BY T.L. CRUM
[Each Monday for the next few months, one of our contributors will match a great book with a time in their lives; keep up with this series, or any of our others, through our Special Features page.]
I loved Empire Falls when I was revising my first novel. That is, I love it right now. When I started drafting the novel this past December, I made it a point to immerse myself in the best fiction ever written. I revisited Nabokov, Steinbeck, threw in a little Cheever and V.S. Naipaul, and then school started again. I’m currently halfway through my three-year MFA program, and last semester, I signed up for a Premodern Narrative class – and by that I mean works like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. I eventually switched out of the class in favor of an entire semester of Leaves of Grass, but not before Bede knocked some sense into me: I’d been going about my “research” backwards.
The novel I’ve drafted is dark, with multiple points of view, and very much set in present time with present language and present behavior. And what I was reading was anything but. Now, don’t get me wrong – good fiction is good fiction no matter when it was written, and there’s ALWAYS something to learn from the masters, especially with regard to craft. But their language – although very beautiful – is very divergent from my own and, I’m embarrassed to say, it was clogging my head. Add to that a few weeks with Bede and Chaucer and I needed a good brain drain.
For a long minute, I considered reading the Twilight series because, like Stephenie Meyer, my novel came to me in a dream (on Christmas night of all nights – thanks, Santa!). But alas, my dream was about humans and not sexy vampires. So I decided to take a look at the Pulitzer Prize list from the past fifteen years. I love me some Oscar Wao and gender-confused Middlesex, but once again, not a style match. Independence Day, American Pastoral, The Road – all exceptional, intelligent stories. But Empire Falls is the novel that really spoke to me at this stage in my writing career.
Because I don’t live under a rock, I was already familiar with the book (especially considering that it had been recommended to me at least half a dozen times over the past few years), but I’d never read Russo and was slightly taken aback by the prologue – sixteen pages of italicized backstory. I flipped through the book and noticed a related thread of backstory weaving throughout the entire novel in the same manner – big chunks of italics. Isn’t there some rule against that? Doesn’t he know I hate italics? But then I read the first chapter and knew I’d be filling the book with post-its, knew that I’d be recommending it to friends and relatives. Knew, in fact, that I’d be writing blog posts about it.
It’s not just that Russo’s a hotshot at writing multiple points of view – each character has a voice that’s distinct, refreshing and very much alive. (And as someone who is trying to accomplish this same task, I can attest: as hard as you think this is, it’s even harder.) It’s that he can craft the epic story of an entire town – filled with achingly human characters, complicated entanglements, history, depth and resonance – and make the endeavor look effortless. No big deal. All in a day’s work. For this, I revere him, and I also kind of hate him.
Each chapter is filled with humor, insightful observations, startlingly realistic dialogue, and delicately constructed setting. And those italicized sections I mentioned earlier? They serve to provide a repressed memory that’s linked to the present day narrative, thus rounding out the story for both the characters and the town. This, once again, was an element I was struggling with in my own novel until Russo came in and slapped me on the back – Aha! This is how it’s done. (Give or take a few italics, of course.)
In truth, I think it’s possible to have that Aha! moment with any book at any time. After all, when I picked up Empire Falls, I was really just searching for some relatable, present day language. But the drafting process of a novel is an especially tricky period for many authors, and it’s really helpful to find a book or two that can be returned to again and again for inspiration. For me, this year, it was Empire Falls. I haven’t gone so far as to try to “imitate” Russo, but because of him, I feel that I’ve gained a greater understanding about what I’m already doing (or what I’m desperately trying to do, at least). And so, in addition to revering and hating him, I am also grateful for him. Thank you, Richard Russo, for writing such an exquisite book.