Richard Russo was born in Johnstown, New York, and grew up in the upstate New York town of Gloversville. His father left the family when Russo was still a boy, and troubled relationships between fathers and sons haunt many of his novels. Gloversville was named, in part, because of the glove-making and leather-tanning factories that provided most of the work for residents (and polluted the nearby waterways). Many of Russo’s novels are set in the fictional town of Mohawk, which also has an economy based on tanneries. The economics and working lives that Russo saw as a boy, coupled with his work in construction and road crews in high school and college summers, would particularly inform the blue-collar aesthetic of much of his fiction.
Russo attended the University of Arizona, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971 and eventually a Ph.D. in literature in 1980. He realized while working on his dissertation that writing fiction appealed to him more than did literary criticism and academic writing, and he stayed on to earn a master of fine arts degree in 1981. Five years later, he published his first novel, Mohawk.
Russo has taught creative writing at various universities, including Southern Illinois University (Carbondale, Illinois), Colby College (Waterville, Maine), and the low-residency M.F.A. program for writers at Warren Wilson College (Ashville, North Carolina). Following the success of Nobody’s Fool and its 1994 film adaptation, Russo was able to write full time. Additionally, he and Benton formed a friendship and a writing partnership during Benton’s adaptation of Nobody’s Fool; together they have collaborated on screenplays for such films as Twilight and The Ice Harvest.