May 1: “The Whore’s Child” by Richard Russo

For today’s Story366—officially starting the middle third of the project—I’m writing about the title story in Richard Russo’s collection The Whore’s Child. First, let me go into my connection to Russo, which is minimal, but will always be a part of my mindset when I think of him, when I read his work.

As most of you know, I was an editor/the editor at Mid-American Review for eighteen years. Magazines like The Kenyon Review and The Southern Review, which have been around for like a hundred years, can boast that they published such luminaries as Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, all the Bronte sisters (even lesser-known Brittany), Shakespeare, Candide, and Paul (the epistle). As an editor, I always envied those opportunities, to hold unread/unpublished work by some of the greatest people to ever crack a lexicon in my hands and have the opportunity to engage in it before (mostly) anyone else. What a thrill.

I had my chance a few times at MAR, publishing stories by writers like Aimee Bender, Dan Chaon, and David Foster Wallace, plus not-quite-yet Steve Almond, not-quite-yet Roxane Gay, and not-yet … you get the idea.

The gem of the MAR stable, though, has always been Richard Russo. In its first issue in 1981, MAR published a story by the burgeoning scribe, his second-ever publication, which is cool, surely. I know, you’re thinking: But that was his second publication. Wouldn’t the real glory go to the mag who published him first (which I can’t name)? And you’d be right to ask it. How MAR claims Russo as part of its great lore is that Russo’s agent, Nat Sobel (yeah, the guy who emails you if you publish in lit mags and offers to rep your book—he’s been doing that for forty years), saw that copy of MAR, contacted Russo, took him on, and to this day, remains his representative. So, MAR wasn’t first, but that story helped him score his agent, a book deal, his career, etc. Because he’s brilliant, he would have been discovered (probably by Sobel) pretty soon, anyway. Still, MAR will take it. It’s like he shook our hand once and we’ve been refusing to wash it every since.

I was Co-Editor (with Karen) of MAR’s 25th Anniversary Issue back in 2005 and we contacted Sobel–who remembered reading that first issue of MAR—and asked him to hook us up with an interview with Russo. Russo agreed, so Karen read all of his books, and while she was out East, drove up to Maine, talked with Russo for a couple of hours in his study, and we had a nice centerpiece for our landmark issue.

So whenever I think of Russo, I don’t first think of his Pulitzer winner Empire Falls, Straight Man, Nobody’s Fool, or any of his other books (or film adaptations of them). I think of him having that tie to MAR. And how I/we keep exploiting it.

I’ve read those three Russo novels I just mentioned, plus “The Top of the Tree,” that story in MAR, and today I ventured into the first thing of I’ve read by him in ten years, The Whore’s Child, out from Vintage. And since I like doing it, I’ve picked “The Whore’s Child” to write about today.

“The Whore’s Child” is about two things I know a lot about: whores and children. Actually, no, that’s a joke. But it is about two things I know a lot about, fiction writing workshops and nuns. (Not a joke this time.)  The protagonist of the “The Whore’s Child” is a fiction writing professor and the first day of his fall advanced workshop, an elderly Belgian nun is sitting in the classroom. This nun, Sister Ursula, isn’t on the roster, doesn’t have the prereqs, and probably isn’t registered as a student at this guy’s college. She does live, with five even older and Belgianier nuns, in a nun retirement home up the street from the writer, so that’s probably, he thinks, how she found out about his class. Or maybe it’s that his last book was a big hit and lots of community people have been registering for his classes. We don’t find out ever. We only know that she’s in the class illegally, but he lets her stay. He just can’t tell her no.

Like all good first-time creative writing workshoppers, Sister Ursula writes a story about herself and makes it as ugly, depressing, and violent as she can. She turns it in four installments (good for this guy, I noted, for making advanced students write four stories instead of just three), and each is a piece of her biography. The first chronicles her dump-off at the Belgian convent, her dad broke and desperate and her mother a prostitute. Seems like an open-and-shut case at that point, as that’s it: That’s the story of how she became a nun. Nope. It gets worse, worse because the dad, when dropping her off, promises to come back soon and get her, as soon as he finds a job. Damn him! He gave her hope.

So, that hope carries little Ursula (the nun isn’t veiling that it’s her in these stories … get it?! Veiling?!) through all the abuse that the other nuns and pre-nuns give her, all on account of her mother being a prostitute. They don’t even supply her with shoes that fit, which cripples her little feet. From my experience growing up Catholic and knowing a lot of nuns, that pretty much sounds like earlier twentieth-century Catholic church behavior, treating these poor women like garbage. Even as I write this, all the old nuns I had in grade school seemed to have limped or scurried or had a hook for a hand, something that made them all the more terrifying to kids like me and little Sister Ursula.

Anyway, with each submission, we get more of Sister Ursula’s story, more of how Ursula shuts herself out from everyone in the convent, more how her dad doesn’t score that job with the waffle company (it’s Belgium, remember, and I don’t know what other industry they have) that allowed him to retrieve his daughter from the clutches of the witches he’d left her with all those years ago. At the same time, though, Sister Ursula the elderly workshopper gets something she maybe didn’t plan on: feedback. The young students in her class give advice, have questions. They have requests. One suggestion: Actually have the dad come back and get her, give her story a happy ending.

Sister Ursula, of course, can’t and won’t do this. You know, because it’s her and her dad didn’t come back. Earlier, I noted how Sister Ursula doesn’t hide (… veil) the fact that she’s writing about herself, and the writer/professor/protagonist is fully aware of this. But the other people in the workshop? They don’t seem to be getting it at all. Or they’re ignoring the fact. This makes things get dicey in workshop, in Sister Ursula’s life, becomes the main conflict of the story. Clearly, Sister Ursula took this class to tell her story, to someone, to anyone. She was never ready to modify, to edit, to revise. It’s a clever take on identity, on truth, and on artistry by Russo. I really like this story. A lot.

I’ll probably always think of Richard Russo in a certain way, but the longer I’m away from Mid-American Review and the more of his work I read (Everybody’s Fool out in just two days!), maybe that will die down. He’s a great writer and it’s dumb that I think of him as connection, an anecdote. From now on, I’ll picture him in a habit. There. That’s better.

Richard Russo

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