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Russell Banks

February 16-17, 2004

Bio

Russell BanksRussell Banks is the author of thirteen novels, including Affliction, which was short listed for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize and Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter, which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and 1998 respectively. Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter were adapted for feature-length films and Banks was the screenwriter of a film adaptation of Continental Drift. Banks has also contributed poems, stories, and essays to The Boston Globe Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, and Harper's. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, the Ingram Merrill Award, the St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, the O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, the John Dos Passos Award, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Photos from Banks' visit

Essay on Banks' visit by Megan Scanlon

It is surprising, perhaps even astonishing, that there is something fatherly about Russell Banks. Surprising because his writing is just the opposite: gripping, violent, brutally honest, tragic even.

His characters often live and breathe the violence of their families, of their father's families, generation after generation. They are more familiar with alcohol, with loss, and with death than they are with love or vitality.

But Banks the writer and Banks the person are too very different things. And for the moment, Russell Banks has taken on the role of teacher. In a room full of college students, Banks takes his seat in a circle of chairs, and leans towards the group with a smile.

"So," he says, "throw me a big soft one."

*

Jamie-Lee Josselyn doesn't have a lot of soft ones to throw. When she stands up to introduce Banks to the large crowd that will gather here tonight, she will not to able to explain the precise nature of their connection. It will not be enough to say that she too, is from New Hampshire, or that, because she is an aspiring writer from a small, rural town, she has come to regard his work as somewhat of a guide for her career. These things are all true. But they are not the truth: at least, not the kind that Banks is interested in.

It is more accurate to say that Banks' fiction has, in a sense, taught her how to write. The story, of course, is already there: Jamie-Lee grew up in a small working class family - the only child of her father, an auto-mechanic and her mother, a waitress. They were twenty-one and twenty-two when she was born, young even by the standards of their hometown, in Whitman, Massachusetts. She learned early on not to ask a lot of questions, but even family secrets did not prevent Jamie-Lee from understanding, young as she was, that her mother was an alcoholic. She was twelve when her mother committed suicide: old enough to understand what she had lost, even if she will never be old enough to understand exactly why.

"Writing what you know," Russell Banks says, "is a cliche. Instead, I try to write what is a mystery to me. That might be something you think you know - it might be your own childhood. I've written towards the mystery - I've tried to penetrate (it) layer after layer till I can't penetrate it anymore."

It is hard to imagine that there could be any mysteries in a town the size of Epping. But as Jamie-Lee will tell you, one of the most important things that Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter taught her was to understand the potential of people to be limited by their own connection to an event. Thanks to Banks' narration, the reader of this novel may have the power to view the tragedy from many angles, but the characters themselves are blinded by the strength of their own grief.

Jamie-Lee Josselyn introducing Russell Banks Just a few months ago, Jamie-Lee read an excerpt from a friend's on-line journal explaining the way the suicide had become a turning-point in her life. All the sudden, she had a realization: "(My mother's death) did have an impact on other people tooÖit was really interesting to see that, but I've never sat down with her and talked about it." In fact, because it seemed like everybody already knew the circumstances of her mother's death, she rarely talked about it at all. "I was blown away by Banks' description of that in the Sweet Hereafter." In the kind of town where everyone knows everyone, it seems that everyone "knows about it but doesn't necessarily talk about it- or at least, not loudly."

Jamie-Lee does not discuss her mother's death with her father; cannot imagine discussing it, despite the fact that they get along very well and have very similar personalities. Her parents never told her that her maternal grandfather, who died before she was born, had been an alcoholic. Nor did they tell her that he had killed himself when it all became too much. She wonders, now, if her cousins know how her mother really died, or if they have all believe, as one of the oldest recently told her, that their aunt died in a car-accident. "My cousin said she would bet anything that the others still think that is what happened. If they all still think that - when are they going to find out the truth? Are they going to?"

The truth that has become important is that which Jamie-Lee finds in her own writing. It gets at what, for her, is the fundamental question: "how do you take this and continue to live?"

It is not, Banks insists, about using writing as therapy. Words don't heal people and neither do stories. "I don't like the phrase 'put things behind you," Banks says, "it implies you encapsulate thingsÖ.and that isn't how we live our lives. The present and the past will always mingle."

For the writer, a story is about a kind of understanding - "an occasion that allows one to perceive the world and their place in it with greater clarity and simplification than is otherwise open to (them). My writing," says Banks, "is the place where I can be more honest and intelligent than I am in my regular life."

*

When Jamie-Lee gets up to introduce Russell Banks, she will say that while questioning whether or not she ought to be a writer, she "thought about how much Mr. Banks' work has affected me" and decided that "if I can have even a fraction of this effect on someone else than my question has been answered."

Later, seated next to him at dinner, she will think of New Hampshire and the small rural towns where both were raised. She will watch him deftly handle conversation and Oriental food and wonder, "who is he, using chopsticks?"

She will think, to herself, as she sits next to him, "you are sitting next to Russell Banks!" And she will recall, in her head, the quiet way he leaned over to speak to her before she introduced him:

"Are you nervous?" Banks, (kindly).

"No, not at all," Jamie-Lee, (lying).

"Oh. Well I'm a little nervous. I always get a little nervous before these things."

And when the dinner-conversation turns to Jamie-Lee's own writing and a controversial article she once published in the Penn Gazette, she will listen to academics and writing professors and Russell Banks debate her work and wonder, "what am I doing here?"

*

Before applying for the Fellows Seminar at the Kelly Writers House in November, Jamie-Lee had never heard of Russell Banks. In December, she sat in a coffee-shop, reading her first Banks novel - circling phrases that struck her and writing "this is so New Hampshire" in the margins. By the beginning of February, she knew that she had never felt so connected to someone she'd read before and the list of questions that she longed to ask him just kept growing.

His writing is often so personal, especially in Affliction, that Jamie-Lee is anxious to know the way his words affect his interaction with his family. For this novel, Banks tells the class that he "was drawing on my father's (experience), and my grandfathers and my great grandfathers, drawing on the entire lie of Banks males' experience, reallyÖthat is why it is dedicated to my father and in a sense why I couldn't write it until he was dead, because the character draw very much on his psychology."

But Banks' fiction is important because it does not draw only from this experience, or from experiences with which Banks is entirely familiar. As an example, he points to the fourteen-year old narrator of Rule of the Bone, whom, he says, had several different sources. "I was a fourteen year old boy onceÖthere is a lot of autobiography in his storyÖthe emotional life of Bone is not all that far from the emotional life I lived around that time. But I was also working with (and drawing from) young men in a prison, in their young twenties. I got into their lives, and that was something that I didn't know. I might have ended up there, but I didn'tÖ Bone also had literary sources, like Huckleberry FinnÖ.once I began, I was writing towards the mystery of that book."

"Some of the questions that were important (to me), that troubled me in my twenties and thirties, are not as important to me now. I rely a lot less on my own autobiographical experience as I grow older. My personal life, my real life, is one story. My characters are another. The laws under which they operate are for a fictional world, not the Banks world." Nonetheless, writing, Banks claims, has helped him to understand his own past. "The advantage I've had over my brother and sister is that (in my fiction) I can play all the roles, while they tend to choose one or the other."

Banks' ability to use his personal experience in so many ways has helped Jamie-Lee to formulate what she hopes will be one of her most important pieces of work. "I want to write about my mother's life, her death, and the afterward. I would interview people and kind of write other people's memoirs, in a way. I could sit down with people and see what they knew and didn't knowÖI have been thinking that I just can't imagine sitting down with my father and asking him that kind of stuff. But he would be the most important one to sit down with." And then there will be the other people in her family - like her grandmother, who lost both her daughter and her ex-husband, and her aunt, who lost both her father and her sister. "My aunt once said to me, that she didn't think my mother had ever gotten over their father's death. Which is an interesting thing to think about - an important question to answer - why did she do it to me?"

It is no accident that this approach very much resembles the attempts of Rolfe in Banks' Affliction. Perhaps, he claims, it was precisely because this story drew so much from his personal experiences that Banks relied on such an artificially constructed narrative. "I needed that device so that it remained a story, a narrative, not some essential truth," Banks says. "I've always been uncomfortable with the kind of authoritative narrator telling some essential truth because I've become aware that the more you get into a story, the more you are aware that the truth lies elsewhere." Rather, Banks explains the way that in writing a story, one must learn to let the narrative construct itself. "For me, that is always the best way to see the truth about anything."

Megan Scanlon was a member of the Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar during the spring 2004 semester. She was a member of Penn's class of '04 and currently resides in Los Angeles.