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Off the Page: Russell Banks

Russell Banks
Author, The Sweet Hereafter
Thursday, December 16, 2004; 1:00 PM

In his understated, realistic fiction, Russell Banks consistently takes on big issues: accident and death in The Sweet Hereafter, slavery and zealousness in his novel about John Brown's attempted slave rebellion, Cloudsplitter.

His new book, The Darling, is no exception--except that he has brought his sharp vision to Africa. The novel follows a white woman once involved in the Weather Underground who flees to Liberia and becomes embroiled in the politics of former president Charles Taylor and the country's civil war.

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In his review in The Post, Wil Haygood writes about Banks: "His are big novels, with daring, sweep and depth. In The Darling, he is working at full strength, and readers are in his debt."

Banks joined "Off the Page" on Thursday, Dec. 16 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about his work.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Washington, D.C. : What got you interested in writing about Africa, or having it as the setting? How did you do research, and how much was research and how much imagination?

Russell Banks: I wasn't so much interested in writing about Africa as I was about writing about Liberia, the reasons being that Liberia is an important chapter in the American story of race, and that's the story I want to write about. I was also interested in Liberia because it is our unacknowledged colony in Africa and has been since its creation in 1820. And I wanted to expose the hypocrisy of our denial of having any colony in Africa and our avoidance of any responsibility for the social and political chaos in that region.

Carole Burns: I liked how you call it "our man in Africa."

Russell Banks: Right. In terms of research, I naturally read everything that has been written about Liberia, and there is a great deal that has been written about from the beginning, because the African Americans that settled there early on were mostly literate, and kept good diaries and letters and journals, which have been preserved. But I also interviewed Liberians living in the United States and Americans who had served there in the Peace Corps, and even a CIA operative stationed in Monravio during the Tolbert years. And I traveled to West Africa several times--Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal, and got the know the region physically.

A year ago July, I tried to get into Liberia, just as it erupted into violence again. The roads were closed by the warlords and people were being kidnapped and killed, and as the father of four daughters, a husband and son, I decided the better part of valor was to stay in Sierra Leone, where it was only marginally calmer?

Carole Burns: Was it disappointing not to be able to go?

Russell Banks: Yes and no. I was there as a novelist, not as a journalist or historian, so what I was interested in was the sound, smell and look of the place, its physical presence. And Sierra Leone, which is adjacent to Liberia and has similar history, gave me enough information that I felt confident in writing about Liberia.

Carole Burns: The Post reviewer who was there during the civil war, and said you captured it successfully, is going to be very impressed!

Russell Banks: I've heard about that review! I've spoken since to a number of Liberians, while doing publicity for the book, and they all said that they thought I got it right. So that pleased me.

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Houston, TX: Is she a darling, and an American darling, because she is privileged, oblivious, and stonehearted?

Cloudsplitter is one of the best American books I have read, in 70 years of reading. I do like John Brown better than Hannah.

Russell Banks: I think the questioner would probably prefer spending time with Hannah rather than John Brown, however much she or he may like John Brown a little more.

In one sense, Hannah is that darling, privileged, spoiled and entitled. But the word "darling" means many things in English. It's an allusion also to Chekhov's story, The Darling, which is an affectionate portrait of a narcissist, a very difficult thing to do. But it is one of the things I was trying to do with this novel. I feel personally affectionate toward Hannah, although I'm very aware of her limitations. I think sometimes we want to either idealize our characters in fiction or to judge them--especially, perhaps, when it comes to female characters. But the only truly believable character--flawed, but not so terribly flawed that we reject them. I wonder how we would feel toward Hannah if Hannah were a man. Because there's nothing that Hannah does except bear children that a man could not do. I suspect if Hannah were a man, the reader would see him as a Hemingway-esque stoical existential hero searching for meaning in a meaningless world and morality in a ammoral world.

Carole Burns: And his search for his children would be heroic too.

Russell Banks: Yeah! Exactly.

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Carole Burns: Your fiction tends to be in the realistic, almost 19th century "great novelists" tradition. What do you find appealing about this style? What do you most like to read?
Russell Banks: I was trying to obtain an intimacy and a personalized narrative voice that was not eccentric or calling attention to itself in any obvious way. And I suppose in some sense, that is a convention of the 19th century. They are ambitious inasmuch as they try to concern the larger world rather than the purely domestic world. They try to conjoin the personal and the public, and the private with the historical, so I guess they are large in that sense. But whether or not they actually succeed in attaining that ambition, I can't say.

What I like to read varies enormously, depending on what I'm working on at the time. Right now, I'm writing a novel that is set in 1936 in upstate New York, and involves in ways I haven't yet figured out the Spanish Civil War. So I've been reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, and Hemingway's writing on the Spanish Civil War, John Dos Passos, and others. And also because I want it to be a short novel, a kind of fable, I've been reading short novels, such as Bridge Over San Luis Rey, Henry James's Lessons of the Master, Tolstoy's The Devil, and so on.

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Rockville, Md.: Have you ever had a toothache as bad as the one Wade had in Affliction? It sure sounded like you have.

Russell Banks: Actually, I have. I've also had an earache that was as bad as that toothache. But what they share is that it's pain you can't get away from. Pain in other parts of your body, you can isolate. But pain in the head you can't get away from. It was therefore a useful metaphor in the novel Affliction for the rage that Wade had repressed.

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Washington, D.C.: You seem to take up a number of "black" issues, for example, in Cloudsplitter. As a white writer, how do you feel about this? I know you have written about other topics too, but, do you feel drawn to these issues in particular?

Although race is a big issue in America, there are many white writers who feel no need to deal with the issue. (Not that they have to, of course. I'm just curious about what motivates you.)

Russell Banks: I felt fairly early in my life, in my late teens and early 20s, that the story of race was central to the American imagination, and had been since the 16th century, when the first Europeans arrived in this hemisphere. And inasmuch as I am an American, and participate in that imagination, then race is central to my understanding of myself. Therefore, I feel obliged to make race central to my work.

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London, UK: "The Sweet Hereafter" is an all-time favourite movie of mine. How close did it come to your vision of the book as a movie?

Russell Banks: I think the film is faithful to the tone and atmosphere of the novel, and also, to its moral perspective and themes. It, however, had to be completely restructured in order to make it adaptable to film, because the novel is told from four different points of view, and if the structure of the novel had been followed, the film would have felt like four separate films. I think it is an elegant and imaginative and in all ways honorable adaptation. And I'm grateful to the director, Atom Egoyan.

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Washington D.C.: Mr. Banks,
You are my favorite author, and both of my copies of Affliction and Continental Drift are worn out from all the times I've read and reread them. I can so easily identify with the protagonist in each novel. Was there someone in mind for each character? And will you be doing any booksignings in D.C. area? I'd love to replace them!

Russell Banks: Actually, I was recently at the Folger Library reading for PEN/Faulkner. I'm sorry I missed you, but I expect I'll be back in the fall when the paperback is published.

But to answer your questions, neither Wade Whitehouse in Afflection of Bob Dubois in Continental Drift is based on any particular person. However, I have known men like both characters all my life, and in fact, am related to a number of men like them. And so naturally, I drew on that knowledge and those relationships in writing those novels. All fictional characters are in a sense composites made up of people known intimately and only casually and sometimes only through other fictional characters, transformed through the process of writing into unique--one hopes, unique--characters. It's dangerous and misleading to view characters in fiction as portraits of people in the author's life.

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Carole Burns: Why do you suppose you were drawn in your last two books to writing about real people and real events, and how did it help and impede the writing of the novels? Russell Banks: It seemed to me natural and therefore necessary to include historical figures in both Cloudsplitter and The Darling, because the characters I was writing about were themselves involved with historical figures, and if not personally involved, were very aware of their existence. To me, historical figures are no more and no less a part of the context in a story than the physical circumstance or place. To me, for example, if Liberia is a real country, and it is a setting for a novel, and there's no problem with that, then why not include Charles Taylor and president Samuel Doe, and even John Kerry, who makes a cameo appearance. When I was writing the novel he wasn't running for president. But I knew him slightly in the '70s, and I thought then that he would probably some day run for president. In a way, John Kerry is in his own way an American darling. A child of privilege with a great sense of his own entitlement and a person insulated most of his life from poverty and suffering. But a person of good conscience as well, not unlike Hannah.

Carole Burns: It seems, though, that you deal with historical figures very different than E.L. Doctorow, especially in Cloudsplitter.

Russell Banks: Yeah, for Doctorow they're more like images that he builds into a collage and ficitonal environment, whereas for me they are genuine characters. John Brown exists in our imagination almost on a mythical level, which is why I needed the intervening narrator of his son Owen, because he is almost too large, and iconic, a figure, for us to see, unless we have someone who knows him as a human being tell us about him.

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Bethesda, MD: Your work, for me, tends to address the notion that history and events are slippery, and the "reality" of what happens depends on the point of view. This is not only true in the historical work (Cloudsplitter) but in the varying points of view in The Sweet Hereafter. Do you think this is a fair assessment of your work? If so, why do you think you're drawn to this theme?

Russell Banks: I think it's a fair assessment. I might not put it quite that way myself, however. One thing I'm very interested in in an on-going way is the unintended consequence of good intentions. And that, you can see that most particularly perhaps in The Darling, but also Cloudsplitter, but going back even further to Continental Drift or Affliction. The Sweet Hereafter I think deals with other themes, perhaps mainly with how do you deal in life with the inexplicable loss of a child or a loved one. Who do you blame? The question of blame is central to that novel but not necessarily to the others.

I can see, however, that it's related to the theme of unintentional consequences, because when things turn out tragically different from the way one intended, who do you blame? As in Iraq, for instance.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa: Yes, I know that Cloudsplitter is fiction, as you remind the reader more than once up front. Now, that said...

How did you go about starting Cloudsplitter? The following questions relate to this one:

Immerse yourself in research? (You note some authoritative works in the preface)

Sketching in characters like an artist with a field book?

Writing dialogue? (John Irving said here at the Drue Heinz lecture in October - before yours last month - that he can't start until he has the last sentence of each of his chapters beginning with the last one)

Do you assemble your book in order or scattershot like shooting skeet? Both?

Would you write the screenplay for this book or is that a task for someone else? (John Irving has written some from his books including one that's been in the works forever)

Finally, the voice of the book sounds like someone named Owen Brown alive at the time and central to the events. I know almost nothing about the Browns but this book has an authenticity like the writer was there, with the scene of the little sister being scalded to death most poignant. I have no idea if this scene happened or is an total invention but it's a powerful moment.

Cloudsplitter is the best work of fiction I've read since A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Sorry for any undue comparisons above)

Thanks much.

Russell Banks: I work very differently from John Irving on the one hand, inasmuch as I try not to know my last sentences. But I also work very different from, say, Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, who does write in the scattershot, or shotgun, way, without knowing really where one sentence will lead to the next, or how. I fall somewhere in between these two. And generally work with a very loose, big and infinitely changeable outline for the overall narrative arc of the novel. And at the same time a more detailed and refined outline that covers the next chapter or perhaps twenty or thirty pages.

With regard to Cloudsplitter, I researched the period and the life of John Brown and his family for many months before I knew how to enter that world of fiction. And it wasn't until I uncovered at the Rare Book Room in the library at Columbia University the transcripts of interviews made in 1903 with the surviving children of John Brown, who had been very young, in fact, too young, in the 1850s, to have been reliable witnesses of those events. His son, Owen Brown, however, was never interviewed. Never wrote a memoir or account. But had been at his father's side at all the most crucial events, had escaped Harper's Ferry and had disappeared into the abolitionist underground, and lived his life out as a hermit shepherd, and died in 1889. By authorial fiat, I allowed him to live into the 20th century, and relayed his story to his father's biographer, Oswald Garrison Vuillard. That was my entry point to the novel. Once I knew who was speaking, and to whom, the rest came naturally.

I've written a screenplay for two of the novels that are adapted, Rule of the Bone and Continental Drift, but I don't want to write the screenplay for Cloudsplitter, because I don't think enough time has passed since the completion of the book. I need to have eight or ten or more years past before I feel distant enough to deal with my own novel as if it were written by a stranger. Because that's what you have to do to adapt a novel into a film. As the result, in the HBO adaptation of Cloudsplitter, the screenwriter is Paul Schrader. I'm acting as producer, with Martin Scorsese, which gives me sufficient control over the adaptation that I don't feel the need also to write it.

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crofton md: I liked Afffliction but I like Darling even more. Why did you decide to make the main character a girl and not a man? And did u ever travel to LIberia?

Russell Banks: Well, first of all, that "girl" is 60 years old, looking back over her life. She has not been a girl for 45 years! But, seriously, I wanted to write about the women who were in the radical opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s, who had gone to the extreme end of opposition, and were a part of Weatherman and the Weather Underground. I knew some of these women back then, and did not pay adequate attention to who they were and what they were doing and why. In recent years, as I turned 60 myself and looked back on those years, I began to wonder who were those women and where are they now? And what do they think about their past. We know perhaps all too well who the men were and where they are now and what they think about their past. But I felt that the women were somehow unknown, and it was their story in a particular way, Hannah Musgrave's story, that I wanted to tell. And I confess, I was also very much interested in the women who create and run sanctuaries for higher primates--women like Jane Goodal. It seemed to me that in many ways they were very like the women in radical politics in the 1960s and 70s, and I was intrigued by that similarity. For instance, they were and are white, privileged, well-educated, from progressive families, usually with a powerful father with whom they identify rather than with their mother. And they sacrificed many of the same things. Financial security, family, community, and physical comfort, for what is essentially a political act. So that's essentially how I ended up falling in love with Hannah Musgrave.

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Carole Burns: And that's all we have time for today. Thanks, Russell Banks, for joining us today. And thanks for all the question from afar. We'll be off for the holidays, but be sure to join us in January and all through 2005. Authors we will have online this spring include Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; and two D.C.-based writers, Mary Kay Zuravleff, whose second novel from FSG comes out this spring, and Doreen Baingana, a woman from Uganda publishing her first book, a collection of stories.

Remember, you can get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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