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Mother May I?

Here’s Richard Russo in the L.A. Times talking about his latest book, Elsewhere, a memoir about his relationship with his mother:

Why your first memoir now?

In a sense I would have preferred that it be never. I’m a perfectly happy novelist. I love to invent things. But in the months after my mother’s death, which was about five years ago, she was very much on my mind and also visiting my dreams as well, which made it feel to me like maybe there was unfinished business there.

I think that this book is in a way connected to my novels, especially the last couple, because “Empire Falls” and “Bridge of Sighs” are both about people who are pushing 60 pretty hard and wondering, how in the world did I come to be here? [In "Empire Falls,] Miles Roby has this profound sense of his mother’s dream for him, and he imagines this other life where he is a learned man if only he had finished college the way she wanted him to and become some sort of teacher or professor, that he would have fulfilled her dream. In “Bridge of Sighs,” Lucy Lynch, who never leaves his hometown, wonders, how is it that life turned out this way? What was it in my genetic makeup, what were the choices that I made?

And in the months after my mother’s death, I found myself puzzling over these questions of destiny, because we shared so many similarities, both of nature and nurture. We’re both obsessive genetically, I think.

Did you feel it was your responsibility to make your mother happy, which she never really was?

Yes, I felt the weight of that. I felt that if she wasn’t both happy and healthy — and healthy every bit as happy, because at a very early age, I felt that her health was in some way my responsibility… We’re not talking about front-of-the-brain stuff, we’re talking about back of the brain. I mean I’m not stupid. I know that nobody can make somebody else happy or healthy, but that’s in the front of the brain. That’s what you know intellectually, which has really very little to do with that other part of the brain that you don’t have control of.

I wondered whether there wasn’t something about the intensity of this relationship that was peculiar to the fact that it was between a mother and son, especially since the mother is a single parent and the son a single child.

When you’re an only child and you have no one to compare notes with, everything seems normal. And for me, part of the experience of writing this book was not to tell people what I knew, but rather to tell them what I didn’t know, what it was like growing up as a child with someone you sensed was in some way possessed.

Here’s a nice essay about memoir-writing by Adam Hochschild.

[Photo Credit: Joel Page]

5 comments

1 Yankee Mama   ~  Nov 13, 2012 12:39 am

I am a big fan. Such a tremendous novelist. One of those 'I'm not worthy' types when you read him. Look forward to reading.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 13, 2012 8:53 am

I've only read "Straight Man" and parts of "The Risk Pool" but really enjoyed them and have been meaning to read more. He's some storyteller.

3 Yankee Mama   ~  Nov 13, 2012 8:56 am

Yes, he is the consummate storyteller. I highly recommend Empire Falls. Stunning piece of work. Bridge of Sighs too.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 13, 2012 10:02 am

What's the Wallace Stegner novel you once raved about? And why is it so wunnerful, again? Would you remind me.

5 Yankee Mama   ~  Nov 13, 2012 3:29 pm

Angle of Repose. Top ten, dude. Top ten. It is an ideal blend of story, writing and art. His soul is in the west and it comes through with each sentence. If it disappoints, I'll be surprised. Then again, to each his own. Right?

Either way, I look forward to our future discussions, as ever.

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