When I called Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo to discuss his novella Nate in Venice, I was startled to find an affable gentleman on the other line. Writers (especially those living in remote states, as Russo does, in Maine) have a reputation for being cantankerous and difficult. But I soon realize that for Russo nothing could be farther from truth. The sixty-three year old novelist seems to be the kind of writer who takes an interest in whomever he’s speaking to, eager to know how any given reader (and not simply a demographic) responded to his book.
What’s curious is that Russo’s latest book, Nate in Venice, isn’t a physical book at all. The novella exists only online, as part of the e-publisher Byliner’s series of original fiction meant to be read in two hours or less. Russo’s story, about a group of aging New Englanders heading to the Biennale, not only makes for its own in-flight e-reader experience, it asks questions about how such technologies are changing the way we live. Here Russo discusses the pros and cons of e-publishing, which new writers most inspire him, and the frustration he sometimes feels with his cell-phone.
In a recent New Yorker blog-post, Ian McEwan wrote that the novella was the perfect literary genre. What attracted you to the form?
I’ve always loved the novella, but I think like most writers I’ve shied away from it because there’s nothing you can do with it. Once you got past thirty-five pages, you were in a dead zone. No magazine would publish it. And if they did it just wasn’t cost-effective. But with digitalization it’s only ones and zeros—and has nothing to do with stitching and glue. So what we’re going to see with e-books is the reemergence of a great classical form. Henry James loved to write in it; more recently Jim Harrison and Jane Smiley have written in it. But I think you’re going to see more writers taking it up.
What does the novella let you do that a short story or novel won’t?
Like a short story it restricts time and space. Nate in Venice, for example, is only twenty-four hours and a couple of Venetian streets. But unlike a short story, you can have eight or nine important characters. So you have the beauty of brevity but with room for more characters to roam around.
How do you feel about e-books in general?
I’ve been on both sides of the digital divide this year. Earlier this year, I published a small book with my daughter, who is an illustrator, and this was for print only. It was like an art object. I’m sure our publisher would have loved to do a digital version, but we resisted that. But now with Nate in Venice, I’m releasing a book that will only exist digitally. So I’m really of two minds—as a lot of writers are. I’m sixty-three, so a lot of what I feel about reading is connected to all my favorite books as a child: the paper and ink experience. But a younger generation is coming along whose first experiences are with a screen; they’re not going to have the same sentimental experiences of reading that I had.
Technology—and especially phones—play a big role in the novella. How do you see the effect of this kind of 24/7 connection on character, human relationships—the stuff of fiction?
There are two to three dimensions to this at least. I became really fascinated by this question when I was writing a movie—a script based on a Scott Phillips novel called The Ice Harvest. We made it into a dark and funny film with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. But between when the novel came out and when we wrote the screenplay, cell phones had become prevalent. Whole aspects of Phillips’s novel simply did not make sense if people had cell phones, so we had to reinvent huge sections of the story. That was when I realized that not only was technology changing our lives, it was changing something fundamental to storytelling as well. We had to develop new strategies.
You spoke of a generational gap earlier and that same experience applies to Nate’s experience of his cell phone.
At times, there are older people who are a little bit behind in the technology. To them these new gadgets can be distressing or confusing. There appear to be ghosts in the machine. In fact, my first idea for the story was of a ghost story: a demonic cell phone that leads one of the characters astray. I ended up throwing all of that out but kept the idea that what are supposed to be tools for communication can actually be symbols of non-communication. So many of these devices are aimed at keeping people in touch, but so much of their effect is to drive them apart. They make us less likely to seek each other out in the flesh.
And as a writer? How does the internet or cell-phone affect your daily practice?
I find it very annoying. When I’m writing—I still write in longhand—I sometimes catch myself watching the screen in the corner of my eye to see if I’ve received an email. That can’t help but ruin your train of thought. People always say you can just ignore it but you can’t! [Laughs] I think in general I have a great capacity for concentration—I don’t mind silence or solitude—but I still find it very addictive. I’m really at the breaking point, so when I’m working the computer is off and the cell-phone is in the other room.
There’s a clear allusion to Thomas Mann in the title—as well as an echo of Geoff Dyer’s recent novel. Was this happenstance?
The Dyer novel is news to me! My original title for the piece was Voice. But in the world of singles—Kindle singles—since many of them are thrillers and romances, they often have very lurid titles. At [the publisher] Byliner, everyone was afraid the title wouldn’t stand out. And of all the titles, that’s the one that stuck.
Who are the other writers you see your work in conversation with?
I was just the guest editor of Best American Short Stories and judge for the Hemingway Prize so I’ve been reading a lot of younger writers. Some of these writers, even though I’ve never met them—I feel like we’re part of the same dialogue. One is Jess Walter. His book Beautiful Ruins came out last year, which was amazing. I have the feeling when I read his work that we come to similar conclusions, make use of similar techniques. We seem to view the world in the same slant in some ways. He’s an incredibly funny writer. But there’s never a mean-spirited joke anywhere. And then there’s another young writer, Lauren Groff, who published an incredible book of short stories called Delicate Edible Birds. There’s something about the way she views her characters in these stories: the generosity with which she investigates her lives. And the astonishing pain she takes with her sentences. Lauren has this ability to write gorgeous sentences without an ounce of show-off. Usually if writers work that hard on their sentences they want to do back-flips!
Nate experiences nostalgia for the days before he was a professor: when he worked as a roofer, when he worked with his hands. I know you worked blue-collar jobs before you went to grad-school. Do you ever experience the same nostalgia?
When you get to be my age, you start looking back. I remember working road construction with my father during the summers. We worked one summer doing the on-off ramp for Exit 23 on the Albany Freeway. And there would be times when we drove by it later—we never even had to say anything about it. We were right there. When you build something tangible, when you make something, there’s a kind of no-bullshit aspect of it that I like. My grandfather was a glove-fitter. You can’t bullshit anyone into buying a poorly made pair of gloves because they’ll fall apart!
Is there a political critique to this? Nate’s brother, for instance, is a marketer endlessly spinning new prospects.
Well there’s just that element of a well-made thing that was a source of pride for Americans. It was a large part of the history of this country and certainly my family. I’m a first generation college graduate on my mother’s side and the first person to make a living really with his imagination. It’s not like I feel I’ve betrayed my family—I love doing what I do. I’ve picked up enough heavy objects in my life to know I like what I do. But that said, I think an America that makes less is less. So I do have pretty strong feelings about the ways in which we can look down on people who make their living with their hands.