Richard Russo is a star . . . in Bulgaria––to wit, a few years ago he was invited to their annual writers’ conference and when his flights got scrambled, he thought about saying sorry . . . until they told him he was the headliner. That’s what happens when you win a Pulitzer Prize. It also means publishers want books and are even willing to publish nine essays that barely hang together. Oh, by the way, Russo participated in the conference during which he meditated on the life of writers in a country where not long ago you had to remain silent lest you be imprisoned or worse for writing the wrong thing about the country’s rulers.
The Destiny Thief should be read by fiction writers, as well as by devoted Russo fans. The essays that will be of most interest to authors are the title essay, “The Destiny Thief,” as well as “Getting Good,” and “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omnipotence.”
That Russo is also a star in the U.S. is an object lesson for writers. He wasn’t a child prodigy nor was he a top student at the University of Arizona where he earned a Ph.D. in American Literature and a MFA in fiction. His career began like many lit/MFA graduates, teaching intro classes at third-tier colleges to students who looked much like he did not too many years earlier––working class and battling mixed emotions about their abilities and ambitions.
That Russo found his rhythm and produced award-winning novels seems to have taken him by surprise; it also irked some of his fellow AU grads. Reflecting on his success, which required him to come to terms with his origins as the son of divorced parents in the same upstate New York mill-town that I emerged from several years earlier, Russo concludes that “writing isn’t easy. Most people who want to be writers end up abandoning the struggle.”
That Russo didn’t give up is testimony to how the need to write can subsume the pretensions that often go with ambition and the tendency some have of connecting one’s self-worth with career recognition. “And so,” he tells us, “with no one left to impress, not even myself, I began, finally, to write.”
Russo’s first ambition was to be a rock and roll star. In high school, he formed a band, played badly and eventually gave it up, but the experience was instructive. More so, his relationship with his grandfather, a skilled glove cutter, who taught him to value good work, as well as not to place oneself above one’s fellow man. When the glove industry replaced skilled craftsmen with machines, his grandfather refused to downgrade the care he put in his work and yet he supported the union movement that eventually displaced him.
Reflecting on his early experiences as a laborer and as an underpaid instructor, Russo supports collective action, but when it comes to writing fiction, he stands on the side of craft, harking back to the guild model where an apprentice worked along side a skilled craftsperson for years before he was entitled to call himself a master. In addition to putting in one’s hours, however, an artist needs to “slow down, observe, contemplate, court quiet, practice stillness.”
In “Getting Good,” Russo raises questions that proponents of self-publishing ought to consider––namely, whether the absence of gatekeepers who stand in the way of traditional publication is a good thing. Becoming good at the craft of writing fiction, Russo believes, requires would-be authors to have one’s work rejected because only out of rejection can come the dedication it takes to reach a high level of craft.
Beginning fiction writers often flounder on the question of point of view. Should my story be written from first person perspective? The drawback is everything known to the reader must come from the protagonist’s senses and thoughts. Should it be written in third person? That means the story can be told by more than one person, but the writer’s viewpoint must be intuited from what his/her characters say and do.
Once upon a time, most novels were written from an omniscient viewpoint. The writer, in effect, was another character, telling us what his characters saw, felt and thought, but adding his views as well. The narrator knows things none of his characters know and thus is able to provide history and detail that can only be revealed awkwardly in first person or third P.O.V. stories. Omniscience, Russo tells, us “favors writers who know things, who are confident of their knowledge and generous enough to want to share it.” Needless to say, Russo’s novels are written in omniscient viewpoint.
The other six essays in The Destiny Thief are of less value to writers, but nevertheless are worth reading for insight into Richard Russo’s life and career. They show the kind of man he is . . . apart from being a star. They include a piece on Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, one on Mark Twain’s non-fiction, a brief graduation address, his friendship with a transgendered person, and his trip to Bulgaria. All are worth reading.