A Sense of Place: What We Can Learn From Richard Russo
When I was in graduate school and working on an early version of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, my thesis advisor asked me if I’d read Richard Russo. I hadn’t, but when he said my writing reminded him of Russo’s, I rushed out to get everything I could lay my hands on. The advisor’s comment was reinforced when a reviewer of Hawke’s Point also cited a similarity to Russo.
At first, I didn’t really see it. Sure, Russo has set many of his novels in a small northern town that was inseparable from the richly defined characters that populated it. The setting defined the people and the people, not the plot, drove the narrative, which is what I was trying to do. Russo also uses my favorite point of view—an omniscient narrator who gets inside all of the important characters’ heads. Later, when an agent told me she was rejecting my novel because it was character-driven rather than plot-driven and “no one buys those anymore,” I wanted to yell, “Richard Russo, Richard Russo, Richard Russo.”
To me, though, the similarities between my work and Russo’s were superficial, and I would never dare to put my work on the same level as his. But the connection that others saw inspired me to study his books and learn as much as I could from them. My task became a little easier when I discovered an essay he contributed to Creating Fiction, a textbook edited by Julie Checkoway.
Russo’s essay is entitled “Location, Location, Location: Depicting Characters Through Place,” and it’s invaluable to any writer who wants to explore the importance and potential of setting, as well as anyone wanting to better understand Russo’s novels. I reread it last week just after completing Everbody’s Fool, Russo’s recent sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Nobody’s Fool, published more than twenty years ago.
Russo’s starting point is the tenet taught to every beginning writer that place can be a character. London is obviously a character in almost everything Charles Dickens wrote, just as the East Buckingham neighborhood outside Boston is a character in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, just as West Texas is a character in Larry McMurtry’s wonderful Lonesome Dove, to name just a few examples. (Incidentally Lehane’s East Buckingham and Russo’s North Bath are both fictional places, but it doesn’t matter—they become very real in the hands of the writers.)
In his essay, Russo separates interior and exterior settings. The interior, the personal living space and objects that fill it, are easily identified and are self-evidently important. Everyone knows, to use Russo’s example, that “a person who owns an ice bucket and silver cocktail shaker is different from someone who owns a claw-footed tub for bathing.”
Much harder to understand the importance of exterior setting, and the truth is, it doesn’t always matter and it isn’t always useful, especially in today’s modern world where a highway strip sheltering a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut, a Wal-Mart, and a Home Depot could be almost anywhere. And certainly plenty of great novels aren’t set anywhere (Where is Kafka’s penal colony? Does not knowing detract from the reading experience?).
But many of us readers prefer to be grounded in a specific place and many of us writers believe it can make a big difference to the trajectory of a novel. Again, to quote Russo: “The only compelling reasons to pay more attention to place, to exterior setting, is the belief, the faith, that place and its people are intertwined, that place is character, and that to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.”
It’s a belief that drives my writing and it’s a belief that is certainly evident in Russo’s latest, Everybody’s Fool, a novel driven by characters who are fully imagined and beautifully brought to life, in large part because the small, down-on-its-luck factory town they all call home is so fully rendered and in part because its influence on the people is so clear that you can’t imagine them living anywhere else. The novel isn’t perfect—there are too many characters too fully developed for my taste—but for anyone interest in studying how to use setting or who appreciates the value of doing so, there is nothing better.