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Finding the Authenticating Narrator: Part II of a Conversation with Russell Banks

Back in the fall of 2012, Sebastian Matthews hosted Russell Banks as Visiting Writer for Warren Wilson College’s Harwood-Cole Lecture Series. Knowing he’d be in town for a few days, Matthews arranged to interview Banks, who is a long-time family friend, on Jeff Davis’ radio show Word Play. What follows is Part II of their conversation.

Russell Banks

Russell Banks / photo credit Larry D. Moore

Back in the fall of 2012 I had the opportunity to host Russell Banks as Visiting Writer for Warren Wilson College’s Harwood-Cole Lecture Series. Knowing he’d be in town for a few days, I arranged to interview Russell on my good pal Jeff Davis’ radio show Word Play. Forty years before, Jeff had worked on the literary magazine Lillabulero in Chapel Hill, which Banks co-edited with my father, the poet William Matthews. I’ve been reading Banks and turning to him as a mentor all my adult life. In many ways, the interview felt like a homecoming.

Banks’ new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, had recently come out in paperback. I’d just read it as part of a large project to revisit Banks’ extensive oeuvre. The night before, Russ had read from the new book, and we stayed up late afterward talking about life and literature with my good friend Keith Flynn. Banks and I met the next morning to record the interview. What follows is Part II of our conversation. You can begin with Part I here, or continue on.

Russell Banks is the author of more than a dozen novels, four collections of stories and two nonfiction works. Included among the numerous honors and awards Banks has received are the Ingram Merrill Award, the John Dos Passos Award, the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were Pulitzer Prize finalists; Affliction, Cloudsplitter and Lost Memory of Skin were PEN/Faulkner Finalists. Lost Memory of Skin was a Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Banks was New York State Author (2004–2008) and is the founder and President of Cities of Refuge North America. He is the winner of the 2011 Common Wealth Award for Literature.


Sebastian Matthews: I have a bit of a convoluted and maybe clueless question, but I think it fits. I have read critics who talk about the span of your career in a kind of “I like the early, funny movies of Woody Allen” way. They say that you were experimental in the early novels but seem to have moved into more classic narrative modes. But I am not so sure, especially as a short story writer, that’s true for you. I think you’re always shifting and trying different modes. Are there one or two things that you have been able to practice or play with across your career?

I am thinking of an early story, “With Che in New Hampshire,” where you have this little cinematic fade out. Those kind of moves—the meta-fictional moves. Then I am thinking about the Mouth Man narrator in Continental Drift. These ways to stand maybe above the narration a little bit and find a way to have a different purchase, or vantage point, on the narrative. It’s easy to say, “Oh, the earlier funny films, now the serious later films.” Or, “He was experimental and now he’s much more formal.” But I don’t think that’s always true.

Russell Banks: I was never comfortable with the notion of being an “experimental” writer. Experiments are something you can do with science; you really can’t do them as a writer, I don’t think. And if you do experiments in writing you’re probably not really writing. You’re doing something else, which is interesting in its own right, certainly, to see if it works or not, you know. Then it’s an experiment. But I never felt that’s what I was doing. What I think I was doing was expressing in literary terms—trying to dramatize it—a mistrust of the narrator, of the truth-teller. And this was an early, intuitive kind of move for me. It wasn’t a post-modern, academic perspective, or intellectual perspective. It was just that I, as a person, as a human being, tend to distrust narrative. Now you can blame that on my New England Presbyterian background…

Let’s do it.

Why not…Let’s reduce it to that…

They can handle it.

Or you can blame it, say, on “He was a child of an alcoholic. They always mistrust the storyteller.”


Yeah, rightly so. But I know that in my twenties, when I was beginning work—well, up into my thirties on and to some degree still—I mistrust the narrator and I look for ways to find an authenticating narrator. And sometimes the only way I can find that is through a sort of exo-skeleton, a formalistic perspective on the story itself that’s outside the story. Less so now. It isn’t that I trust the narrator more. I think I am a little more skillful at finding those contrivances—artifices—that will allow me to simultaneously tell a story and express mistrust of the narrator.

And another thing, as I’ve gotten older, too, I’ve come to trust the reader more. Or maybe I just don’t give a shit as much. [Laughs] You know? About being understood. But as a result I don’t work so hard to articulate that mistrust in an overt way as I think I did when I was younger.

Yeah, that makes sense. That’s great. [Pause] I am going to switch gears. What’s the role of music in your composition process? I know you love music. I know you listen to tons of music. But do you listen to it when you write?

I do listen when I work. I always try to set it up so that I am working outside the house in a place where I don’t do anything else but write. I don’t pay bills there, I don’t take calls there, I don’t feed my dogs there…I pat them but I don’t feed them. [Laughs] No distractions. That’s all I do. I just associate work with this space, and it acts as a kind of mnemonic device, when I walk into this room…I have this place up in Upstate New York, an old renovated Sugar Shack that I work in about a thousand yards from the house, and then I have a little studio apartment in Miami the other six months of the year that I work in. That’s all I do there. I walk in and Bang!

Now every writer has little ways to enter that “no mind” zone. Hemingway used to sharpen pencils. First he’d sharpen a dozen pencils. And I use music that way. Some people burn incense into order to start meditating. Well, I put on some tunes. And usually the tunes have something to do with what I am working on—in some personal, intuitive way. It isn’t like a soundtrack. It’s maybe music I think the characters want to hear. And sometimes it’s music I associate with the era, if it’s historical or something like that. But nothing very elaborate. It’s really just a way for me to induce a certain mentality that I find necessary for writing, or what I call “no mind.”

Yeah, the ambience…

It’s associational…the same thing as that space. I walk in and I can smell it. It smells like work in here. [Laughs] Nobody cooks in this space.

Except Miles maybe…

[Laughs] Yeah….

I know you’re long-time friends with Michael Ondaatje and Paul Auster, two of my favorite writers. And you guys all started as poets and you all became novelists…

True, true…

I know you have other working friends, friendships with other writers over the years as colleagues, at Princeton. But thinking of those two guys in particular. Geographically you guys are separated. What’s the role of that kind of brotherhood or fraternity for you?

There are some sisters there, too, you know. I have been close for many, many years with Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose and Toni Morrison and a few others, so it’s a real mixed group of people that I think of as my generation, I guess. They are the kids I really want to hang out with in the playground…of life [Laughs]…and you do that, you start making those selections when you’re six years old, you know…You, but not you. That sort of thing. And it’s all on the basis of very superficial things.

You, if you bring the ball.

New Hope for the DeadBut it becomes very deep and profound. And it is a kind of sharing. Your dad was like that for me, too. Bill Matthews. Going back again to Chapel Hill, half a century ago practically. It was the identification of a shared sense of the enterprise. We had that together. Both of us seemed to understand the process and its implications and its demands the same way—moral demands, intellectual demands, personal and ethical demands and so on. And you share that, and you also share a kind of literary and historical context. We all can talk about more or less the same historical events. Mostly American, Post-World War II American history. We lived through it. We were conscious in the 50s, conscious in the 60s—more or less conscious in the 60s…[Laughs]

Depends what plane you were on…

But we shared those elections and those wars and the political and social movements, and we were on both sides of feminism—pre and post—because we came into adolescence in the Mad Men era, in the fifties. And we had to relearn our relations to women—males did—and women had to relearn their relations to women and to men, as well. So we went through all these things together, and that’s really important. It shapes your humor; it shapes your literary taste too. We all read a lot of the same texts and cut our teeth on them in a way. And then rejected them one by one as we grew older and moved on.

But that’s a terribly important thing to have. I used to say to students, okay, you have to find a mentor out there but you really got to find your peers too…a little group of your peers because they are going to teach you more than anyone else. And they are also going to make you meet certain standards, more so than anyone else. You’re going to have to live most of your life alone, but you need your peers.

Do you read all the writers you just mentioned? You know, sit down and read their books as they come out?

Yeah, I do, over time. I don’t read them as soon as I get the galleys, though in a few cases I do. And in the case of Joyce Carol Oates, I can’t keep up. She writes faster than I can read. I love her dearly, and I love a great deal of her work very much, but she is incredibly prolific. She’s wonderful and powerful. But she’s basically a Victorian male novelist I think in some ways. Like Trollope. Nobody criticizes Trollope the way they criticize her. And Updike the same. He produced as much as she did.

A lot of the writers of your generation have to choose whether they are going to write the memoir or not. And two of my favorite literary memoirs are Ondaatje’s and Auster’s early memoirs—Running in the Family and The Invention of Solitude. And I think that really good memoirs don’t trust the narrators either. It’s one thing I found in studying both novels and memoirs—that the really good memoir writers approach their narrative stances much the same way that novelists do, though in a more limited sense. They ask: where is the authentic impulse here? Not just, Here’s my story! but What’s the dynamic? Both Running in the Family and The Invention of Solitude are incredibly interesting portraits of fathers and unstable families. But my guess is that you’re not set up for a memoir. Why or why not?

Not really. It’s hard to say. There’s a certain reticence on my part…

I teach this stuff, I’ve got to ask…

I know. I can’t say I’m not drawn to it, because I am, but I don’t think that I believe my own personal story is all that interesting to start with. Not that interesting, really, even to me, let alone to strangers. And I feel I have a much greater freedom with fiction. But, yeah, I use my own life, of course. I pillage my own personal life and memories and experiences. I also pillage my dreams and my fantasies and pillage what I read in the newspaper with the same freedom and same entitlement. And I really don’t want to give that up. And I’d have to give up much of that if I were to write a memoir, because the contract I think between the writer of a memoir and a reader of a memoir is that you’re going to hew to the historical record as much as possible. Though it’s your understanding of the historical record, of course.

That’s the other unspoken rule: that you’ve got to trust your subjective take.

Yeah, I think that’s the reason I’ve not been tempted to write a memoir. You know, a personal essay here, a personal essay there when I can get to it. I have done some travel writing and things like that. But a real memoir, a long prose narrative, doesn’t draw me in any way. And it isn’t because I have anything against the form; I’m just not drawn to it.

I have just a few more questions. One is about the connection of your books to film. For the last ten, fifteen, twenty years you have been helping form your books as they move into films. But before I ask about that process, let me ask you this: do you know the Three Color trilogy, directed by Keislowksi?

Yeah. Red, Blue, and White.

There’s the whole idea of synchronicity that runs through those films. There’s an interpenetration in those movies, something we talked about a while ago. You do this a little bit in your books, like how the bus from The Sweet Hereafter is the bus in Bone that I-Man squats in—the school bus that is in the accident ends up getting turned into a makeshift abode. And there are moments in a few other of your books where the novel’s narratives kind of interpenetrate. Can you talk a little about that and say something about why you do it?  For me, I love it when movies do this, but it can feel like this little side thing.

Yeah, it can be self-referential and, in that sense, can be self-admiring, too, if you’re not careful.

Yeah, too inside.

You think, Gee this image is so beautiful I think I’ll use it, recycle it in a later story. In the case of the school bus, and a couple of the characters in The Sweet Hereafter showing up in Rule of the Bone, it was really quite deliberate and conscious to link those two because I felt I was writing a kind of moral fable in each case about the abandoned children in our society—on one level. There are many things going on, I hope. Sweet Hereafter is the story of the abandoned children, or the lost children, told from the point of view of the adults, the parents in society. And Rule of the Bone is from the point of view of the child, the lost child. And so they belong together, the two stories, and they are very similar in their kind of fable-like construction and perspective. So that seemed like a natural need for the interpenetration of the elements of one story into the other.

But then there’s another reason, too, for certain characters have a life you want to go back and check in on. Again, in the Lost Memory of Skin, the school bus driver in Sweet Hereafter, Delores, shows up at the end. She’s working in the Everglades…

Oh, that was her?

Yeah, yeah.

Oh my god, I missed that one!

You missed that one? Yeah, there are several references to Otto, her husband, who died long before she shows up at the Everglades, but I always liked her, enormously, and I thought she got a bad deal at the end of The Sweet Hereafter, and I felt badly for her…

She was a driver of a bus that crashed and killed those kids…

I know, and she was a scapegoat and I just wanted to give her another chance, another shot. And so she shows up in Lost Memory. And also I liked her as a person; she was a nice person. And I don’t have many nice people in my books. So when I have one [laughing] I like to keep them around. So I’ll occasionally revisit a character in that regard.

And it may be a regional thing, right?

And it links the two regions of my life, really—the state of New York, small-town America, and the south Florida of Miami, etc…the semi-tropics. Building bridges between the two is of some interest to me, even if they’re fictional.

But there is something further to what you’re saying. I mean, after a certain point you realize, I’ve been doing this for half a century, and there are continuities and why not just acknowledge that and live with it? And see what it means and see if it’s just superficial or does it have some depth to it.

It can be playful. Like in those movies, there’s a scene where a character walks into a courtroom and thinks, “What am I doing here?” He closes the door and keeps going. Then two movies later, you’re in that courtroom scene and some guy walks in and you see him thinking to himself “What I am doing here?” before closing the door. And, if you’re paying attention as a viewer, you have to assume that it was just for fun.

Yeah, yeah. And I have done that too. I have characters, like in Rule of the Bone, the character named Russell… Bone and Russ destroy a home in the Adirondacks that is very much like our home. We’re the family whose house gets trashed, which is every summer person’s nightmare up there. That while they’re gone the local kids are going to break in and trash the place and burn all that expensive twig furniture in the fireplace to keep warm. [Laughing]

I love that scene. They just trash it.

Okay, a while ago you had a great discussion, I forget where, about the film The Sweet Hereafter and the amazing way the director, Atom Egoyan, transformed your book into a film. You described your book as these vertical parallel stories that get told, and he had to find a way to cinematically make the film work, and he put it all horizontally. I mean, obviously there’s conversion from the page to the screen. But you’re beginning to write screenplays now, more and more. You’ve adapted On the Road but you’ve also done some of your own books. What’s that been like and do you feel that the screenwriting has seeped into your prose writing, or do you feel like you can keep them separate?

I don’t think it has seeped into the fiction writing, because they are so distinct and separate. A screenplay shares with a novel language on a page, and it’s a form of story. But that’s about all they share. And an adaptation of a novel to film is a process that is so radical and extreme that it’s not a translation in any sense…and I don’t even like the term “adaptation” because you are not adapting a novel, you’re basically going to a novel and plucking out of it the few elements of the many element that will make a good two-hour movie.

Going back to what we were saying about taking eighteen hours or twenty hours to read a novel. I’ve got to reduce that…you can’t reduce it, or make a kind of bouillon cube out of it. You’ve got to go in there and pull out three or four stories or narrative elements to make a film. And to do that you must perform a piece of radical surgery. So once you know that, once you’ve tried to write screenplays or you’ve seen it done or you’ve worked with it, you realize that this has nothing to do with writing fiction. Nothing whatsoever to do with it.

And there is a comparison I think you can make: writing novels is like being a potter. You’re all by yourself. You take what is essentially a lump of clay and you spin it into a three-dimensional object. It may have a flat base but it’s round, it’s three-dimensional. And that’s the great thing, that’s the novel. You love it. It’s beautiful on its own terms. Then you want to make a movie out of that, but it’s as if what you really want to make is a two-dimensional object out of it—to make a stained-glass window. So you smash the pot on the floor and you go through the pieces and pull out the flat pieces, the ones on the base, and…

…and you begin to make a mosaic…

…and then you start to go to work with the guy who nails the frame and the guy who does the design and the guy who does the leading. And it’s guild work, you know. Making a movie is guild work. Making a pot is solitary, making a stained-glass window is collaborative. You’ve got a whole group of people working together, collaborating, and you’re just using the flat pieces off the pot, that’s it.

And that’s so different. I don’t feel any infection or contamination of my fiction writing by the screenwriting. What it does do is tap into a side of my personality that likes collaboration. And I didn’t realize how much I liked it, needed it, until I stopped teaching back in the 90s, and then I thought, Now I am not teaching anymore, instead of five hours a day to write, I’ll have twelve hours a day to write. But, no…

…you still have five.

You still have five.

And seven hours to do something else.

Yeah. [Laughing] And that’s when I started to get involved in film and working with other people, and I started doing more political work and stuff like that. And so pretty soon I am working with other people seven hours a day.

There’s this idea that a novel in its full realm—from its full traverse from its creation to the publication—is also a collaborative act. Not my favorite way to look at it, but there’s some truth to it, such as the role of the editor…

I don’t know if I agree actually. Of course, at the point where you send it off to your publisher or agent it becomes collaborative. But it also becomes a product, too. But up to that point it is not a product. And as long as you can hold onto that and, in a sense, keep it from becoming a product, it’s solitary. You’re still making a work of art; you’re not selling one.

It’s not a commodity.

Yeah, until you’re done with it. Then I’ll sell it and see what I can get for it. But I would have written the same thing regardless. That’s a point that you have to keep in your head. The novels I have written, the stories I have written, I would have written regardless of whether they were published or going to be published. I am glad that they have been. I am grateful that I can actually live off the income from my writing. It’s so rare in America, rare anywhere in the world. And I am incredibly grateful for that. But I would have still written the same things.

  • In case you missed it, read Part I of Sebastian Matthews’ interview with Russell Banks.

Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), and two poetry collections: We Generous (Red Hen Press, 2007) and Miracle Day (Red Hen Press, 2012). Having recently completed a third book of poems, Matthews is hard at work on a novel. He graduated from The University of Michigan back in the early nineties, heart-broken that the Fab Five failed to win it all.

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