Twenty-three years ago, Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool made such a splash, Hollywood decided to re-interpret it on the big screen, pulling in actors like Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and Philip Seymour Hoffman for the 1994 film of the same name.
The book followed Donald Sullivan, a 60-year-old expert in avoiding responsibilities in his deadbeat New York mill town. This spring, Russo releases a sequel, Everybody’s Fool, which picks up 10 years later when, at 70, Sully faces his own mortality with a heart condition.
Russo, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 book Empire Falls, talked about reuniting with his old friends Sully, Rub and Raymer before his May 26 stop in Concord.
Did you know after Nobody’s Fool that you’d write a sequel?
No. But as a matter of fact, I had various people telling me I should. … It’s really the ultimate compliment because it means these [characters] are real to readers and they would like to spend more time with them. … As soon as I handed in my Nobody’s Fool manuscript … my agent started begging for a sequel.
Why did you wait so long?
Sully was the center of the book, and his conflict was completely resolved. … Unless you can come up with a new conflict as well as the old, it’s not that easy to go back unless you envision it as a book in a series. … The other person bugging me was Howard Frank Mosher, and the book is dedicated to him. I see him time to time, and he always gives me that compliment — ‘What’s going on with Sully and Rub?’ as if they were real people I talked to on the phone every day.
At what point did you decide you wanted to go back to it?
Somebody told me this wonderful story about a guy who wanted to prune a limb from a tree that was scratching against his house whenever it was windy. … He climbed up into the tree and sat on the limb. He lowered the chainsaw by means of a rope and sawed off [most of] the limb he was sitting on. … Only then, as he was sitting there, back up against the trunk of the tree, did he realize there’s no way he was going to rotate on what he was sitting on. He was stuck. … My first thought was, ‘Who in the world would do something like that?’ Part of me said, ‘Well, Rick, you would. That’s the sort of dumb thing you would do.’ … I told [Howard Frank Mosher] the story as if it were [the Nobody’s Fool character] Rub Squeers who had done it and had to wait for Sully to find him there. I had such fun telling Howard that story — it was like seeing old friends again and remembering how much you care for them.
So Howard was probably very happy when you told him you were finally writing that sequel.
He was absolutely thrilled. … He was even more adamant about getting updates. Where was I? How close was I to the end?
If Hollywood were to decide to make another movie, who would you have replace Paul Newman (Sully) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doug Raymer)?
I gave [Everybody’s Fool] to [Nobody’s Fool filmmaker] Robert Benton to read. … I’ve been friends with him for years. He immediately wrote back and said, ‘This is natural as a movie. This time Sully should be Clint Eastwood.’ As soon as he said, it, I began to see Eastwood sitting on that bicycle. … But for Philip Seymour Hoffman, that was more difficult for me.
Did you re-read Nobody’s Fool before writing the new book?
I don’t normally reread a book of mine unless I’m asked to write the screenplay, but I did in this case. One of my problems, always, when I write a novel, is trying to remember continuity. … I went through Nobody’s Fool again very carefully. … I asked my daughter Emily to re-read the novel and make notes, and then my wife. … Then I gave [Everybody’s Fool] to both of them, and they found continuity problems all the way through.
What’s it like rereading your work?
Sometimes I go back and cringe and think, ‘Oh God, I would do that differently now.’ … But just as often, I will find passages I don’t remember writing at all. … I’m reading it as if I would read a complete stranger’s work. I think, ‘This isn’t too bad! I don’t remember that, but that’s kind of OK!’ And I have had many such surprises in going back to Nobody’s Fool and writing Everybody’s Fool.
How long did it take to write the book?
The whole thing took about six years. Early going, things went pretty well. I was having a ball meeting old friends and finding out what’s going on in people’s lives. And then I actually stopped writing the book. … My mother had a died a year earlier, and I was still thinking about her a lot. … I stopped writing [Everybody’s Fool] and wrote my memoir, Elsewhere. … When [I returned], my characters welcomed me right back in. … But when I got within 150 pages of the end, I couldn’t figure out how it was all going to wrap up. … I put the book away for a while. I wrote a couple essays, a short story, a draft of a screenplay and let it alone. … And then one day, I was finishing up some other stuff, and I said, ‘Let’s go back and see if I’m still as confused as before.’ I went back, reread the draft and then the ending was right there for me.