by Russell Banks

Published by HarperCollins



Continental Drift

by Russell Banks

Published by Perennial


Rule of the Bone

by Russell Banks

Published by HarperCollins







"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."







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.

And, as I discovered, there are still more film versions of Russell Banks novels in the works: Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, andTrailerpark are all headed for the big screen.

Russell Banks was born in New Hampshire in 1940, leading a life -- as a teenage reprobate, plumber, gas-pumper, and young husband and father -- not dissimilar to those he features in his writing. He is the father of four daughters and is married to the poet Chase Twichell.

I interviewed him at his home and office in upstate New York, at what is clearly a busy time for him -- a fact underscored as he interrupted work on the Continental Divide screenplay to speak with me. Russell Banks' fiction is often dark. In contrast -- with his relaxed, unassuming manner -- the author himself is anything but, and leaves no hint of the critical acclaim his writing has engendered, nor the plethora of awards he has received, nor a stint as a Princeton University professor. For our interview, Banks was cordial, thoughtful, precise, exceedingly generous with his time -- and his coffee.


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?

Russell Banks: Not really ... I'm also, you know, not bound to the actual, literal geography of New Hampshire. The Sweet Hereafter is set in upstate New York, in the Adirondacks region, and Cloudsplitter -- much of that is set in the Adirondacks region of New York. Other books have certainly wandered off into other territory, the Caribbean and elsewhere. It's probably more class specific, and cultural specific. I think that southern Canada and the northern United States -- right across the continent, almost -- Maine and the Maritimes to Washington and British Columbia -- share a culture; especially when you get out of big cities, and into the smaller towns, the villages, the country. And it's kind of Protestant; it's Anglo ... with the added mixture of the French. And it's northern -- people are affected by the climate, by the cold, as much as they are by the religion, by their religious background and culture. And the economics are very similar, the breakdown of the classes, the kinds of work people do, the way they live. So I don't feel bound to that geography. I draw very much on that cultural, that social, political background, which I share. It's my social, cultural, and political ground. The actual, literal geography doesn't matter to me as much. Whether it's New Hampshire or upstate New York; it may as well be upper Michigan, Minnesota, or Washington 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 think that may have to do -- in mainstream media, you're talking about -- with the people who create it and market it. Their backgrounds, and their experience and knowledge. The famous movie agent Swifty Lazar was once asked why there were so many movies made about basically boring clichéd subjects and people and places, and he said, "Well, you gotta remember ... those people out in Hollywood, they ain't got no education and they never been nowhere!"

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 hope so -- and humorous respect.

I find a lot of your stuff really funny -- which almost feels sacrilegious!

Well, I'm glad to hear it, actually, because I'm usually regarded as a very depressing writer!

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?

Oh, very much! Those are characters and situations, stories, that to me are really hilarious. That was the reason I was drawn to them in the first place, I think, was out of that. And I like to think that I have a fairly developed comic sensibility. I think too they aren't ridiculous -- that's the thing. And they aren't ludicrous or the objects of fun. They themselves may be funny, but I don't want them to be the objects of somebody else's feelings of superiority. And, you know, they're universal human foibles too that we're talking about -- and vanities, and so on.

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?

I don't think of myself as ideological, or as having a political message. But I can't see human beings without having a political dimension to their lives. So my view of the world and of human life is going to have a political dimension -- it's inescapable. I don't see American life, generally, across the board, without a racial or class dimension. And so the work is going to reflect that. But I want to insist -- I don't bring to it, however, a grid or a template that's political or that's ideological. It's really just to me the way humanity ends up organizing itself, and it's about power and the relations between people -- the power relations that exist between people -- that are so often based on class or gender or whatever, and shaped by that to a great degree. It's simply that -- it's like talking about a human being's interesting love life. We all have a love life of some sort, to a greater or lesser degree! And you can't describe a human being without acknowledging that and dealing with it -- the same thing with politics. You can't describe a human being without acknowledging that.

Do you take political stands as a writer?

In my personal life, yes. I'm very political. I'm president of the International Parliament of Writers, which is an organization that exists primarily to provide safe haven for writers who are under threat around the world. And I sign a lot of petitions! I write articles occasionally ... and certainly letters to the editor and take stands right and left and I'm online with over a hundred other people ... writers and intellectuals and academics around the world, exchanging articles and information all the time. So it's a constant part of my ongoing intellectual and social life. But as far as its relation to my work goes, that's different. The first is my life as a citizen. My life as an artist is somewhat different in that regard.

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?

Well, I never quite thought of it that way. I think that I nurtured -- as a young man and adolescent -- my visual sensibility. I mean, it was important to me. And it was important to others and so I nurtured it and paid attention to it. Even as I was moving into writing. And it stayed ... and I still feel confident that if I can't see what I'm writing, then I've got to stop and re-imagine whatever it is and find out why I'm not seeing it. It's necessary for me to see what I write as I write, all the time. So I think that's a factor.

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?

I still do, for my own amusement. Watercolors and pastels. They're not in any grand scale and certainly not anything more than my own personal...

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!

Or both!

Or both.

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?

Well ... I wouldn't call it cathartic, necessarily, or therapeutic. The relation between fathers and sons was a very important one to me, growing up. I was the oldest of four; my father was a very strong person, a huge presence in my life, and then a huge absence in my life when he abandoned the family when I was 14. And he was a difficult, complex, intense -- and violent and alcoholic -- man. So he was a big presence, someone to deal with growing up, and in adult life as well. That grows out of that, I'm sure. It also is, after all, one of the maybe four or five at most, central relationships that we all have. It's a universal one. It doesn't have to be fathers and sons; you mentioned fathers and daughters in the case of Mitchell Stephens. But that relationship between a male parent and a child -- especially a male parent who is both threatening and supportive and nurturing -- that combination is really a powerful one, a dramatic one, I think. So there are lots of reasons why I've been drawn to it over the years, starting with the personal and then just looking around and saying, well, this is something I share with the rest of mankind! This is not a peculiar situation. And then as a father myself -- I have four children, four daughters -- I certainly had 35, 40 of life experience that has been engaged from the other end of it; that polarizing relationship. So I know it from both sides. It's one of the central relationships.

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.

You want to very much. That's an interesting, ongoing theme too.

Again, it goes back to: how does the writer view the universe? How do you view human beings? It's the case, I think, that no one is simply one thing or the other -- except for those few beings who are out of their minds, in a literal and ongoing way. But most human beings -- almost all human beings -- are made up of this conflicted mix of good and bad motives, and good and bad deeds, and perception and blindness. And they're not interesting if they aren't. You know, if a character is completely consistent -- loves puppies, loves babies, loves mornings -- like those classified ads you read in the back of magazines; people looking for companionship. They love to jog, and they love to read Spinoza....

... opera ...

... they love opera! They're totally consistent right down the line. You read it and you say, that's not a real person! That's advertising! And so the same thing with human beings. You can't believe in them if they're consistent. They have to be made up of these contradictions and conflicts and contraries -- because we know we are. And that's the final reality check.

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...

Well, I couldn't sentimentalize it ... because in the popular imagination he's one or the other: a religious fanatic or he's a sublime hero. But in reality, of course, to humanize him you've got to allow those things to coexist.

Warts and all.

And you can't judge him -- that's what makes it impossible or difficult to judge a literary character that's worth reading or rereading.

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?

Well actually, those are two different questions, but there's the same answer probably for both of them. I certainly never modeled myself entirely or even in part after another writer or human being. But I certainly have learned from other writers and human beings. In many ways Algren was a mentor for me, and an important one: both as a writer and simply as a human being; a friend, as he was. But more likely, it's the case that individual books are indeed modeled after preexisting books. I mean, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Trailerpark, for instance, is very closely -- not modeled after Winesburg, Ohio -- but took that as an example. I said, gee, you can do this. You can write a cycle of stories that are located -- that are connected -- by place, and where minor characters become major characters in another story and vice-versa, and you don't have to adhere to the unities of time, because you've got a such a strong unity of place. And the voice is consistent enough that ties them together and you get something that's not a novel in a conventional sense, but it's a narrative, a long narrative.

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.

This is a really minor question, but I'm very curious. Ted Williams appears in Continental Drift...

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.

Errol Flynn and his widow pop up in The Book of Jamaica. Do you feel any trepidation -- legal or otherwise?

No, I don't.

Did you have to tell Ted Williams you wrote about him?

I was hoping he'd live long enough so that he could make a cameo appearance in the film! He's a childhood hero. Part of it is those iconic figures -- I love them. How they end up becoming absorbed into the popular and then individual imaginations and dream lives -- people dream about these figures ... whom they will never meet and they only know through the popular media. Ted Williams was one for me, and Errol Flynn was another, and they just entered into my imagination in that iconic way.

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.

Her barking dogs are featured in the book.

They're there! But of course the publisher had to give it a legal reading when it was published, because I was edging up against an area where people might take legal offense and Mrs. Flynn was known to be litigious. But nothing ever came of it. The lawyers said no, this is fine.

What's next for you?

I'm working on a novel that's set in west Africa -- in Liberia -- in contemporary times, about an American woman who ends up over there, caught up in the civil war there. It's a long project; I've been on it for three years now. I'm hoping to finish that this fall. And I'm working on several film projects. This one, Continental Drift, and Rule of the Bone, and then HBO is developing Cloudsplitter as a three-hour special, and they're also developing Trailerpark as a series. I've just finished writing the pilot for that, and I'm working as a producer on Cloudsplitter. So I've got these other projects going ...

Your work is very filmic -- metaphorically and I guess literally now.

Well, I hope so! Although it's not exactly happy time! But I'd like to have it adapted, if possible; if it can be done right and done artistically and honestly. I've been lucky up to now. I mean, I have been able to have adaptations that I felt were artistically serious and interesting and successful by and large, and also were morally and politically, socially, rigorous.

What music did you listen to for Rule of the Bone? I found the book very musical -- in real grunge sort of way...

It was mostly grunge and alternative rock...

That you took from your kids?

Hey, they took from me! I built up a huge collection. If you listen enough to any kind of music -- whatever it is -- and I listen mostly to jazz and classical, out of my own taste -- if you listen to country-and-western, if you listen to rap, or you listen to grunge and alternative rock, it doesn't matter what it is ... world music, or anything ... 95 or more per cent of it is junk. But if you don't listen to it very much, you can't tell the difference between the junk and the quality. It all sounds more or less the same. But if you listen to them with intention and over time, pretty soon you can pick it out. You can know right away: this is good, that's no good. And so I had to do that with that music, because I hadn't listened closely to music of the kids of that era, of my kids' and my grandkids' era, until I was working on that book, and then I did. I did -- I spent six months, I bought a huge collection of this stuff, and a lot of it -- 95 percent of it -- is junk.

Were there any groups in particular you focused on?

Well ... what did I keep ... what do I still go out and buy? ... I go out and buy Pearl Jam's newest or I'll go out and buy Beck, who I really like, and people like that ... I still shop!

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.

There are two teachers -- father and son -- and the son teaches in east Harlem, and they both teach Rule of the Bone to these kids from entirely different worlds. So they brought the kids together up at this east Harlem high school and I went in. It was the most interesting two hours I've had in a public forum maybe in years, because of the mix of kids.

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.

That's amazing.

It was amazing. It was really satisfying. | June 2003


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.