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'Trajectory' showcases author Richard Russo in peak form

| Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Richard Russo
Elena Seibert
Richard Russo

There's a line in the short story “Milton and Marcus,” from Richard Russo's collection “Trajectory” (Knopf), that applies to all creative types: “The sad truth is some writers have less fuel in the tank than others, and when the vehicle begins to shudder, you'd do well to pull over to the side of the road and look for alternative transportation, which is what I did.”

Fortunately Russo, who appears Nov. 20 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series, has not yet run out of energy.

“There are good days and bad days just like there always are for any writer,” says Russo, 68. “But as my friends tell me, I seem to be as full of (stuff) as ever. There are more stories spinning around in there, and I'm trying to get them to spin right. … It takes a long time to get them to hit on all cylinders. The older I get, the crabbier I get and the more difficult to please. And yet, it's still a joyful process, to take something that's deeply flawed and work on it and work on it until it's less flawed.”

“Trajectory” finds the former English professor at Penn-State Altoona and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the 2001 novel “Empire Falls” in peak form. The four short stories in the collection are richly imagined takes on the personal crises, large and small, that embody Russo's work. He writes about academia in “Horseman” and “Voice,” and a realtor in “Intervention.” But the book's revelation is “Milton and Marcus,” about a writer summoned to meet a famous actor to talk about a script.

Russo, who worked on screenplays for films including “Nobody's Fool” and “Twilight,” admits one character in the story is based on his friendship with the late Paul Newman.

“For me, Paul Newman represented the very best of that world,” Russo says. “His generosity as an artist, his generosity as a man, was pretty astonishing. I miss the guy. We made three movies together. If I had a new book come out, the phone would ring and you'd hear his voice. He never bothered with ‘hello,' it was just ‘Hotshot!' and I knew who it was. He was really fond of writers and really respected writers and wanted scripts to be as perfect as you could get them before you started running around in front of a camera.”

The idea of generosity also informs “Horseman,” about a literature professor who accuses one of her students of plagiarism. Two of her colleagues, Bellamy and Newhouse, one past and one present, inhabit Janet Moore's conscience as she wrestles with how to deal with the student. Russo writes that both colleagues were disposed “to think better of people than perhaps they should.”

Russo, who says that line is “near and dear to his heart,” admits it's a sentiment he admires but doesn't always practice

“I wish I were worthy of it in my own life more often,” he says. “Like most of us, I struggle to do what Bellamy and Newhouse do, which is to give people the benefit of the doubt. … That's always my aspiration, as a writer and storyteller, to not misjudge people and especially not sell them short. I think that's very important as a writer that you not do that. But it's also important as a human being. I struggle, like all of us do, especially in a country that's as badly polarized as this one is, not to write people off. It's very important not to and we all know better in our heart of hearts not to do that.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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