Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Creates Characters Who've Gone Off-Track

Jun 14, 2017

Cover of 'Trajectory,' by Richard Russo.
Credit Knopf, 2017 / Knopf,2017

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo started thinking a lot more about the trajectory of his life once he turned 50. In his new book, his characters are going through a similar process.   

“Trajectory” (Knopf/2017) is a collection of stories with four main characters who find themselves lost in different ways. It includes the stories of a professor who deals with a plagiarizing student; a real estate agent who tries to sell a hoarder’s home; a novelist who revisits a long-abandoned screenplay; and a man whose relationship with an estranged brother comes to a head during a trip to Venice. 

Richard Russo reads from "Trajectory" at 7 p.m. on June 19 at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Richard Russo about these stories and characters, and what their trajectories reveal about their lives.  


On looking back on his own life trajectory:

I’ve been wondering how I got where I am for a very long time. My sense is that if I were born again another 99 times the life that I’m leading right now probably could not be reproduced again...Most people think there’s a sense of inevitability about this, or something. Especially as you get nearer the end than you are to the beginning and it feels like, well I did this, and that caused that. And this other thing I decided not to do, and that caused that. There are times you feel you’ve kind of been in charge of your own life and done things, and they’ve had consequences. I think life isn’t really like that all that much. I think that there are lots of surprises, and I just look at where I am right now at this point in my life with a sense of just, wonder! It just doesn’t seem to me that I would ever be likely to produce that again.     

On the arc of our lives and the stories we tell ourselves:

That’s the thread through all of these stories. These people, in various ways, have decided to emphasize this and not that. They’ve decided to look at this consequence but also not that consequence. And we all have secrets. There are parts of our lives that we would prefer not to think about. We tend to bury those and pretend they’re not important. Sometimes they’re deep in the past. And these characters in these stories are trying to figure out what the linkage might be between their present state and the stories that they’ve always told themselves and then again the stories that they’ve tried to bury as deeply as possible rather than think about.   

On finding his true self:

The problem is...The better you get with your tools, the more capable you are of papering over what may be some sort of character flaw. For me the last part of the puzzle of becoming a writer was just discovering who on earth I was as a writer. Who did I love. What did I love. What was most important to me. It took me forever to figure that out.

 On using a realtor as a character:

 I know a little bit about that world, too, at least vicariously, because my wife Barbara is an agent  –  is a realtor. So I’ve been listening to real estate stories for a long time. And I think I’m going to use either this character or this profession more in the coming years. Because selling houses is really about selling dreams. So that’s a wonderful opportunity to get into character very deeply: What do you want, what do you dream of, what are you terrified of? And all of this stuff comes out. And realtors are like bartenders, I think. You just get a really good view of human nature if you’re paying attention. And my wife is a very good realtor, and her stories are really valuable to me.