Ask Richard Russo about the state of modern writing, and he has no doubts about the current balance of power. Novels: good. Movies: bad. But, Russo adds, television is where it's at. 'It really is a golden age of television drama,' he says when we meet in London. 'Programmes like The Wire, Mad Men and The Sopranos are some of the best work that has ever been done. We are so privileged to be watching these great series.' If anyone is qualified to comment on the relative merits of all three art forms, that person is 61-year-old Russo. The author of seven novels that cast an amused but compassionate eye across life in small-town America, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls. No one was more surprised by this triumph than Russo himself, who had grown accustomed to metropolitan critics patronising his rambling shaggy dog stories about semi-rural life. For Russo, the bias says less about his subject and more about his humorous tone. 'If there's a prejudice in critical circles, it's about writers with comic visions. They are so entertaining, they can't possibly be important.' Russo may work on the smallest of canvases, but he says they provide the perfect context for grand narratives such as love, work, community, history and class. 'I want to explore how people with a lot of money interact with people with no money. That's the great things about small towns. There are barriers, but the barriers are circumvented on the street, in the school or coffee shop.' In recent years, Russo has supplemented his fiction by working extensively as a screenwriter for screens both great and small. He collaborates regularly with Robert Benton, Oscar-winning director of Kramer vs Kramer, who turned Russo's comic masterpiece Nobody's Fool into a movie starring Paul Newman. Newman also starred in Empire Falls, which Russo himself adapted for an Emmy-nominated HBO series. This lucrative new string on his professional bow enabled Russo to give up his day job as an academic. Having just completed two years of what he describes as 'cultural jury duty', Russo says he is optimistic about the state of the contemporary American novel: he was a judge for the Hemingway Award (for the best first work of fiction), and also edited the 2010 anthology of The Best American Short Stories. 'There was some breathtaking work. There are some young writers like Hannah Tinti, Michael Dahlie, Ed Park and Joshua Ferris who are amazing. They all have a love of language and the desire to get to the core of the way we behave.' By contrast, Russo is considerably less sanguine about Hollywood. 'It's just so dispiriting,' he says. 'Character-driven movies are simply not being made anymore, despite the fact that they are so incredibly inexpensive. Nobody's Fool cost US$20 million in 1994. Nobody would spend that today - if they would make the film at all. Hollywood likes comic book movies and broad comedies. Anything else is a labour of love.' Russo adds that many talented writer-directors such as Robert Benton and Fred Schepisi are finding it harder to get projects made. 'Everyone interested in writing for film is gravitating towards television. You get lower pay days, but you are happy to be there.' Perhaps this explains why Russo has struck out in a new direction. In addition to writing a sequel to Nobody's Fool and a script about the 'gas rush' in the Catskill Mountains, he has begun a memoir about Gloversville, his birthplace in upstate New York. The first part - High and Dry - has been published in Granta literary magazine. Autobiography is virgin literary territory for Russo. But it's also an obvious step for a writer who has mined his own life so thoroughly in his art. 'I have written about Gloversville as Mohawk, North Bath, Thomaston and Empire Falls. But suddenly it just seemed important not only to be metaphorically true in the way novels are, but actually to call it by its own name.' Situated in the heart of America's leather-making belt, Gloversville was famous for making a variety of products until the mid-20th century. Its fame lured Russo's paternal grandfather from Italy to try his hand at making shoes. Russo's maternal grandfather was already working as a glove-cutter. 'He gave me my first lessons as a writer,' Russo recalls. 'He would talk about cutting skins and negotiating flaws to make something beautiful. The most important lesson any artist can learn is that the world is imperfect and that it will not co-operate.' Russo's grandparents reached their prime just in time to witness the beginning of Gloversville's end, hastened by changes in fashion, mass production and outsourcing abroad. Whereas Russo's fiction surveys the results of this decline with humour and pathos, the essay is frequently incensed. Many members of his family worked in the poisonous atmosphere of the local tanneries and skin mills. His beloved maternal grandfather developed the emphysema that would eventually kill him, while his cousins bear the scars of working with toxic chemicals to this day. Russo is quick to point out that he escaped the mills that debilitated his grandparents and cousins. Instead, the challenges of his formative years were closer to home: the early separation of his parents, his mother's ambivalent relationship with Gloversville, his father's extended absences. 'It's really hard to shut our parents up, especially after they die,' he says, laughing. 'I had some rough years after their separation. Whenever they saw each other they immediately fell into fight mode. I thought it must have been my fault.' Russo's father drifts through his fiction as a likeable, infuriating and thoroughly unreliable rogue: most memorably as Sully in Nobody's Fool, the part played with raffish charm by Paul Newman. In High and Dry, however, it is his mother who takes centre stage - not least as the driving force behind her son's love of literature. 'My mother was always working so hard, saving so hard. At the end of a 10-hour day, she always took out a book and read until midnight. That was her greatest gift - teaching me that reading was a primary reward in life.' Russo's mother also encouraged him to 'flee' Gloversville and go to college - as far away as possible. Indeed, she tagged along for the ride and like her son, never really went back. In another sense, Russo returns home every time he begins a new book. This perpetual motion of contradiction - of escape and return - remains powerfully alive in him today. There are, he explains, two Richard Russos: an internationally acclaimed writer and a 20-year-old version of himself who never wrote a word, much less a novel. 'There is another Richard Russo sitting on a bar stool in Gloversville. Someone very different. Someone angrier and certainly not a writer. I doubt we would like each other very much.' These days, Russo rarely returns to Gloversville in person. When he does, he is greeted positively - at least for the most part. 'My family tell me that I am treated like a favoured son. Some people are deeply resentful about the warts-and-all nature of the stories.' I ask whether Russo worries about exploiting his hometown for his own creative (and financial) ends. 'Yes,' he replies after a moment's thought. 'Always. There is the possibility of disloyalty. I am haunted by the lives of loved ones that I have used - by my father and my grandparents. They have all turned up many times as characters I have elaborated and told lies about.' He pauses. 'Perhaps the strangest possibility is that you are haunting yourself.'