Cover image for The destiny thief : essays on writing, writers and life / Richard Russo.
The destiny thief : essays on writing, writers and life / Richard Russo.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
Physical Description:
205 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"This is a Borzoi book"--T.p. verso.
The destiny thief -- The gravestone and the commode Getting good Address to the 2004 graduates of Colby College -- The Pickwick papers Imagining Jenny What frogs think: a defense of omniscience -- Mark Twain's nonfiction The boss in Bulgaria.
"In these nine essays, [the author] provides insight into his life as a writer, teacher, friend, and reader"


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
814.54 RUS Book Adult General Collection

On Order



"It turns out that Russo the nonfiction writer is a lot like Russo the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He is affably disagreeable, wry, idiosyncratic, vulnerably bighearted, a craftsman of lubricated sentences."--Jay Fielden, New York Times Book Review

A master of the novel, short story, and memoir, the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Everybody's Fool now gives us his very first collection of personal essays, ranging throughout writing and reading and living.

In these nine essays, Richard Russo provides insight into his life as a writer, teacher, friend, and reader. From a commencement speech he gave at Colby College, to the story of how an oddly placed toilet made him reevaluate the purpose of humor in art and life, to a comprehensive analysis of Mark Twain's value, to his harrowing journey accompanying a dear friend as she pursued gender-reassignment surgery, The Destiny Thief reflects the broad interests and experiences of one of America's most beloved authors. Warm, funny, wise, and poignant, the essays included here traverse Russo's writing life, expanding our understanding of who he is and how his singular, incredibly generous mind works. An utter joy to read, they give deep insight into the creative process from the prospective of one of our greatest writers.

Author Notes

Richard Russo was born in Johnstown, New York on July 15, 1949. He received a Bachelor's degree, a Master of Fine Arts degree, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Arizona. He taught at numerous colleges including Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Colby College.

He has written numerous books including Mokawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Bridge of Sighs, and That Old Cape Magic, as well as a short story collection, The Whore's Child. His novel Empire Falls won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. His memoir was entitled Elsewhere. He also co-wrote the 1998 film Twilight with director Robert Benton and the teleplay for the HBO adaptation of Empire Falls.

(Bowker Author Biography) Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife & two daughters.

(Publisher Fact Sheets)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his first essay collection, Russo (Everybody's Fool) rambles leisurely through a broad range of topics with his characteristically amiable voice. In a commencement speech to the 2004 graduating class of Colby College, where he then taught, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist offers "Russo's Rules for a Good Life," such as "search out the kind of work you'd gladly do for free and then get somebody to pay you for it." In the most poignant essay, "Imagining Jenny," Russo powerfully portrays the physical difficulties endured by a friend during gender-reassignment surgery. Elsewhere, in "The Gravestone and the Commode," Russo brilliantly uses the incongruity of an old gravestone sitting next to an apple tree in his backyard, marking no apparent grave, to illustrate life's inherent absurdity, as a consequence of which the writer has "no need to make the world a funny place." In the longest selection, "Getting Good," Russo artfully meanders from his early abortive attempts to become a rock musician to his successful writing career, concluding that any artist hungering for success must "put in the time because genius isn't nearly enough." Russo's colorful book offers his novel's fans more of his dazzling and moving writing, often revealing glimpses of the forces that drive a bestselling fiction writer. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber Associates. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

AS A magazine editor, you have to care about both the big picture and the tiny details. And for some reason the title of Richard Russo's first collection of nonfiction - "The Destiny Thief" - sounds more like a straight-to-streaming bomb starring Nicolas Cage than a book of " Essays on Writing, Writers and Life." I had to have a sidebar with myself about that subtitle, too. It brought to mind a photograph that hung on the wall of a celebrated writer and editor I once worked for, in which he had been caught pontificating while his polite friend - the writer Janet Malcolm - feigned interest with a glazed, thousand-mile stare. Above her head, as a joke, someone had pasted a thought bubble: "You fascinate me!" it said. "Please, go on." I have always been under the impression that what killed that day's conversational buzz was the most shopworn of all literary shoptalk: a writer waxing on about writing. Encountered in a book, earnest accounts of what goes on in the mind of those who stare at computer screens all day can be, to quote Mark Twain - whom Russo frequently cites here - "chloroform in print." The higgledy-piggledy provenance of these pieces - The Sewanee Review, two book introductions (a Twain collection, Dickens's "The Pickwick Papers"), an address to the 2004 graduates of Colby College and so forth - might make you think you're about to dig into a smorgasbord of frozen leftovers. But it turns out that Russo the nonfiction writer is a lot like Russo the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He is affably disagreeable, wry, idiosyncratic, vulnerably bighearted, a craftsman of lubricated sentences. In the end, you almost always want Russo to go on. That said, the danger of rounding up writing assignments originally executed for different purposes is that you cannot help measuring them against one another. Russo's graduation speech is better than most such peppy pensées aimed at the yetto-be employed, but it hardly exceeds the limits of the genre. Neither does his look at "The Pickwick Papers," which (unlike his rounded introduction on Twain) is written in a professorial shorthand that might make you feel like a student who didn't complete the reading assignment. As a whole, the book is a quest to understand nothing less than why life turns out the way it does, whether you're J. D. Salinger or some guy named David - a supposedly superior talent to Russo when they both attended the University of Arizona. Their creative-writing professor fawned over him, giving David a sparkling A to Russo's pitiful B. If that didn't make it clear who the professor thought would succeed, one day, after remarking that most writers have about a thousand pages of guano in them, he turned to Russo and said, "In your case, make it 2,000." That prognosis visited several decades of selfdoubt and anxiety - "those dread whisperers" - on Russo, but he did the spadework and stuck it out, while his friend pretty much gave up. He weaves scenes from these destinyswapping years - the gut-punching failures; the life of teaching that enabled the life of writing - with literary long takes, illuminating a winding road trip. Of special interest to fans who can't get enough scoop on the real place - Gloversville, N.Y. - that inspired his most celebrated novels, Russo sprinkles these pages with a number of boyhood anecdotes, including an unflinching set piece on his constructionworking father, a Utah Beach war hero who returns home to embrace a beta-dog existence, much to the distress of his son. Russo the American lit Ph.D. makes appearances too, demystifying his craft with lessons drawn from his broad reading. Among other curious topics, he explores a pet theory that Fitzgerald might have regretted writing "The Great Gatsby" in the first-person voice of Nick Carraway, but by the time he realized the consequences it was too late to start again. Perhaps what's most admirable about these essays is their genial and searching tone. In this know-it-all age of thoughtleader messiahs and thumb-taunting Twitter Torquemadas, Russo places his faith in the ideals of art - ambiguity, paradox, heresy, the sublime - over the black-andwhite ideologies of our current politics. Leave it to a fiction writer to remind us that the world is, more often than not, messily subjective. For a comic novelist, such human pretension is a gift. In "The Gravestone and the Commode" - a surreal juxtaposition that appeared outside his window one day when workers remodeling a bathroom in his house temporarily stored the toilet next to an old headstone in the backyard - Russo writes: "There's no need for any writer to make the world a funny place. It is a funny place." Not to everyone, it turns out. He is soon involved in a dinner party row with a woman who considers him cruel for making fun of people who stutter. Russo's retort may not be a woke joke, but it isn't flippant: "The best humor," he points out, "has always resided in the chamber next to the one occupied by suffering." Pain and laughter also react chemically in "Imagining Jenny," a standout, which was originally published as the afterword to a memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Here, Russo recounts the brutal week he spent at the bedside of the author, a friend of many years, as she underwent gender reassignment surgery. In a semi-state of shock over what's about to happen to his former beer-drinking buddy Jim, a fellow professor at Colby, Russo confesses to a series of anxious gaffes - referring to Jenny as him - and seeks "solace and understanding in narrative," even though these were "cautionary parables of transformation, of men who turn into wolves, into vampires, even into insects." He also makes an un-woke joke about the surgery. It is an outburst of exasperation as much with the situation as his own sense that what's happening here - a man transforming into a woman - threatens not just his personal but his professional life. "As social and natural scientists continue to erode our belief in free will by revealing the extent of our genetic and cultural programming," he writes, with nostrils flaring, "novelists continue to hold people accountable for their actions and the consequences of those actions. This is the fiction writer's manifesto, because without it there's no story." For a moment, it's as if Russo has forgotten his own earlier advice: "If playing God scares you," he declares, fully confident of his omniscient powers as a novelist, "there are other professions." The problem for Russo is that destiny decided long ago that this was the only one for him. ? It turns out that Russo the nonfiction writer is a lot like Russo the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. JAY FIELDEN is the editor in chief of Esquire.

Library Journal Review

Russo's (Trajectory) first collection of personal essays, though arriving late in his career, is certain to please anyone familiar with his short fiction and novels-Empire Falls received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. An aging conceit insists that all writers have an agenda, be that political, philosophical, religious, etc. This alleged quality isn't present in Russo's essays, and the work benefits from its absence. Framing pieces "The Gravestone and the Commode" and "The Boss in Bulgaria" are masterly examples of Russo's uniquely funny, generous, and insightful mind at work. "Address to the Graduates of Colby College" manages to be both inspiring and practical. The unselfconscious voice threading through these nine explorations of writing, writers, and everyday life is a welcome alternative to the all-too-common introspection and fraught "literariness" found in many recent memoir and essay collections from prominent authors. VERDICT Readers seeking a deeply insightful record of the creative process and the life guiding it, will find resonance here. [See Prepub Alert, 11/12/17.]-William Grabowski, McMechen, WV © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 The Destiny Thief "As a writer, you aren't anybody until you become somebody." --James Salter "I am the same man I was when I was a struggling nobody . . . ​still a writer trying to find his way through a maze. Should I be anything else?" --Raymond Chandler Some time ago I had a lengthy telephone conversation with a man I'll call David. I'd known him nearly forty years earlier at the University of Arizona, where we shared a fiction workshop taught by the writer Robert C. S. Downs, who encouraged both of us, but David especially. At the time I was finishing up my PhD in American literature, so when I asked Downs about taking a workshop, I assumed he'd put me in one at the graduate level, but he didn't. My prose, he explained, was full of jargon and intellectual pretension. Most writers had about a thousand pages of shitty prose in them, he went on, and these have to be expelled before they can hope to write seriously. "In your case," he added, "make it two thousand." And so, pushing thirty, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a workshop full of twenty-year-olds, many of whom were better writers than I was. David was working on a novel about a rock-and-roll band, and having once played in a band myself, I was envious of both his subject matter and his bold talent and even more jealous of the fact that at age twenty he'd already figured out what he wanted to do with his life, whereas I'd wasted the better part of a decade pursuing an advanced degree I no longer really wanted. What I didn't know about David was what a rough time he was having outside the classroom. His mother, whom he'd dearly loved, had recently died of cancer, and his father was an emotional tyrant. David himself had very little money and was drinking heavily. Indeed, the fiction workshop--his dream of becoming a novelist one day--was just about all that was holding him together. Then, near the end of the semester, he got in trouble, courtesy of his poet girlfriend. She'd been assigned six poems, and the day before they were due she hadn't written a single line. When she told David she was thinking about dropping the course, he said, "Nonsense. We'll write them now. How hard can it be?" So they sat down and did just that, the girlfriend writing three poems, David the other three. They both thought the results were pretty good, but the girlfriend was unprepared for the praise lavished on the poems, in particular the one David had written about his mother. After class, she made the mistake of confiding to a classmate that all of the poems had been written the night before, half of them by her boyfriend. When her friend reported the infraction, both she and David were hauled before Downs, the director of creative writing, to explain themselves. The girlfriend arrived at the meeting determined to defend the work as her own. David, they agreed beforehand, would admit only to offering advice. But this wasn't Downs's first experience with academic dishonesty, and instead of asking if she'd written the poems in question, he quoted the best line from the whole batch of poems and asked if she'd written it; she immediately broke down. Since she'd come clean and it was her first offense, Downs said he'd recommend a D in the course but no mark on her record. He then turned to his star fiction writer and said, "Good poems." David sighed, accepting the compliment, proud to have written the line that his mentor so admired, but fearful of what came next. The dishonesty charge was the least of it, he confessed. He was out of money and about to be evicted from the shithole where he was living. He'd dropped the rest of his courses earlier in the term, and though he hated the idea, there was nothing to do but return home in defeat. He hadn't intended to tell Downs any of this, but there he was, spilling his guts about how much the workshop meant to him and how much he hated the idea of not completing it. When he asked what his grade would be, Downs said he'd be getting the A he'd earned and added, perhaps to bolster his spirits, that it would likely be the only one in the class. Apparently we were not a stellar group. "What about Rick?" David asked. After all, I was a grad student. Downs shrugged. "Rick doesn't want to be a writer. He wants to be a teacher." (He was wrong about that, but he couldn't have known. After getting the PhD, I did plan on applying for teaching positions.) Now fast-forward to 2002. For both David and me a lot has happened. He's eventually finished his undergraduate degree, then gone on to graduate school for an MFA in poetry, not fiction. He has married, had kids, is teaching college to support his writing habit and has become middle-aged. He's continued to struggle periodically with alcohol but remained functional, enjoyed success as a poet and become something of a legend among his students. Along the way he's finished that rock-and-roll novel, but frustrated by his inability to find an agent, finally published it himself. Maybe his life isn't the one he imagined back in Tucson, but for the most part he's been pretty happy. Until one day he picks up the University of Arizona alumni magazine and discovers that a student from his undergraduate workshop (who did indeed get a B) has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. According to the article, the prizewinner taught for a while before quitting to write full-time. David feels something inside him come untethered--and really, who could blame him? Somehow he and I have swapped destinies. He is the teacher, I the writer. He wants someone to explain the cosmic mechanism by which such a cruel joke could be perpetrated. In fact, he'd like me to explain. As if I'd know. I've written a lot about destiny in my fiction, not because I understand it, but because I'd like to. If David was puzzled by the narrative arc of our lives, he wasn't alone. At the risk of sounding falsely modest, I have to say I'm not aware of anyone--teacher, family member, friend--who predicted anything like the great good fortune that has befallen me in the writing career that I came to fairly late. Some years ago I ran into an old girlfriend who said she'd been following my work with both pleasure and mystification. "I always thought you were a nice enough guy," she told me, clearly trying to puzzle it through and not wanting to hurt my feelings, "but I never dreamed you had books in you." I know exactly how she felt. I can't explain it even now. Anyone who's interested in my early life can have a look at my memoir Elsewhere, though for the purposes of this discussion a thumbnail sketch will suffice. I lived the first eighteen years of my life in Gloversville, a poor mill town in upstate New York. Raised Catholic, I was for many years an altar boy. My parents separated when I was a kid, so I was brought up by my nervous mother, who hated where we lived, and by my grandparents, who owned the house we lived in. If my mother was adamant about anything, it was that, as an American, I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I was as good as anybody. I was always to remember this in case anyone had the temerity to suggest otherwise. My mostly absent father had come to a whole different set of conclusions. He was part of the Normandy invasion and returned from the war with a personal philosophy that fit neatly onto his favorite coffee mug, which I still have: here's to you as good as you are and here's to me, as bad as i am, but as good as you are and as bad as i am, i'm as good as you are, as bad as i am. It was, now that I think about it, the joke version of my mother's mantra, and to complete this gag the mug's handle was on the inside of the cylinder. Call it an object lesson: that being as good as anybody might not be of much use if you had to go through life with a basic design flaw. For my father, being born poor was just such a flaw. Having a name that ended in a vowel was another. But never mind, my mother said. In addition to America, she believed in education and its ability to negate any of these flaws. My high school was tiny, and without expending much effort I flourished there. I had enough of my father's easy charm to talk most people into giving me what I wanted; and on the others I could employ my mother's tidal persistence, her innate ability to nick away at people until they gave me what I was after, just to be rid of me. The University of Arizona was twice the size of my hometown, though, and what a rude awakening that was. My first day there I went to the registrar's office, hoping to do something out of sequence, probably register early for classes, and was met by a grim woman who sized me up at a glance. Holding up a hand to stop me midexplanation, she said, "Have you matriculated?" The question stopped me cold. I didn't want to admit I had no idea what the word meant. Her tone made it sound rather personal, almost sexual, but that couldn't be, could it? I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right, though, so I said no, not recently, but I was willing to if it was strictly necessary. Tomorrow, I was told sternly. I was a freshman and would matriculate with the rest of my class tomorrow and not before. What I was asking for, she explained, was special treatment, and I wasn't going to get it, not from her. My roommate that first semester was a boy from a tiny Arizona mining town that he was clearly homesick for already, less than twenty-four hours after leaving it. He couldn't tell me enough about the place, which was apparently perfect in every respect. He seemed to have little interest in his classes, and as the semester wore on he had a devil of a time making friends. He wanted to pledge a fraternity, but none would have him. Back home he had a girlfriend, but at the university the girls he asked out gave him the once-over and said no in a way that made him understand he was wrong to have asked. At first he did poorly in his classes, which seemed to surprise him, but then he did worse; finally the dean of students requested an interview, at which it was decided that he'd be happier at a junior college closer to home. I was glad when he left and not just because it meant I'd have our room to myself for the rest of the term; in the brief time we'd shared it, I'd come to loathe him viscerally, though at the time I didn't understand why. Now it couldn't be clearer. Looking at him, his face alive with angry zits, was like looking in the mirror. And so, badly shaken and far from home, I set about developing a strategy for surviving at an institution determined to make me understand while I might be as good as anybody, I was certainly no better. The gist of my plan was this: I would (1) pretend to know things I didn't rather than risk the humiliation of ignorance and (2) conceal, as far as humanly possible, who I was and where I came from. I'd figure out what I was supposed to like and admire, and would do so even when I didn't. In other words, I would lie through my teeth about everything. Fortunately, I wasn't the only liar there. College is, after all, where we go to reinvent ourselves, to sever our ties with the past, to become the person we always wanted to be and were prevented from being by people who knew better. Actually, none of this is quite as bad as it sounds. Many years later, giving a commencement address at the college where my younger daughter was graduating, I would compare going to college to entering the witness-protection program. You're supposed to try on a new identity or two. Indeed, it would not only defeat the purpose, it would be downright dangerous to leave the program easily recognizable as the person who'd entered it. Anyway, I changed. I took my classes more seriously than I'd done in high school, not out of any abstract love of learning but rather because the competition was stiffer, and I figured the more I actually knew, the less I'd have to pretend to know. I ditched all the "stylish" clothes I'd brought with me from the East and dressed in western jeans with button flies. I had to be taught that these worked better if you buttoned from the bottom up, not from the top down. There was a lot to learn, but I was gradually able to blend in. When asked where I was from, I substituted "upstate New York" for "Gloversville," a deft maneuver that allowed me to trade embarrassment over my origins, a new experience, for guilt, which, having been raised Catholic, I was used to. Summers, when I returned to Gloversville to work road construction with my father, were the toughest. Because in truth I was very happy to be back home and living in the house where I'd grown up, where people knew the old me. I hadn't realized just how much I loved my grandparents until I saw them again that first summer, and in their company I felt the sting of my dogged efforts at reinvention out west. I began to understand that in denying where I was from, I was also denying them and the many sacrifices they'd made for my mother and me. I'd made my choice, though, and there was no going back. I was becoming someone else. Someone better. However high the cost, I'd pay it. Excerpted from The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life by Richard Russo All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

The Destiny Thiefp. 3
The Gravestone and the Commodep. 25
Getting Goodp. 45
Address to the Graduates of Colby Collegep. 107
The Pickwick Papersp. 117
Imagining Jennyp. 131
What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omnisciencep. 155
Mark Twain's Nonfictionp. 177
The Boss in Bulgariap. 193
Acknowledgmentsp. 207