"I didn't care about you at all. There was a poker game to go to. The track was there."
Richard Russo, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Jenny Boylan have been friends for over 20 years; that friendship has seen many changes, including Boylan's from man to woman, and Russo's, from parent to grandparent. Recently, Rick and Jenny sat down together to talk about fatherhood and fiction. This interview is an excerpt from Boylan's new book, Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenthood in Three Genders.
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Rick, a lot of your readers probably think they know your father because your novels frequently have a kind of brilliant but feckless middle-aged man at its center. And whether it's The Risk Pool or Nobody's Fool or Empire Falls, I think there is a certain "Russo Man."
Richard Russo: Right. The rogue male.
JFB: How close is that to your father?
RR: My father was a man of just enormous charm. He was an incredibly generous man, too. Whenever he was around. But the problem with him was always not being around.
JFB: Why was he not around? I mean, he married your mother. How long had they been married when you came into the picture?
RR: Well, he married just before he shipped overseas. And he came home a different man. You don't land on the beaches in Normandy and make it all the way through France and on all the way to Berlin and come back the person you were when you left. I think that my mother and father, before he left, were kind of on the same page about what they might have wanted the shape of their marriage might be. But by the time he came back, he had changed and she hadn't. My mother, to another extent, would never change. She was, even deep into her eighties, a woman who looked at the world in essentially the same way. Whereas my father came home with very little tolerance for any manner of bullshit. He was celebrating the fact that he was alive.
So the last thing in the world he wanted was any kind of responsibility.
He said, "I didn't care about you at all. There was a poker game to go to. The track was there."
[My mother's] instructions to him whenever I left the house with him was always just a series of don'ts. I always had a sense of him as a very dangerous man, which, of course, at times he was. There were times when you did not want to be standing next to my father. Because something would come flying at him and it wouldn't hit him, it'd hit you.
JFB: Rick, I think if I had been your father's son -- or daughter -- I would have resented his absence.
RR: If I could sum up the way I felt about him as a child, he was simply wrong. As I got older, he was just a lot of fun. He was just an enormous amount of fun. He was wonderful, he was so full of shit.
The pure entertainment value of the man was just astonishing to me. I had more fun when I got old enough and the longing was replaced; there's some part of me that just said, you know, you can either take what he's offering--maybe he should be offering more--but you can either enjoy it and let the rest go, or you can be bitter and resentful and all of those things. For me, [it was] just an easy choice. It was always an easy choice. Just to have fun with him. For pure entertainment value, the man could not be beat. He was endlessly, endlessly entertaining.
JFB: I'm thinking back to the commencement speech you gave at Colby years ago, and one of the pieces of advice you gave to the happy graduates was "have children."
RR: I felt deeply that our lives changed with [our daughters] Emily and Kate, in ways that were quite extraordinary and quite profound. One of the things you don't realize is that you really don't understand the meaning of fear until you have children. So in part I was saying to these Colby graduates, "You're really gonna like the fear."
JFB: But what's the fear? What's that fear about?
RR: Of something happening to them. You now have something that you cannot afford to lose, and you can't afford to lose it in a way that's certainly more profound than your fear of losing your own life. There's a terror that comes with knowing that you might not be there when they need you. And for me, of course, just the notion of being there was very, very important because my own father was largely not there.
And so for me I set the bar rather low as a parent. There was rule one and no rule two, but rule one was to be there. And I think that you're not a father for very long before you realize that even with the bar set that low, you can still screw up.
JFB: What would Jimmy Russo do if he was around to look into the eyes and able to spend time with his great-granddaughter?
RR: He would tickle her till she wet her pants.
My father was a man who never knew how to stop anything. And he was wonderful with children. He was really good with old women and children, and he would be over the moon with that child.
And then he'd leave.