forms. I disagree that the only thing that can be captured on film is non-essential. From my own experience, when film works, it's never going to be the same medium and it's never going to have access to all of the same things that novels have, but it can be brilliant and when it's brilliant it's certainly not inessential.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Richard Russo, Clifford Armion, "Interview de Richard Russo - Assises Internationales du Roman 2011", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), août 2011. Consulté le 24/05/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/interview-de-richard-russo-assises-internationales-du-roman-2011