Tales of small-town life pay off big for Richard Russo
"There's a huge difference between writing a good book and having good fortune. There are lots of good books published every year that don't have one-tenth of the good fortune that I've had with (‘Empire Falls’)." Russo laughs. "I've written a few of them myself. So I know."

In these post-Oprah Book Club days, it’s tough – O, it’s so tough to have a breakout best-selling novel, especially one that’s a beefy 500 pages long. Add critical acclaim to the equation and it’s a task akin to typing with your knees.

That’s why author Richard Russo maintained a smile as wide as outstretched arms during his book-tour stop in Madison last Friday.

Russo built a loyal readership and earned book-critic support for his first four novels, each providing sharp-eyed observations of small-town life. Paul Newman starred in the film version of Russo’s book “Nobody’s Fool” and that bumped sales up briefly. Otherwise, it was relative obscurity.

Enter “Empire Falls.”

Released in 2001, Russo’s fifth novel deftly describes a father and his teen daughter’s trying lives in a dying Maine blue-collar town of the book’s title.

“I thought I had written a good book,” he says of “Empire Falls.” “But there’s a huge difference between writing a good book and having good fortune. There are lots of good books published every year that don’t have one-tenth of the good fortune that I’ve had with this book.” He laughs. “I’ve written a few of them myself. So I know.”

Last April, Russo, 52, hit the novelist jackpot. He won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, followed a few days later by “Empire Falls’ ” selection as USA Today’s first pick in its book club. Sales soared. Now more than 450,000 copies are in print. It’s not “Harry Potter” numbers, but is a blockbuster nevertheless.

“Empire Falls” unfolds slowly, covers a lot of ground, then offers an explosive rush at the end. Touches of comedy dot the pages. Russo highlights Miles, father of a teen daughter and operator of the town’s lone restaurant, who left college to return to Empire Falls 20 years earlier when his mother was dying.

“I know I have a book when I’ve got a character that I’m really fond of in a situation that I don’t know how to resolve,” Russo says. “Miles was sufficiently trapped. He’s trapped, in some sense, by the past. He’s 40 years old, divorced, doing a job he doesn’t like in a town he doesn’t want to live in. He’s trapped by the future because of his daughter. What does a man do when he thinks he’s living the wrong life?”

Miles combines sadness with a nice-guy personality that makes him popular in the community. Asked if people with such contrasting traits exist, Russo is adamant about his response.

“There are a fair number of people like Miles,” he says. “Men and women. They have kids and diminished expectations because of the continuing downward spiral of a town. They can’t leave because of their children or their parents. These are people who won’t fill their dreams, but who shoulder on with this incredible integrity, courage and, strangely enough, goodwill.”

Russo wrote a screenplay for “Empire Falls,” which may run as long as four hours over two nights on HBO. Newman is set to play Miles’ cranky father.

A resident of coastal Maine, Russo lives in a small resort community. He grew up in Gloversville, N.Y., where factory closings battered the town.

“Small towns are a great crucible if you’re interested in class,” Russo says. “In Empire Falls, you have a woman who owns everything and you have a teen who is eating cat food out of a tin for lunch. The bigger a town gets, the more segregated it becomes, the more people with the same amount of money are together in the same parts of the city.”

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