Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Russell Banks: Unabashed Honesty and The Writing Life

BY KELLY RAMSEY AND ASHLEIGH PEDERSEN

An anecdote and interview by Kelly Ramsey and Ashleigh Pedersen

A prolific writer of fiction, Russell Banks’s titles include The Darling, The Sweet Hereafter, Cloudsplitter, Rule of the Bone, Affliction, Success Stories, Continental Drift, Searching for Survivors, Trailerpark, The Book of Jamaica, The New World, and Hamilton Stark. The Angel on the Roof is a collection of thirty years of Banks’ short fiction. His latest novel, The Reserve, was published in early 2008; it is set in the Adirondacks in 1936-37, at the height of the Great Depression. Also in 2008, Seven Stories Press published Dreaming Up America, an American edition of his nonfiction book of essays, which was previously published in France under the title Amerique Notre Histoire--his meditation on American history.

Banks recently visited Pittsburgh to give a reading and participate in a series of Q&A sessions. In the first of these, he was asked where he got the idea for his well-known short story, “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.” Banks launched into a lively retelling of the anecdote that prompted him to create the character Sarah Cole.

“On its bottom level,” Banks said of the story, “it’s kind of a reversal of the frog prince story.” But instead of the beautiful girl kissing the frog and turning him into a prince it’s a beautiful man kissing the frog and the frog turning into a beautiful woman.

Banks said that he was living and teaching at a college in New Hampshire at the time. “I was coming home on a blizzardy snowy night and I stopped off at a little pub on the way home to have a beer and there was a woman sitting next to me, and I got talking to her and she was—well, she wasn’t ugly. But she was very homely.”

She had complexion problems. She was a tough, sad, hardworking person. “And we got to yakking away,” Banks said. “And she got talking to me about her ex-husband and her job, and her job was packing Readers’ Digests at a printing plant in Concord, New Hampshire.” Banks thought this was pretty far down the line of jobs in America, and perceived that she had a life and kids and an ex-husband that she didn’t like. They had a few beers and talked more and, Banks said, he felt bad for her.

Then she left and walked out into the parking lot; it was snowing. “And she walked over to her car which was an old beater, a ten-year-old rusted out Oldsmobile or something, just a beat up old car. And she got to her car and she was trying to have a certain dignity about herself—she just had a nice conversation with a good-looking man.” Banks laughed at his own pretended vanity. “So she was walking out trying to keep her pride” and she got to her car and there was a dent in the driver’s side door. She looked at it but she “kind of faked that she didn’t see it was going to just open the door and drive away.” But the woman couldn’t open the door because it was crimped shut. “And she just tugged and tugged on it, and I could just see her shoulders coming down, and see what was happening to her. And she had to walk around the car, and get in the other side, and slide across the big wide seat, and that’s where the story came from. I thought, ‘Jesus fucking christ!’ What a sad moment.”

The next day we were able to sit down with Russell Banks to talk more about his two new books, the contemporary poetry he reads, and the importance of a mentor to his development as a writer.

Hot Metal Bridge: You mentioned [in the Q&A] that The Sweet Hereafter was “not meant to be taken as a slice of life or dead-on realism.” This surprised me, because I read it as if it were realism; now I feel like I should read it again. The question of realism and the extent of its prevalence in contemporary literature is one we seem to return to in our conversations here. The question of what’s modern, postmodern, surreal, magical realist, satirical, absurdist, etc etc ad infinitum. I’m curious: where do you see yourself on this spectrum of the real and the not-real? Do you ever consciously undertake a project in an attempt to break with realism?

Russell Banks: Oh yes, I have, and I’ve written several books that you couldn’t call realistic in any sense. They’re small books—one was called The Relation of My Imprisonment and the other was called Family Life—they’re novella-length pieces. And I’ve written a number of short stories that don’t fit by any means the conventions of realism: highly artificial, highly formalized and linguistically contrived, in a way. So I don’t really place myself, certainly not permanently, in any position with regard to realism. To me realism is one of many conventions of narrative, conventions of storytelling, that are available to me, and I can pick and choose as I wish.

You know not too many writers do that. I’ll tell you one writer who does is Joyce Carol Oates, for instance. The bulk of her work is a kind of heightened realism, expressive realism is a way of saying it. It’s very personalized, I mean you can tell a Joyce Carol Oates sentence pretty fast, and there’s a tone to it, and a voice you can tell pretty fast, but she also ranges far and wide, from conventions of Gothic fiction to conventions of science fiction. There’s a book she recently published of four of five long, almost novella-length stories [Wild Nights!] but they’re a really interesting mix, I urge you to read them, because each one of them is about the last days of a famous writer. There’s Mark Twain, Henry James, Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Allan Poe – there’s six of them. And two of them in particular, the Edgar Allan Poe and the Emily Dickinson, are almost science fiction-y, really from another plane entirely, another set of conventions. And I think she (as I do) feels comfortable saying, “Okay, there are all these tools in my kit, and I can use any one of them that I want in order to tell the kind of story that I want or the kind of story that needs telling.” And you tell a different story depending upon which tools you use.

So I feel the same ease with plunging in. Like from the novel I was reading last night [The Reserve], which is kind of a noir novel even though it’s set in the wilderness, there are the conventions of noir fiction which I borrowed for that purpose, for that particular story, because it suited the material that I was working with. So I try to avoid getting stuck in any one place and married to it, as it were, you know, “That’s who I am, and that’s my work.” I just feel easier about moving this way or that way depending on the story I want to tell.

HMB: So what do you think informs that decision to sort of take that leap from more strictly realist fiction to some other set of conventions?

RB: It’s hard to say that it’s all that deliberate and conscious. I think that the more intellectual and abstract the material is, maybe the more culturally bound it is, or literary or thematic, the more likely I am to rely on a kind of high formalism. But you know that isn’t always true. But that is I think more often than not the case. The other thing too is that as I said last night, behind every novel and I think behind short stories as well is a kind of a ghost that’s the ghost of another book or the ghost of another writer or of another story, lurking back there, that you’re sometimes quite conscious of and sometimes only partially or barely conscious of. And that speaks through the material, too. If I’m working through some material and in an odd way it keeps reminding me of a Henry James novel or something like that, then James’s voice is going to creep into my ear in some way and I’m going to start to look at that material aslant, more or less from his point of view, even if I’m going to argue with it or differ with it—I’m still dealing with it in some way or other. So I think that’s often just accidental, what happens to have registered on me. You know how when you’ve been reading something really intensely for a couple of days—I don’t know if this happens to you or not, but it happens to me, that my dreams will have some of the language and voice of what it is I’ve been reading; it’ll penetrate my unconscious. So I think that happens a lot to us.

HMB: In writing Dreaming Up America you’ve entered a new genre (nonfiction), but you’ve often mentioned that you began as a visual artist, then as a poet. I’m curious: how do other genres and mediums of artistic production affect your work as a fiction writer? Do you find yourself reading nonfiction or poetry in order to write fiction, or being inspired by a film or a painting or an article?

RB: Well I think whatever you read of course affects your fiction, because it affects your mind and your sensibility, and even your body in some ways and your senses. So it would be the case that yes, nonfiction would, but I can’t say how or why at this point. I know that certainly reading poetry and writing poetry has had an impact on my fiction because it’s made it second nature for me to pay attention to the sound of words and their arrangement in a sentence or on a page and their relation to each other in a way that reading ordinary fiction doesn’t encourage. Whereas poetry, once you internalize it, changes how you view language—you tend to see individual words more as objects, rather than beads on a string or things that just carry information. You’re more conscious of the music of the language, and the individual notes of the words start to become a part of your work. So I know that reading and writing poetry has affected my fiction.

And I think film writing, too. I’ve done about six or seven screenplays and I’ve worked closely in the making of a couple of films, and I’ve become a serious student of film over the last decade. I look at film differently than I used to when I was just a passive consumer, just as once you start painting you look at pictures differently, or once you play a musical instrument for very long you listen to music differently. So I look at films and think about them much more than I used to, much more analytically, and I know that that’s had some effect on my fiction writing. I can see it; it’s not conscious and it’s not programmatic, but I know that the speed of film and the economy of film writing have probably made me less patient with the kind of garrulousness of fiction. I think I’ve become a more efficient fiction writer. You know there’s a piece of advice that Elmore Leonard gives to writers, which is, “Leave out the parts that people skip.” I know—it’s easy to say, right? [Laughs.] Well, in a way when you’re writing a film you have to leave out the parts that people aren’t interested in, that are boring, that they don’t need in order to follow the story, don’t need to understand the character and so forth. And I think that I’m more aware of that than I used to be, and I think it’s a positive thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing: I can get in and get out faster than I used to. I feel the need—let’s put it this way—I feel the need to get in and get out faster. We’ll see in the long run whether that’s a good thing, but at the moment it feels like it is. It feels like a virtue.

HMB: As sort of a follow-up to that last question, and out of curiosity: Do you read a lot of contemporary poets? Whose work do you like?

RB: Oh, a lot! I read a lot of poets; there are a lot of poets that I really like. Just to name a few contemporary younger poets, I like Bruce Weigl, a poet over in Ohio—his work I love. And Campbell McGrath, another young poet. And then there’s a whole lot of poets of my generation that I kind of grew up with that I love: Charles Simic is one, and Robert Hass and Louise Glück. There’s a whole range of poets that I think are brilliant and wonderful American poets and whose work I read regularly and track.

HMB: You mentioned [in the later Q&A] that you have “nothing against” the MFA program because it “packages” those elements you deem essential to the writer’s life (peers, a mentor, and freedom from the economy). We spend, however, a lot of time in such programs in workshops where we receive extensive written feedback on each story before revising. I’m wondering whether, as an autodidact of sorts, you had any friends or colleagues early on who read and commented on you work. Did you, in other words, ever enter into anything that resembled a workshop?

RB: Yeah, not in as organized and sustained a way as you do in an MFA program, but in an informal way. I think that’s one of the reasons writers traditionally or historically gathered into particular areas like Greenwich Village or San Francisco, or Key West, or Boston and Cambridge, or Chicago. They gathered together so that they could find other young writers who were able to read their work with sympathy and understanding but also with standards, writers who could make demands that were realistic and helpful. And I sort of had that; I had it in Boston, I had it in New York as a really young guy, and you seek each other out, you know, you find them, in bars and coffee houses instead of in classrooms (this is in that period). And so I had a couple of young writers who I thought were more accomplished, skilled and better read than I and they were helpful to me.

And also mentors: I managed to find a mentor when I was young. I was in my very early twenties and got attached to the novelist Nelson Algren, the Chicago novelist. He was a very important figure for me, and not just in the sense of having gone through my manuscript and penciled it or anything—he never did any of that—but he did do a couple of things that were very important to me. What he did do was he read a novel manuscript that I had written, and he just went through (and it was the first time that anybody with real authority, from my point of view, did anything like this) and he said, “This is a really good paragraph.” Then he’d leaf through forty pages and say, “Now this is a really good paragraph.” [Laughs.] And then go through forty more and say, “This is another good one, here.” And so I think he said, “Kid, you really do have it. You’re good. But you’re not good very consistently. But you can do good…and so, all you’ve gotta do now is just write a whole book like that.” But it was like a laying on of hands, just saying, “You’ve got it,” and for someone to whom you’ve given that kind of authority, to do that for you, it’s very liberating and validating.

And it happened to me quite by accident. It happened to me actually because I went to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference when I was living in New Hampshire and working as a plumber and I saw that Nelson Algren was going to be on the faculty at that summer writers’ workshop. I didn’t know what a summer writer’s workshop was or anything, and so I took off and went up to Vermont—I sent them a manuscript and they gave me a little fellowship—and I went over to Vermont from New Hampshire and Algren was there and that’s what he did—that was our meeting. And that one little meeting kind of gave me that experience of validation.

And he became a friend, and the second part I wanted to get to that he gave me as a mentor was really how to be in the world as a writer. Like most young beginning writers, I was inventing a personality for myself, a public life; I didn’t know what a writer looked like, walked like, talked like, how a writer thought, how a writer listened, how a writer read, how a writer related to the larger world—never mind how a writer related to the literary world. I had no clue. And I just copied him, for a long time, because I admired him. He was a man of principle and great character, he was kind of an outlaw in his own way, a stubborn and soulful man, and so I thought, “Okay, when I grow up, I’d like to be like him.” And for years afterwards—we stayed friendly until he died, in my thirties—and for years I would just say to myself, very typically, instead of “What would Jesus do?” I’d say, “What would Nelson do?” If faced with this quandary or this problem or this rejection or whatever, you know, what would Nelson do? So it was a way for me to grow up as a writer and grow into adulthood as a writer. I think your mentor can provide a model like that, and also the validation—it [such a mentor] doesn’t necessarily provide the critical editing, that’s another kind of process and you do get that in a workshop. But if you don’t get the first two in a workshop, then it’s not a very useful mentor.

HMB: When you talk about “growing up” as a writer, what was it that Algren pointed out to you that enabled you to do that?

RB: Well I think that one thing was that unabashed and unashamed honesty, just in every aspect of my life that was available to me, was important. You couldn’t just separate your life from your work, in the way that if you’re a dentist or even a lawyer you can in some ways, that they were of a piece. There was not a compartment for your work and a compartment for your life; they dovetailed together and you couldn’t separate them. That was very important. Another thing, too, that I think was very important for me was to separate, on the other hand, to make sure that you separated your career from your work, because the work was the only thing you could control. It was the only thing that mattered and your career you basically couldn’t control; it was out of your hands, it was in the hands of the fates, of luck, of whatever—other people. And as soon as you confuse the two, your work and your career, you usually screw up both, your career and your work. So just worry about your work, don’t worry about the agent or publisher or getting ahead of the next guy. It’s not a competitive game. The work is the one thing you can control, and you must control, because nobody else can. So that was very important. And with Algren he had an outspoken and consistent affection for the underdog, for the marginalized, for the invisible people of the planet, and (particularly in his case) mostly Chicago, that was his world and his planet. And that’s something I think I have carried with me since then. I didn’t really get that on my own, you know, I didn’t see that that would be anything to do with writing, with the writing life.