Writer Russell Banks was born into a working-class family in Newton, Massachusetts and grew up in New Hampshire. The first in his family to attend college, Banks graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught at a number of universities and finished his teaching career at Princeton University. Fellow New York state novelist William Kennedy provides this laudation of Russell Banks:
He has returned again and again in his books to the setting of that life he left behind; and he lives part of his life today in a comparably remote setting in the Adirondacks. The people of his fiction are often the working and workless classes, who live in dilapidated houses and trailer parks, and are what one reviewer called "Irish Catholics, French Canadians and deracinated Yankees whose lives and relationships freeze and crack like ponds in winter . . . ." He is a supreme realist whose work moves easily into the realm of the mythic; but however dark and violent his work becomes, it stands as spiritually intense fiction. And this is what the storyteller knows—however brilliant the writing may be, without the compelling story it will not invigorate our souls. Russell Banks knows this. He is a great storyteller, a great American writer.
The books of Russell Banks include Searching for Survivors, Family Life, Hamilton Stark, The New World, The Book of Jamaica, Trailerpark, The Relation of My Imprisonment, Continental Drift, Success Stories, Affliction, Rule of the Bone, The Sweet Hereafter, Cloudsplitter, The Angel on the Roof, and The Darling, which was published in October 2004. He has contributed poems, essays, and short stories to numerous publications and has been widely translated. Two of his novels have been made into highly regarded films, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction; three others are currently in development. Banks has won numerous awards and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and currently the New York State Author. He is also president of the North American Network of Cities of Asylum, an international organization that provides refuge for writers whose lives are threatened in their own countries. After living in a variety of locales, he currently resides in upstate New York with his wife, poet Chase Twichell.
Hannah Musgrave, the protagonist narrator of The Darling, is a white upper-middle-class woman whose involvement in radical politics forced her to flee the United States in the mid-1970s. She ends up in Liberia where she marries a mid-level government official with whom she has three sons. In the decade or so in which she lives in Africa, she creates and devotes herself to a sanctuary for chimpanzees. As we know, a brutal civil war broke out Liberia in the late eighties, a conflict that once again forces Hannah to confront issues of loyalty and identity. As Banks elaborates below, The Darling allowed him to delve into three imaginative "hot zones", subject areas of great personal interest to him.
This is my fifth conversation with Russell Banks, and I have every expectation there will be more.
Robert I. Birnbaum: In writing this in first person you have the narrator talking directly to the reader, and in one place you actually do something beyond, which was to explicitly credit the reader with a certain kind of intelligence and kindness—that’s a step beyond, isn’t it?
Russell Banks: It’s not quite metafiction. I don’t want it to be all that self-conscious or artificial, but it really grows out of my having invented myself as a listener so that I could hear her voice. That was the first step in writing this. It’s the first step in any piece of writing really. Instead of saying who’s my audience, I say who am I in relation to this character, and when it’s first-person direct address like that it’s really important because we all say different things depending on who we are talking to—this happens to be a woman, late middle age, intelligent, educated, composed, evasive, defended in some ways. Who is she talking to? And I just said, "Well she is talking to me. She is talking to a man of a certain age, who is educated, intelligent, inclined to be sympathetic to some of her political positions and not so sympathetic to others, but understanding nonetheless, and we are sitting on her front porch. Or we are sitting across a table in a bar."
Birnbaum: It would not be in your mind to be the person, the character?
Banks: No, because I am not a ventriloquist. I am not using her to say something for me. Same thing with Rule of the Bone. I said, "When does a fourteen-year-old kid tell the truth, really tell the truth?" And then I remembered when I was a kid the only time I told the truth was with my brother who was close in age to me, late at night, lying in bed, looking at the ceiling in the dark. And he would tell me the truth then. So I just imagined myself as Bone’s pal or brother or trusted friend, in the cot next to him, both of us looking at the ceiling and him telling me the truth. And the same thing with Owen Brown [in Cloudsplitter], I just imagined myself as the recipient of those letters as the assistant of the historian who was writing the biography of his father, John Brown. That really tunes me in, my ear, into the voice of the narrator. And with a woman narrator and a woman of certain age and character, there is lots of stuff she would never tell and doesn’t. Lots of stuff she withholds. A few things she even lies about.
Birnbaum: And as she regularly reminds us, the listener [the reader] that she is not going to tell.
Banks: Right. It’s hard work for her, and you have to kind of earn her trust in some way, and she has to also get her nerve up to tell things. Some of it is very painful, of course. And some of it invokes a lot of guilt for her to deal with. So it’s a complex telling, and it requires a certain amount of trust on the part of the reader, and patience too.
Birnbaum: I was most struck—well, I can’t quantify it—I tried to unpack the ending, which sounded like it was heralding in something or closing off—
Banks: Closing off—
Birnbaum: Closing off is what we expect from an ending but there is an anticipation.
Banks: Right, exactly. A different era. The life she has just finished describing to you could not be lived after 9/11—is what she argues. I agree with her on that. And it’s the envelope that the whole story is placed in. You are not aware of it—the chapter when it [the book] opens, where she is on the farm in upstate New York and she decides to she is going to return to Africa in search of her sons and to find out her husband’s grave and so forth. And whatever happened she is going back in this kind of compulsive return. You don’t know it, but it’s there. If you look back and reread it or just see it now she is going back in early September 2001. And that’s pretty much specifically located.
Birnbaum: Unlike a commonplace reaction by people who have been politically active in the sixties, she has no revisionist cynicism—no revision or cynicism, about that time.
Banks: It is common. It’s rewarded in the popular culture. [both laugh] But I know a number of people, and I have kept track [of them] over the years, who were in the Weathermen and SDS, and out there on that extreme end. And while many of them eschewed the tactical violence and they think they made mistakes here, mistakes there, they have not forsaken their radical commitment, the commitment to radical change and a commitment to social change. Many of them are still working as social workers, on the streets, or doing pro bono legal work, something quasipolitical that puts them out there on the edge. Yeah, she seems typical to me in that regard, of people who are of that radical edge. Either that or they become right-wing conservatives and they flip the other way.
Birnbaum: It’s interesting to consider your remark that it’s rewarded, to reject that past commitment [to social change].
Banks: Really. They are trying to get Kerry to reject his positioning with regard to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There is a tremendous amount of pressure for him to say, "I didn’t mean it," or whatever. "I misspoke when I said there were atrocities committed by American soldiers." We are still fighting the culture wars of the sixties and seventies.
Birnbaum: Well yeah. Seemingly without resolution.
Banks: No, we just have to all die. [laughs]
Birnbaum: [laughs] Or other people have to die.
Banks: This generation, this baby-boomer generation that came to maturity or immaturity, depending on your point of view, in the sixties and early seventies is now the generation in their late fifties and early sixties. And they are the most powerful and the most numerous, the richest generation in America. They are stronger than the one that is older and they are stronger than the one coming behind. So the same cultural and political issues that divided us in 1968 are still dividing us.
Birnbaum: Yeah, odd.
Banks: It is. They were never resolved.
Birnbaum: In that sense it’s not odd. It’s odd in that if you look at pop culture, you don’t see the fray. If this wasn’t a political season you wouldn’t see how harshly divided the country is.
Birnbaum: In writing The Darling, why did you want to write about this character Hannah?
Banks: It’s hard to say why anyone . . . . For a long time going back into the nineties I really have been wondering about, partly about, the women who were in the movement and who were more radical than I and kept on going when I pulled back in the antiwar movement. And who were they? Then also as I’ve gotten older, and looking back on my own youth, I wondered what it must be like for them now that they are my age, turning sixty, sixty-four—whatever—and looking back on it, on their youth. So, there’s that. Then there was the whole theme of Liberia, which became important to me when I was researching Cloudsplitter and I got into the early history of the antislavery movement and the creation of Liberia and its intimate and ironic connection with American racial history, right up until now, even. I wanted to write about Liberia and then I also had [laughs] an ongoing fascination with chimpanzees and actually relationships between humans and other species, but particularly higher primates. And the women who run the primate sanctuaries. I started visiting a sanctuary up in Quebec and then one in Ohio, one in Georgia, and then I am reading about them. Jane Goodall types, in a way. And I realized that they have a lot in common with the women in the movement.
Birnbaum: First of all it’s usually women who run these higher primate sanctuaries, rarely men. They are white. They come from privileged backgrounds. They are educated. They usually have strong fathers with whom they identify—not the mother—and they commit themselves to this task at great sacrifice to themselves. They sacrifice family. They sacrifice careers, creature comforts. They live under extreme conditions, most of them. And they risk ridicule too. And stereotyping.
Birnbaum: Chimpanzees are endangered?
Banks: Yeah. Chimpanzees are endangered. Severely. Especially now because the only places left where they exist in any numbers at all are along West Africa, in Sierra Leone and Liberia and Guinea and Ivory Coast and the Congo. These are places where they are bush meat and there are marauding bands of soldiers.
Birnbaum: Are they still used for medical experimentation?
Banks: They are not supposed to be. If they are bred for that, it’s okay—bred in captivity. That’s something that’s a whole other story. To get the back to the question you asked, I wanted to write about these three different areas—these three different mysteries—[that] they were to me. And Hannah is the only character who covers them all. And she just emerged from these areas which are like hot zones for me, these three hot zones. And I could go to Liberia; I could go to a chimpanzee sanctuary and I could go to the sixties and seventies radical underground and I could do it through her. That’s one of the reasons to write fiction, so that you get to go to these places. [laughs]
Birnbaum: Not an expensive ticket—or maybe it is.
Birnbaum: Here is a woman who is challenged in her relationship with human beings and becomes quickly devoted to—almost obsessed with—these primates.
Birnbaum: I don’t think it’s simple transference or in some way compensation. It is true that she has great difficulty connecting on an intimate level in a trusting way to other people. Some of that is obviously due to the family psychology, the dynamics that are there. And some of it is due to the people and the person she is and her politics and the particular nature of her experience. And then her attraction to and her involvement with the chimpanzees and establishment of a sanctuary, that could be a political act. You don’t have to see it as one thing or the other. One of the things I have tried to do with this book and with all of them really is avoid that simple, easy, reductionist view of motivation and to show we do things for a complex net of reasons, a real braid of reasons. Nobody does anything for one reason. We are used to representations of people who are like Hannah in many ways—male or female characters—representations of them as if they only did things for one reason. Because that’s what the pop media wants us to think, anyhow. Instead of for many reasons, some of them even contradictory reasons.
Birnbaum: We’re not supposed to be contradictory.
Banks: Yeah and we have nothing but internal consistencies.
Birnbaum: Hannah’s mother was just short of despicable—maybe it’s more accurate to say she was pathetic, in a very unattractive way. You tell of her sitting down with her future in-laws at an introductory dinner and her being insulted. Did she know that she was being denigrated? Was she deeply flawed at that time or was this from a lifetime of subjugation to her husband?
Banks: Probably in some ways both. She was young, a child almost. A young woman that age in that era or generation—
Birnbaum: She had gone to well-regarded college—Smith.
Banks: Yeah, her Canadian parents had been killed and so forth. That story is actually a family legend [laughs heartily] and is always told to me. The reason—and the thing you are missing, too, although Hannah says so—[is that] this is a story her mother always told. And it’s a story that her mother told when her father wasn’t there. So it’s a story about the unreliability of narrative, of course, and the use of narrative. Hannah’s point is, and she says, "Mother always told us but never when father was there"—so it was a way of her mother attacking the father by making herself a victim. A passive-aggressive kind of attack, and then Hannah does exactly the same thing. She tells the story as a way of attacking her mother [laughs] and embellishes it, of course, and adds on "What did she really do? Did she leave the room? No, she didn’t. She went back in and sat at the table with her husband to be."
Birnbaum: In measuring pathologies and personalities on a scale of repulsion, I find that kind of person the least likeable—
Banks: They are hard, really hard, to like. Because they are narcissists. And there is this absence there. You don’t sense any presence. All the energy goes in and nothing comes out. And they are exhausting. Their needs are endless. They are a hard person to write about even, because you want to be sympathetic towards them. The one way I could be sympathetic to her is to show how cruel Hannah is to her. And [how] unthinking the father, her husband, is to the mother. She is a kind of . . . she is a sad person.
Birnbaum: You go further in this book by [Hannah] saying that empathy is ultimately being narcissistic. That’s bad?
Banks: When it’s carried out; when it is projection. She tries to make a distinction between sympathy, feeling with somebody, and feeling for somebody, empathy. She sees it in race all the time and sees it in dealing with class, but also sees it in dealing with the animals. With the chimpanzees. And she is trying to figure out a way to feel for somebody in a way that [she] won’t judge morally as politically incorrect or psychologically illegitimate and that’s [the] distinction she is making.
Birnbaum: Hannah’s sons seem to turn quickly from nice—
Banks: —suburban kids, yeah, who might get a scholarship to Phillips Andover—
Birnbaum: —who suddenly have war names and have joined one of the more violent and barbaric factions.
Banks: You have to look at, too, what are their options from that moment when their father is killed? Do they turn to their mother from whom they feel quasi-alienated anyhow? And up to that point, and increasingly as they have been getting older, they have been more and more involved with his [the father’s] family, "his people," as he calls them, "in the bush." There are no allegiances that they can take up that are going to be safe for them. These kids go into these bands and fall under the influence and authority and protection of these warlords because they really don’t have any alternative. They can’t stay home. They can’t go to school. Can’t leave the country. But they are promised a gun and food and sex and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where they go.
Birnbaum: Does it strike you that the level of violence and cruelty—
Banks: —and brutality—
Birnbaum: —and dismemberment—
Banks: —well, we see it in Iraq, don’t we? And the Middle East. Everywhere. No one seems to be immune to it. It’s so locked into the history.
Birnbaum: Americans don’t believe that they would fight in this way. Or have something like an Abu Gharib.
Banks: That’s what they think. Just go back seventy-five or a hundred years, into the West, our treatment of native Americans.
Birnbaum: That doesn’t count.
Banks: Oh yeah, I forgot that. [laughs] It doesn’t take long to go to Vietnam and cut the ears off the Vietcong, and heads, and other body parts. No, human beings do this. But it’s particularly spectacular, to Americans—white Americans particularly—we get a special frisson when we see Africans doing it. And we put them on the cover of a magazine, a kid in a dress with bandoleers of ammunition around his bony chest and paint on his face. It gives us a nice, safe scare. But there is a level of brutality that arises in these conflicts for a number of reasons. In Sierra Leone, there are rows and rows of people on the sides of the streets who have had their hands amputated. They just came out of a ten year civil war, not unlike the one Liberia is coming out of now. I think of Rwanda, and now Uganda and Congo—but Liberia particularly has to do with the 150 years of oppression, 99 percent of the population by 1 percent of the population. It’s an action-reaction kind of thing. If you . . . . As in the Congo, the Europeans did it; the Portuguese did it in Angola and the Germans in Rwanda. [If] you divide people up along tribal lines and manipulate and use them and exploit them that way—the way the Tutsis and the Hutus were divided up, and the Tutsis for 150 years were used to rule as surrogate rulers over the Hutus in a brutal way—at some point it’s going to come back. It’s going to bounce and that’s what happened in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And at the same time you have these utterly cynical warlords who are like gangsters jockeying for turf. And you have a tradition of twenty years of corruption preceded by 150 years of colonialism which was corrupt—there is no real moral structure that you can build on. And abandonment by the colonial powers. The United States particularly abandoned Liberia after the end of the Cold War. We just pulled out after showering down [money]. They were the biggest recipient of foreign aid in Africa from the U.S. during the Cold War.
Birnbaum: Did we have a satellite tracking station there?
Banks: It was our aircraft carrier in Africa. Roberts Field was the longest airstrip in all of Africa. You have to have someplace to land and take off those B52s. It was the biggest listening station in Africa. And we pulled out in 1989; we packed up and went home and left them to their own devices.
Birnbaum: Wil Haygood in the Washington Post asked why more writers aren’t using Africa as a setting for novels.
Banks: It’s off the radar and it’s scary too. To Americans particularly. We think it’s a European problem, in a way. They were the colonial powers in Africa. We weren’t.
Banks: Yeah right. Really, I think that’s true, and in fact whenever there is mention of Liberia in the news, usually it’s accompanied by a phrase to the effect, "Liberia had a special relationship with the United States," as if the settlement of African Americans there in the 1820s and 1830s was this benign and benevolent act of kindness, [as if] sending them back to Africa—
Birnbaum: —has any connection with what happened today. It does, but there seems to be no recognition of a causal link. It occurs to me that we this is where we see the scary images of the future—I just talked to John Lee Anderson, and he told me that a major problem in Central America is now street gangs. In Columbia you have children who are murderers for hire. That’s true in Brazil if the film City of God is at all close to the reality.
Banks: That’s a wonderful movie. I’ve been in Lima. It’s the same thing in Lima. And in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, same thing.
Birnbaum: So you have these teens and preteens of marginal or of under-the-radar class, who are ready to rock.
Banks: And it is partly because of the population pyramid—it’s really wide at the base. And the under-fifteen-years-old is the biggest segment of the population. I mean, the Pope goes and visits and tells them to have more kids—I mean, don’t get me started. [laughs]
Birnbaum: How do we identify the pathologies of these kids. Could we rightfully call these children sociopaths?
Banks: In one sense they are perfectly adapted to the society they have inherited, so they are not sociopaths. They are functioning within the context of what they have been given in a realistic way. They would only be sociopaths if they came to Boston—if you are born to poverty in Buenos Aires or Lima, Peru or Bogota—that’s what is so interesting about that movie City of God—those kids weren’t sociopaths. They were adapted. The one who wasn’t adapted was the kid with the camera.
Birnbaum: He adapted pretty quickly in the end.
Banks: Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I meant about sly demonology and so forth, is that Hannah’s kids, in a way, adapted quickly to the conditions that suddenly surrounded them when their world broke apart. It had been breaking apart, but when it broke they did the realistic thing. They joined one of the armies. Especially the one they knew would go after their father’s killers.
Birnbaum: At this point in your—do you use the word "career"?—is there a better word?
Banks: Life. [both laugh]
Birnbaum: At this point in your life, how much do you look back at what you have already written in deciding what you want to write next? Do you remember what you have written?
Banks: Sure. I don’t look back and use that as a frame or context to decide at all. No, I think what happens is, in the course of a writing a book, which might take three or four years—in this case, it took a little less; or more in the case of Cloudsplitter—but over the course of writing a book usually one of these hot zones will begin to emerge, as I was talking about earlier. Like Liberia began to emerge when I was writing Cloudsplitter. And I will impatiently have to put it aside for now and I think, "Boy, I can hardly wait to get this book done so I can move over there." For instance, in this book I began to get really interested while, writing this book, with something that has absolutely nothing to do with this book or at least on the surface of things I think it has nothing to do with it. I began to get interested in the Great Depression, 1936, particularly that year. The year the Spanish Civil War erupted. I got really interested in how that would have been felt and experienced on the ground in upstate New York, in a small town. Where you had these stark contrasts between the people who lived there year round, whose lives were like my parents’ lives. Mainly turning the local population into a servant class. So this summer, as soon as I got this book done and in and we finished all the editing and everything like that, I dove into this other book. Because I wanted to write about that. And I had a couple of characters—
Birnbaum: That’s a pretty specific entry into . . . Cynthia Ozick had touched on the Spanish Civil War in her novel. One character ends up volunteering.
Banks: I want to read that book.
Birnbaum: The Spanish Civil War is a reference point and a badge of honor, but I don’t know that anyone writes about it anymore.
Banks: No, not since Hemingway. I got to it partly through Hemingway. I was in Cuba twice and went to visit Hemingway’s house and got interested in the relationship he had with a woman that became the basis for a character in To Have and Have Not and also "The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber" and "The Snows of Kilamanjaro." An obsessive relationship with a very clever woman from the upper class. The class that Hemingway was both attracted to and repelled by; but he married into it all the time and he surrounded himself with them and then hated them and he hated himself.
Birnbaum: An artist’s perfect contradiction.
Banks: A lot of artists have that. Rockwell Kent—who lived for years, most of his adult life, right near me in upstate New York—is a figure that I am also thinking of, a great painter. He was one of the most famous painters of his time and he was a radical leftist, hounded by the McCarthy committee, had his passport taken; and yet he spent most of his time surrounded by rich patrons—whom he despised. So I am playing with all that stuff. If there is any connection to The Darling, it’s only through the farm she had in upstate New York.
Birnbaum: And the radical politics.
Banks: Yeah, of course that, the radical politics and the bourgeoisie sensibilities in many ways.
Birnbaum: You’ve answered this in a way but let me just make sure—you’ve written about a fuck-up in New Hampshire—
Birnbaum: A terrible tragedy befalls a small town in New York. You’ re not thinking—
Banks: No, no, I don’t have that kind of a mind. I see someone like Madison Bell with these three giant volumes about Haiti or Bill Kennedy and his Albany Cycle and so forth. I don’t have that kind of imagination. I skip across from one island to another island to another island, in some ways.
Birnbaum: Do you reread your work?
Banks: Not deliberately. Sometimes an occasion will arise where I have to, because someone, for whatever reason . . . [a] public reading. But generally no. Once it’s done and out there . . . .
Birnbaum: [laughs] Are you afraid?
Banks: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to, because then I would want to rewrite it and who has enough time? I did that when I did the stories Angel on the Roof. I had to go back over and throw out a lot of stories I just didn’t want to save and then look freshly at the ones I did want to save and it was kind of painful, and I don’t think I’d want to do that again. I am going to leave that to someone else.
Birnbaum: The last time we spoke wasn’t someone going to make the movie of Rule of the Bone?
Banks: Yeah, yeah. We’re about to. We are casting it now actually. I’m producing it—
Birnbaum: It’s been six or seven years.
Banks: Yeah, that’s what happens. It took seven years for Affliction to get made. Actually that’s kind of fast. [both laugh] Continental Drift is about to be cast. That’s been in the works for a while.
Birnbaum: With Willem Dafoe?
Banks: He’s playing the older brother. He got too old now to play the younger. We are trying to get Mark Wahlberg to play the lead in that.
Birnbaum: So what happens to you? Your books are made into movies in bursts, Affliction and Sweet Hereafter and then—
Banks: Yeah, those two and now it looks like these two this year and then Book of Jamaica and Cloudsplitter are in development. HBO is doing Cloudsplitter—a major deal: Martin Scorsese and me producing it and Paul Schrader writing it, Raul Peck directing it. That’s probably two years or three years away, if we are lucky.
Birnbaum: Have you written an original screenplay?
Banks: Not an original screenplay. I adapted two of mine—Rule of the Bone and Continental Drift. And then I adapted Kerouac’s On the Road for Francis Coppola, which was a little bit like writing an original screenplay.
Birnbaum: Has it been made?
Banks: No, not yet. Last I heard Walter Sallis was going to direct it. Francis was producing it. Sallis just did the Motorcycle Diaries, the Che Guevera thing. Which would be nice. I would be happy if he did it and I would get paid well. But who knows?
Birnbaum: I just read the Bailey bio of Richard Yates, and there is reference to a screenplay that Yates did of Styrons’ Lie Down in Darkness and it was close to being made and he would have gotten a big payday, but they never did. He could have used it.
Banks: That happens so often, so often. He could have used it, I know.
Birnbaum: Why haven’t you written a screenplay—since you are so fond of film?
Banks: Time is really sort of it, and the right people. I don’t want to write one and just go on spec and go shopping with it. Adam Egoyan and I have talked about doing something together, an original screenplay; I have a story idea I would like to do, and so at some point when both Adam and I are free for a period of three or four months we’ll probably do that.
Birnbaum: You’re free for three or four months at a time?
Banks: Well, yeah, if I finish this next book up. I’ll take a break. That would be a nice way to take a break, I think.
Birnbaum: Given the fact that you that like movies and that you know movies and that people look at your books as movie properties, do you compartmentalize when you are writing a novel, not thinking about it as a film?
Banks: No, I don’t think about it as a film at all. I’d end up writing both a bad novel and a bad film too. It wouldn’t be good for either. And I can’t. I think anyone who writes fiction seriously has such an intimate relationship with language, with what’s on the page, word by word, comma and period and semicolon, and you are so immersed in that and it’s such an intimate relationship [that] to think about it as film would be difficult if not impossible. I can’t go there. Michael Ondaajte was once asked that kind of question, did the great success of The English Patient influence how he wrote after that? His answer was, "Yeah, it made me try to write a novel that couldn’t be adapted."
Banks: "All it did was make me try perversely to prove to myself that it did not have any influence on me." I could see that—I didn’t quite set out to do that, but like The Darling, it would be a difficult movie to make.
Birnbaum: Assuming that someone would want to faithfully represent the book.
Banks: I don’t think that will happen.
Birnbaum: Or is it required?
Banks: That’s right. It is not required and not likely to happen in this case. It’s too morally ambiguous, and good and evil are too mixed together. Motivations are too tangled and complex. You’d have to just break the thing down into a simplistic kind of story. And I don’t want to do that. So I wouldn’t get—
Birnbaum: Or something really contrived like Charley Kaufman’s Adaptation.
Birnbaum: Which I found very irritating.
Banks: It’s really finally a kind of a preening show-offy thing, yeah.
Birnbaum: You quit teaching four, five years ago?
Banks: More than that, in 1997. I had been phasing out for the previous five years.
Birnbaum: Could one say that you phased out at a time when the writing programs were reaching a high, screeching level of enrollment?
Banks: And it all but displaced the work of editors in publishing doing it for them now. [laughs] Students pay for it themselves. I taught at Princeton and it was undergraduate and I much prefer teaching undergraduates to graduate students in writing programs. A couple of years I taught in graduate programs at NYU and Columbia, in the early eighties. They were great kids and they weren’t all kids. A lot of them were people in their thirties. I just couldn’t get excited about working with people who had such anxieties about their professional lives. I much prefer working with kids whose life could be completely upended by a reading of a book over a weekend. You give them a book to read—they go home and come back a changed person. And that is so much more interesting and exciting.
Birnbaum: Would that be one of the adverse effects of the programs? Despite the claim that the great benefit is the time one gets, they also must be thinking, somewhere in their consciousness, "What am I going to do next?"
Banks: It is problematic. The best thing about writing programs is that it rationalized the apprenticeship of a writer. The basic same elements no matter how you do it as an apprentice: you need your mentor, it provides that. You need your peers, and it provides that. And you need somehow to be out of the economy for a few years if possible, whether it’s driving a cab or working as a waitress or as a waiter. And it provides that. A little teaching fellowship, which doesn’t take a hell of a lot of time and you can write for a few years, for four years or three years of your life. But it’s a packaging of an apprenticeship, and at its best it is really very helpful—and in our culture, too, which is so decentralized. We can’t just go to Paris or go to London and find all those things there; at one time you could go to New York and find all those things. Now you can’t get out of the economy if you go to New York.
Banks: You are going right into the belly of the beast.
Birnbaum: And as I am fond of quoting—Jim Harrison’s characterization—you are in "a major center of ambition."
Banks: Yeah, exactly.
Birnbaum: I have had this sense that something has happened—is happening—in the literary culture in the past few years that no one is recognizing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, you know.
Banks: What’re some of the symptoms?
Birnbaum: One of the symptoms is this relentless self-consciousness of the literary press. One concrete example is the attention paid to the change in regime at the New York Times Book Review. In the world that I am conversant with there was much fulminating and painful yodeling. What’s the big thing?
Banks: Certain stakes are higher than they used to be, and they are measured by celebrity. There is a reward system set up now that has to do with the author as celebrity. It’s not just a cultural value. There is real financial reward associated with it, and power. Just look at this book tour. I am old enough now—I used to publish books and nobody went on a book tour. You just published your book. You might get a reading at the 92nd Street Y out of it. But basically that was it. And you hoped that the reviews were good in Los Angeles, but you didn’t go to Los Angeles or Seattle. I am going to seventeen cities in twenty-one days. That’s expensive. It’s a big investment to send me out there. And the only reason they are doing it, in a way, is to generate a kind of celebrity so that they can sell the books on the basis of that. It’s hard when you have a sixty-four-year-old white guy. It’s hard to sell him.
Birnbaum: [both laugh]
Banks: Not that sexy.
Birnbaum: You are looking more and more like Hemingway. You have surpassed his age.
Banks: [laughs] I know, I did outlive him. But it’s hard and it’s part of the process now. So therefore there is increased anxiety that you are picking up—you’re picking up chatter, as they say. A lot of chatter out there about the delivery system. When you get that fixated on something, like the new editor of the New York Times Book Review, or critics getting punched by writers, like Stanley Crouch, or spit upon by Richard Ford, and everybody reports it. That’s the other thing. Everybody reports it. It goes across country in a minute. It’s the reporting and the anxiety that it reveals and the anxiety about the delivery system. And what they are delivering is celebrity.
Birnbaum: Are you treated differently today than when you went around for Affliction?
Banks: Oh, certainly.
Birnbaum: And that’s as a result of what the publisher has done to make you a celebrity or a brand or whatever?
Banks: That’s part of it.
Birnbaum: Not that people really love your writing and books?
Banks: That’s what I’d like to think, yeah.
Birnbaum: [both laugh]
Banks: And my good nature. What I am finding now is that my audience is getting younger as I get older, which is a very good thing as you know—you don’t want them to get older as you get older. Then they start to die and you don’t have many readers left by the time you get older. My books are taught a lot now. In different venues, starting with high schools teaching Rule of the Bone, universities and colleges teaching Continental Drift or Affliction and Sweet Hereafter or Cloudsplitter. I find a lot of people in their thirties who say, "I read your books in college."
Birnbaum: You wouldn’t generalize from that that perhaps the target population interested in literary fiction is this younger group that many people want to dismiss as airheads and vacuous consumers?
Banks: That’s increasingly who my audience is. And who buys my books. There is still that other audience—that’s the upper middle class, mostly women. People who buy hardcovers and will lay out twenty bucks and belong to the book clubs
Birnbaum: They don’t cost twenty-five dollars anymore, if you are a shrewd shopper. What about the cultural gatekeepers? I wonder how much influence they wield anymore?
Banks: I’m not [sure] either, in my world at least—in literary fiction. The prizes have some credibility, of course. And they do good work for the writer and for the publisher, by winnowing one book out of the pack. In a way. But they don’t guarantee quality in any way. Critics certainly don’t either, for that matter.
Birnbaum: Is there a greater democratization of commentary?
Banks: There is a lot more out there on the web. That’s really been good. That’s a democratic procedure. That helps democratize it—everything from Salon.com on down. And also a lot of kids are doing it and that’s another kind of democratization. Kids that are just out of college—who are setting up their own sites or zines. That’s great.
Birnbaum: Why do people want to be writers today?
Banks: There are people who want to be writers because they think writers are celebrated people in society. And they want the percs that go with all that. And there are people who want to be writers because they love to write. And they care. A much smaller number [laughs] than the other. But they are the ones that really do become writers. Because they love the process and they’ll participate in that process, without rewards for a decade or more before they begin to publish because they love the process. Through writing, through that process, they realize that they become more intelligent, and more honest and more imaginative than they can be in any other part of their life.
Birnbaum: Are we talking about the notion of living an authentic life? That seems to be what is offered when you take up writing. Our natural language is something we all—
Banks: —have access to. That’s what I mean about they love writing, love the process because it makes one smarter. It does. If you dedicate your attention to discipline in your life you become smarter while you are writing than while you are hanging out with your pals or in any other line of work. And you do become more honest because you are forced to; and it takes you places that you can’t go otherwise. So it’s like any other kind of rigorous discipline sequence with a tradition behind it—whether it’s Zen Buddhism or psychotherapy or whatever. You do it long enough, it orders your life and does give you a kind of authenticity that you can’t obtain otherwise. Especially in this society where there is less and less opportunity for that. It’s so commodified a world we live in that you end up a huckster, no matter what you do.
Birnbaum: It’s not even a matter of discussion except in some rare instances, maybe as an undergraduate somebody may stumble across a small pocket of people thinking about how you live an authentic life. It’s not a common topic as far as I can tell, is it?
Banks: No, it’s not.
Birnbaum: It doesn’t seem to be in current movies.
Banks: Most vocabularies that subscribe to it or explored [it], starting really in the late forties but running up until the later seventies, whether it was with existentialism or Freudianism or Marxism—there are all those different ideologies, systems, or philosophies that had a similar goal in some way: authenticity. They have all been savaged, really, in the last twenty-five years. And devalidated—invalidated, I guess. There hasn’t been anything to replace them, to come forward.
Banks: The concern would seem to be staring people in the face. You don’t have to scratch too deeply to see that many people are unhappy with their lives.
Banks: Yeah. And we have gone through something, and we are still going through it, that I think of as a great awakening—this religious revivalism of the eighties and nineties now into the first decade of the twenty-first century. The United States, about every 150 years, goes through it. In 1820 there was a great revival and awakening and [before that] the 1690s. It seems to be like the locust coming out of the ground or something, every 150 years. And everybody develops a personal relationship with Christ, and this has in a way been the answer to that need. My whole family—with the exception of my brother and one male cousin and I—my whole family has become born-again Christian. All my cousins, aunts, uncles, and their kids; my nieces and nephews; my mother. They are all born-again.
Birnbaum: What are family gatherings like?
Banks: They are horrible.
Birnbaum: [both laugh]
Banks: For my brother and me and my cousin Bill. And, I mean they aren’t horrible—these are lovable people in many ways. But what is interesting to me is that I grew up here in New England, in a conventional Presbyterian/Congregational family. We went to church on Sunday and we went to Sunday school. But there was not a great enthusiasm for it from anybody. My father usually didn’t bother. My mother did it because she wanted to set a model for us kids and she made us go to Sunday school until we were twelve. As soon as we were twelve, we all ducked out and didn’t do it anymore. A normal pietistic family, in a way. But no religious fervor as such. Now everybody has Christ’s cell phone number. They can get him right away and find out what they are supposed to do and what they are supposed to think, what positions they are to take in the world.
Birnbaum: That would explain our politics.
Banks: It has a lot to do with this religious fervor. My mother—who is ninety years old and except for the fact that I cover her expenses depends on Social Security, which is a creation of a Democrat, and Medicare, which is a creation of Democrat—I asked her recently who she was voting for and she said she is voting for George Bush. I asked why; basically, she is voting against her own self interest. She said, "Because I am against gay marriage." [laughs] But she is no fool. She is a smart person. But she is a born-again Christian and the Republican Party has, since Reagan, tailored its agenda to the cultural issues that evangelicals have raised up. They recognize a very simple statistic. That evangelical Christians or the Christian Coalition are 15 percent of the electorate. That’s the biggest single voting bloc out there. Unions are gone, blacks don’t vote as a bloc anymore. All the southern working-class whites have been peeled off by the Reagan years and taken over. And so if you can get them to vote for you—all you have to do is tailor your agenda to the cultural issues.
Birnbaum: I marvel at the great trick that Republicans have performed of convincing working people that they are the party that cares about them.
Banks: It’s astonishing. It’s the old, "let me hold that wallet for you."
Birnbaum: Are you frightened by this?
Banks: I’m terrified. This is the direst time in my life politically. And if Bush wins this election, and I think he will, they will have stolen the Republic and there won’t be any getting it back. And I don’t think Kerry is going to stop the process—but he’ll slow it if he is elected. It’s like the ship of state is the Titanic heading straight for a gigantic iceberg. If Kerry is elected it will swerve just enough to the right so that the shot will be deflected a little bit, but it’s going down. The economy is going to tank—
Birnbaum: It seems like the culmination of Ben Franklin’s concerns.
Banks: It’s happened before. You get used to it. To say we have been a republic for 225 years or whatever, it’s obviously a permanent institution. But no, things change. Things change. So basically you have ended up creating in the last twenty-five years the infrastructure necessary for a fascist plutocracy. It doesn’t have to take on the same form as in Italy or Germany to be one.
Birnbaum: We have a sugarcoated version.
Banks: It’s always homegrown. Look at the difference between Italy and Germany or Spain, for that matter. It took aspects of the specific culture. I’m looking into real estate in Montreal. [laughs]
Birnbaum: I remember we talked once and you made a self-mocking mention that the book we were talking about was "another bummer from Banks." They don’t still say that, do they?
Banks: They do [laughs] but I ‘ve gotten used to it.
Birnbaum: Well, thank you very much.
Banks: You too, man. It’s great to see you again.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing