STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A new novel by the writer Richard Russo tells the story of a man and a car. He's driving around with his father's ashes in the trunk, can't quite bear to scatter them yet. When his mother dies, her ashes go in the trunk too.
Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Author): That for me is a symbolic rendering of the state that we all get to be in at - if we're lucky enough to live long enough - when our parents are dead. In one sense they're gone. In another sense they're not very far away at all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RUSSO: You know, and I think that the Jack Griffin, who continues to talk to his mother in the wheel well of his car, continues to do so because there are things about their lives that are as yet unresolved. And to a certain extent we all drive around through what remains of our lives, talking to our dead parents.
INSKEEP: Richard Russo is known for novels like "Empire Falls," tracing the lives of blue color families. This time around he follows a writer-turned-professor who is constantly recalling scenes from his parents' failed marriage. The book is called "That Old Cape Magic." And in it that man named Jack Griffin returns to Cape Cod, the only spot where he remembers seeing his parents happy together. As his own marriage comes apart, he's drawn back to that place of sand dunes and fog and memory.
Mr. RUSSO: It really was a perfect setting for this book that I wanted to write because there's a weird mix of some parts of the Cape that are very well to do, and then there are other parts of the Cape that seem to have a kind of frozen in amber quality that I particularly enjoyed. And since I knew that this was going to be a book about parents and children, some of that sense of what Cape Cod was like 20, 30, 40 years ago was still very much alive in some of the restaurants, I suspect, that were there a long time ago…
INSKEEP: You're thinking about - you're thinking about the restaurant neon signs shaped like a lobster or the roadside motels, that sort of thing.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, yeah. A lot of that, a lot of that is still there.
INSKEEP: Hmm. When you talk about a person who cannot escape his past, the main character goes back repeatedly to a story of a boy that he met on the beach in Cape Cod, when he was young.
Mr. RUSSO: Right. Peter Browning.
INSKEEP: And the main character, well, he's not sure what to call it. But he feels almost love for this other boy. What made you focus on that and made you keep coming back to it, as you wrote the novel?
Mr. RUSSO: Well, that's an interesting question. I think what I was after was that he falls in love, Jack Griffin, as a boy, falls in love, not only in a kind of love with Peter Browning, but also the entire Browning family. And as an adult, when he wants to write about that, he tries to do in that story exactly what he has tried to do in his life, because in the first draft of the story he fails to tell that story pretty completely. And when he reads it over, what he's written and he gives it to his wife and he gives it to his old writing partner and they all agree that it's really not a very good story, that the characters haven't come to life, and really, the only two characters who ring true are the protagonist's own father and mother, who kind of hijack the story.
Mr. RUSSO: You know, I used to teach fiction writing. And the one thing that's very difficult for beginning writers to understand is that the deepest failures any fiction writer is likely to have are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story that he or she is telling. And I think that's why Jack Griffin can't write this story, is that there's something about himself that he hasn't quite recognized.
INSKEEP: Do you think that's true of us even if we're not professional writers? We all have stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves or tell other people if someone will listen. Do you think we often miss the point of our own lives and our own stories?
Mr. RUSSO: I think we probably miss the point as often as we find it. There are stories, especially in a marriage, there are stories that a wife or a husband will tell over and over again. And if you're married - I've been married for 37 years - that means you get to hear the same story a certain number of times…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RUSSO: …over the course of a long marriage. And these stories change. And sometimes people will ask you questions. Very often the questions that people ask you about a story that you tell repeatedly, the weak points, the little fractures in the story that suggest something wrong…
Mr. RUSSO: …if you get the right questions, the story will shift, the story will change. You'll understand something about why you've been telling this story all these years.
Mr. RUSSO: One of the favorite parts of mine in this book is towards the end, when Griffin is attending his mother in her final illness and she begins to contradict his version of the past. And she on her deathbed, in a really heroic struggle, is to reinterpret her life and to bring him on board, and in reinterpreting her own life is also trying to reinterpret his as well. And I think that, well, you know, memory is treacherous.
INSKEEP: I wonder if I could get you to read a little bit from "That Old Cape Magic."
Mr. RUSSO: Sure.
INSKEEP: This is at the end of the sequence, I believe, in which she is telling the story of her life and her son's life.
Mr. RUSSO: On Christmas morning she asked if he remember how as a boy he liked to crawl under the tree and look up at the lights. And later that afternoon she said, so you marriage is ruined? And he said, yes, he supposed it was. After that he remembered her saying only one other thing: he'd be here, she assured him, smiling, if he wasn't dead. Unlike so many of her smiles, this one was neither sly nor lewd. Beatific was more like it. And for that reason, he said, I know mom, I know.
INSKEEP: At the end there, his mother is having a pleasant memory of her husband even though they'd never gotten along.
Mr. RUSSO: Right.
INSKEEP: When you write a novel full of unsuccessful marriages like this, is there ever a point when your wife says, Honey, is there something you want to tell me?
Mr. RUSSO: Well, I will tell you this much. She sometimes goes with me on book tour. She really wanted to go on this particular book tour to reassure people that I was not writing about our marriage. So throughout New England, at least, she is going to be there to correct whatever I say that would lead people to believe that the marriage that I'm writing about in "That Old Cape Magic" is ours.
INSKEEP: Well, Richard Russo, good luck on the book tour.
Mr. RUSSO: Thank you so much, Steve. I enjoyed talking with you.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt of "That Old Cape Magic" and get recommendations for beach books at the new npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo sifts through failed marriages, memory and the bonds between parents and children in his latest novel.
Author Richard Russo sifts through failed marriages, memory and the bonds between parents and children in his new novel, That Old Cape Magic.
Though the novel presents a dim view of relationships, Russo tells Steve Inskeep that readers shouldn't presume the sentiment expressed in his fiction is a reflection on his own marriage, which is in its 37th year.
"I'll tell you this much," Russo says. "[My wife] really wanted to go on this particular book tour to reassure people that I was not writing about our marriage."
Russo's protagonist in the novel, Jack Griffin, is a professor and writer who spent the summers of his childhood on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. When a wedding brings Griffin back to the Cape as an adult, he begins reflecting over his parents' marriage and subsequent divorce.
Russo says the novel's setting is important; a book about parents and children needed to be set in a locale where the past is as alive as the present. He describes the Cape as a "weird mix ... some parts of the Cape are very well-to-do, and then there are other parts of the Cape that seem to have this frozen-in-amber quality."
In the novel, Griffin decides to write about his childhood on the Cape — including his love for a neighboring family. But his first draft of the story isn't any good because the characters don't come to life.
Russo, who used to teach fiction writing, says this is a problem that he frequently sees in beginning writers:
"The deepest failures any fiction writer is likely to have are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story that he or she is telling. And I think that's why Jack Griffin can't write this story ... there's something about himself that he hasn't quite recognized."
Russo says this idea of missing the point is as common in life as in novels. And as memories corrode or morph, people — parents and children, husbands and wives — tend to form different ideas of the past.
"Toward the end, when Griffin is tending his mother in her final illness, she begins to contradict his version of the past. And she — on her death bed, in a really heroic struggle — is to reinterpret her life and to bring him on board. And in reinterpreting her own life, is also trying to reinterpret his as well. Memory is treacherous."