What: Richard Russo headlines Author! Author!

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Riverhouse on the Deschutes Convention Center, 2850 NW Rippling River Court, Bend

Cost: $30 general admission or $80 preferred seating (includes a private author reception)

What: Private literary Q&A with Richard Russo

When: 1 to 2 p.m. Thursday

Where: East Bend Public Library, 62080 Dean Swift Road

Cost: $35

Contact: dplfoundation.org or 541-312-1027

Portland, Maine-based teacher, novelist and screenwriter Richard Russo is renowned for witty writing that sometimes veers into outright hilarity. But the humor serves a higher purpose: It underscores his empathetic and often tragic explorations of the social fabric of small, working-class towns in America.

Since 1986, Russo has published eight novels, a memoir and several collections of essays and short stories. He is best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 novel “Empire Falls,” along with two of his earlier novels, “Nobody’s Fool” and “Straight Man.” He has also written or adapted eight screenplays for film and TV, including the 1998 detective film “Twilight,” which starred Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and Reese Witherspoon.

Russo will discuss his writing at the final 2018-19 Author! Author! presentation Thursday evening in Bend.

He will also lead a literary session that afternoon and answer attendees’ questions about the writing, editing and publishing process. Both events benefit Deschutes Public Library.

Despite Russo’s acknowledgment that humor comes fairly naturally to him, the author’s earliest writing efforts took a far different approach. He spent several formative years trying to emulate the hard-boiled writing style of detective novelists such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

But it wasn’t until a writing professor told him that the only part of his manuscript that really came alive was the back story in an upstate New York mill town that he eventually reassessed his approach.

“That kind of infuriated me, but he was right, of course,” Russo said. “Once I got over the disappointment of discovering who I was and what my subject matter was going to be, that was when everything fell into place. That’s when the magic happens — when you get over yourself.”

The other silver lining in that process of self-discovery was uncovering his comedic voice, which Russo then gave free rein to take him to interesting places.

“When I was learning to be a writer, I was trying to be really serious,” Russo said. “At the time I was confusing seriousness with humorlessness. But somewhere along the way, I realized you could combine funniness with seriousness, and I discovered I was a comic writer.”

Much of Russo’s writing is semi-autobiographical and modeled on the people, places and attitudes he witnessed growing up in the faltering New York town of Gloversville, around 200 miles north of New York City. The idea of setting his stories in big cities has never been a comfortable fit.

“My principal fear is of having a kind of tourist knowledge of the place I’m writing about,” Russo said. If I went out and lived in L.A. for two or three years, I suspect that I would know it better and begin to know my way around and recognize neighborhoods, but I’m not sure I would ever understand it the way I would need to. I would be looking at it from the eyes of the outsider and that’s not want I want to do. I want to hold that insider knowledge.”

At 69 years old, Russo is pondering the trajectory of his own life. In his 2012 memoir “Elsewhere,” he examined the loving but fraught relationship he shared with his mother, Jean. And now both he and several of the characters in his recent work find themselves wondering, “How did I get here?”

“If this was one of a hundred lives I got to live, I can just imagine the other 99 would have been completely different,” Russo mused. “I might not have even been a writer. I might have been a drunk or a jerk or both. Those two are not mutually exclusive categories.”

Though Russo was joking, as usual there was a sense of underlying truth to his humor. He reminisced about coming home from college in Arizona to Gloversville during summer vacations and working at a nearby mill with his father. At the start of the summer, he was struck by the stark social and economic differences between these two worlds. But these distinctions and his ambitions became more hazy as time progressed.

“I remember on the way home from the mill — which was about an hour away — we would stop at one tavern after another,” Russo said. “By the middle of August I would think, ‘This life ain’t so bad,’ and wonder why I was doing this other college thing.”

In the alternate life Russo sometimes pictures for himself, he might have stayed in Gloversville working at the mill and not returned to college. Today there would be a bar in town where he has a dedicated chair and a mug with his name on it hanging from the ceiling.

But Russo’s philosophical musings aren’t all maudlin. In the essay “Getting Good,” from his 2018 collection “The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life,” Russo expresses cautious optimism about the future for writers and the work they will produce, despite the current upheaval and turmoil in the publishing industry.

“Two things give me hope,” he said when discussing that essay. “Our hunger for storytelling hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re looking for meaning and myth and an explanation of why our exploration of life is what it is.”

The other reason he feels positive about the future involves his work as the vice president of the Author’s Guild. For close to a decade, he has tracked industry statistics, judged contests and assisted emerging writers.

“I know for a fact that the torrent of content from young and emerging writers now is more than it’s ever been,” Russo said. “We just have to somehow keep them from starving and despairing as the traditional publishing industry contracts, but the talent and the drive is there. Sometimes, what we do has more in common with a religious vocation than maybe anything else.”

Russo continues to create new work of his own. His next novel, “Chances Are,” will be released July 30.

“It’s the story of two long weekends — one in 1971 and another in 2015,” Russo said. “Same characters both times, three young men, then again in their sixties. And the girl all three were in love with.”

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