by Russell Banks
Published by HarperCollins
by Russell Banks
Published by Perennial
Rule of the Bone
by Russell Banks
Published by HarperCollins
Russell Banks's literary -- and now filmic -- output is extraordinary. With razor-sharp prose often both harsh and elegant, he has presented a painful, fascinating body of work. Affliction (and its movie version, directed by Paul Shrader and starring Nick Nolte) offered up a portrait of the tormented, abusive Wade Whithouse. The Sweet Hereafter -- which has also been given the film treatment -- concerned the nightmare of nightmares: a school-bus accident and the death of children. Bone, the teen protagonist of Rule of the Bone, ushered in the harsh, gritty subculture of the teenage runaway. Continental Drift twins two tales, that of the self-destructive Bob Dubois and the tale of a young Haitian mother -- both searching, in separate ways, for refuge and a better life. And Cloudsplitter chronicles the terrible, legendary figure of abolitionist John Brown.
Richard Klin: New Hampshire seems like a well you constantly draw from. It's quite a different entity from Maine or Vermont. Has it been your mission to show the colder, less touristy side of the state?
I found that out in a very literal, concrete way when they were making the film adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter. It was made by a Canadian film director, Atom Egoyan, and he wanted initially to film it in upstate New York. He came down and looked at locations, but when it came down to it, he filmed it in British Columbia. To me, when I see the movie -- and many reviewers reviewed the movie as having been set in New Hampshire. The story was set in upstate New York, it was filmed in British Columbia, but in the mind of the viewers -- and in my mind too, when I looked at it -- it was like, yeah, it could be New Hampshire, it could be upstate New York, just as easily.
When I read Rule of the Bone, one of the things that really startled me was the actual scope of the book -- it's been covered a lot; obviously covered a lot in music, in zines, in comix, but rarely do books cover this kind of thing. The more I read of your work, I saw that you cover a terrain where others really don't venture. I don't see much in current fiction dealing with this sort of class, or atmosphere, and I think it does jibe with you not covering just the literal terrain of New Hampshire -- it's a whole milieu. Why does it seem -- and of course you're not the only one covering this -- but it doesn't seem very apparent in mainstream media.
I won't say that's true of the people making media; most of the popular media nowadays they in fact -- many of them -- have extraordinarily fine educations. But they haven't been anywhere in the sense that they have not broken out into the larger world and seen lives unlike their own, and spent enough time with those lives that they actually came to understand them and develop a great affection for them. That's really part of the reason. And then, I suppose too it isn't so much the subject matter or people themselves, as it is point of view -- the point of view that I try to take in my fiction and in the films -- is really one that isn't condescending in any way towards these people's lives and regards them -- and I do regard them -- as people whose lives are just as complex and intense and painful as the lives of any other human being on this planet. So I try to treat them with appropriate respect and affection. And I think that may be a little unusual.
The affection really does come through. It's clearly your tone -- and it's not overt; there's a nice subtlety. You do have a lot of affection for the characters, even if you're examining their foibles. It's affection.
I find a lot of your stuff really funny -- which almost feels sacrilegious!
There are so many instances in which something quite awful is going on, and yet there's a lot of humor. There have been instances when I've laughed out loud at something you've written -- and actually felt scummy for doing so! Is this your intent?
It could be said, in some ways, that you've staked out a political niche with the characters and settings you deal with -- the non-wealthy, to say the least. Yet actual references to politics in your writing are oblique and few and far between: Bob Dubois [Continental Drift] and Wade [Affliction] are Democrats, in the story "Cleaving and Other Needs" Leon talks to Doreen of "Roosevelt, Kennedy, and civil rights." Occasionally some characters are reading the right-wing Union Leader [newspaper]. John Brown, who you covered in Cloudsplitter, is of course a famous political figure. You've mentioned that studying at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the 1960s was a seminal time for you. How much of a political animal are you?
Do you take political stands as a writer?
You've been very influenced by poetry -- more, you've said, than most writers. I find that immediately apparent in your writing: the cold, brittle New England winters, the Florida heat so heavy and oppressive you can sort of taste it, and of course The Book of Jamaica, which is just beautiful. I know you started off as a painter also. Is there a poetry/painting link with your work?
I think perhaps in some ways my work is visual -- because it's visual to me. And necessarily so. I don't think this is true for every fiction writer, by any means. To some it's not a particularly important dimension of the work. For me, it's a very important dimension -- not of the work itself, but of the process, the creative process, the writing process.
Poetry, however, had a rather different impact on me, and it continues to, and really that has to do with language more than anything else. Just the sense you get when you write poetry for very long, and very seriously, which I did -- I was serious as a poet and ambitious in my own way -- you become aware of the words in and of themselves in a way that you don't normally, that most people don't. It's like a musician becomes aware of the notes -- the individual notes -- whereas the casual listener to music or the non-musician hears a melody -- or not! -- but that's what you're looking for. Whereas a musician hears the same melody, of course, but also the individual notes. They're real to him or her. Whereas I think the same thing for a poet: the individual words are like things almost to a poet ... marbles or rocks or shoes or something -- you know, they're things. And this remains with me from those years of writing poetry, that sense of language, and also an awareness of rhythm and stress and so forth in language. So the sentences aren't simply grammatical units. They're more closely musical units.
Do you still paint?
You set down the way characters really tell their stories -- the way people really tell their stories. Billy Ansel in The Sweet Hereafter "loses" his daughter in Jamaica -- they're driving back to where they're staying and lo and behold, their little girl isn't in the back-seat of the car. They've accidentally left her behind. Only later Billy says that he and his wife have stopped smoking marijuana. It wasn't like: We were so high we lost out daughter! And you're right, that is the way people tell -- or don't tell -- their stories.
Dolores's narrative in The Sweet Hereafter [she's the bus driver who crashes the bus full of children] weaves in and out -- almost like a shaky bus. It's not a straight story. And I think most dramatically, Owen Brown in Cloudsplitter doesn't come out and say: Look, I'm John Brown's son, I'm telling the story.
I think it's the way people talk -- I've been really struck by that. It seems more than rhythm. You've captured a certain psychological sensibility. No one's going to confess that they were so high that they lost their daughter. But it'll seep out.
Yeah, it would, as you come to trust the listener. I think that may be because for me -- especially when we were talking of all those examples, first-person narrator -- and in Rule of the Bone too, Bone tells his story -- I'm very conscious, especially in first-person narrative, but almost in any form of narrator, any kind of narrator -- of their having to be a listener in order to shape what the speaker says or doesn't say. Because we all speak differently depending on who we're talking to. Whether it's two women talking alone or two men talking alone, white people, black people, kids, adults -- we all have different speaking voice[s] and we reveal different information and at different rates according to whom we're speaking. So it's very important to me to know that role first: who is the listener? Even though it's obviously a totally imagined person who may never and is unlikely to appear in the book or the text itself in any way.
In the case of all those characters, I knew first who the listener was, almost before I knew who the speaker was. And I may have known who the speaker was in a kind of social or generic sense. Well, this is Owen Brown, son of John Brown, born in 1825, etc. But I didn't know who he was speaking to until I could imagine myself as a young woman journalist sent out to interview him for a biography, now that he's an old man. And so it's Catherine Mayo he addresses throughout. And that shapes what he says. He can only go so far in terms of sexual explicitness. He can only go so far in terms of his descriptions of violent acts, because he's got a certain amount of decorum that's necessitated by whom he's speaking to.
In the case of The Sweet Hereafter, I always imagined myself as a lawyer deposing those characters who were sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about what happened on that day. But of course if you start talking about what happened on one day, you start talking about what happened on other days, the past, and what brought you to that point and time, and your speculations about it and digressions and so forth, and you end up telling the story. But first I had to imagine the listener.
Then in Rule of the Bone it was a different listener. I imagined myself as another adolescent boy, really. I thought back to when I was 14, 15 years old: when did I tell the truth to anybody? Kids rarely tell the truth to anybody except other kids. I had a brother who was slightly younger than I. The only time I was ever willing to reveal my fears and my dreams and the truth about what had happened or not happened to me would be late at night, lying in bed: my brother and I shared a room. Looking at the ceiling, we would each talk across the room to each other that way, and we would tell the truth, in an unthreatened and undefensive way.
Once I had that idea, one that who I was -- the listener -- then I could hear the speaker and that shaped everything. So that's generally been the case all the way across, from the beginning to end of my work. I don't think I was that conscious of it, as a part of the process, until The Sweet Hereafter . When I was writing The Sweet Hereafter -- before I wrote it, actually, when I was organizing it, trying to add some material -- I read a whole lot of depositions taken by a lawyer friend of mine, of parents who had lost their children in accidents, or whose children had been maimed or whatever -- he had litigated class-action suits or liability suits for them -- and he let me read all these depositions. And I realized, a deposition -- when you depose somebody -- it's really what a reader does, when a reader cracks open a book and it's a first-person narrator! In a sense you start out with the assumption that this person is going to tell me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth -- and if they aren't, I'll figure it out. Then it's called an unreliable narrator! Or a liar!
Fathers and sons is such an inescapable theme in your work: Wade Whitehouse in Affliction -- and the book itself is dedicated to your father. Owen Brown, obviously; Mitchell Stephens and his daughter, in The Sweet Hereafter, Earl and his father in "Queen for a Day." It seems like it's a steady constant, this theme of fathers and sons. Is this captivating for you -- or cathartic? Or all those things?
The relationships you cover are also very ambiguous in a lot of ways. I found Wade in Affliction horrifying -- there's a scene of him extracting his own tooth, which is almost unreadable -- but he wants to be a "good man." He's not completely bad, either. I've always thought John Brown has been unfairly maligned as a fanatic, when in fact he's very heroic. But there's clearly a psychotic streak running in him too. Bob in Continental Drift, you feel like shaking him but also befriending him. It's hard to draw pat conclusions from the central characters. You're prepared to hate Wade, but he's not hateable.
You want to very much. That's an interesting, ongoing theme too.
In fact, when I read Cloudsplitter, I was so happy that John Brown was getting rescued from his unfair historical tagging, but at the end it's uneasy...
Trailerpark reminded me of a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio. You've talked about your relationship with Nelson Algren. Are your influences front and center: are you following in the footsteps of Algren or other luminaries? Did you deliberately plan Trailerpark as sort of a modern Sherwood Anderson?
In another sense, it does something else that's equally interesting, I think. I was very aware of Winesburg, Ohio -- in Trailerpark -- because of the kind of slightly Gothic humor [and] the qualities of the stories as moral fables, and so forth. I was very aware of it, and learned from it, and took validation and comfort from it. I think every book in a way -- this may be true for most writers -- has a kind of invisible or secret structure to it, or homage, almost. I mean, Rule of the Bone ; it's not such a secret that it's modeled on Huckleberry Finn . And I'm very aware of it. There are aspects of Cloudsplitter that I modeled consciously on Moby Dick. So I'm very aware of these invisible structures because you need them, you want them. They're incredibly useful. They help you organize masses of material, they help you take a position toward that material that you might not be able to get to otherwise. You often end up in an argument with the other book or the other writer. In many ways Rule of the Bone is an argument with Huckleberry Finn. So it's an ongoing -- and for a writer, I think an interesting and necessary, even -- ongoing dialogue with the dead. Most of those writers that have that kind of impact on you unfortunately are dead! But they're the great books.
We were just talking about that! The original draft of that script was written before Ted Williams died! We had to change the lines to accommodate the fact that he died.
So far as the question goes of legal ramifications no, I never certainly worried about Ted Williams, who's portrayed in Continental Drift , I think, in a favorable way. He's quite dignified and he's fishing in Islamorada, where he indeed had a fishing camp for many years. I really wanted him because of the role he plays in Bob Dubois' imagination. Errol Flynn had a much more vivid and important role to play in The Book of Jamaica ; Errol Flynn and his wife -- I did have some concern there, not so much with Errol Flynn, because you can't libel the dead. Or, for that matter, with regard to the case of the killing, which is at the center of the story about Flynn there. His biographer, Charles Hyam, uncovered several similar episodes like that in Flynn's life where, after he left the hotel a dead prostitute was found in the room. There was one in Miami, there was one in Italy. I happened to come across this story in Jamaica when I was living down there, and so I wasn't afraid of going ahead and using it in the novel. But Mrs. Flynn was still alive at this time, and she appears in a distant way -- she never really appears as a character, and I don't attribute much to her that wasn't public record.
What music did you listen to for Rule of the Bone? I found the book very musical -- in real grunge sort of way...
I know there was a recent encounter between two groups of kids -- one group from a prep school, one from a school in east Harlem -- who both read Rule of the Bone who then met and discussed the book.
Of course, when I walked in they were all shyly lined up on opposite sides of the room. The kids -- almost all black and Latino from the east Harlem public school, and there were all white kids from the school in New Jersey on the other side of the room. But once we got talking and going around the room -- it was just Q and A -- and everybody was basically asking questions that they wanted to hear answered too -- I mean, they had the same kinds of questions and insights and thoughts and worries -- pretty soon the kids were coming together, and the teacher wrote me afterwards. He said: It was really interesting after you left because the kids had lunch together and, he said, the kids kind of used the book to break the barriers down between them.
Richard Klin lives in New York's Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Publishers Weekly, Parabola and the Web zine LiP. He has recently completed a novel.