“The shape of our lives makes a difference in the end. I’d like to die knowing a little bit about what this has all been about.” Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo talks with Zibby about the intimate family histories that he explored in his latest book, Marriage Story, a Scribd Original. Richard shares what he learned about his maternal grandmother that uprooted some of his childhood memories, why he believes his writing has a narrow scope, and how he approached writing during the pandemic.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Rick. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rick Russo: It’s my pleasure to be here. It’s my pleasure to be anywhere.

Zibby: Why not? Every day is gift.

Rick: Yes, indeed.

Zibby: First of all, I’m honored to be talking to you after your Pulitzer Prize-winning career, all these books and movies of books. Your career is outstanding. I recently finished Marriage Story, your Scribd Original, which I absolutely loved, Marriage Story: An American Memoir, which tells all about your growing up and your mom and dad and their parents and how you’ve really arrived here and then a cultural commentary at the end where you link it all to where we are today. I was hoping you could start by just telling listeners a little more about why you wrote this piece to begin with. Why now? I know you’ve already written a memoir. Why this piece? Why Scribd Originals? Why now?

Rick: Thinking back on this piece right now — we’re kind of coming out of the other end of this pandemic. My wife and I are actually traveling right now for the first time since lockdown over a year ago. Thinking back on Marriage Story, which was completed, of course, many months ago, it now feels to me very much like a pandemic document. I think that those of us — I’ve spoken to a number of other writers about this. Those of us who all went into lockdown at the same time, we had different kinds of reactions to what was happening to us. I think my reaction was that being told to go home and stay there wasn’t an entirely bad thing for me. It got tiresome, of course, and the worry and everything else that was going on in all of our lives back then. I know a lot of writers that kind of got stymied a little bit. Some used the time in some way more fruitfully. I fall into the latter camp. I don’t know why. I don’t know what there would’ve been about my personality that would’ve welcomed certain aspects of what I couldn’t change anyway. I was told to go home and stay there. I did. It freed up an enormous amount of time. I was already working on a novel. I’m the in the middle of third Fool novel now. I have Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool. I think Somebody’s Fool or Some Other Fool is coming down the road. My normal work schedule would’ve been to work on the novel in the morning and maybe read in the afternoon or whatever other obligations I might have as a father, as a husband.

With all of this extra time and the opportunity to think somewhat more deeply about things that I had thought about before, and all of us thinking during this horrible period of time that we’ve been soldiering through, thinking about the shape of our lives and the meaning of our lives, we’re all faced with our own mortality. I think we are all kind of meaning machines. We need meaning in various different ways. We find meaning sometimes in religion. We find it in family. We find it in work. Certainly, find it in work, those of us who are lucky enough to have work that gives us meaning. For me, I just started thinking in slightly different ways than I had about people that were nearest and dearest to me throughout my life, which are my parents, my maternal grandparents, and thinking about the shape of this life. You were talking earlier about my career. I’ve been doing this for a long time now. It’s been wonderful. It’s been absolutely rewarding. I can’t think of anything else that I would rather have done during these last three decades than write these books.

The pandemic gave me the opportunity to look at again, through the lens of mortality, some things that I thought maybe I was done with. I did write a memoir once. It had a lot to say about my mom, whose struggles in life were both heroic and sometimes tragic. I’ve always written more about my parents’ America than my own. It’s their generation, my father coming back the second world war, my mother’s life in the States waiting for him to come back from the second world war. The America that they envisioned has always been front and center in my brain. I’ve been examining these things for a long time. Despite having written about it and having thought about it for much of my life, I suddenly had a slightly different lens. I realized there was just stuff that I didn’t know, I had never come to terms with, and that the only way I was ever going to get there was to sit down and start thinking anew and in slightly different ways about stuff that been important to me for a very long time.

Zibby: Did it work?

Rick: Well, you tell me.

Zibby: I think so. I thought it was great, but did it help you feel like you made sense of those issues, that you came to some sort of closure? That digging deeper into them at this point, did it get you to the other side? You tackled such things like even the difference between your parents’ outlooks on America and their optimism and pessimism. You explain where that came from with your dad being in the D-Day invasion and war and all of the atrocities and all of that and your mother’s holding onto this sense that there would be hope and holding you up as her model. You had some funny line, too, about how pessimists — you said something like, optimists end up achieving more, but pessimists — what happens? They’re less disappointed?

Rick: Pessimists have the comfort of being right more often, but optimists tend to fare better in America.

Zibby: Yes, I loved that. That was amazing. Anyway, do you feel like you achieved what you set out to do personally?

Rick: Yes and no. The most important way was that, yeah, I did arrive at some new conclusions both about my parents, but also about my maternal grandmother, which I’d love to talk with you about a little bit, and my maternal grandfather. Yes, I began to view their lives in a slightly different way. Since you bring up the word closure, I will preface the more specific comments with my take on closure, which is that in some pretty important way, that’s something you should never seek. If you were to look at my career over the last three decades, I think you would find a rather narrow — let’s put it this way. My bandwidth is very narrow. You can look at a look of writers, and writers that I think of as, they keep coming back to the page because they have infinite curiosity about the world, a lot of different things interest them. When they finish one book, they immediately become curious something else. They start doing research. They start thinking more imaginatively. They make outlines. They made storyboards. They achieve a career that I think is very different from mine because what drives them is a curiosity about life, about the larger world itself. They write a certain kind of book. My bandwidth is really narrow in that there are really only three or four things that I’m interested in and only one or two of those that I really know anything about.

What happens with each of the books that I write, they’re all about the same thing. I tend to write a lot about class. I write a lot about family. What happens with each of these books and what happened with Marriage Story as well is that I get to at a certain point in whatever book it is that I’m writing and I realize that because of the way I’ve structured the book or because of the choices that I’ve made in writing the book, I realize that there’s certain things that I can’t get to because of the point of view that I’ve chosen, because of the plot that I’ve worked in, the point-of-view character I’ve chosen to see the story through. All of those things, they’ve been doors or windows for me to get into something, but they also close something off. There’s certain things that I can’t get to because of the choices that I’ve made, which means that when I get to the end of the book, it will be a success in a certain way, that I’ve done something that I wanted to do, but all the things that I wasn’t able to do, all the things that I wasn’t able to get at are still out there and unresolved. There’s never such a thing as closure. I just keep going back into all those things that I’ve managed to somehow not get to the bottom of despite the fact that book after book after book I’m trying to zero in on the things that mean the most to me. Certain things that certain writers keep returning to — in trying to justify my narrow bandwidth, I always think of a writer like Dickens who keeps coming back book after book after book to either having orphans in the story or having a certain character who seemed orphaned in some way. He’s been abandoned in some way by someone that he loves or she loves.

If you read enough Dickens’ novels, you know that that has something to do with the fact that even though he wasn’t orphaned himself, he felt orphaned when his father went off to debtor’s prison and he was left on his own. He felt orphaned. With Dickens, on the one hand, you’re always saying, what’s with all the orphans? Come on, man. Surely, twelve books into your career you ought to be able to surrender the orphan somewhere along the way, but he can’t because that’s central. His bandwidth is a lot wider than mine, but there’s something about that experience of his life that will be central to everything that he writes. That’s the kind of writer that I am. I certainly haven’t achieved what Dickens has achieved, but I’m that kind of writer. Closure, for me, is just something that doesn’t happen. That’s the good news because if it ever did happen, if I ever did write in Marriage Story or in any of novels, any of my Fool novels or in any of my books, if I ever did get to the bottom of it, I’d be done. I’d be done as a writer because I’m really not that curious about anything else. The lack of closure is kind of a good thing. To the earlier part of your question, the way that Marriage Story is a success to my way of thinking is that I was able to look at a human being. I was about to call her a character because she kind of becomes one in this. I was able to look at, for instance, my maternal grandmother’s life in a way that was very different from the way I had seen her. I’m seventy-one years old now. I had seen her in a particular way. I loved her dearly. When my mother and father split — Marriage Story is the story of their breakup, but then hopefully more by the end. When they broke up and I didn’t see much of my father anymore, my mother was working full time, had a full-time job in General Electric in Schenectady, New York, which meant that somebody had to take care of me.

The person who made my mother’s semi-independence possible, that allowed her to be a working woman that she wanted to be, was my grandmother. When I came home from school, it was my grandmother that met me at the door and she whose company that I shared between two thirty or three o’clock when I got home from school and when my grandfather came home from his job. He was a glove cutter in Upstate New York. You know how it is when you’re a kid. Whatever circumstance you’re in just seems normal. You don’t question it until you get older. I had heard throughout my growing up that my grandmother had what was referred to as kind of a rough patch, but I didn’t know what that meant, really. It was only later when I began to talk to my mother’s sister, my maternal aunt, that actually, my grandmother, when she was younger, was subject to full-blown panic attacks. There was a time after my mother had followed my father, had gone to Georgia where they got married — she was following him around to the various camps that he was at before he shipped overseas. During that time, my maternal grandmother was pretty much incapacitated by fear, by just terror. She had a very difficult time leaving the house because if she did, she felt if she lost sight of the house that she lived in, she would never be able to find her way back, which left her in the care of her twelve-year-old daughter, my mother’s younger sister who was at that time eleven years old. She was responsible for all the adult things. My grandfather was overseas. My mother wasn’t around. It was my grandmother who was not only in charge, but it was really my aunt who did the heavy lifting. When my grandfather came back from the second world war, they lived, as I say, a life that seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. I never questioned it. It was a life in which my grandmother almost never left the house. She would go down to the corner grocery store where we got our — remember those, corner grocery stores?

Zibby: I do.

Rick: There was one right at the end of the street where we lived. She would walk around the corner to where my aunt lived because that was family. They were so close. My grandmother was very anchored by my aunt’s family, still. Although, now we’ve fast-forwarded twenty years. I never questioned any of that, the fact that my grandmother did not have a single friend outside of the family. I never thought that that was not normal. When the rest of the family went off to the lake on the weekend, my grandfather and grandmother never went along. That didn’t strike me as odd either. The fact that she never went anywhere except to my aunt’s and to church never struck me as unusual. In writing Marriage Story, what I took for granted as a child, I began to see in a new light. When I came home from school, all the things that my grandmother did for me, meeting me at the door when I came home from school, walking me to school when I was too little to get there on my own despite the fact that it was only three blocks — still, as a kindergartner, she used to walk me to school. Imagine now, in my sixties, when my aunt began to tell me about some of the severe agoraphobia and panic attacks that she used to suffer when my aunt was only twelve years old and the kinds of things that my aunt had to do.

It suddenly dawned on me, Zibby, that all those afternoons that my grandmother and I spent together when I thought that she was taking care of me, that I was also taking care of her. That just knocked me sideways. Marriage Story, if it succeeds, it’s that we all realize that there are things in our lives that even though we think we know, we think we know them backwards and forwards, we probably don’t. If somebody tells you to go home and stay there and think about these things — the trajectory of my own life is a profound mystery to me. Part of it is a mystery because there’s still so much I don’t understand, things that I was confident of understanding, now realizing that, no, I just hadn’t questioned. I was a kid. I hadn’t questioned. Even when I was older, even when I should’ve tumbled to some things, we sink into habits, don’t we? We sink into habits of understanding. When I was forty or forty-five and should’ve been thinking a little bit more clearly and a little bit more deeply, I was used to the old thoughts. I was used to the conclusions. Why interrupt them, really, when you think, we’re so happy in our ignorance? Why mess that up with the truth for heaven’s sakes? If Marriage Story, if it succeeds in some way, when readers read it, they think, oh, you know what, I think that corresponds to something in my life. There’s a lie that I’ve told myself. There’s something that I’ve assumed to be true which turns out not to be. If a work of writing succeeds, it succeeds in helping us to feel a little bit less alone. If we’ve been foolish, if we’ve come to conclusions that turn out not to be true, that’s the nature of the game. We can make it our business to think a little bit more deeply and try to arrive at something a little bit closer to reality. The shape of our lives makes a difference in the end. I’d like to die knowing a little bit about what this has all been about.

Zibby: Wow, that was beautiful. It’s hard enough to think of parents as people, but grandparents too, especially as a young child. Your book made me think about my grandmothers. I was like, did my grandmother leave the house? What were they hiding? You don’t end up knowing the full story. You can’t. Yet you’re so close to people that you love. It’s this paradox. They’re right there. Yet what do you not know? Then of course, time runs out to get to the bottom of it. You said something so beautiful at the end of Marriage Story. Here, let me see if I can find it. You said, “There are a few hard and fast rules about becoming a writer, or any kind of artist for that matter, but one thing I can state with absolute certainty is that no matter how gifted you are or how hardworking, you’re never going to be any good until you know who and what you love because until then, you won’t know who you are.” I feel like this is your delving, again, into who you are based on who the people around you were.

Rick: I’m thinking about, actually, a recent David Brooks article in The Times from, I think it was probably late last week because he usually appears on Fridays. He was talking about Joe Biden. He’d had, apparently, an interview with the president and asked him if he had changed. Biden’s responses were interesting to Brooks and to me too. Asked whether he had changed — that’s a question about, who are you? Who were you then and who are you now if you’ve changed? Biden responded by talking about his father saying, “One of the things my father told me…” It turned out that he couldn’t get very far into any of the questions that David Brooks was asking him without turning back to the past and saying, “This is something my grandfather taught me or my grandmother taught me. I learned this from my father.” Brooks’ conclusion from this, which I think was spot on, was that writers are looking at the world, but they’re not all looking at it from the same perspective. That phrase that we all use all the time, “where I’m coming from,” you say to other people, “You know where I’m coming from here?” the literal manifestation of that is that we are all coming from someplace. That’s what makes us unique. The idea for an artist, and not just for a writer, but for any kind of artist — take a painter. A painter sits down to paint maybe a landscape or a portrait or a still life. You think that the subject of the work, of course, is the thing that the painter is painting. So much of what you see depends on where you set yourself up, where you set your easel up. Where you’re standing with the brush in your hand has an awful lot to do with what you ultimately paint.

For somebody like Joe Biden who’s been living this life for a long time and has had a lot happen to him, where he’s standing when he now looks at what America needs, I think he has the wisdom to understand that you can’t see everything from everywhere. No matter how careful you look, what you see has so much to do with where you’re standing. Where you’re standing is the past. Where you’re standing has to do with who you love and what your experience of life has been, seen through your own eyes, but seen through the eyes of people who made you who you are. This particular story and my books in general are all about positioning, where I choose to stand in this particular novel in order to look at something that I’ve been looking at for a long time, but somehow, I’m positioned differently. When I look back at my early books now like The Risk Pool, which was my first father-son story, that story, I could not write that story now because I’m old. I was positioned differently back when I wrote that book. If I were to try to rewrite that book now, I would murder it. I know I would. I would kill it. When I read my books now, I want to rewrite every single sentence in all of them. That just means I’m looking at things from a different perspective now. There’s been more water under more bridges. I’m not the same person I was back then.

Zibby: That’s why it’s okay to have that narrow bandwidth, right?

Rick: I hope so. Zibby, that’s been my excuse thirty years, and I’m sticking with it.

Zibby: It’s so funny, in Marriage Story, you talked about how becoming a novelist was a gamble and how your mother even worried that it was showing signs of your dad that weren’t on the top of her list in his problems with gambling, and so you decide not to become a novelist right after getting a PhD. Then you decide to be a teacher for a while and then eventually pursue this dream. How do you feel now that this gamble — the way the dice have actually been thrown or whatever the analogy is?

Rick: I am so grateful that I found writing when I did for personal reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with success. Yes, I was lucky one year and got a major literary prize. It’s made an enormous difference. A couple of wonderful movies have been made from my novels that have made a wonderful difference in my ability to continue doing what I love to do, provided the money that allowed me to teach less and to write more. If you take success off the table completely, even if I were publishing mid-list novels that never got much attention, even if I had published only three or four of those as opposed to the however many I’ve published now, if you take success off the table completely, I am still just so incredibly lucky and grateful to have been able to do this work for as long as I have. To the extent that I’m sane, whatever extent that is, I owe it to writing and to the writing process. Whatever it is that happens to me when I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper every day has benefited me in personal ways that have nothing to do with success, absolutely nothing to do with success. Much of Marriage Story is deeply intimate, in some cases about my life, but also about the people who are most important to me. I don’t want to be confessional here in the traditional sense of that word. I’ve already talked a little bit about my grandmother’s life.

My mother’s life, I wrote about in my memoir, Elsewhere. She really was heroically brave throughout her life. She had challenges, none of which were diagnosed, and should’ve been. We didn’t know then what we know now. Her obsessive-compulsive disorder went undiagnosed and therefore, untreated. It made her life, especially towards the end, tragically narrow. She got to the point that by the end, her world wasn’t much larger than your world that I’m looking at right now in that one room. That was pretty much her life by the end of it, as I say, despite her heroic courage in dealing with these demons on her own without medical assistance. I could hope to be half as brave as she was. When I say how lucky I was to discover writing, it was, of course, the same obsessive-compulsive disorder that led to profound panic attacks in my mother’s mother, in my maternal grandmother. Those things that allowed her not to get out of the house unless she could see it and walk back to it, the things that challenged my mother so much because of her profound anxiety disorders, things that I have passed onto my daughters, by the way, too, but who are doing, thankfully, not only just fine, wonderfully well with their lives because they got — the therapy is not that difficult. If you know what’s wrong, the therapy works just about every time if you pay attention.

The same afflictions that my grandmother suffered and that my mother suffer, I also was suffering from those as a younger man. I didn’t understand it either. I had certain rituals, too, that I needed. For most people who suffer undiagnosed from obsessive-compulsive disorder, the rituals that they have limit their lives. They make things tighter and tighter and tighter. They have to wash their hands a hundred times a day. That doesn’t make your life richer. That makes your life more miserable, more narrow. Every time you have to do something, like you can’t step on a crack or every time you have to go through a certain ritual that makes you feel like you have some sort of control over your life, your life gets that much narrower. Whereas with me, when I found writing, what that allowed me to do was indulge a certain kind of ritual in a way that — the very thing that made my grandmother’s life and my mother’s life so difficult for them turned out to be something that gave my life this structure that has been so important. If you want to be a good writer, one of the things you have to do is revise. For a lot of writers, they understand the necessity of that, but they don’t love it. It’s not their favorite part of the process.

For me, turning sentences around and getting them to work just the way that I want them to, that is, I won’t say endlessly satisfying because at a certain point you have to realize that maybe you’re going to make them worse now if you continue to tinker. That whole process, for me, of revision, which can be the bane of a lot of lives, is something that constantly opens up new possibilities to me. The revision process itself allows me to see certain — sometimes they’re minor. Sometimes they open other little windows. I don’t know what my rituals would’ve been if it hadn’t been for writing. I can’t imagine I would’ve become a womanizer. I’ve been married to the same woman for forty-nine years now, so I can’t imagine I would’ve been that, but I can imagine myself being a gambler. As a young man — it gives me no pride. I take no pride in this at all, in telling you. There was a point as a young man when I was in college, probably graduate school, that I gave blood in order to get into a poker game. That sense of must was so profound. I look back on that now with absolute horror. For an obsessive-compulsive, whatever it is that you’re obsessive about can either make your life or, much more likely, destroy it. Writing gave me an obsession. It didn’t make me surrender my sanity. It actually made me as sane as I am, whatever that is.

Zibby: Wow. I wish we had more time. I feel like I could talk to you all day. You are so wise. Some of the things you said, that whole notion of not even trying to achieve closure and how that’s actually a gift, this is great. Thank you. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Thank you for Marriage Story, which I truly loved. I will not look at a road being paved the same way ever again after your description of that. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Rick: Zibby, thank you so much for talking to me. You’ve borne with me wonderfully here. You asked a question, and fifteen minutes later, I’m still answering it. You’ve been incredibly generous with my rambling answers. It’s been a joy for me too. Thank you.

Zibby: You made my job easy. I just had to turn it on. Buh-bye. Thanks. Have a great day.

Rick: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Have fun on your travels.


MARRIAGE STORY by Richard Russo

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