Russell Banks—Seeing Is the Goal

In the mornings, about six days a week, novelist Russell Banks heads out to his studio. To the right, in the warmer months, is a meadow of wildflowers; on the left, large rocks reminiscent of New England. It’s a short walk, down a hill, to an old remodeled sugar shack that overlooks a river. His studio. “Splendid rural isolation,” Banks calls it.

This land in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains is very much connected to Banks’s work, especially his latest novel, Cloudsplitter (HarperCollins). The burial site of abolitionist John Brown, one of the main characters of Cloudsplitter, is about 12 miles away; so is a view of Brown’s favorite mountain, Tahawus, so named Cloudsplitter by the Iroquois Indians.

“The mornings are the real work time for me,” Banks says. He writes on a laptop computer, sometimes in longhand, and later types the words. There is no particular pattern to this work process, Banks says—whatever feels right that day. He works four to five hours a day on the novel. Around lunch time, he heads back to the house and spends the afternoon on various projects, or hikes around the property—the latter activity, perhaps, the inspiration for the vivid descriptions of landscapes and skies in his writing.

“I believe and have always believed that before all else I want my readers to see,” says Banks, quoting Joseph Conrad. “He meant literally visualize, not understand. That’s the ambition for me as a writer, too—so that my readers can see the world or themselves or other human beings in the world a little differently, a little more clearly.” When Banks takes the train through Westchester County to New York City, he says he can’t see the passing suburbs in the same way he might have had he not read author John Cheever. “I see the men with their hats and briefcases differently. I see them with more compassion, with more understanding, more patience; I don’t stereotype them as easily. A good book makes you see them differently. As a reader, the mark of a good book is that after having finished, I’m a slightly different person. I think a little differently, I see the world a little differently, than before I read that book.”

Banks’ life today—with 13 published books—is quite different from the one he imagined in his early 20s when he started writing stories. He never expected to earn a living or support a family solely on his writing income, or to achieve commercial success as a literary novelist. “I prepared for that by giving myself over to a teaching career.”

Over the years, Banks has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, New York University and Princeton University. In 1998—after about 16 years teaching in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program—he moved to upstate New York and began writing fulltime, heading to his studio “almost as if I had a real job.”

The turning point in his career was the publication of the novel Continental Drift (HarperCollins), in 1985. He was 45 then. The 6 published books to his credit hadn’t sold more than 10,000 to 12,000 in hardcover. “The novel is an absorbing and powerful book that ambitiously attempts to speak to the times,” wrote a critic in the New York Review of Books of Continental Drift, which dealt with immigration at a time of widespread curiosity and anxiety on the issue. “One of the things that mattered in gaining a wider audience was that it was set in a world that mattered to people,” says Banks.

Ironically, Banks doesn’t deliberately seek out a subject or theme just to sell books. “I’m following my own curiosity and anxieties and concerns and obsessions, I suppose, without regard to how widely they may be shared,” he says. “If it turns out they are widely shared, well and good, and if it turns out they’re not, then I can live with that. But I have to be faithful to myself and my own intuitions.”

His current novel-in-progress is a contemporary story set in West Africa—quite a contrast, at first thought, from the historical Cloudsplitter, and the 1850s American Civil War issues. But this next book most likely will deal with the themes of civil war in Liberia. Will Banks’s treatment of the events in West Africa say something about life in middle America? “I can just smell it—I don’t know how or why; I’ll have to write the book to find out,” he says. “The valuable writer, poet or storyteller is the one who can name the source of a pervasive cultural anxiety that hasn’t yet got a name. A writer can dramatize that in a way to make it articulate to himself or herself and to the readers.”

The next major “continental drift” in Banks’s career has perhaps been Hollywood’s awareness of Banks’s work. The Sweet Hereafter, based on his 1991 novel, was a Grand Prix winner at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. The film also earned Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay Adaptation. In 1999, actor James Coburn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Affliction, a film based on Banks’s 1989 novel of the same name. Additional film projects based on Banks’s novels are in development.

For a literary novelist to find filmmakers “attracted to the work whose visions overlap my own is very rare. Makes me nervous when you have that much luck,” says Banks.

For Banks, it’s important to get the first draft written before attempting to revise or enhance it. You don’t know at that point how certain parts will fit in. “When I’m writing fiction, I’m really only thinking about the sentence in front of me.”

A paragraph in a Banks novel can sometimes carry such emotional intensity for the reader and such life-changing consequences for the characters. How does he decide when a paragraph is completed? “If it feels right and has the weight and emotional depth, is clear and precise, then you’re free to move on.”

It’s important for Banks to envision and understand whom the listener will be in a novel that he’s writing. Keep in mind, he points out, that people speak differently, depending on whether the listener is a friend, lover or family member. “I try to avoid feeling as if I’m speaking through the character. I want to be sure I’m listening to that character.” For instance, with Cloudsplitter, Banks imagined himself to be Miss Mayo “listening” to Owen Brown’s account of the events surrounding the Harpers Ferry siege. In the novel, Brown remarks, “As I have said, we each will have very different uses for it [inscription of John Brown’s history] anyhow, uses shaped by those to whom we each imagine we are telling our respective tales.”

Early in 1999, Banks went on a ten-city tour to promote the paperback version of Cloudsplitter and the film Affliction. He’s not able to write when he’s on the road—too many interruptions, he says. But there is one benefit: “It re-affirms something you know in a theoretical way—readers take stories into their lives in a personal, intimate way.”

The range of readers he meets on tour can vary greatly. In Cincinnati, he gave a lecture, “The Voice of History,” to 200 people at the private Mercantile Library where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and William Thackeray once lectured. And earlier that day, Banks met with small groups of high school students. One student had asked “how to avoid the middle part of a writer’s life”—the time between the decision to write and the checks coming in. Ninety-nine percent of a writer’s time, Banks answered, is spent alone in a room, writing—not giving lectures or promoting one’s books.

“Sometimes, it’s the reader who takes the book personally and the critic who knows more about the book than the writer,” he says. A surprising observation, especially the latter. But the reader knows how the book applies to his or her own life, and the critic knows how the book applies to the whole of literature, Banks says. “A book is always in a lineage, one would hope, just as a writer participates in a tradition or has a lineage too; some of it’s very conscious and some of it’s not that conscious.”

When Banks is in the midst of writing a novel, he’s careful not to take on projects that put additional deadlines in his path. Like essays, for instance. When he does find time to write nonfiction, he can spend many more hours in one stretch—sometimes 12 to 15 hours a day. For him, writing nonfiction seems less draining. “Nonfiction doesn’t seem to draw from the same well.”

What will the writer of nonfiction encounter when trying to write a novel? “The main difference is when you write fiction, you enter another world, the fictional world, and when you write nonfiction, you don’t; you stay in your own world and you work with the materials in front of you. It’s a completely different mindset, a different level of intensity. Writing fiction is a little bit like hallucinating or out-of-body travel.”

Some of the same techniques are used but for very different ends. In nonfiction, those techniques are used to build an argument, win a case, make a point, he says. “In fiction you’re using those techniques to build a fictional alternative world to the one you or the reader lives in.”

Reading is the best way to know the differences, he points out. “All you have to do is examine your own reading process and what is going on when you’re reading a novel. You’re having visual and oral hallucinations—you’re seeing things and you’re hearing things. Dialogue is an oral hallucination. Exposition and description create visual hallucinations…. I think of fiction as a controlled hallucination. That kind of hallucination is something I’m conscious of trying to induce.”

When Banks, at age 22, decided to write a novel, he says he was “trying to imitate what I was reading.” After seven or eight years, “I realized I could reach a certain level of competence, at least that. I didn’t know if I could reach a level of artistry that I could perceive in other works.”

When does a writer reach a satisfactory level of artistry? “You really don’t know that, even if the critics praise you; even then you really don’t know. Every writer I admire has that kind of self-doubt at bottom. And even when you look back over your own career, you still don’t know.”

A writer must remain faithful to his origins, Banks says, and yet at the same time must go out of familiar territory into other people’s lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean moving to a place with a literary reputation. Splendid isolation will do just fine, with occasional forays.

The late novelist Nelson Algren, Banks’s mentor, taught him by example never to confuse one’s writing career with the actual work of writing. The work, Banks stresses, must come “first and foremost and solely—only.” No matter where.

This interview appeared in the 2000 edition of Writer’s Market. See the current issue of Writer’s Market.

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