Richard Russo is no stranger to collaboration. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer has done so before, most notably with writer/director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) on the screenplay for his novel Nobody’s Fool. But for Russo’s four-story print-only collection, Interventions (Down East, May), which his publisher is promoting as “a nine-piece ensemble,” he’s working with his two daughters and son-in-law on illustrations, packaging, story selection, and even a book signing at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn.
The book, explains Russo’s daughter, artist Kate Russo, grew out of a “lifelong conversation” between her and her father over art, his narrative language and her visual one. The only time they had previously given physical expression to that dialogue was in 2009, when he asked her to make drawings for a broadside for That Old Cape Magic, which he gave to bookstores as a thank-you for supporting his work.
For Interventions, says Kate, “we wanted a book about the obsessions people have and what drives them to that point.” Her father notes, “all four [stories] have some element in which an outside force profoundly intervenes in someone’s life. That’s what Kate does as an artist.” Together they chose the stories—Kate’s favorite, Horseman; Richard’s, High and Dry—and The Whore’s Child, the title story of an earlier collection. To bring the book together, Russo wrote a novella that provided the thematic bridge and gives the collection its name, Intervention. It’s also his first story about a realtor, his wife’s profession, and has never been published before.
While her father wrote, Kate, who has never illustrated a book before, painted images from the stories in oils. “Most of my work outside this project is patterns. A lot of what I do is taking other materials—fabric, graph paper—and reinventing them. It was so different to work from a narrative point of view,” she says. Each story is printed as a separate paperback and has a reproduction of her painting on the front cover and a frameable reproduction of it inside. Together they are packaged in a slipcase, designed by Kate’s husband, Tom Butler. He also helped source the U.S. manufacturing of the book, since he and Kate were determined that it should be an American project.
The 4-1/2” X 7-1/4” book is personal in other ways. Down East in Camden, Maine, close to where Richard and Kate live, readily agreed to take on the project. It also published a slim collection of stories that Richard edited in 2008, A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice, to benefit a Maine hospice. Richard appreciates the press’ willingness to publish a book so different from most Down East titles. Plus, he notes, alluding to the $40 suggested list price, “this is not going to be a cheap book. It’s more money than people are used to paying not only for Richard Russo novels but for books since Amazon began driving down the price. In the end it’s essentially an art book.”
Kate sees Interventions as “a last hurrah” for the book. It’s a tactile work that can’t be replicated on a Kindle, Nook, or iPad; it doesn’t even sit easily on a library shelf, since it has so many components. “We wanted to do something anti-Kindle,” she says. “We wanted it to be sustainable, and printed in the U.S. Sort of in the theme of High and Dry. Don’t outsource what you don’t need to.” For Richard, who reads books electronically on his iPad, the book, which began in 2010, is also about nostalgia. “We were all feeling nostalgic for the books of our youth,” he says, “whether it was A Child’s Garden of Verses or Treasure Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.”
As far as Down East publisher John Viehman is concerned, “Interventions feels right for the times. It sends a great message. It’s not just a cookie-cutter book. It’s something you can hold in your hand. It’s really part of the conversation that writers, publishers, editors have. We don’t know what’s coming. The point is to try and preserve and celebrate the tactile aspect of reading.”
To support the book, Down East has hired an outside publicist, who is setting up a New England tour. Kate will speak at the New England Independent Booksellers’ Association’s All About the Books event later this month, and will appear with her father at BEA. In addition both will do an event at Greenlight, where Kate’s sister, Emily Russo Murtagh, is a bookseller.
This summer Richard and Kate will start their next collaborative project, a screenplay.