A Visit with Richard Russo
Award-winning writer Richard Russo certainly knows much about his craft. A short-story writer and author of six best-selling novels about blue-collar, small-town America, Russo earned a Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel, Empire Falls, and three of his screenplays were made into films starring Hollywood legend Paul Newman.
Happily, his talent for the written word is matched with a talent for sharing what he has learned, as members of the Dickinson community now know.
Russo, who had visited Dickinson in 2002 to accept an honorary degree, returned to the college this month to accept the 2011 Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program award. Established by Jean Louise Stellfox ’60 in honor of her parents, the program brings distinguished writers to campus for brief residencies.
“[Russo’s] visit allowed students to spend time with a published, award-winning author in formal and informal settings and question him on areas of writing and publishing,” said English major Colin Tripp ‘14, one of the student writers who worked directly with the acclaimed author in the classroom. “It was a pleasure to pick his brain and hear him read his works.” [Story continues below.]
Russo’s visit kicked off on April 14 with a public reading and award ceremony in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium. The next day, the author held a question-and-answer session on campus, followed by a booksigning at Downtown Carlisle's Whistlestop Bookshop. Russo also spent much of the day visiting writing and English classes, holding workshops and sharing meals with students and faculty.
“He's the real deal as a writer, but he's also an excellent teacher,” said Susan Perabo, writer-in-residence and associate professor of English, who served on the Stellfox selection committee. “His advice to students was concrete and thoughtful and, as one student said, ‘never canned.’ ”
“Like somebody’s dad”
Russo treated students as fellow writers and readers, putting them quickly at ease, said Perabo. In fact, she said, one of her students remarked that while Russo gave expert advice, his approachable demeanor suggested that he was ‘like somebody’s dad.’ ” (That could be true, in part, because he is: Russo’s daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh ’02, earned a B.A. in sociology the same year that her dad was awarded an honorary doctor of letters at Dickinson and accepted the Pulitzer Prize.)
This down-to-earth manner made a lasting impression on Emma Small ’11. “Richard Russo's calm attitude allowed us all to feel comfortable, and he took an interest in all of our questions and inqured about our writing,” said Small, a double major in French and English. “He was inspiring.”
By MaryAlice Bitts Jackson
Photos by Carl Socolow ’77