STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The author Richard Russo grew up in the kind of small town that saw its best days before he was ever born. The town took its whole identity from a product that wasn't made there anymore.
Dr. RICHARD RUSSO (Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist): I mean they made gloves. It was called Gloversville for a reason, they made gloves. But by the time, I was a kid growing up, a lot of that work was being done in Asia and Europe, and gloves would be sent to Gloversville, New York, to have, you know, a couple of buttons sewed on, so that you could sell them as gloves made in Gloversville.
I grew up in that town with a sense of diminishment. And I think all of our parents said the same thing that in order to have much of an opportunity in life, you're going to have to leave and go to where those opportunities might be.
INSKEEP: Richard Russo writes about people who declined those opportunities. In novel after novel, his characters remain in rundown factory towns. You imagine empty main streets where the parking meters are all unused. It was true in "Empire Falls," which became a movie about a man who left college to run a diner. It's true again in his newest novel "Bridge of Sighs," one character does flee all the way to Venice, but another runs convenience stores in Upstate New York.
Dr. RUSSO: "Bridge of Sighs" is a book about somebody who stays and somebody who leaves. And I've always had the feeling that part of me left. I mean, the Richard Russo who grew up and became a novelist is one person. But I've always had the distinct feeling that there was a ghost version of myself still living back in that place that's still so real in my imagination and that I've been telling fibs about all this time.
When I was away at college, I went to the University of Arizona, which is a long way away. And I went to that place, along way away, on purpose. But I would come back in the summers and work road construction with my father. And at the beginning of the summer, I would think, God, I don't know if I can get into those rhythms of life again when I was, you know, just getting used to the university again.
But by the end of August, when it was getting time for me to go back to school, I would be so thoroughly subsumed into that other life — a very hard life that my father lived, but then at the end of the day, sitting at a bar and watching those long-neck bottles of beer line up sweating in front of you, and I would think to myself, do I really want to go back to the university? And as a result of doing that every summer, I think I bifurcated in some way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RUSSO: I've always thought that there was some other version of me sitting on a barstool.
INSKEEP: How do you mentally get yourself back there when it's time to write?
Dr. RUSSO: All I can say is it's no big deal. It's like flipping a switch, it's all right there. I come from a long line of bullshitters, and I used to love to listen to my father's stories. They have never been the same way twice.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RUSSO: He would tell me stories, Steve, that he would forget I was present when the incident happened, but it never stopped him from…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RUSSO: …from embellishing. Now that's the kind of writer I've always been. I like to start somewhere. I - you know, you can't leap from the air into the air. You know, you start somewhere in some real place, and four or five words later, you're off to the races.
INSKEEP: And it seems, you, in a way, have done that with this book. If I look at the early descriptions of Louis Lynch, the main character, the narrator of most of the novel, he resembles, in many ways, physically, in terms of the way he makes a living, the kind of town he lives in, the narrator of "Empire Falls," your last novel. But after a while, different things are going to happen, very specific different things are going to happen with that same general setup.
Dr. RUSSO: Yeah. Yeah, they're both, in a sense, storekeepers. Lucy, I think, is terrified by the very prospect of leaving familiar territory. And at the beginning of this novel, he finds himself having everything that he wants in life. He has a woman that he has been in love with all of his life. He has a town that he has always loved. And he is terrified of travel because it means that, at least, temporarily, he will lose his entire world.
INSKEEP: When you describe that town that he loves so much, why did you think it was important to give me, the reader, a kind of class map of the town? The east side is where the middleclass lives, the west side is where the lower middleclass lives.
Dr. RUSSO: Yeah, right.
INSKEEP: And then, there's another neighborhood where the people who actually have money live.
Dr. RUSSO: The borough. People confuse class and place. I don't write about place really. I write about class. And so, in this book, I think "Bridge of Sighs" is a book that distills a lot of my deepest thoughts about American society and class within American society in particular, and race as a kind of subset of that what seems to me to be a somewhat larger category and…
INSKEEP: Are you telling me if you get the class issues right that the town is going to feel familiar and feel real to lots of Americans even if you completely make up all the place names?
Dr. RUSSO: You betcha. I have traveled - in my travels on book tour, I've had people come up to me and say, your "Mohawk" or your "Empire Falls," my god, you're writing about my town. I mean, we've got a diner just like that. So that's one of the things that happens that I've been have to capitalize on is the fact that people do confuse place and class. But you don't have to go back very far, a few decades when the great proletarian novels were all about class and where it was taken kind of as a given that class would determine just how far you would go in this life.
INSKEEP: Well, how different is small-town American life from your father's small-town America or his father's small-town America?
Dr. RUSSO: The labor-oriented jobs in towns like these, the mill jobs, have all disappeared. But I think what's disappeared more and what's more harmful to America is the loss of the pride that came with those jobs.
My father and I worked one summer on, I think it was the off-ramp Exit 23, I think it is at Albany. And when we would drive by that - he would pick me up at the airport when I'd come home from school the following year, and we'd go up that off-ramp and he'd say, we built that.
And I think that, you know, we've lost not only lost the jobs, we've lost a lot of the pride that comes from that work. And I think that small towns have become places where people are hanging on to hope and hanging on to pride and hanging on by a thread that seems to me now at least much more slender than it was when my father's generation came home at the end of the Second World War.
INSKEEP: Well, you could ask that question about a town like this fictional town Thomaston or your hometown of Gloversville. The ruthless question, why does anybody still live there at all?
Dr. RUSSO: I think it's difficult to underestimate the pull of the past. There's work elsewhere. There's opportunity elsewhere. Yeah, but here's the house you grew up in and there's the cemetery stone that has your father's name on it.
INSKEEP: Richard Russo, thanks very much for speaking with us.
Dr. RUSSO: Thank you, Steve. I enjoyed it.
INSKEEP: His latest book is called "Bridge of Sighs," and you can read an excerpt at npr.org, which includes the sentiment from the narrator that his hometown has always been both luxuriant and demanding.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Steve Inskeep.