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Taking a trip over the 'Bridge of Sighs'

  • Story Highlights
  • Richard Russo won Pulitzer Prize for last novel, "Empire Falls"
  • New work, "Bridge of Sighs," has earned good reviews, good sales
  • Russo takes humane attitude toward characters in declining Northeast towns
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- The writing of Richard Russo's new novel didn't start out well.

Richard Russo was convinced his new novel was "a mess" until he received some advice from his agent.

Or, as Russo puts it, "you've never seen such a mess as this 'Bridge of Sighs' book was."

Russo's original manuscript, the author recalls, began with one character's story, and 450 pages later continued with another character's related story. Russo was about to begin telling the tale from a third character's point of view when he was stopped short.

"My God," he recalled thinking, "I've got three full-length novels here."

It was a writer's worst nightmare, an investment of time and development that threatened to spiral out of control. Russo handed the manuscript over to his agent, who suggested that the stories be woven together. To which Russo's first reaction was, " 'No, that can't be done,' and I started to explain to him why.

"He let me talk for about 20 minutes and by the time I'd gotten that far, I began to see how it could be done, and not only that [but] how it had to be done, how that was the only structure that would work for this," he says in a phone interview from New York.

The result is a leaner book -- a rich but not intimidating 528 pages -- and another success for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Russo ("Empire Falls").

"A novel of great warmth, charm and intimacy," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times; "an enormous and enormously moving novel," said Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book World. The book is lodged on The New York Times' best-seller list.

The genial Russo, 58, is more pleased with comments he's received from acquaintances.

"The things that have meant the most to me is that people said that it sounded natural, it felt seamless. They had no idea the struggles I had with this book, because it didn't seem to them like I was struggling. That's high praise indeed," he laughs, "because this one gave me more fits than all the others combined."

Russo adheres to the writer's credo that writing is rewriting, and a colleague, Jenny Boylan, says few work harder at the craft.

"He sits there in his delis in Camden [Maine, Russo's residence], or wherever he is, writing out longhand, and then he comes home and he types it up and he writes it again and again and again," Boylan told The Associated Press.

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Like many of Russo's books, "Bridge of Sighs" (Knopf) takes place in a struggling Northeastern industrial town much like Gloversville, New York, where Russo grew up. The town in "Sighs" is called Thomaston, and its glory days -- symbolized by an abandoned tannery that polluted the town with its runoff -- are long behind it.

The book primarily concerns three characters, points on a triangle: Lou C. Lynch, familiarly known as "Lucy," the owner of local convenience stores; his wife, Sarah; and an old friend, Robert Noonan, who departed decades earlier for a career as an artist and is residing in Venice, Italy.

Lynch is a credulous, even dim, narrator; he's a shaky but eternal optimist, smoothing over the rough edges of his past despite occasional "spells" that both haunt and comfort him. He's also the book's only first-person (and sometimes unreliable) narrator, an "emotionally conservative" character, says Russo, who found his voice difficult to crack.

Russo finally found Lynch's manner in his own Catholic school experience. "There's some of that formality, stiffness, repression, unsure of whether you're allowed to loosen up [there]," he says.

The brittle Noonan, on the other hand, is almost all rough edges -- "Noonan may have been bitten by a nun as a child, but he's been vaccinated since," Russo chuckles -- and the bright and talented Sarah, though married to Lynch for 40 years, once navigated the space between the men. Many years later, as she and Lucy prepare to visit Noonan in Italy, she still does, spiritually.

Russo observes that he intended "Bridge of Sighs" to be "an ambitious book." His other novels, including "Falls," "Nobody's Fool" and "Straight Man," have shown a fascination with class divisions, small-town history and decay, the realities of marriage and the challenges of father-son relationships, and "Bridge of Sighs" has elements of each of those themes. And coming off the Pulitzer, he wanted to aim high -- even though he worried that the prize was a heavy burden to carry.

"Things that I had touched upon ... are now here in a more condensed and a more potent form, so in that sense everything is distilled here," he says. "As far as the [Pulitzer] goes, I think there was some weight, but it was mostly good, in the sense that any time you're fortunate enough to win one of those [awards] ... you're very aware that that prize could have gone to a couple of dozen other books that year. ...

"So the book after that you want to be a good one, because you don't want to suggest, among other things, that the judges were completely deranged," he adds impishly. "You don't want to come up with a piece of crap after someone has been good enough to validate your work."

Russo still visits Gloversville -- which was, indeed, a major glovemaking center 100 years ago -- though he says that his fictional locales, though based on the town, have such changed geography "that when I go back there now everything seems to be in the wrong place. ... I feel very dislocated when I'm back there."

He says he's saddened by the area's apparent decline but notes "that's an outsider's view. I know the imaginary terrain. Someone who knows the real terrain might disagree."

On the whole, however, he says he shares Lucy's more upbeat attitude about life, though he's much more clear-eyed than his protagonist.

"I am a cautious optimist -- I should say a very cautious optimist -- and that puts me, I suppose, right in the middle of this philosophical debate that kind of runs throughout 'Bridge of Sighs,' " he says.

After all, even that unmanageable novel worked out in the end.

"The work itself is tremendously rewarding," he says. "I wouldn't go so far as to call it fun, because it's too much like work to be fun, but it's ... so rewarding and so wonderful to be able to do it. ... I finish one and I'm ready to start something else." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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