A Lifelong Conversation

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Richard and Kate Russo’s new book project is a result of their ongoing dialogue about the language of art.

By Joshua Bodwell
Photograph by Nathan Eldridge

Richard Russo, of Camden, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seven novels, including Empire Falls and That Old Cape Magic, and a collection of short stories. But his latest project, Interventions, is the first time he has collaborated formally with his daughter, artist Kate Russo, and her husband, sculptor Tom Butler. The result is an intimate real-book experience that feels tangibly opposite to a cold digital eBook. Interventions consists of four individual books housed together in one slipcase. Each slim volume, with a unique cover designed by Kate and one story by Richard, also contains a frame-able reproduction of an additional painting by Kate.

Can you talk a bit about the inception of this project?
Richard: Well, the moment-before-the-moment was when That Old Cape Magic [Russo’s 2009 novel] came out and Kate illustrated four broadsides for the book.
Kate: But that project was born out of my dad obviously having these images he was obsessing about in his head and wanted to see on paper. Whereas with Interventions, that wasn’t the case. He didn’t have any preconceived idea about the imagery.
Richard: I just loved those images she’d done for the broadsides so much that I thought, “We have to do something more together.”

How were the four stories in the book selected?
Richard: I wanted the anchor of the book to be a new story that had never been published, so I selected this novella “Intervention.” And then, when there is any opportunity to return to Sister Ursula in “The Whore’s Child” for any reason, I’m up for it! Because that’s my favorite of my own stories, and she’s one of my all-time favorite characters.
Kate: But “Horseman” was where we started. You handed me that story right before I got on a plane to return to school in London [Kate earned her MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art] and you said to me, “I don’t think you’ve read this, but I wonder what you’d do 
with it?”
Richard: And then the nonfiction piece “High and Dry” came last in a lot of ways because I wasn’t sure I wanted to upset the balance in the book by putting in something that wasn’t fiction. But the scene in the piece that convinced me was actually the scene at Kate’s wedding where I am listening to my cousin’s horror stories about the mills in Gloversville [the New York town where Richard grew up] and I was thinking I really owe my life — certainly my life as an artist — to one intervention, to a moment when my mother said, “You’re never going to have anything to do with those mills. You’re going to college.” So in a way, that is the intervention story of this book because without that one . . .

Kate: . . . there wouldn’t have been any of the other stories.

Richard, you’re no stranger to collaboration, be it the process of editing anthologies such as the Best American Short Stories 2010, or the many films you’ve been involved in. But how was this family collaboration for the two of you?
Richard: I think a lot of tension comes into collaboration when a number of people’s jobs overlap. But when people’s jobs are relatively discreet, things are fine. We never had any overlap.
Kate: My inclination is that I’ve never been particularly concerned about pleasing anyone when it comes to my art. I think that served me really well in this collaborative project. I was never at any point going to sit down and ask my dad, “What do you think I should paint?” I was never going to give him the opportunity.
Richard: That’s true! [Laughter] Kate: Well, I felt like if he had any real problem, he’d tell me. You can only do that when you have known someone for a long time and know them really well. With anybody else, this project might not have worked for me. The intimacy served us well. And then it was my sculptor husband, Tom Butler, who came in and helped us when it came to thinking about what this book was going to look like as an object.
Richard: Yes, Tom was the designer on the project. He came up with the slipcase and the whole idea of the four individually bound books.
Kate: We knew that we wanted it packaged in a way that wasn’t conducive to eReaders.

Apparently you were so serious about Interventions never being reproduced as an eBook that you put it in your contract? And you also insisted the book be produced with sustainably harvested papers and be manufactured in America. Why were those things important to you
?
Kate: Yep. It’s not that we’re anti-eBook, but in order to make a statement with this book, in order to make it interesting for people, we had to say “no” to the eBook.
Richard: And if this was going to be a father/daughter project that was going to be something years from now we could hold up and be proud of, we didn’t want to do things like find the cheapest printer if that meant going to, say, Portugal. We wanted it local not only in the sense of working with a Maine publisher but local in the sense of America.

What did you learn about each other during this collaboration that you might not have learned otherwise?
Richard: Well, we don’t have many rules in the Russo household, even when Kate and Emily [the other Russo daughter, now a bookseller in Brooklyn, New York] were in high school. But one rule was we always had dinner together. And as a result of that, I think what we know about each other — the relationship of father and daughter, but also the relationship of friends — came less out of this project than simply year after year of these discussions every single night about our lives and about our family. So this book seemed a natural outgrowth of a very simple notion we’ve always had: at the end of the day, you sit down and you talk.
Kate: We have been talking for so long. Even when I was in England, nothing ever felt distant. This collaboration doesn’t really have any clear beginning or end for me because our collaborations go back so far. . . . But in terms of this project, I really enjoyed diving into the darker side of my dad’s personality, and that’s really where these paintings are coming from. In a way, I might have learned more about myself than my dad, because I was able to do a project that was out of my comfort zone in the beginning, but by the end was well within my comfort zone.
Richard: I would distill what I learned this way: this project taught me that Kate and I are going to be having this conversation about art and writing for the rest of our lives.

Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Bodwell’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ambit, Poets & Writers, Threepenny Review, and Slice magazine.

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