Pulitzer winner Richard Russo advocating for next generation of writers | AspenTimes.com

Pulitzer winner Richard Russo advocating for next generation of writers

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Russo is teaching at Aspen Summer Words this week. He will speak on two public panels Tuesday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘The Long Haul’ at Aspen Summer Words

Who: Panelists Ann Hood and Richard Russo

Where: The Gant

When: Tuesday, June 23, 4 p.m.

Tickets and more info: http://www.aspenwords.org

What: ‘Writing Home’ at Aspen Summer Words

Who: Panelists Richard Russo, Akhil Sharma, Hannah Tinti

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Tuesday, June 23, 6 p.m.

Tickets and more info: http://www.aspenwords.org

The aspiring and emerging writers in Richard Russo’s Aspen Summer Words workshop this week are facing a set of challenges that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist did not see in the years before he published his first novel in 1986.

But those writers, and writers everywhere, have an advocate in Russo. As vice president of the Authors Guild, the country’s largest professional organization for writers, Russo defends authors’ rights and the ability to make a living, standing up for them on issues ranging from piracy to Amazon’s bullying tactics.

“It’s infinitely more difficult for young writers today,” Russo said.

The litany of circumstances making it harder, Russo listed, includes the technological disruption of the publishing industry, the demise of independent bookstores and the shrinking of newspapers and book reviews writing about emerging writers — what Russo calls a “perfect storm” against writers trying to get their work to an audience.

If a writer lands a book contract, he added, they’re not likely to have a publisher advertising their book and sending them on a book tour, as publishers did for his early works. Paying the bills with the skills of a fiction or literary nonfiction writer, he noted, also is getting tougher.

“There were a lot of crappy jobs available for writers like me,” Russo said of the days before he could afford to write full time. “But even a lot of those crappy jobs are drying up — teaching composition at community colleges and such, even those jobs are becoming incredibly competitive and difficult to come by.”

He admires the new generation of writers for forging ahead and perfecting the craft in today’s environment.

“For these emerging authors, it’s a remarkable act of faith to continue against those odds and to see the writing life as a real possibility,” he said.

In that bleak landscape, Russo sees hope in the writers themselves. As guest editor of the “Best American Short Stories” series in 2010, and through his work at the Authors Guild, he reads a lot of first-time novelists and writers just breaking out.

“The good news is that the talent in the pipeline has never been stronger,” he said. “There are extraordinary young voices coming along. Despite how challenging it is these days, I suspect these writers will find a way.”

Russo, through the Author’s Guild, began hosting a literary series this spring in Portland, Maine, where he lives, that showcases newly published writers.

“We (at the Authors Guild) believe in a varied and vibrant ecosystem where a lot of different possibilities are there for authors,” Russo said. “That’s an ecosystem that was in place when I was cutting my teeth. All of these possibilities were out there.”

Along with teaching this week, Russo — who won the Pulitzer in 2002 for “Empire Falls” and visited Aspen once before to give a reading at Winter Words in early 2008 — will discuss his work and the writing life on two public Summer Words panels today.

Russo recently finished a new novel, “Everybody’s Fool,” a sequel to his 1993 novel, “Nobody’s Fool,” about a hard-luck guy in hard-luck upstate New York, where much of Russo’s fiction is set.

He had been working on the sequel for a few years but put it aside when his mother died so that he could write the memoir “Elsewhere,” which was published in 2012. After a career fictionalizing his Gloversville, N.Y., the memoir captured the declining glove-manufacturing town as Russo remembers it, and offered a bittersweet portrayal of his relationship with his mother from his childhood through her battle with dementia.

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to stop that book (‘Everybody’s Fool’) to tell a story that I knew was going to be fraught and difficult for me to do,” Russo said. “But since my mother passed, I’d simply felt haunted by the final days of her illness and the trajectory of her life.”

He expects “Everybody’s Fool” to be published next year.