Transcription of Love Maine Radio #346: Sean Alonzo Harris and Richard Russo

Announcer:                           You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a physician and editor-in-chief of Maine, Maine Home+Design, Old Port, Ageless, and Moxie magazines. Love Maine Radio show summaries are available at

Dr. Lisa B.:                              This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you’re listening to Love Maine Radio, Show Number 346, airing for the first time on May 6, 2018. Today, we speak with Sean Alonzo Harris, a photographer concentrating on narrative and environmental portraiture, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. Thank you for joining us.

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Dr. Lisa B.:                              Sean Alonzo Harris is an editorial, commercial, and fine art photographer concentrating on narrative and environmental portraiture. He has also received critical acclaim for his fine art work and was recently awarded a Kindling Fund grant from Space Gallery and the Warhol Foundation for his project Visual Tensions.

Thanks for coming today.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Thank you for having me. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Let’s start with Visual Tensions.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yeah. It’s a project that’s been stewing around for a while. Basically, the idea, just because there’s so much tension between people of color and law enforcement, that just most of the focus has been on the anger and I wanted to focus in on what actually is the start of the anger. Basically, the thought process is that I would photograph the police officers and people of color in the same space and looking at each other, because most of the time, we make assumptions on the visuals before we know the person’s heart or mind or spirit. I wanted to break that down and pose that question of … to look beyond what we see and pause and then make a statement that way to ask that question. Hopefully, bunches of people can answer it in different ways, in their own ways.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              What have you learned so far?

Sean Alonzo H.:                   It’s really hard to work with people because people, especially in institutions … Also to convince the public that what I’m trying to do is not trying to like, “I gotcha.” You follow me? I’m not trying to trip anyone up. I have to make sure that my intentions are honest, and I have to make sure that … I have to convince people that my intentions are honest and also that I’m going to show them with dignity. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              That’s something that you’ve probably been working with through the entirety of your career, I would think-

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … as a photographer.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Exactly. Exactly. Basically, my photography is basically to show dignity and power and humanity. Those things are really important to me. I feel that I … Because I still study a lot about photography and the history of photography and also I look at a lot of images always. I think it’s really important to see what’s out there. A lot of the photographs that I take in, especially with people of color, a lot of them aren’t as dignified, or it’s either celebrities and athletes. But what about the doctors and the teachers and the everyday people and showing them in a presence where they’re in a place of power or in a place of dignity? That’s kind of one of the things that I like to do, just to change the history a little bit, to show another side. A lot of people are doing it, but I think that I can play my part, too.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              When I was on your website, I noticed that you had a lovely portrait of Ashley Bryan.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Lisa B.:                              When I think about dignity-

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … I think about him. We did a story about him last year for Maine Magazine, and there’s something about him that I think you captured really well, the sort of simultaneous seriousness and joyfulness-

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right, right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … I think, about his personality.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right. Well, Ashley is an amazing, wonderful man. I shot a story for him for another magazine, and he is such a playful, joyful spirit, and the way that he comes across, he fills the room with his love. When you see him, most of the photographs that I see of him have this sense of … They try to capture just that, the moment of, the layer, the first, the topical of him. It’s like these joyful, these moments of joy, laughter, and that is him completely.

But what he’s achieved in life and what he’s done is serious work. Just think about what’s in his mind is an amazing fete. I think that you need to sit back and pause and look at him as this man, as this powerful and intelligent, serious man because he’s serious as much as he laughs and plays. He has this very robust life, I just think. I just took a different … I just stepped and looked and took a completely different take on how I saw him.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              You also did a project on the last of the Shakers.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              A few years ago.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right. Yes, yes. That was a fun project to work on. One of my favorite things to do, a photographer, is to create fine art projects and also editorial work. Because when you go off and you photograph, especially editorial magazines, you’re usually going to photograph people who have done something amazing or have come over incredible odds, and they have a story to tell, so you sit there and watch.

The Shakers project, what happened … I went up there to … It was one of those things. I don’t know if you know the story, but there was four Shakers, and there was a magazine or a newspaper came up and did a story on them, and one of the Shakers ran off with the writer, I think. I’m not exactly sure of the whole inside, but this could be gossip or rumor, but it was very, very hard for them to … It was very, very hard for us to get in there to photograph them. They were like, “No.”

We had to go in there and really talk with them and let them know our intent. I went in there. They had to interview me before I even took their photographs. I went up there to take photographs and literally thinking it would be a half a day, and it was a three-day process. I had to go back and back and back, and it was amazing. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the whole thing that they’ve done.

We photographed it on 8 x 10 film, which was amazing in itself, which is a great … By photographing with 8 x 10, it’s a slower process, and I think they truly respected it. It warranted that kind of respect, I think, on the photographs because by taking that time and just because of their legacy, and also, at the time, there was only three left. I thought that it just needed to have that extra, okay, we’re going to sit down and spend 30 minutes setting up my camera. I’m going to talk and we’re going to sit, and we’re going to wait for that moment so that we can take the appropriate photograph.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              On the flip side, you also have an interest in street photography-

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Well-

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … which doesn’t have the … You don’t have quite the same amount of time, I would think, to build that same level of trust.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   No, no. Street photography is one of those things. I always looked at photography as an athletic sport, and I think that you have to exercise to continuously make strides and leaps. Street photography is one of those things. It’s like an additional exercise that I give myself to do. It’s a way to be free, because most of the things that I … The way that I shoot or what I do, they’re more of a controlled environment. Environment of portraiture itself is I’m going into your environment and we’re going to look through and see what pull … We’re going to try to pull elements out.

In street photography, it is what it is. You go out and you just have to react to what you see. Sometimes it can be like, ooh, I smell something, and you just kind of follow the smell and let those things happen, or a noise or just the rhythm of the street, which is a beautiful thing. I enjoy doing it. Most of the time when I do street photography, a lot of times it’s like travel, or I end up going to some place or an event and those kind of things. It’s like the idea. Sometimes I take no photographs. Sometimes I just fall in love with the movement and everything happens. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s an exercise to keep me sharp and keep me moving.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Tell me how you decided that photography was your path. I know that you have a background. You have an art degree.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              This was an early focus of yours, but you could have done so many different things.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Why this? Why this particular art form?

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Well, I start from the beginning, beginning. Well, I asked for a tape recorder when I was, I believe, about seven for Christmas from my grandmother. My grandmother was so special, she’d try to get me anything I wanted. Yeah. There was this, where you put cassette tapes and you just tape record stuff and you make sounds and you record sounds. She got me a camera, and I’m like, “What’s this? This isn’t a tape recorder.” She’s like, “Son¸ you can record with that too.”

At the time, my parents … We lived in Cambridge, Mass., and my grandmother lived in D.C., so when I had this camera, I would take photographs of the family, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and friends down there, and then I’d come back with all the film and we’d process them and I’d look at them. It would be kind of the same thing as baseball cards, and it just happened year after year after year after year.

I outgrew my Keystone camera, which is this little camera with 1/10 film. Then I got a Pentax K1000 camera, which was amazing. Then, by the time I was 13, I was taking photographs in such a regular basis, the next step was to build a darkroom. I was talking with a guy, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got a darkroom.” He gave me all this equipment, and I built a darkroom in my bedroom at 13. That lasted all of maybe four days because my mother probably saved my life on that one. You really can’t sleep with that kind of chemicals in your room.

Then, after that, someone asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, and it was like a no-brainer. I was just like, “A photographer,” and it wasn’t even a hesitation. It just came out of my mouth. I never even thought about it, but that was what … Then, when I was a sophomore in high school and I won a national award from photography, and it was the James Van Der Zee Black Heritage Award. I won that. I won first place and honorable mention. The next year, I won honorable mention. Then, when I was a senior, I won first place again. It was just like those things just kind of happened, and here I am. I just never put it down. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I also remember reading about an interest that you had in baseball and a project that you did several years ago that had to do with baseball.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              You got very involved in this project, and some of the photos you took were very striking.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes. Yes. I did a project of vintage baseball. I love baseball. That was another passion that I had, but I just wasn’t quite that good to get to the next level. But this project that I did was vintage baseball project, which was the Dirigo Vintage Base Ball Team, and they play with rules from the 1860s. They play really hard. A lot of these guys played in college and stuff like that. When I first thought of shooting these guys, I thought it was more like a reenactment kind of thing, but when I went to photograph them, they actually played really hard. It was awesome.

Me understanding the game and watching the game, it was just like this really nice … I had a really nice understanding of what was happening, what was going on, so I felt really comfortable to photograph it. The whole idea of the project was to photograph it in a way where it holds the vintage integrity. We did shoot some large format 8 x 10 stuff and digital, and then I did treatments to the digital so that they could have that same vintage feel without making it look like I shot digital and trying to make it vintage. I worked really hard to make it have that vintage feel without taking away from the actual project. Because sometimes what happens is you make it look vintage and that’s what you see versus the image. It’s like, oh, it has … That’s the first thing you go to. But I tried to balance the two so that it was seamless.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Why is the history of photography so important to you?

Sean Alonzo H.:                   The history of photography is, for me, I don’t think … Because of the style of what I do and the respect that I have for my craft, I believe that it’s paramount for you to understand the history of what’s gone before you. There’s so many great stories when you dig down deep into the history of photography, someone’s life, someone who triumphed, some people who’ve done great photography but didn’t have any success until they passed, and some of the techniques that have gone before. I just think it’s really important.

I just bought two brand new books that were amazing, that I had no idea that existed. One was Richard Avedon and James Baldwin did a book just recently. Not recently, in the ’60s, and it’s called Nothing Personal. Just the history and the understanding in that relationship was a beautiful thing. I would have never known that Richard Avedon and James Baldwin went to the same high school. That’s an amazing thing.

Then I just bought another one. It just came in the mail three days ago. It was Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellis, and they did a beautiful book, Invisible Man, and I didn’t realize. This was a new publication that came out from Chicago Institute of Art. Newer, I should say. I think it came out 2014. Yeah, to understand those relationships of the writer, the writer’s role, and the visual artist’s role.

By me digging down and figuring out history, those books would have never crossed my path, but because I’m looking and constantly trying to study and figure things out, these do come up. It just gives it another breath and life of two … I have many books of Richard Avedon and many books of Gordon Parks, and I have a few books of James Baldwin and a few books … Those things put together, two loves that come together, I think by studying, those things become so much more and they become treasures.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              As you’re talking, I’m thinking about the work I do as a writer and working with the photographers that I have worked with for the magazines and how even that dynamic can really shape a story.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Because I’ve worked with people like Matt Cosby or Greta Rybus or Ann Little, Nicole Wolf. Each of them as photographers have their own take on things, visual sense. It’s really fascinating to see how they interact with people. As I’m creating a word-based story, they’re creating kind of a simultaneous visual story.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Tell me about some of your experience in working with writers.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Most of the stories that I’ve gone out to, the writing a lot of times is almost done. The couple of times that I’ve worked on stories that the writer was on, was there, I believe that you know the photographers that you are working with. I think that’s really important. I think it’s harder to figure out your place sometimes with the writer if the story isn’t written as the photographer is shooting, because you want to respect both sides of the story.

I think it takes a little bit of finesse, and then you kind of just … Because, for me, for instance, I worked on a story and it was about a particular subject matter that I knew a lot about historically, and the writer really came in in a very narrow point of view. Without me saying, “Well, you know, back in the ’30s this was going on and this was the norm back in the ’30s,” so I really had to dance around without putting my bent on their story and just kind of go along with it and just listen and try to just do what I knew how to do and take photographs.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Yeah, I love hearing this from you because I have also … I remember a story that I did with Matt Cosby about the Special Surfers Program down in Kennebunk. He actually helped shape the story in some ways because he was really great about getting in the water with these younger people on their surf boards, and he was able to say, “You really should talk with this person. You should really talk to this person.” I think that he actually made the story better for me, and I can see how that would be … It could go either way.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right. It could actually-

Dr. Lisa B.:                              You can absolutely have a situation where the writer and the photographer are at odds.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Right, right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I think learning to figure out that interaction can be really valuable.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Well, it is. I think as professionals, I think that that’s kind of our duty. First, we need to figure out boundaries, and then we need to figure out where we can … I don’t want to use the word negotiate, but where we can figure out to collaborate and try to make the story as fit as it can be. Sometimes when I’m doing stories, traveling, doing stories with magazines and stuff like that, the writer will go alongside, which is a different kind of thing because they already have these bullet points, so things that need to be, this is kind of where we’re going with it. They have a lot more background on the person, so we discuss either on the plane or we discuss in the hotel room before we even go out and figure out. We kind of set up a schedule of writing and of photographs so we don’t overlap and those kind of things. It is a little different in some ways.

Yeah. I’ve worked side by side by, I guess, some writers. Then other times, it’s just, okay, this is the story. Go shoot, and I’ll see what comes back. I’ll see the story. Most of the time, I’ll know who the writer is, so it’s good too.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Talk to me about the Biennial. You’ve been honored recently by the Portland Museum of Art by being part of that process.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Oh, yeah. That was pretty cool. Well, I got an email from Mark Bessire and he was like, “Hey, I want to do a studio visit.” I’m like, “Sure.” The next question was, “Are you looking for anything special?” And he was like, “No. I just want to see some stuff.” He came by and he pulled out some stuff, and he’s like, “I really like that.” He took some photographs with his phone, and he left. He was, “Hey, see you later. Bye.” I get an email probably three weeks later, and he says, “Hey, I want to come back, and would you mind if Nat May would come by? He’s the curator for the Biennial.”

At that point, I knew what it was. The whole casual kind of thing that I had with Mark was like, oh, okay, now I need to pull out some other stuff. He picked out some photographs that I really liked, which I believe would have been worthy to be in the Biennial. But I was working on this new body of work which I hadn’t shown anyone yet, which I was waiting to … I could show some of it. I knew the work was strong, but I wasn’t ready to present it at that time. Then, I was like, oh, I got to show this new work that I was doing, which is the Kennedy Park Project, which is in Portland, Maine, Kennedy Park. I guess it’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Maine. I could be wrong, but it’s pretty diverse.

I pulled this work out, and they were like, whoa. The images they picked were four photographs of basketball players, and they’re black basketball players and their skin, because of the light, it was so amazing, almost became metallic. They were just so beautiful. I’m really proud of these images. They’re just really beautiful moments captured.

Back to the street photography, this is kind of what happened with … That was, I would consider more street photography or as an artist, you do have a visual language, and I think that when you can hone in and understand your visual language, it makes it a lot easier for you to move through your craft or figure out exactly where you need to be or what images that you need to capture at the particular time. With these images what I believe happened is that they expanded my voice just so, so I was really excited about it.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              This has been a fascinating conversation. I really enjoyed having the chance to talk with you. You and I have interacted many times over the years.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              To be able to sit down and have a little bit more of an in-depth back-and-forth is pretty wonderful.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Awesome.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I appreciate it.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   This is a wonderful experience. Yes.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I’ve been speaking with Sean Alonzo Harris, who is an editorial, commercial and fine art photographer concentrating on narrative and environmental portraiture. I’m sure we’re going to continue to see great things from you, and we appreciate your coming in today.

Sean Alonzo H.:                   Thank you for having me. Thank you very much.

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Novelist and screenwriter Richard Russo is the author of eight novels, two short story collections, and the memoir Elsewhere. His novel Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002. His new collection of essays, The Destiny Thief, comes out in May.

Thanks for coming in.

Richard Russo:                    Great to be here.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              It’s interesting that I have this book of your essays in my hand because I had just finished a book of essays that I believe were by Neil Gaiman. Really an interesting, I guess, look over his life as a writer because he had done some reviews, he had done some pieces for other people’s books. And yours was actually an interesting kind of time capsule of your life as well, but in a slightly different way.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah. Yeah, I haven’t read the Gaiman. But there are a fair number of books that are coming out right now with writers who are maybe not quite as long in the tooth as I am, but writers who have been writing for a while, so there’s Neil Gaiman, and Ann Patchett had a wonderful book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, that came out a few years ago.

Now, Lorrie Moore had a book that just came out, I think this week or last week, too, that looks at a better life as a fiction writer but also as an essayist and book reviewer, and it’s getting a lot of attention too, so there’s something in the water, I guess, that’s causing writers who have been at it for a while to take a step back and try to figure out if there has been some sort of pattern. Of course, this book is called The Destiny Thief, and it’s really about that. As I look back on my life as a writer, it just seems also just so incredibly improbable, all of it.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              The Destiny Thief, and you wrote about that. You were kind of contrasting your life with the life of another individual-

Richard Russo:                    Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … who was also a writer.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              At least in theory, at the time, it seemed like might be the one who had the success and you were known as the one who was going to be the teacher.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Then, somehow something shifted and you had this success as a writer, and I believe something about he called you up to apologize for a drunk dial one night, and you said, “Well, thank you for your apology, but you didn’t drunk-dial me.”

Richard Russo:                    Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Tell me a little bit about that.

Richard Russo:                    Well, there was this … I gave him a fictional name because I didn’t want him to be embarrassed by anything that I might be recounting in this particular essay, but I remember I was at that point a … We were both students at the University of Arizona taking a workshop class together, but I was almost finished with my PhD, and I had only discovered then at pushing 30 that I thought I might want to be a writer.

I expected the director of creative writing, when I told him I was interested, I expected him to put me in this graduate-level writing workshop. There was a very strong one at the time at the University of Arizona. I expected to be in with other graduate students, but he took one look at my writing and said, “No, no. I think not,” and he put me in this undergraduate, sophomore undergraduate class. Everybody in it was at least 10 years younger than I was.

There was this one really, really talented young man who was writing this rock and roll novel, and it was so good. I was so jealous because he had at a fairly tender age discovered not only what he wanted to do with his life but what really mattered to him. He seemed to have a great read on what his subject matter might be, and he was just, despite being 10 years younger, was just miles ahead, and I could tell it. I think that the instructor in the class recognized that talent and where he was in the overall scheme of things. I think every other student in the class did, too. He was the star.

I did get better, and ultimately I got into the graduate workshop, but I don’t think that there was a time during that … In my entire apprenticeship at the University of Arizona, I don’t think that there was ever a time when if you had taken a poll of the participants in the workshop and asked them who’s going to be … who 10 years from now, 20 years, 30 years from now is not only going to be writing, but maybe writing successfully, who’s got a career, I don’t think I would have appeared on any of those lists starting with that first sophomore class.

As I was thinking about all of this, I just kept thinking about this one incredibly talented young writer who did get in touch with me years later, and he was puzzled by exactly the same things that I was puzzled by. How could this have happened? What kind of cosmic joke has just been perpetrated here? As if I would know, as if I could explain it to him.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Well, at least you took it that way and not, “Well, of course, I would have been good. I don’t know why you even questioned it.”

Richard Russo:                    Yeah, yeah. But that’s what people do. Most people, I think they get to a certain point if they’ve been fortunate, if they’ve had some success, the story that they kind of want to write or rewrite is, “Oh, you know, it was all hard work and it was all talent and hard work.” They want to suggest that they knew it all along and that it was only a matter of time for things to play out.

I think a much more honest assessment of success, certainly my success … I don’t want to speak for everybody here, but my own sense is that if I got to do this all over again, without the knowledge of what has happened to me, but if I had the same opportunities another 99 times to round it off to a full hundred, the other 99 wouldn’t turn out anything like this one. There are just too many variables. You make too many mistakes. Sometimes you get things right, but just as often, you get things wrong and you change something and you change everything.

Yeah, part of the reason that Destiny fascinates me so much, the whole idea of Destiny, is that you get the sense when you’re looking at things through one end of the telescope, when you’re young and you’re looking at all the things that could happen and you see how many moving parts there are. Then you get a little older and you’re looking at things through the other end of the telescope, and it all seems kind of inevitable. Well, of course, it isn’t. It isn’t. The other view is probably closer to the truth.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I particularly enjoyed the story of the gravestone and the toilet because I think it shows this interesting challenge that there is these days with having a sense of humor and perhaps a little bit of irreverence about oneself and one’s writing.

Richard Russo:                    Right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Because what you were describing was … And I’m going to let you tell the story because I found it very, very funny, and I read it to the person who was with me and he also found it very funny. But you were describing something that other people in your family didn’t really find all that humorous at all, but every time you would look at this situation, you would crack yourself up.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Part of what you say is that it’s kind of about your ability to help other people see your way of looking at things, not trying to be funny but just present it so other people understand the humor.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Tell me about that story.

Richard Russo:                    Well, the story starts out true. There’s some embellishment later on, but the story starts out as true. When we moved to Maine, we bought this house that had two features that over the years were interesting. There was this apple tree out in the back yard that grew every year and dropped these poisonous, worm-infested green apples out there that I used to mow around on my riding mower.

What was interesting was at the base of the tree there was this gravestone, and it was filled out. Someone had intended to use this gravestone, and apparently there was a stone cutter who lived in the house many, many, many years ago. I never did find out why the gravestone didn’t get used, but there it was leaning up against this kind of poisonous apple tree. It was as if the gravestone itself was in some way poisoning the tree, just guaranteeing that every year, you’d get this harvest of really disgusting poisonous green apples.

There was an inscription. We know who the person was who died, and he was a Syrian, I believe, and how he ended up in Maine we don’t know, but there was this … Some of the details were kind of comic, or to me anyway they were kind of comic. Here is this kind of emblem of death itself. There’s a gravestone in the middle of our back yard, and to almost anybody, this thing would have been a symbol that we saw every day, a symbol of our own mortality.

Why in the world, number one, would you leave it there? When we tried to sell the house, people would come by and they would see that and decide they didn’t want the house on the basis of the gravestone. Most people see that symbol and it reminds them of what we don’t want to be reminded of, the fact that we’re all going to die.

What to me was interesting about that was that it didn’t affect me that way at all. So what? So it was a gravestone. I didn’t really believe that it was poisoning the apples in the tree, nor did it particularly bother me that this Syrian, young Syrian man had somehow come to Maine and died there. Didn’t bother me at all that his stone was leaning up against my apple tree. Didn’t bother me as I was riding around it.

After a very short time, I just learned not to see it. It just did not register on my writerly imagination at all until one day when we were doing some renovations on the house, and in order to put some tile down in the three-quarter bath we had to pull up the commode. I say we, the people we hired had to pull up the commode. For a day or two, while they were working on the bathroom, out there on the back deck sat the commode. Nothing else is there, no folding chairs. It was late in the autumn. We’d brought everything back in. Here, right in the middle of the back deck was this commode, open. Leaves were falling and swirling out of the sky into the commode.

When I was sitting there in my office writing, every now and then, I would look up and I would see the gravestone in the distance and right in front of the gravestone, the commode, and it just cracked me up every time. When my kids came home, my daughters came home, I would say, “Look at that,” and my wife the same way. They just kind of squinted at it, and didn’t understand really why it just tickled me so.

But the essay, the essay is really about that, for a writer, that which slows you down. Whatever it is, because I was able to look at that gravestone, something that really caused other people to slow down, somebody who was thinking about buying the house and liked everything about it but then saw that gravestone and it stopped them right in their tracks. They couldn’t go any farther. I learned not to see that at all, but put the comic thing, put the commode right in front of it, and now suddenly, my imagination is just in full bloom. I’ve got all kinds of possibilities for fiction.

I think that day, I probably already knew it, but if I hadn’t known it, I think that day, seeing those two things right in the same frame and knowing what interested me and what didn’t, particularly was a crystallizing moment in the sense that I thought, all right, I know who I am now. I’m a comic writer. Because most writers, it’s a question of what slows you down, what causes you to look twice, what causes you to really see something. For me, it’s almost always life’s foolishness, people looking for dignity and it eludes them. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              You wrote about the craft of writing, and you spoke about your, I believe it was your grandfather, who was a glove-maker in upstate New York.

Richard Russo:                    Right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              And how he was part of, I believe, a guild and actually went and spent two years learning how to make gloves-

Richard Russo:                    Yep.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … which was unpaid, I think, and-

Richard Russo:                    If it wasn’t unpaid, it certainly wasn’t well-paid. I think at that time in the guild that he was part of, you were probably dependent on the largesse of whoever was teaching it, and probably whoever that was wasn’t making a fortune either. I don’t think glove cutters ever made an enormous amount of money. My grandfather, his timing not being great, kind of came at the very end of this whole process.

But, yeah, he was in a guild, and I’m sure that during those first couple of years before he finished his apprenticeship and became a glove cutter, a certified glove cutter in his own right, I’m sure that he and my grandmother, although they hadn’t married yet, they couldn’t afford to until he got that first job as a glove cutter, I’m sure that they were living very, very hand-to-mouth as he was learning his trade.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              And there is something about writing which is not dissimilar. There is certainly an art to it. Everybody understands that, but there is a craft to it.

Richard Russo:                    Absolutely.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Something about that time that one needs to spend often largely unpaid and lots and lots of work, that maybe not everybody understands in this day and age when it seems like it’s so easy to just throw words together.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah, yeah. Yeah. One of the most difficult things about teaching yourself how to write and teaching other people how to write is that almost everybody misunderstands just how long it’s going to take for you to get there. Ann Patchett said in one of the best essays I’ve ever read about writing called The Getaway Car, she says that anybody who has ever picked up a cello knows instinctively that you’re not going to be playing that instrument in Carnegie Hall any time soon. It feels foreign, and there are so many things that you need to do, and the first time you draw that bow, you understand intuitively just how much you have to learn, just how difficult and complicated what you’re setting about to do is.

You factor in your imagination, if when you pick that thing up and you love it, despite its difficulty, you still in your mind have to say to yourself, “This is going to be a very, very long road that I’m going down before I can, number one, probably play for the relatives when they come over on Thanksgiving. It’s going to be a while before I’m even that good.” Then, during an apprenticeship, the various things that you have to do over a period of years and even with just astonishing dedication, it’s going to take you a very long time because what you’re looking at here is something foreign if you’re going to have to learn it. It’s not part of you.

Whereas for a writer, the problem is that it’s words, and you’ve been talking almost your entire life, and so you think, why not? Right? A year should be plenty of time, shouldn’t it? We’re going to write the words down. We’re going to put them through a spell check. I have stories to tell. My parents had stories to tell. I come from a family of bull-throwers. Why shouldn’t I be able to tell stories? It’s just an extension of what I’ve been doing for a very long time. I still think of that in terms of my own family. I come from a long line of people who were telling stories and pretty good storytellers, but they’re not writing. But they’re good storytellers, my father, in particular.

But the amount of time that it actually takes to get good is … Most writers just misjudge, and they don’t misjudge by a couple of months. They misjudge by years how long it’s going to take, partly because the competition is stiff, but also because you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s very difficult to judge that gap which seems shorter than it is. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Well, this is a quote that I really identified with, “Hunger remembered is not the same as hunger felt. Indeed, for some, that’s the final cruel joke. That hard-won mastery of craft coincides almost to the minute with passion’s ebb. Art offered shoulders to stand on often has not been yours.”

Richard Russo:                    Right. Right.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Because that thing that you’re talking about, that grabbing the cello where you have that passion, or in your case, in this book, you’re describing grabbing a guitar-

Richard Russo:                    Guitar, yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              … as a teenager.

Richard Russo:                    Because that was my first hunger.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              Yeah.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              But I mean that idea that I really, really want to do this.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              You’re right. Over time, that doesn’t necessarily stay at the same level. In fact, for most people, it won’t.

Richard Russo:                    No. For me, part of the cruelty was that when I felt that first hunger, and as I described in that essay, that first hunger to play rock and roll at a very high volume, what was coming between me and doing that I thought was equipment. I had kind of a beat-up guitar and an amplifier with one blown speaker, and I got together with some other high school kids and we formed a band. Obviously, we weren’t very good, but we deceived ourselves into thinking that if we just had better equipment, we would get better and we would become worthy of our instruments. We would become worthy of our drums, worthy of our guitars, our keyboards and all of that.

I did, I played band. I played in various bands in high school. I put myself, in part, through graduate school playing 12-string guitar in a restaurant in Tucson, the same gig for seven years or so. And I finally got, at some point, I finally got this gorgeous Gibson guitar with pearl inlay on the neck, and it was a 12-string. You put that thing up next to a microphone. You’re singing into one microphone and you’ve got your 12-string guitar, a really good one with a throaty, it’s got some base to it. You strum that thing through a microphone and it sounds like an orchestra. It sounds really, really good.

But I remember getting that 12-string guitar, the kind of instrument that I had been lusting for since I was 15, and hearing how good it sounded also convinced me for the first time that I was never going to be as good as that instrument, that I was always going to be … I could get better, but I was never going to be as good as that instrument was. Yeah, the hunger is wonderful. It’ll keep you going. It’ll drive you forward. That desire is sufficient to keep you going for a very long time, but my god, it can be heartbreaking. That realization that you finally have everything at your disposal, you can’t blame it on anything else anymore and the realization that, all right, I’ve achieved a kind of level here. I might get a little bit better, but I’m never going to be good. I’m never going to be really good.

Writing, on the other hand, was something that despite the fact that nobody else seemed to think I would be any good, at least for a very long time, that was something that as I continued to plug away, it did seem to me that as bad as the writing was at times, and there were many times that it was really bad, I began to sense that it might be okay. Not so much because I would be good enough or that I would be skilled enough, but that the people that I wanted to write about, the characters who have graced my novels all of these years, what happened was that at some point, I became convinced that they were good enough, these imaginary, these people that I wanted to write about, the kinds of lives that they lived.

Not many people were telling their stories. And so at some point, it was different than looking at that guitar and realizing how beautiful it was and that I was never going to be worthy of it. It seemed to me that maybe because these characters who were swimming in my head seemed so real and their stories seemed so important, it seemed to me that despite the daily evidence that the writing wasn’t as good as it should be, I never felt that I’ll never be worthy of these people or I’ll never be able to tell their stories. It always seemed to me that if I kept at it, maybe I’d be able to.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              One of the pieces that I enjoyed reading was the one that you wrote about Jennifer Boylan. It’s very interesting to me now because this was something that happened how many years ago? 15 years ago maybe?

Richard Russo:                    Oh, I think … As a matter of fact, well, yeah, something like that. The 10-year anniversary of She’s Not There, Jenny’s groundbreaking memoir, was a couple of years ago, I think. So, yeah, we’re talking pretty close to, pretty close to 15 years now. Of course, I think of it as longer than that because we were friends longer than that. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I’ve enjoyed our conversation, and I encourage people to read The Destiny Thief, because it’s really very interesting, and it covers a lot of different topics in different ways.

Richard Russo:                    Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa B.:                              I think it offers an encapsulation of much of the things that you did outside of the fiction writing, which is great to have because as a writer, it’s nice to know that there’s a larger … We’ve used the word landscape before, the landscape itself, the landscape of craft that goes beyond just what you specialize in.

I’ve been speaking with novelist and screenwriter Richard Russo, who is the author of eight novels, two short story collections, and the memoir Elsewhere. His novel Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002, and his new collection of essays, The Destiny Thief, comes out in May.

Thanks so much for coming in today.

Richard Russo:                    Thank you, Lisa. I really enjoyed it.

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Dr. Lisa B.:                              You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show Number 346. Our guests have included Sean Alonzo Harris and Richard Russo. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes.

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This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.

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