Author Interviews
2:56 am
Tue October 30, 2012

Resenting And Respecting Mom In Russo's 'Elsewhere'

Originally published on Mon November 5, 2012 9:16 am

Author Richard Russo has been writing about the burned-out mill town of Gloversville, N.Y., for years. In one Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, he called it Empire Falls, Maine; in another novel, it was Thomaston, N.Y.

Now, Russo has turned his attention to the real Gloversville and his experiences growing up there. His new memoir, Elsewhere, tracks his relationship with a very intense and neurotic mother who was also a gallant single mom. Russo and his mother remained close even through those transitions when children usually begin to separate from their parents, like going away to college. Of his own decision to attend the University of Arizona, Russo writes:

"I expected my mother to put up stiff resistance to this plan; after all, I'd be twenty-five hundred miles away and her mantra had always been that we were a team, that as long as we had each other, we'd be able to manage. So I should have been suspicious when she didn't object to my heading west. But even if I'd twigged to the possibility that she was up to something, I never would've grasped the obvious inference, and it was years before it occurred to me that maybe the westward-ho notion hadn't been mine at all, that she'd steadily been dropping hints — for example, that the best place to study archeology, my current interest, was the Desert Southwest — and that I'd dutifully been lapping them up. Nor did she object when, in the spring of my senior year I announced I wanted to buy a car.

"The reason she didn't, of course, was that we'd need one. Because she was coming with me."

Russo joins NPR's Linda Wertheimer to discuss his relationship with his mother and how she contributed to his success as a writer.


Interview Highlights

On how his memoir ended up being more about his mother than himself

"As I dove deeper and deeper into this book, it seemed to me — and this is very odd for a memoir — it seemed to me that my job was to stay out of the way of this story. And so it has more to do with my mother's life than it does mine. And it has a lot to do with this place that we shared, because she grew up there too, in Gloversville, just as I did. I don't write books in order to explain my experiences of life; I write them to make things make sense, and there were large aspects of my mother's life that I didn't quite comprehend. When you don't understand a parent's life, in a way, you kind of don't understand your own."

On why he and his mother remained so close, even after he got married and began building his own life

"I have a good deal of fun with it in the book in the sense that ... no matter where we went, my mother always had to come with us because she needed to be nearby me for kind of psychological reasons. But she also, literally — we could never go anywhere for longer than it took for milk to spoil, because the milk would spoil and she had no way to get more milk."

On how he felt about their relationship

"There was an evolution there, as there usually is in relationships. I still remembered the brave, young woman who did so much on her own when I was young. But I'd be lying to you, Linda, if I didn't say that there wasn't a whole world of resentment, of course, that built up, not because I didn't want my mother in my life, but that she didn't need to be there, you know, every minute of it."

On discovering he was actually a lot like his mother

"We both grew up in Gloversville ... we're both genetically, I think, obsessives. And when I looked at the same forces at work in my mother's life and I saw there were times in my own life when I was imitating her behavior without ever meaning to, that for me just deepened the mystery of destiny, the way in which the same traits that close off one person's life actually expanded mine. When I found the right obsession, when I discovered writing, I found an obsession that was every [bit as] deep as all my other obsessions had been. ... And it actually opened new doors to every aspect of my life. But this was not virtue on my part — this was not even intelligence. It was simply that I had stumbled onto something that was actually going to open my life up — open my future up instead of closing it off where all of my other obsessions, brief and more lasting, had done."

On whether he could have accomplished all that he has without his mother

"No. What I'm ultimately facing in the writing of this book is the understanding that all of the blessings in my life — the things that I value most — are traceable not just to my mother, in some strange way, also to her demons."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The author Richard Russo has been writing about a burned-out Milltown called Gloversville in New York State for years. In one Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, he called it "Empire Falls."

MORNING EDITION's Linda Wertheimer spoke to Russo about his memoir, "Elsewhere," in which he looks back on the actual town of Gloversville and his relationship with a very intense and neurotic mother.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: When you begin the book, you paint a picture of a kind of a gallant woman, a single mom, very proud of her job, very proud of her good looks. And it turns out your book was about her.

RICHARD RUSSO: Yeah, as I dove deeper and deeper into this book, it seemed to me - and this is very odd for memoir - it seemed to me that my job was to stay out of the way of the story. And so, it has more to do with my mother's life than it does mine. And it has a lot to do with this place that we shared, because she grew up there, too, in Gloversville, just as I did.

I don't write books in order to explain my experiences of life. I write them to make things make sense. And there were large aspects of my mother's life that I didn't quite comprehend. And when you don't understand a parent's life, in a way, you kind of don't understand your own.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I'd like to ask you to read an excerpt from the book. There's a point in the memoir where your life really begin to spin out of control, it's where you - having bought a clunker of a car - made the decision to go west to the University of Arizona. Could you read to us from the book on Page 38, beginning with, I expected?

RUSSO: (Reading) I expected my mother to put up stiff resistance to this plan. After all, I'd be 2500 miles away and her mantra had always been that we were a team, that as long as we had each other, we'd be able to manage. So I should have been suspicious when she didn't object to my heading west.

(Reading) But even if I'd twigged to the possibility that she was up to something, I never would've grasped the obvious inference. And it was years before it occurred to me that maybe the westward-ho notion hadn't been mine at all, that she'd steadily been dropping hints - for example, that the best place to study archeology, my current interest, was the Desert Southwest - and that I'd dutifully been lapping them up.

(Reading) Nor did she object when, in the spring of my senior year, I announced I wanted to buy a car. The reason she didn't, of course, was that we would need one - because she was coming with me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, that's was a big, big clue as to what the rest of your life would be. And I kept having the feeling that you still didn't quite get it.

RUSSO: Oh, I was a long way from getting it.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you went on to finish college. You got a Ph.D. You had a series of good jobs. You were teaching in universities. You married. You had children. A lot of that is not really discussed in the book. The story that you're telling, through the sort of into your middle-age, is still you and your mom.

RUSSO: Yes. I have a good deal of fun with it in the book, in the sense that, you know, from the time that she first entered my marriage, no matter where we went, my mother always had to come with us because she needed to be nearby me for, kind of, psychological reasons. But she also, literally - we could never go anywhere for longer than it took for milk to spoil, because the milk would spoil.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSO: And she had no way to get more milk.

WERTHEIMER: How did you feel about her while it was going on? At a time when, you know, when most children separate from their parents and begin their own lives, you did not. I mean your wife, I nominate her for saint.

RUSSO: Yeah. Yeah, me too. You can second my motion on that score.

WERTHEIMER: But how did you feel about her, your mother?

RUSSO: There was an evolution there, as there usually is in relationships. I still remembered the brave, young woman who did so much on her own when I was young. But I'd be lying to you, Linda, if I didn't say that there wasn't a whole world of resentment, of course, that built up, just - not because I didn't want my mother in my life, but that she didn't need to be there, you know, every minute of it.

WERTHEIMER: At one point, you seem to be saying that you began to, kind of, become your mother. You imitated her behavior in that you tried, when you decided to quit your university job, and just live on the writing, and move to the coast of Maine and buy beautiful house, it was like an escape to an imagined future. That's the kind of thing she did.

RUSSO: Yeah. Yeah. And as I wrote this book, so many of the forces in her life, so many of the - you know, the fact that we both grew up in Gloversville, the fact that we're both genetically, I think, obsessives. And when I looked at the same forces at work in my mother's life, and I saw there were times in my own life when I was imitating her behavior without ever meaning to, that for me, just deepened the mystery of destiny; the way in which the same traits that close off one person's life actually expanded mine.

When I found the right obsession, when I discovered writing, I found an obsession that was every deep as all my other obsessions have been, but strangely enough, wasn't going to kill me.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSO: And it actually opened the new doors to every aspect of my life. But this was not virtue on my part. This was not even intelligence. It was simply that I had stumbled onto something that was actually going to open my life up, open my future up instead of closing it off - where all of my other obsessions, brief and more lasting, had done.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that she would've been able to do what you've done in your life with a different mother?

RUSSO: No. What I'm ultimately facing in the writing of this book is the understanding that all of the blessings in my life - the things that I value most - are traceable not just to my mother, in some strange way, also to her demons.

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much for this. Thank you for joining us.

RUSSO: Thank you, Linda. I enjoyed it a lot.

WERTHEIMER: Richard Russo's latest book is a memoir. It's called "Elsewhere."

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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