How did you come to be a writer?

Actually, portrait de Russell Banks
© Bruno Nuttens / Actes Sud
I first began as a painter, I thought I was going to be an artist of that sort. I knew I was going to be an artist of some sort and painting was the only observable talent that I had. If you can paint or draw, if you’re good at math or music, it shows itself early, but if you’re a story teller, if you have a literary gift, it doesn’t always show itself until late. And I wasn’t literary at all, I wasn’t from a literary family or culture particularly. I was from a working class family, not very bookish or anything.
When I was 18 or 19 that’s what I wanted to be. I was hitch hiking South in winter, in December 58 January 59 from New England. I was running away from home. I ended up in Miami and had a fantasy of going to Cuba and helping Fidel Castro and Che overthrow the dictator Batista. I wasn’t sure how to get there, but at least I knew how to get to Miami. In February 59 Castro and his revolutionary forces marched in Havana. They no longer needed me. There I was, stuck in Miami.
So I got a little job, moving furniture into a hotel, rented a room, I was painting in my room, lonely. I started reading books, going to the public library but without a teacher, without any education really. And I fell in love with literature. I read everything I could get my hand on. I read Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville, all the great American writers but also for the first time I started reading European writers.
I started to imitate what I loved, what I fell in love with. When I read a story by Hemingway I started to write a story like him, when I read a poem by Walt Whitman, I’d try to write a poem like him and so on.
One of the books I read which was very important for me at that age because it had just been published was Jack Kerouac’s On the road. He was describing more or less the life I was leading, I was on the road! And I didn’t know that that was what I was doing. I was inventing myself as an artist and I wasn’t sure that that was what I was doing. The people he was writing about sounded a lot like me and in someway that inspired me.
In fact it didn’t inspired me to become a writer as it validated what I was doing by instinct, intuition, it gave it some dignity, some meaning and a certain amount of structure. That’s really how I started as a writer, like a clever monkey imitating what I loved.
Within a few years I realized I was shaping my life around writing. My friends, my domestic relations, my economic reality, everything in my life was distorted, shaped, misshapen in order to accommodate this activity.
I was 22, 23, I realized "I must be a writer" because everything is serving that purpose. There wasn’t a moment when I said “I think I’ll become a writer”. It was two or three years afterwards I looked around and said "I guess I’m a writer". I wasn’t publishing anything, there was no social evidence that I was a writer but I knew I was a writer.

Do you still paint?

Yeah, I still paint and I still write poetry occasionally but I don’t exhibit my work I do it mostly for my own amusement.

What are your writing rituals ?

Most writers do have some writing rituals I guess, they are designed to get you out of your reality, out of your day to day life into the fictional world, the world of language. I have heard it described also as a way to get to that place where the mind is a blank, a world where you’re not worried about unpaid bills, or phone calls you didn’t returned. You’re just thinking on what you’re working on.
Hemingway began each day by sharpening a dozen pencils. I work in a studio, a small building, about a thousand meters from my house. It’s a sugar shack, it’s a building used in the North-East of the USA to boil down maple sap to maple syrup, boil it down to distill it. I renovated it and turned it into a studio for myself.
I go there in the morning, and play music right away, I use music as a wall between the world and myself. The music I play is keyed to what I’m working on. For example when I was writing The Reserve, which is set in the 30’s, 36/37, I listened to classical jazz from that period. Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Cole Porter, Tin Pan Alley. When I start playing that music it’s almost as if the movie starts, it’s like a soundtrack. It depends on the book, on the world that the book is set in. The music seems to accompany it.

Your books are very accurate (on Rastafarians,Liberia etc..). What proportion do you give to fiction as opposed to fact in the construction of your novels?

Social, historical, geographic reality plays important part in the fiction but it plays different roles. One is to provide for my characters’ lives a real historical context, cause everyone has an historical context, it’s like a background. Right now if I want to write about my own life today I would have to somehow include the war in Irak going on, the coming election in US, cause it’s a big historical event that are occurring because that’s part of my context. I may not write about them but they are the background, I use reality that way.
An other use for historical, social or geographic reality is simple plausibility, to give concrete details, have the texture of reality. And for that I need to know, I need to research, to get the information. For instance, if I’m writing about Liberia, if I say they eat breakfast, I have to know what Liberians eat for breakfast to make it plausible, to make it real.
And sometimes, I like to use historical figures, real people in my fiction. In The Reserve, Hemingway, John Dos Pasos appear in the novel briefly and in The Darling, the real Charles Taylor who is now in prison in La Haye appears as a character. I use them not as a journalist, or an historian, I use them as iconic figures, they’re icons. I’m not writing a biography of these people but if I write the words Charles Taylor or Hemingway, I know the image will appear in the mind of the readers, it’s for them to connect them with the fictional world of the invented characters. For instance, Hannah, Musgrave, in The Darling, is a totally invented person but in her life, historical figures like Charles Taylor existed and I wanted to bring that into the story. I could have invented a country, I could have invented a dictator with another name, like John Smith, but why bother? It’s like kind of a shorthand to use historical figures.

In The Angel on the Roof, you say that your mother constantly made up her own past in order to be loved. Do you think you replicate this process?

In some sense, yeah. I don’t know if it’s in order to be loved quite that way. Every artist is trying to make an object which he or she loves whether it’s a painting, a novel, or a poem, and hopes someone else will love that object too. I don’t think you do it in an egocentric way, in order to be loved by a stranger. It’s more like a shared love. I think it’s a real motivation for an artist. I think that’s what I’m alluding to.
My mother used to tell us stories in order to be loved but she was telling a story in the process and we would love the story. She would make them up lie about it, embellish things and everything… I think it’s the contrast between my two parents. If I asked my father "what was your days like, daddy?", he would say "It was okay, not so bad’ and that was the end of the conversation. And if I asked my mother "What was your days like, mum?", she would say “You’ll never believe who I met today.” And then she would begin a story and half of it would be true. We’d be enthralled! And we’d say “What did you say mummy?” And she would start a dialogue, play the different roles. It was irritating at a certain point because all I wanted was a short answer.

As a writer, do you think it's important to question the American dream?

I think it's because a dream that doesn’t correspond to reality is a dream we should not act on. It’s only a fantasy. I believe the American dream doesn’t correspond to American reality. I think the American dream has become a way to manipulate people. And therefore it has become a way to control people, to induce the American people to sacrifice a great part of their lives and of their children’s lives on the dream that somehow that’s worth it and that the next generation’s life will be better than ours.
The truth is ninety percent of the population who was born in poverty stay in poverty all their lives. And their children are born in poverty and their children’s children. The American dream says this will not happen, it says you may born in poverty but if you do not escape poverty, then it’s your own fault.
So to me, it’s an insidious dream that it needs to be criticized. It’s a golden dream, it’s a beautiful dream, but it’s not a dream, it’s a fantasy. It’s not a dream that corresponds to the reality.

I was surprised by the choice of point of view in Cloudsplitter. Why did you use John Brown’s son as the narrator?

cloudsplitterIf I had used John Brown himself as the narrator, I think it would have been very difficult for us to feel sympathetic towards him because he was in a way such a righteous man, a man who is absolutely sure of his vision, of his mission, that it would have been boring to listen to such a person for a thousand pages. But also I wanted to stay close to him, I wanted a narrator who loved him, but was also afraid of him. So I needed someone to tell the story who knew him intimately, who was aware of his failings and weaknesses, but also admired him on his principles and was present to all the most important events of his life. So that naturally suggested a son, a follower, a lieutenant figure and it happened to be such a person, John Brown’s son, Owen. It also suggested someone old enough during those events described in the novel and in his life.
Now the historical Owen Brown died in 1889 and I wanted my novel to be set in the early years of the XXth century so it could point to our present and not just be set in the antic period. Because at on a certain level it ‘s about terrorism and terrorism is very present in the XXth and XXIst century and I wanted to explore terrorism. Even though John Brown died in 1889, by authorial need I gave him an extra few years life. So he could live in the XXth century. The novel being set in 1903.

Your description of John Brown is very critical and if he hadn’t fought against slavery, the reader may have seen him as a terrorist. Is this choice of subject a way to tackle the problem of faith?

The reader is right, if it hadn’t been against slavery, which everyone of course agrees has to be overthrown even if by violent means, then we would view him as a terrorist. And in fact some still do in the US, white people especially. The black people tend to view him as a heroic figure, but the white people tend to view him as a mad man, as a terrorist and they use the same language to describe Brown’s raids on Harper’s Ferry for instance that they use to describe Islamist terrorists today, and it’s very curious and revealing that they do so.
I was very interested in trying to penetrate the crossroads between violence and religious faith. Because in American history they have crossed over regularly and now here in our time, we see them crossing over worldwide. Principal violence, I guess is what we call it. There’s a different kind of violence from that we usually hear of with principal violence. Killing for god in a sense. It’s so easy especially for someone like myself who is an atheist to think that it’s just madness, it doesn’t go anywhere.

Do you think political violence is set at a different level?

There is a slight difference yes, but it was ideological, it was politics driven by ideology like the radical left in the US in the late 60 and early 70, Weathermen in particular. But isn’t, in a sense, ideology politics made religious, made universal, rather than situational?
There is a distinction between the two nonetheless. They come together but you kill for a different kind of god, you see that in Fascism and Marxism as well, it’s like killing for the future. It’s apocalyptic thinking.

How did the Americans react to its publication?

There’s an interesting distinction between white readers and black readers at first, I think that’s the division that I spoke of earlier between how blacks viewed John Brown vs. how whites viewed John Brown. They don’t disagree on the facts, everybody accepts the account on John Brown’s life, but they disagree on the meaning of the facts. African Americans tent to view John Brown as a heroic figure whereas whites tent to see him as a madman. And this is how it generally is taught in schools. So I think that at first there was a liability by African American readers to see the book more or less as I hoped they would see it, as a sympathetic but true portrait of a character who had many powerful and admirable qualities and also weaknesses and failings, blind spots and seeing it in all it’s complexity. Whereas the white, they tended to say "Is he crazy or not?", they were very worried about the issue whether he was crazy or not. They didn’t quite get it at first but I think overtime it has found it’s audience. Now it’s taught in universities and I think it’s taught pretty much in the way you readers are interpreting it, as a novel about terrorism and about the intersection between religious faith and violence and not only in the case of the history of slavery but also even to today.
The book precedes 9/11, I wrote it in the 90’s, in 89. At that time there was American terrorism, radical anti abortionists who blew up abortion clinics, and shot doctors who were performing abortions. And they were invoking John Brown to justify what they were doing, just as in the 70’s the Weathermen were invoking John Brown to justify the blowing up of buildings and so forth against the war in Vietnam. So in 20 years John Brown had gone from being an icon of the radical left to an icon of the radical right. And I thought this is very interesting, this tells something about terrorism and religion and faith and so forth…

In The Sweet Hereafter, Mitchell Stephens is furious not about his daughter but about her way of life. Why did you not develop the father-daughter relationship?

It is not really about Mitchell and his daughter. It’s a different story, it would have taken a novel itself to tell it really. He has a lost child in the way that other people have a literally lost child in a real and physical way, whereas he has a lost child in a psychological and a familiar way. So I was trying through the novel to develop the larger theme of the lost children, of the abandoned children in our culture and I was exploring the ramification of that in a metaphoric sense. In a sociological level, I think the children in our culture have been abandoned. They have been turn into a consumer group in a consumer society they have become an essential and manipulated part of our economy. So we’ve objectified them in order to do that.
I think you can see The Sweet Hereafter as being linked very much to Rule of The Bone if you think of The Sweet Hereafter as a portrait of the lost children from the parent’s point of view then you can think of Rule of The Bone as a story of the lost children from the children point of view. And if I had my way, I would publish the two books together.

Why did you develop the frantic urge of the press looking for scoops and the lawyers’ thirst for clients while the main subject is responsibility in the accident?

He allows us to raise the question of blame in a legalistic way. In the U.S as you know Americans love to resolve the question of causation or blame in a court room, legally.
We’re terribly litigious people and we’re always suing each other. In a way it’s a denial of mystery in our lives and of the causeless events. We believe everything has to have a cause, and lawyers exemplify that, that need, that desire. So I wanted to make sure he was a player in the story. Another factor was that I wanted to bring in someone who would tell that part of the story who was from outside that little village because I wanted to link that village to the larger world. So we wouldn’t read it and say "This is what happen in a small village" but "No, this is what happens in the world".The story could be read as a moral fable that connects and implies the rest of us.

The darling In The Darling, Hannah says : there's nobody left who isn't wearing some kind of disguise. So who do you trust?". Is writing a way to take off this disguise or to take on a new one?

For the writerit’s a way to see and to hear what you can’t see or hear otherwise in the world and only see through writing a novel. So I guess in that sense, it’s a way of taking disguises off the world so that I can see that person and hear and understand her. But that’s a part of intentionality and the product of the process of writing. But one of the techniques or strategies necessary for doing that is for the writer to put on disguises because the writer has to inhabit the characters. A writer is actually more parallel to film or stage actor than a director. I used to think until I got involved in films that writers were more like directors than actors. But in fact when I started to hang around with actors and see how they work and think from their point of view, I realized they inhabit their characters the same way I inhabit my characters. And that’s like putting on a disguise I suppose.

You said that you often put yourself in the place of an addressee listening to the hero's story...

This is another character I have to invent, the listener, in order to hear the character. I have to inhabit simultaneously both of them.

Hanah’s lack of compassion makes her unconventional. How do you expect the reader to react to her character?

With anxiety and ultimately with sympathy, I hoped it would lead to that. But initially with anxiety and fearfulness maybe. I expected that and got it in most cases. What you ultimately realize about Hannah is that she’s trying to tell the truth, to know the truth to be completely honest with the reader about her life. We only know about her failings because she admits it. She’s harder on herself than we are. Overtime, after a 350 pages or so, I hope we come to have sympathy, even affection and respect for her.

In TrailerPark the sequence of short stories is essential to the drama. The first and the last stories are particularly more intense. How do you choose to construct your stories? How do you determine in which order they will appear?

In TrailerPark, it’s a very conscious and deliberate ordering of the sequence. And I wrote the stories in the order they were published. I did have a plan from the beginning. That particular group of stories are meant to be read in that order, as if you were reading novel. I mean you can read it at random or just dip here and dip there but I prefer it to be read from beginning to end. It’s structured more or less so that in the opening story and the closing story all the characters appear at once and everybody has its “area” throughout.
So it has some principles involved. I structured it as I would structure a novel, with an arc of the narrative but it’s more fragmented than that. It was an attempt to write a novel with stories or in stories.

And for The Angel on the Roof?

That’s different. I wanted to orchestrate the stories the same way you want to orchestrate a concert as a singer who has twenty songs to sing. You wouldn’t sing the same type of song three times in a row. You vary the mood, the tempo. So I was working in a kind of more musical kind of orchestration.

TrailerPark is humorous in many aspects, although it remains pessimistic in essence. Why do you make so seldom use of humor in your novels?

Because I’m not very funny, not very good at comedy. I’m pretty good at irony, but not at comedy. You’re stuck with your temperament, with your personality. You can’t run away from it and it’s bound to appear in your work. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to write a comic novel, I wish I was like Kurt Vonnegut or something. Someday I wish I could just get away from all this serious heavy stuff. But it’s difficult for me. I can’t do it. There are American writers like T. C. Boyle who can write in an wonderful irreverent way, I don’t have any gift for it.

In The book of Jamaïca and, in a lesser way in The Darling, the main character (who is an adult) seems unable to become part of another culture whereas in Rule of the Bone, Bone seems to be more able to do so. Do you think children are more in connection with people?

That’s been my experience. I lived in Jamaica with my children. The youngest was 6 and the eldest one 13, all daughters. They played with local kids. We lived in the country. They were the only white kids in town. After six weeks, they were playing in the room and I couldn’t tell from hearing which one was my kid, which one was a local kids. They had moved into that world that they would see the world through their playmates’ eyes.
Bone goes through transformations in Jamaica. At first he thinks he is a Jamaican, he grows dread locks, he lives up in the plantation, he has a vision of himself as a slave boy. But he gradually realizes, especially after I Man is killed and the guy who kills him says "If you weren’t a white kid, you’d be dead". He realizes the color of his skin means, in a racist society, he can never be the victim in the same way. Then he cuts off his dread locks. He’s come to a deeper awareness than he ever had before of racial realities. He’s let go of that last liberal identification with the victim and has separated himself and as a result, he as become a much more politically sophisticated person that he was up to that point, no matter how well intended he was.

If you want to say a few words to the readers, you are very welcome to do so.

I personally am delighted by the growing capacity for writers to work through the Internet. First of all, to move your work through the Internet but also to communicate with readers through the Internet. So I’m glad this format and this particular blog exist.

Interview of Russell Banks, Thursday, 06th, march, 2008 - transcription Cécile & Stéphane - all rights reserved Biblioblog

Novels and short stories discussed in this interview ::