With Interventions, Richard Russo’s new collection of short stories, readers get more than just words on the page (or the screen — more on that later).
They get a boxed set designed to be a treasure trove of words and artwork, an heirloom-quality collection that is the result of a family project. Mr. Russo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, supplied the words for the four short stories, while his daughter Kate, an artist, created paintings to represent each of the stories. Prints of the paintings are tucked inside each of the individually-bound books, which were designed by Ms. Russo’s husband, Tom Butler.
The three were in Vineyard Haven Sunday for a book and art signing at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore. It was a fitting time and place to discuss the family project, which features stories about obsession and interventions and is a tribute to the book as an object. The lure of the Cape and the Vineyard figures prominently in some of Mr. Russo’s novels, and in his own life — he and his wife, Barbara, have been coming to the Vineyard for years. Sunday was their 40th wedding anniversary.
And Kate and her sister Emily used to browse for books at Bunch of Grapes on rainy Vineyard days. Years later, “we started thinking about those books, what those books that had meant the most to us, especially when we were young, what they were like,” Mr. Russo said Sunday, sitting with his daughter and son in law outside Mocha Mott’s. “And a lot of them, of course, were books that married either paintings or drawings or art of some sort with text.”
“So we started talking about the language of the image versus the language of narrative.”
The three, all Maine residents, are a multi-talented team. Ms. Russo, 30, is an artist who works with abstract art and color theory. She met Mr. Butler, who is English, while doing graduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. While there, Mr. Butler worked at the book bindery.
The result of their collaboration was Interventions, a set of four short stories. The title novella was written for the collection, and three other stories, The Whore’s Child, Horseman, and the nonfiction story High and Dry have appeared elsewhere, in magazines or collections of short stories.
“We all kind of had a unique skill that we put together,” Ms. Russo said. She created pieces of representational artwork to represent each story: a stack of boxes, black oxford shoes on a black and white floor, the view as someone rides a horse.
Mr. Butler worked on the design. “I had this idea of keeping these things separate, as a collection, instead of binding them all together in one unit,” he said.
“We just wanted a beautiful art book where the design and the art would have similar weight to the words in the book,” Mr. Russo said.
He added: “There was simply no way to do that in an e-version.” The book will not be available as an e-book, by choice.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily saying that one is better than the other, it’s just that different media offers different opportunities,” Mr. Butler said. “And so by choosing to go one way or the other for me is very, very exciting.”
Mr. Russo, 62, said he spends a lot of time staring at screens; while he still writes in longhand, he revises and edits on a computer.
“I just find myself getting cranky after awhile, of staring at screens, and I like the physical book a lot,” he said.
And while Mr. Russo said he’s fine with e-books — he often uses his iPad to read books sent by his publisher — he has been a vocal critic of Amazon, the online book vendor. He said online book shopping makes it hard to discover new authors — you might be looking for Peruvian poetry and Fifty Shades of Gray will pop up as a suggestion.
“Not because those two have anything in common, but because everybody is buying Fifty Shades of Gray, he said. “The browsing sends you not to people that you don’t know about and might want to learn about, it sends you to people you already know about. And that’s bad news for young writers who are trying to break in.”
In a bookstore, Mr. Russo said there is not only the opportunity to stumble upon a new read, but also the opportunity for conversation with booksellers. (To complete the family connection, Mr. Russo’s daughter Emily is a bookseller in Brooklyn).
“We’re losing great bookstores every year,” he said. “And the more of those you lose, you’re losing also that great opportunity to discover artists.”
As a result, he said he took no small amount of pleasure in not allowing Amazon to create an e-book of the new collection. “I found that enormously satisfying,” he laughed.
This was not the first collaboration for father and daughter, and it won’t be the last. For Mr. Russo’s novel That Old Cape Magic, Ms. Russo painted broadsides featuring paintings with quotes from the novel to give to independent bookstores who supported his work. One, featuring a seagull standing on an urn (the plot of the novel revolves around the protagonist trying to scatter his parents’ ashes on the Cape) hangs in Bunch of Grapes.
The first partnership came when Ms. Russo was in high school and her father was writing Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Mr. Russo recalled.
“I saw her coming home from school under this enormous backpack, like I have Tick Roby carrying in Empire Falls . . . and she had a look on her face that made it very clear to me that she had had a horrible day, and that whatever it was, I wasn’t going to learn about it,” he said. But Mr. Russo had a conversation starter. “She had a friend named Candace — ”
“I had a classmate named Candace,” his daughter interjected. “I mean this girl was nuts, she was ridiculous, so that’s what the conversation was always about, what stupid thing she did that day.”
After dinner, Mr. Russo “would say to Kate, all right, let’s go in and write some Candace . . . so we’d go in and pick up where we left off the day before, and I would just ask Kate leading questions: what was she wearing today, what did she say, what did this person say back, and we began to develop a little story line for this character in Empire Falls.”
Now the two are on a New England book tour (Mr. Butler, an art director at a school, joins when he can) and “madly reading Shirley Jackson stories and novels,” Mr. Russo said, with an eye toward working on a screenplay based on her work. In the fall, Mr. Russo’s memoir will be published. Mr. Butler and Ms. Russo will both be featured in the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s biennial exhibition.
Mr. and Ms. Russo will be back on the Vineyard in July to speak at the Chilmark Community Center.
They mention four generations coming to the Vineyard — the fourth generation is Emily’s daughter Molly, who accompanies the family on annual trips to the Island.
Mr. and Mrs. Russo come to the Vineyard each September, though Vineyard real estate has been just past their reach — as successful as they’ve been, Mr. Russo said, Vineyard home prices seem to keep up. “It’s just a matter of a kind of yearning, that sense that we all have of . . . we just like to imagine ourselves living in different places, so that’s what it’s always been for us,” he said.
“There’s something that’s home about it for me,” Ms. Russo said. She worked at the Harbor View Hotel for a summer about 10 years ago. “I’m very at home at places where other people go to visit.”
When Emily was married, Mr. Russo recalled, Kate, as the maid of honor, “gave this hilarious talk called Russos for Dummies welcoming Steve into the family, and there were certain things you had to do if you were a Russo.
“And one of them was you had to love Martha’s Vineyard in order to be welcomed. We just couldn’t imagine anybody coming into this family that didn’t like it.
“Or that preferred Nantucket.”