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The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life

Review

The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life

In recent years, I have attended the Tucson Festival of Books, a glorious weekend of authors, books and readers held during the second weekend in March on the campus of the University of Arizona. It was at this event that I had my first opportunity to hear Richard Russo, whose books I had enjoyed reading, as he offered his thoughts on writing.

Russo attended the University of Arizona from 1967 to 1979, earning a Bachelor’s degree, a Master of Fine Arts and a PhD. His teaching career took him to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, where his first novel, MOHAWK, was published in 1986. In 2002, EMPIRE FALLS, his fifth book, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. By the time of his appearance in Tucson, Russo was the proud graduate of a respected writing program, returning home to share his views on the art of writing. His sessions were packed with fans of his work, and these one-hour gatherings went by quickly.

"The strongest portions of THE DESTINY THIEF are Russo’s biographical interludes where he personally recounts details of his life as a teacher and writer."

THE DESTINY THIEF is an expansion of Russo’s sessions in Tucson, an opportunity for him to share with his loyal readers thoughts on writing and life. Russo has enjoyed great success as a writer, but reading his essays here, one gets the impression that he is surprised he has risen to the rank of award-winning novelist. He begins his title essay with an observation from the late James Salter: “As a writer, you aren’t anybody until you become somebody.” “The Destiny Thief” focuses on Russo’s career and his continuing astonishment at the success he has enjoyed. His reflections on his life and the travails of writing offer great insight to his readers. Several of his novels apparently use events from his life growing up in upstate New York. After years of failure, Russo decided to complete MOHAWK in one final attempt to publish a novel. In explicit terms, he describes the effort as his exit strategy. If the book was not published, he would resign himself to a teaching career. Russo did not fail; indeed, he became an acclaimed author.

My favorite piece here is the one non-original contribution. In May 2004, Russo spoke to the graduates of Colby College where his daughter was a member of the class. Having attended many commencement speeches, few of which I can even recall, Russo’s remarks are quite enjoyable. Sending children off to college, he observes, is like putting them in the witness protection program: “If the person who comes out is easily recognizable as the one who went in, something has gone terribly wrong.” The speech concludes with four rules for a good life. No spoilers here; you can enjoy them while reading his remarks.

Other contributions are a mixed bag, ranging from literary criticism of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain to thoughtful discussions of the writing craft itself. Russo’s observations on the impact of technology on the writing craft might remind readers of the many occasions in their lives when they've longed for the way things were in a less frantic society.

The strongest portions of THE DESTINY THIEF are Russo’s biographical interludes where he personally recounts details of his life as a teacher and writer. In addition, he includes some stories of his literary friendships. Those who have enjoyed Russo’s novels will find this peek behind the curtain to be a remarkable and insightful exploration into the mind of a wonderful writer.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 11, 2018

The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life
by Richard Russo

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2018
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1524733512
  • ISBN-13: 9781524733513