It was the idea of destiny that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Richard Russo explored in his essay entitled “The Identity Thief,” which he shared with a packed Kresge Auditorium on Wednesday evening. In a story of self-discovery, he wove together seven segments to tell the process by which he became a novelist and screenwriter. Originally from Gloversville, New York, Russo spun a narrative that included denying his roots only for him to return to them again. 

“When asked, I would say I was from upstate New York,” Russo said. “Not Gloversville. It was a deft move to avoid embarrassment.”

During graduate school at the University of Arizona, after a professor’s harsh critique of his manuscript, Russo began to find his voice. The only silver lining of prose otherwise “inert on a page,” the professor told him, was a 40-page section about a small town in upstate New York.
It wasn’t until years later, while Russo was beginning work on his debut novel, “Mohawk,” that he returned to his hometown of Gloversville, reworking those 40 pages from his failed graduate school manuscript into the story’s setting. 

“It wasn’t exactly good, those 40 pages, but it was mine,” Russo said. “Discovering who I was as a writer might be the final piece of the puzzle but [it] also sent me back to the beginning…I figured, if myself isn’t good enough, so be it.”

Within its anecdotal sections, humorous at parts and poignant at others, the essay was rife with advice for those pursuing any type of creative avenue. 

“Trying to match up material that is truly yours—trying to find it, first of all and to match it up with a self that maybe doesn’t even exist yet, is delving into a couple of mysteries that are kind of on parallel tracks. They’re not always right beside each other where you can look from one to the next,” Russo explained. “I had been working diligently before I started to succeed, and I was getting technically better. Because I was getting technically better, it seemed to me that I was really far along. But if they’re parallel tracks, and you’re so close in terms of technique that you can almost reach out and touch the finish line, what you’re not seeing is just how far behind you are in that other parallel track. Often it comes down to character—there’s something about yourself that you haven’t recognized yet.”

Russo also exhorted his listeners to persevere and be genuine in their writing.
“On the face, it seems incredibly simple but sometimes for all kinds of reasons, it just isn’t,” Russo said. “It’s like admitting, ‘Who do I love? What do I love?’ All of that gets confused with that other voice in your head which says, ‘Who should I love? What should I love?’ Trying to figure all that out at the same time you’re trying to learn the basic skills of storytelling is, more than anything else, what causes people to bail.”

The first installation in a series of three, Russo’s visit to Bowdoin occurred as part of the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series, which aims to bring esteemed writers to campus in an effort to provide students with a lens through which to view the world of professional writing as well as their own work.

“To hear a novelist read from his own work, there’s no substitute for that,” Associate Professor of English and Chair of the English Department Aaron Kitch said. “Because he also gives you insights into his characters, style and plots. To see the personality behind the words is memorable. Whenever I hear an author read his or her own work and then go back to that work, I read it differently. ”

After receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of Arizona, Russo remained in academia with stints at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Pennsylvania State Altoona and Colby College. He eventually retired from teaching to write full-time. He published four novels before “Empire Falls” in 2001, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later. 

“I think anyone who’s ever tried to write anything would relate to what he said. I really like his writing, but also I could put a face to the name of this author whose work I’ve been reading in class,” Katie Morse-Gagne ‘19 said. “I think reading his work will mean a lot more to me now that I’ve heard him talk about his own voice as a writer as well as his personal life and how those fit together.”

Professor of English and organizer of the series Brock Clarke believes the event was not only beneficial for exposing students to Russo’s writing, but also for making the prospect of being a writer more accessible.

“It’s always useful for students, in part, to demystify the process,” Clarke said. “I think we have an unhealthy tendency to lionize other writers—to think of them as these creatures who are unlike us—and when we see them first-hand…it doesn’t mean we’re disappointed in them, it just means that what they do seems like something we might be able to do also.”