Excerpted from Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Copyright © 2001 by Richard Russo. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Was there a particular event or image that sparked EMPIRE FALLS?A: When I finish a novel, it's hard to go back and try to reconstruct its beginnings. It's a little like an interrogation: what did you know and when did you know it? Here are a couple of things, though. When I was living in Waterville, Maine, some years ago, a factory closed down that had employed a large number of women who had been sewing famous-label men's dress shirts for much of their lives. They'd done everything they could to save their jobs and the factory, but the multi-national company that owned it shut them down anyway. That struck me as a story that was playing out all over the country, if not the world. From the beginning of my writing career, I've always been interested in ordinary people swept up in economic and political forces they can't begin to comprehend, as well as in the changing face of American labor. Becoming a writer has only deepened my sympathies for working people, who are always, it seems to me, the first to be sold out.The other event that had burrowed deep was the school shooting in Paducah, especially the question it begged: how could such a thing happen here? The answers that are typically offered to such questions are sociological and political—tighter gun control, return to family values, reducing violence on television and video games. Better answers to such impossible questions, I've always thought, are offered by novels, which ask you to live horror rather than simply witness or think about it.Finally, in my previous novels I've written a lot about fathers and sons. As a father of two beloved daughters, I thought it high time to put a father/daughter relationship at the heart of one of my novels. In fact, now that I look back on it, it's the thing I'm most proud of in this new book.Q: EMPIRE FALLS has a large cast of characters, any of whom might have been the center of the novel. How did you decide on Miles Roby, the middle-aged manager of the Empire Grill, as your protagonist?A: I suppose there are two answers to this question. The first is kind of a non-answer, though it may be the truer. Such decisions are often intuitive; they feel right. Which is another way of saying that you decide before you're even aware of the fact that you have a decision to make. The more “analytical” answer is that of all the characters in the novel, Miles may be the most trapped—and that's saying something, since they're all trapped in one way or another. Janine is trapped by her need to be beautiful; Tick by her youth; David Roby by an accident. Even Mrs. Whiting, who rules the town, is in a way cornered by it. But Miles is trapped more interestingly and more completely--by the past, by his faith, by an old love, by his devotion to his daughter, by his own decency. I'm always drawn to the character whose dilemma is such that I can't imagine what I would do if I were in his shoes.Q: People in Empire Falls often remind Miles that he stands to inherit something from Mrs. Whiting, yet the very possibility of this inheritance seems to imprison him. Is this an example of the price of wealth, even predicted wealth?A: I suppose that's one way to look at it. My own feeling is that people are generally wrong to wait for others to make good on promises, either explicit or implied. Was it Lillian Hellman who used to tell young women writers: “Don't expect anyone to save you? Save yourself.” Maybe it was Flannery O'Connor. Somebody pretty damn smart, anyway. It's good advice, but tough to follow when you've been told the check's in the mail. Whole communities wait for promises to be fulfilled, long after those who made the promises are dead and buried. And like individuals, communities imagine promises and also mishear them. Miles is pretty sure Mrs. Whiting has made a promise, but is it one he heard? Imagined? Hoped for? And even if it were granted, would that be a good or bad thing?Q: Can you talk about the effect of the collapse of small-town economies on the younger generation, as represented by Miles's daughter Tick and her peers?A: I think the place you grow up in is a lot like “The Hotel California”: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. We'll never know any place better than the place we grew up, and no place, I suspect, will ever be more important to us, at least in terms of our imaginative lives. For that reason there's something tragic in the understanding that many kids from small towns have—that in order to be a success in life, they'll have to leave; to remain behind would be an admission of failure. For many, it means leaving their heart's home. Then again, there's a long American tradition, embodied in the novels of Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and others, which suggests that leaving a small town may be about the best thing that can happen to any young person. One thing seems clear: we've become a far-flung nation. “Where do you want to go today?” Bill Gates wants to know. Implied is that nobody wants to stay home.Q: Miles considers the rich “beautiful people” on Martha's Vineyard almost foreign to him, and yet he's drawn to them. Do you find yourself identifying with this perspective?A: Well, who isn't attracted to beauty? Or, for that matter, to things foreign? Both Gatsby and Nick Carroway are attracted to the mansions and the fancy cars and the wild parties on Long Island, just as Pip is attracted to privilege in Great Expectations. Show me someone who claims not to be attracted to such things and I'll show you either a liar or a person with no imagination. That said, wealth and beauty play a key role in Gatsby's destruction, and they cause Pip to behave in such a way that he loses all sense of his truest self. In the end they send Nick scurrying back to his bedrock Midwest values, feeling like he himself has dodged a bullet. Such is the nature of seduction.Q: How do you imagine Mainers, and other New Englanders, will respond to the novel?A: No clue. I thought academics would hate my last novel, Straight Man, but for the most part they've embraced it. When I read from the novel on book tour, professors showed up wearing those fake nose/glasses I have Lucky Hank wearing when he threatens to kill a duck a day. In general, I think people like having their experience of life validated; they like to think they count and they're glad you've noticed them, even if you get things wrong. In Empire Falls, I didn't want to “do Maine” in the sense of using a lot of down-east dialect or local color. Even when I was writing about upstate New York, I was always more interested in locating people by class and work than by region; it's the latter that makes you a “regional” writer, I suspect. I hope people in Maine like the book; in the past, I've sold very well in New England. But my greater hope is that the book will ring true everywhere.Q: What might surprise your readers about EMPIRE FALLS?A: Well, I hope everything and nothing. When a favorite author of mine comes out with a new book, I always hope for two contradictory things: first, I hope it's like all the other books of his or hers that I love, and second, I hope he's not going to repeat himself. Sure, it's a paradox, but I suspect I'm not alone in my desires. So, I hope that when readers pick up Empire Falls and read the first chapter they'll feel that, yes, they're in a Russo novel, but not one they've read before. I'd also hope that their surprises in the reading parallel my own in the writing; I was surprised on virtually every page, and I hope readers will be too, because I wouldn't like to think that either my style or my peculiar way of seeing things have become predictable. What surprised me most about the book was how much it took out of me. Even though we know it won't, most authors keep hoping that writing novels will get easier as a result of experience. It doesn't, probably because it's not supposed to.
From the Hardcover edition.
For his Author's Desktop, Richard Russo spent a few days traveling around Maine gathering images that inspired Empire Falls or could easily be evoked by its pages. All of the photos were taken by Russo in early April 2001, and the captions are his.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Richard Russo’s description of Empire Falls is as memorable and vivid as his portraits of the people who live there. How do the details he provides about the town, including its streets, buildings, and neighborhoods, create a more than physical backdrop against which the story is played out? How does his use of flashbacks strengthen the reader’s sense of the town as a living character?
2. “One of the good things about small towns, Miles’s mother had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about everyone” [p. 21]. Is this an accurate description of Empire Falls? Which characters in particular benefit from this attitude? What influences the level of tolerance Miles is willing to extend to Max Roby, Walt Comeau, and Jimmy Minty, all of whom are constant irritants to him? What does he see as their redeeming characteristics?
3. Why is Miles’s relationship with Tick so important to him? In what ways is it reminiscent of his mother’s attachment to him? How do Grace’s expectations for Miles, as well as her ultimate disappointment in him, shape the way he is raising Tick?
4. Even before the full story of Grace and Max’s marriage is revealed, what hints are there that Grace was less than the ideal wife and mother of Miles’s memory? Why does Miles choose to accept his mother’s version of events concerning their trip to Martha’s Vineyard, even though it entails a betrayal of his father [pp. 133–50]? When Miles finally realizes who Charlie Mayne is, does it change his feelings about Grace in a significant way? Would he have felt differently if Grace were still alive and able to answer his questions [pp. 338–39]? How does Miles’s own situation—particularly his separation from Janine and his discovery of the relationship between Charlene and David—color his reaction to his mother’s affair? How does his brief conversation with Max about Grace and Charlie [p. 373] shed light on the relationship between father and son?
5. Janine calls Miles “The World’s Most Transparent Man” [p. 42], and Tick says, “It’s not like you don’t have any [secrets]. . . . It’s just that everybody figures them out” [p. 107]. Does Mrs. Whiting share this view of Miles? What evidence is there that she sees and understands more about the “real” Miles than the people closest to him?
6. How does Russo use minor characters to develop the main figures? What roles do Horace Weymouth, Bea Majeski, Charlene Gardiner, and Otto Meyer play in shaping your impressions of and opinions about Miles, Janine, and Tick?
7. How do David’s feelings about Mrs. Whiting and the Empire Grill differ from Miles’s? Whose attitude is more realistic? Is David’s harsh criticism of Miles’s passivity [pp. 224–25] justified? What insight does it give you into David’s character? Is David more content with his life than Miles is, and if so, why?
8. Charlene tells Miles, “David has this theory that between your mom and dad and him and you there’s, like, one complete person” [p. 226]. Has each member of the family selected a particular role, or have their positions been thrust upon them? Is the division of roles a natural part of family life? Which member of the Roby family is the “most complete”? Did this strong individual identity come at the expense of anything else?
9. What does Father Mark offer Miles that he cannot get from his other relationships? Is Miles drawn to him only because he is a priest? Why does Russo depict both priests as flawed men, Father Mark with his sexual longings, and Father Tom with dementia? How would you characterize the impact of Catholicism on Miles and Grace? Does attending church genuinely comfort them, or is it a convenient way of hiding from the problems in their lives and the decisions they have made? In what ways does Grace’s confession to Father Tom and the penance he demands affect her outlook on life?
10. Why does Tick befriend John Voss? How does her sense of responsibility for him compare to Miles’s feelings, both as a child and as a grown man, about Cindy Whiting? Are the differences attributable to the circumstances that bring each pair together, or do they reflect something deeper about Tick’s and Miles’s morality and their abilities to empathize with other people? What other incidents demonstrate Tick’s understanding of what other people need? Why is she unable to treat Janine in the same comfortable, non-judgmental way she treats Miles and Max Roby?
11. Would you define Mrs. Whiting as a “mother figure” for Miles? Does she perceive herself in this way? Does Miles? Beneath their very different personas, what traits do Mrs. Whiting and Grace share? Do they represent the strengths and weaknesses usually associated with women? In what ways does Mrs. Whiting’s description of her relationship with Grace [p. 435] reaffirm their similarities? Which woman is more honest with herself about her motivations and feelings?
12. All of the marriages in Empire Falls fail in one way or another. Does your sense of who is responsible for each marital breakdown change as the events of the past and present unfold? Discuss the contrasts between the ways each of these marriages is initially described and the “real” stories: Grace and Max; Mr. and Mrs. Whiting; Miles and Janine; Janine and Walt. Mrs. Whiting says, “Most people . . . marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so absurd they can’t even remember what they were a few short months after they’ve pledged themselves forever” [p. 169]. How does this assessment apply to the marriages mentioned above?
13. From the almost unimaginable cruelty of John Voss’s parents to Mrs. Whiting’s coldness toward Cindy, to Grace’s withdrawal from David (and to some extent Miles) when she joins the Whiting household, the novel contains several examples of the emotional and physical harm parents inflict on their children. Why do you think Russo made this a central theme of the book? Does it adequately explain or even justify behavior you would otherwise find completely unacceptable?
14. Empire Falls traces three very different families—the Whitings, the Robys, and the Mintys—through several generations. What do each of these families represent in the context of American society? How do their fates embody the economic and social changes that have occurred over the last century? To what extent are the members of the current generation trapped by the past?
15. What does Empire Falls provide that its residents might not be able to find anywhere else? Does living in a small town necessarily limit the satisfaction people get out of life? Is Miles right when he thinks, “After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time” [p. 295]? Which characters might have led better, more fulfilling lives if they had moved away from Empire Falls?
16. In contemplating the past year, Tick reflects, “Just because things happen slow doesn’t mean you’ll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you’d be alert for all kinds of suddenness. . . . ‘Slow’ works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there’s plenty of time to prepare” [p. 441]. How does this relate to the novel as a whole and the way it is structured? Why has Russo chosen Tick to express this insight?
17. What adjectives would you use to describe Empire Falls? How does Russo make the story of a dying town (with more than its share of losers) entertaining and engaging? Did you find most, if not all, of the characters sympathetic in some way?