Words on Words: Interventions

8 mins read

This week we are featuring an interview with author Richard Russo and artist Kate Russo. Richard, as even Rip Van Winkle knows at this point, is the Pulitzer prize winning author of Empire Falls and a bevy of other outstanding novels. Last week, Interventions, a slipcased tribute to the book as a work of art was released. Interventions includes an original Russo novella, and three other short works of his, each individually bound and including sublime original art by his daughter Kate. Everything about Interventions is a shout out to lovers of the physical book so one felt the need to shout back a bit and ask a few questions, which this father and daughter team were gracious enough to answer in this Daily Bulldog interview.

Kenny:  Interventions is a tribute to the printed book, which indeed, cannot be too highly praised. A sense of calamitous change due to book technology is not a new concern, of course. For example in 1621 we find Richard Burton complaining that the advent of the printing press threatens to ruin literature.

“What a company of poets hath this year brought out!” as Pliny complains to Sossius Senecio; “this April every day some or other have recited.” What a catalogue of new books all this year, all this age (I say), have our Frankfort marts, our domestic marts brought out! Twice a year, proferunt se nova ingenia et ostentat, we stretch our wits out, and set them to sale, magno conatu nihil agimus [we do nothing with a great expenditure of energy]. So that, which Gesner much desires, if a speedy reformation be not had, by some prince’s edicts and grave supervisors, to restrain this liberty, it will run on in infinitum. Quis tam avidus librorum helluo? [Where can we find such a glutton of books?], who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.”

At this great remove Burton complaint seems quaint and comical, yet he his is describing a very real substantive change from a time when a person of letters was expected to literally read everything published to a more modern sense of book production. Are our own complaints and concerns regarding book digitization more serious than Burton’s feelings about the printing press do you think?

Rick: There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago. Two guys are examining the first book off the first printing press. One says to the other, “Yeah, it’s fine, but as long as people want stories they’re going to read scrolls.” Point being that when you’re in the middle of what looks to be a technological revolution, it’s hard to tell just how important things are. I don’t have problem with e-books, but screens, after a while, make me grumpy, and I do love printed books, especially beautiful ones that marry words and images. That’s the kind of book Kate and I wanted to make. There’s no e-version because the art simply doesn’t translate, nor does the book’s lovely design. One of the big concerns for e-books is convenience, and we didn’t give a damn about that.

Kenny: Are there deep thoughts behind the decision to pluralize the name of your novella, Intervention, to make the name for all the overall set of four volumes Interventions, or is it just a great name?

Rick:No, only very shallow thoughts. When we were deciding which works to include, we began to see a pattern; the pieces we most wanted in the book all seemed to involve obsession in some way. And in each narrative someone intervenes in someone else’s life in a meaningful way. “I wrote ‘Intervention’ specifically for the collection. The plural in the book title just alerts the reader to a common thread. And yeah, it is a good title.

Kenny: All the books are lovely but I particularly like the use of boxes in both the cover and insert art by Kate for Intervention. At first I jumped to the natural conclusion that they were all book boxes, but then thought better of that. Is there any particular significance to the presence of the window, and why the boxes are obscuring it partially. Also, why does the insert lack symmetry when the cover does not?

Kate: I think the contents of the boxes are whatever the reader wants them to be. That’s what’s so great about the use of boxes, the baggage can be anything, emotional or physical, but they always suggest clutter. That said, with this story and this painting we are talking as much about emotional clutter as we are physical clutter. The use of the window in the painting is meant to suggest this emotional baggage. These characters have so much emotional and mental baggage that they can no longer see clearly, hence the window is obscured. The symmetry in the cover is a common theme throughout all the covers. I was inspired by old fashioned paperbacks that play a lot on symmetry. Generally, my artistic practice relies a lot on pattern, so this was a way of combining the representational elements of these stories with my love of pattern.

Kenny: As we think of books as works of physical art, what are some of the most treasured volumes on the Russo shelves?

Rick: I loved my edition of “A Child’s Garden of Verses) so much that I made sure my daughters had the same one. And I refuse to read Dickens unless the editions contain the original Phiz and Cruikshank illustrations.

Kate: I have to say “A Child’s Garden of Verses” is high on my list as well. Five or six years ago they republished a version with the original illustrations, which I love. Also, being an artist, I buy a lot of art books. Art books are wonderful because they allow you to see and compare so much work all at once. I have several books I can’t live without, particularly to do with Paul Klee and Eva Hesse, both great inspirations to me.

Kenny: Thanks so much!

Rick and Kate: It was our pleasure!

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