“Trajectory,” the new book by Richard Russo, features four long stories about various professionals in crisis. But in his novels, Russo often depicts blue-collar folks struggling to live in towns like the place where he grew up. From his home in Maine, he talked about why he still feels close to those working-class people.
The characters of your novels often fit the profile of many Trump supporters. Do you understand why they voted for him?
I do! I understand it completely. The discussion in the election was all about jobs. But it’s not just about jobs. It’s about work. It’s not just that their income has gone down. They see themselves as not being valued anymore. They don’t know what their place is in the fabric of society. And I did that work for many years. My father and I one summer built an exit ramp off the New York State Thruway into Albany, and for years after we could never get off that exit without looking at each other and saying, “You know, that was one long, hot, brutal summer of 12-hour days.” Every time we’d drive it, we’d think, “We built that.” That sense of satisfaction that comes from hard labor was something that 40 years ago nobody would have questioned. Somehow, that sort of work has fallen off the radar of importance, despite the fact that our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes. That would piss me off. On the other hand, Sully in “Everybody’s Fool,” who prides himself on doing the kind of hard blue-collar manual labor that Trump voters are often associated with, he would have seen in Donald Trump someone who has never made a sacrifice in his life — who’s made it because his first million was free.
How did you become so attuned to the stories of small towns?
Like most sons, I’ve got a lot of my father in me. My father was a blue-collar guy, did very different work from what I do and lived in a very different place than I now live. And yet, he loved to tell stories. I remember going with him to bars and hearing him tell a story about something that happened that afternoon, then hearing him tell the same story over the next couple of weeks. I’d watch it evolve, watch him work on the details. So, his instinct to tell the story and tell it repeatedly is the same instinct I have, although I’m working on them in a different way.
So, you’re still from the mill town.
Yes. It continues to be — all these years later — very, very firm ground for my imagination. And if you ask me why is that so, then you’re getting into the mysteries of self and creation that I’m not alone in not being able to explain.
You tell a great story about Isaac Bashevis Singer, who said quite severely that the purpose of literature was “to entertain and to instruct.” I imagine that’s your creed, too.
It is. You’re unlikely to do the second if you don’t do the first. My complaint sometimes with some contemporary fiction is that it seems to me that the culture itself has kind of lost that 19th-century feeling, of just how important entertainment really is. I’m going to be talking to Anthony Doerr for an event, and I’m really loving “All the Light We Cannot See.” I mean, for Anthony Doerr, plot is not a dirty word. And it’s not a dirty word for me. I wish I had more of it in a lot of my novels.
In the last story in “Trajectory,” an older writer wonders whether he still has the same urgency for writing, any “fuel left in the tank.” At 67, is this a fear of yours?
No. I would say that people who know me best testify just about every day that I am as full of crap as I’ve ever been! In that respect, I am like my old man telling stories in the bar. It’s just too much fun and the world just continues to provide me with so much material.
Carole Burns’s most recent book, “The Missing Woman and Other Stories,” was awarded the John C. Zacharis prize by Ploughshares magazine.
By Richard Russo
Knopf. 256 pp. $25.95