Author Richard Russo made me believe I had worthy stories to tell. His novels set in small, rusted-out towns are loosely based on his hometown of Gloversville, N.Y., a Thruway stop about 50 miles west of Albany. His settings are the kinds of places that outsiders think are saturated with unkempt children, drug dealers, and middle-aged people with unattained dreams.
Russo knows differently. He has an innate understanding of his characters and their yearning to be seen. He knows that the small-town lives of teachers, police officers, and diner owners are as complicated, rich, and dramatic as anyone's. He champions these societal underdogs who are routinely overlooked by the urban-suburban majority. Actually, he seems to love them.
Russo's work never fails to resonate with everything I know about my tiny hometown in New York's North Country and the people I grew up with. He realizes that a mere hundred miles north of Manhattan, a different world starts to emerge. His perspective on upstate characters has always been empowering to me; it's the world I know best too. Growing up in New York State, I knew it looked more like the Rust Belt than Central Park. Russo's New York State (and mine) stretches from Buffalo to the Thousand Islands and is defined by the Erie Canal, Adirondack Park, Watkins Glen, Syracuse Orange basketball, and all of Lake Ontario. It pivots on home-baked mac-and-cheese, dairy farms on rolling hills, middle-class union jobs that aren't ever coming back, and a fair amount of alcoholism.
Like Russo's characters, I grew up feeling somewhat marginalized by a city skyline I couldn't even see. New York City loomed over the state like a Goliath, dampening the identity of the rest of us, the uncounted. The thing was, I loved everything I could see: the part-time fishing guides/snowplow drivers, the plumbers and carpenters who shot game for their meals, the blinding lake-effect snows, the taskmaster school teachers, the endless stream of soldiers at Fort Drum. I even loved the scary two-lane, arched suspension bridge in Alexandria Bay that swayed in the wind on our occasional trips to Canada.
When I heard Russo would be in Concord, N.H., giving a book talk to promote his latest novel, Everybody's Fool, I jumped at the chance to see him in person. I wanted to meet the man who nearly singlehandedly made me see my small-town life as filled with dramatic possibilities. Russo's work influenced me in the same way that seeing Dr. Zhivago on the big screen changed my life at nine, when I realized that poets and revolutionaries and passionate lovers could thrive in the iciest, least habitable of places. Like the place I called home.
The Empire Falls or North Baths of Russo-land were where I lived too, with people who looked an awful lot like Sully or Miles Roby or Miss Beryl. Their smarts were hard earned, not studied. These characters did not angle to get their children into the best colleges, much less the best preschools. They fixed their own furniture, canned vegetables, and repaired clothes. They bought a lot of items at Wal-Mart. They sometimes struggled to fit into a modern world of instant texts and broken things that were never made to last. They were frequently angry and bewildered while doing their damn best to survive.
These are my characters too, and Russo's writing made me love them more. Which is why when it was my turn in the book line to say hello to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, I decided to share with him how much his work had meant to my writing life. Turns out, he'd never heard of my small hometown outside of Watertown. In fact, he quickly admitted that he didn't know anything about the Watertown area at all.
"It doesn't matter," I said a little shocked, thinking naively that he would be as intimately aware of my main characters as I was of his. "My people are your people."
As he signed my books and brought our short encounter to a close, I hesitated. I'd come to tell him something more. So I blurted it out, probably inarticulately, saying something like: "You made me believe that I had stories to tell about the people I knew. Thank you so much for that."
"That is high praise," he replied. A generous, gregarious man, he probably pulls those chestnuts out for every well-meaning, would-be novelist who is desperate to tell him a story that makes him smile. Still, I'd said what I'd come to say. It felt good.
So Russo may not have known exactly where my inciting incidents take place. But I know, now, that is of little importance. The communion of place is not tied to a physical location. His plain truths and wrenchingly poignant story lines are the same ones that feed my imagination. I've always recognized myself in his characters. And I'm indebted to him for helping me find mine.