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An Evening with Richard Russo: Writing, Paul Newman and a Bruce Springsteen Song

By EMILY WEIKL

Staff Writer

(HACKENSACK) – “Bulgarians are big fans of Bruce Springsteen.”

It was a surprising tidbit of information author Richard Russo gave during his speech in Wilson Auditorium on Nov. 8 as part of the Gene Barnett Speaker Series.

 

He started by reading his essay, The Boss of Bulgaria, in which he went to a conference of writers in the country. When he was being interviewed there, he heard the distant strains of Springsteen’s song, “Thunder Road.” The song has a lot of meaning for Russo, and he left the audience to wonder just how much.

 

Russo also talked about the Bulgarian writers themselves and what they went through while living under Communist rule. He said how difficult it is to find your own voice to write with, and that women and LGBTQ writers have more expectations saddled upon them when it comes to writing.

Russo ended that section of the talk by saying he will leave it to the audience to decide whether he became visibly emotional over “Thunder Road,” and his appreciation for artists of all stripes.

“I will draw the curtain here, leaving to the reader’s imagination whether I maintained some sense of dignity and decorum or wept like a child on the far side of the world,” he said. “Wept for pride and Bruce, and the nation that spawned him. With a welling up of admiration too, for every singer, poet and artist lucky enough to find against all odds to find a voice and the courage to raise it. With empathy, too, for the many who have tried and failed.”

 

Russo answered audience questions. The first was on how it felt to win a Pulitzer in 2002 for “Empire Falls,” to which he replied by saying that his editor calls the award “the gift that keeps on giving.” The Pulitzer, Russo said, boosts sales of an author’s books more dramatically than other awards.

“What I don’t think I realized though,” he said, “was that the Pulitzer would give a second life to my backlist books as well. I was just in a different place. And so all of that was enormously gratifying. I wasn’t sure I was worthy of it, but they choose from pretty good books. In order to be in the running, you’d have had to written a decent book, I think.”

 

He considers being awarded the Pulitzer a great moment in his literary life, but it is on par with getting his first story published in the Mid-American Review.

“You’re not a writer when you say you are, you’re a writer when someone else says you are,” Russo said.

Russo also ventured into how his optimism has been challenged in the past 25 years.

“It may have been undermined in certain ways, but it’s still there and it still should be,” he said. “I get to do the kind of work that I want to do. Why the hell shouldn’t I be optimistic?”

He signed some of his books for the attendees after the Q&A, no doubt providing a good memento of the evening. As the world around Wilson Auditorium slowly became dimmer, Richard Russo was a light that room surely needed.

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