JOHNSTOWN – Richard Russo was in denial about his inspiration for wanting to be a novelist.
It wasn’t until one of his professors pointed out pages he had written about a small community like Gloversville, where Russo grew up, that Russo realized he had found his voice as a writer.
Russo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Gloversville native, returned to his hometown Wednesday and told hundreds of people at Fulton-Montgomery Community College about his experiences in life and growing up in Gloversville, and how he realized what inspires his writing.
His visit, which included a book signing after he spoke for more than an hour, was part of the college’s 50th anniversary celebration. About 700 people showed up to hear Russo speak in the Raiders Den gymnasium.
Russo grew up on Helwig Street in Gloversville. He has written novels that draw from his experiences in his hometown.
In one of his latest works, “Elsewhere, A Memoir” Russo tries to untangle his troubled relationships with his hometown and his late mother.
In “Elsewhere,” he compares his anxiety about coming back to his hometown with something akin to a neurotic compulsion.
When he took the stage Wednesday and began reading an essay titled “The Destiny Thief,” which was a number of short stories combined into a theme of self-discovery, he showed no anxiety.
Through this essay, Russo explained how he developed as a writer and recounted his time in Gloversville.
He said when he was at college in Arizona, he tried to conceal who he was and where he came from, but after making several attempts to write a novel, a professor pointed out to Russo the back story in one of his attempts, where he referred to a place resembling Gloversville, was the silver lining in his story.
“It wasn’t exactly good, those 40 pages, but it was mine,” Russo said. “Discovering who I was as a writer might be the final piece of the puzzle but also sent me back to the beginning.”
In his first novel “Mohawk,” Russo wrote about a small town like Gloversville where people have fallen on hard times.
Russo later won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel “Empire Falls,” which follows the story of Miles Roby in a fictional, small blue-collar town.
Before Wednesday, Russo hadn’t been in Fulton County in several years, though he has made appearances in the Capital Region, including last year at Union College in Schenectady.
His cousin Greg Gottung, a local resident who attended Russo’s speech Wednesday, said when he was with Russo earlier this week walking around the city, Russo remarked much has changed since he last saw the place that inspired many of his stories.
“I’ve always loved Gloversville and I don’t agree with everything he has said either, but he is fine with that,” Gottung said. “It’s a tough place to make a living, but you have to go with the flow. Even when the glove shops were going, the people working in the glove shops weren’t exactly prosperous.”
Although this was Russo’s first public reading in the Glove Cities, Gottung said he has made unpublicized trips to the area previously, often visiting friends and family. Russo now lives in Portland, Maine.
Wednesday’s event included a question-and-answer period, a book-signing session and a raffle to win an autographed copy of each of Russo’s books.
During the question-and-answer session, Russo said he never would sell the rights to his novel “Elsewhere” to become a movie because it was a private and intimate story about him and his mother that he almost didn’t publish.
He also paid respect to the Gloversville Public Library, which he said inspired him to become the writer he is today. He said the library’s books were a “treasure trove” to his young, influential mind where a reader could progress at his or her own speed.
“Public libraries are what allow people like me to do what I do,” Russo said. “You should fund your libraries because there is a Pulitzer Prize winner there right now.”
Lesley Lanzi, executive director of the Foundation of FMCC, said this morning she believes Russo plans to donate his speakers fee from Wednesday’s event to the Gloversville Public Library.
Library officials said they have heard a donation may be coming, but no further information about it was available this morning.
Former Gloversville City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis, who attended the event Wednesday, said he previously encouraged Russo to adopt a more optimistic outlook about Gloversville, but after hearing Russo speak Wednesday, DeSantis said he has a better understanding of the author.
DeSantis said Russo’s speech shed light on Russo’s voice as a writer and the role Gloversville served in the author’s literary efforts.
“It was great to hear the struggles he had with developing his own voice and going through the process of finding his real self just for it to be the one he was trying to get away from,” DeSantis said. “After hearing him today, you really understand where all of that came from.”
“I am the boy who stayed and the boy who left, but in a way, I never left by telling these stories,” Russo told the audience.