Russell Banks

Novelist Russell Banks talks about "The Sweet Hereafter," "Continental Drift" and other work that has suddenly become hot property in Hollywood.

Published January 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It's more than a mere figure of speech to refer to a Russell Banks novel as his "brainchild." The 57-year-old father of four and author of more than
a dozen novels (including "The Sweet Hereafter,"
recently adapted to film by Canadian director Atom Egoyan) speaks of both
his children and his work like a proud parent who has learned the same
painful lessons from each.

Infusing his novels with a brutal honesty and moral rectitude that his
characters struggle to live up to, Banks writes in beautiful and often
tragic tones about the drama of daily life. His themes -- of loss, of
weakness, of the difficulty of living a decent life -- are frequently bleak, but
there's a redeeming wisdom to them, a sense of hopefulness found in the
details that he so diligently draws out of his characters' mundane
realities. No modern author writes more perceptively about ordinary men's stumbling quest for the American grail of material comfort and self-respect.

It's a bit surprising, then, that such anti-epic stories would suddenly
turn Banks into a hot Hollywood property. But
apparently the Zeitgeist has finally caught up to him.
In addition to the successful release of "The Sweet Hereafter," the
adaptation of Banks' most autobiographical novel, "Affliction," has finally
been delivered from development purgatory with the help of director Paul
Schrader, and will be released this spring, starring Nick Nolte. And this
winter, he will travel to France to work with Polish director Agnieszka
Holland ("Washington Square," "Europa, Europa"), who will direct Banks'
screen adaptation of "Continental Drift," his powerful tale of a blue-collar dreamer from New Hampshire and a poor Haitian mother whose visions of a better life lead them to tragic ends in Florida.

Bogged down in the historical research for "Cloudsplitter," his ambitious forthcoming novel about abolitionist John Brown (to be published by
HarperFlamingo this March), Banks took a year off to write what became one
of his most beloved books, "Rule of the Bone," about a working-class teenage
boy who manages to keep his integrity intact even in the absence of any
worthy role models. The experience of reading "Rule of the Bone" is similar
to the experience of adolescence -- you move through it quickly, but
afterward, you sense that you are permanently changed.

"It was almost out of necessity that I wrote 'Rule of the Bone,'" Banks
said during a recent phone conversation from his part-time home in northern
New Hampshire. "It was so different from 'Cloudsplitter,' you know, such a
different world -- it was as if I was in a dream or something, and I awoke
from the dream refreshed."

Banks spoke with Salon about being a boy inside a man's body, his Pearl Jam
collection and how writing saved his life.

Your characters so often struggle with being adults, with acting
responsibly and maturely. At what point do you think children become

Good question (laughs) -- I've raised four of them, all of them now in
their late 20s and early 30s, and it's a question I still ask myself.

Well, for instance, with Nicole, the sole survivor of the school bus
accident in "The Sweet Hereafter," it's not a sexual thing. So it's not
necessarily a loss of innocence.

No, not at all. In fact, oftentimes the older characters in my books are
more childlike than the adolescents. I would say that Nicole Burnell in "The Sweet
Hereafter" and Bone in "Rule of the Bone" are two of my most mature
characters, the most adult characters. I love them for that. I'm not sure
what makes them that way -- I guess their devotion to the truth. They really
love the truth, almost in a Christian sense, above all else. And also, it's
their ability to see other people. They really can love other people,
despite what they know about them -- Bone in particular. I think that's also
true for Nicole, despite her suffering and having been victimized. They
both have been victimized, to a great degree -- maybe that's why they both
know so much about other people. Nonetheless, they're able to be loving
people. You don't feel at the end of the "Sweet Hereafter"
that Nicole is incapable of loving anyone. She's not bitter. She's angry,
but she's not bitter.

Do you believe there's a certain point in the transition to adulthood
at which we stop learning?

Well, most of us stopped learning very early, and spend the rest of our
lives defending that point at which we stopped learning. It's funny, you
know, most of the characters I've written about only learn anything as
adults as a result of a terrible calamity -- like Wade Whitehouse in
"Affliction," or Bob DuBois in "Continental Drift." At the end, yes, they
learn something, but it took something terrible for them to learn anything,
whereas Bone and Nicole learn early on. You get the feeling at the end of each of those
older, even as old people. At least you hope that's true.


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In "Continental Drift," Bob DuBois comes to the conclusion that "there
are no such things as adults after all, only children who try and fail to
imitate adults." What, then, do you think are the defining characteristics
of being an adult?

I think it's at the point that you are in control of your own economy,
and you are able and willing to take care of others who are unable to take
care of themselves -- to protect others, I should say. You have a capacity
for loving others without deluding yourself about them, about their
weaknesses or their failures.

So by that definition, Bone would be an adult. He is in control of his
own economy, he has a trade, a skill -- he's a cook. He's taking care of these two kids on the boat in a way that's more
realistic, though nonetheless still custodial, than the way he took care of
Sister Rose, because he was still deluded then, he was still a boy. He thought
that any mother was better than no mother, so he sent her back to her
abusive mother. And he's able to say he loves even old Bruce, the
homophobic, kind of cracked biker. So when he looks up at the stars, he sees
the constellation of these people.

How did you get into the head of a 1990s 14-year-old boy --

When I'm obviously a '50s kid in the body of a 57-year-old man?
I am that in some ways, an adolescent boy in the body of a 57-year-old man.
I think a good novelist has to be that in a sense, has to go to the
emotional life that you had at different points in your life and access
that. That's what I did do with Bone -- I didn't go out and try to
imitate 14-year-old boys so much as try to re-create for myself, and tap
into, my emotional life in that period, even though the time frame was
radically different. But my circumstances weren't all that radically
different. I came from a broken home, and although it wasn't sexually
abusive, it was abusive due to alcohol and violence. And we were poor, lived
in a town not unlike the town that Bone lives in. So it wasn't that hard for
me to go there and remember what it was like to be in that strait. I think
that was probably the key for me.

There was research for it, certainly. I didn't want to write about the
'50s. I wanted to write about the '90s, so I did have to go out into the
world and hang around tattoo parlors and the shopping malls and the video
arcades and so on. I also had to listen to an awful lot of alternative rock
music, which I actually thoroughly enjoyed. Now I've got a big collection
of CDs.

Is there anything in particular you liked?

Grunge music I ended up really liking a lot. My kids have ended up
borrowing -- and not returning -- my CDs. But I've got a complete run of
Pearl Jam.

So that part was conscious research. You can get that down easy, but
still not get down to where a kid like Bone lives. To do that, you have to
tap into your remembered emotional experiences. But I think I probably
couldn't do it until I was middle-aged. You have to separate from it. Your
memory improves to the degree that you can get somewhat detached from the

Is it still painful once you've detached from it?

It's painful, but it's clear. You can understand it better, and can have
greater affection for it, and be less defensive, maybe. And you can be less
neurotic about your approach to it.

You've been very pleased with the screen adaptations of your novels.
Have you considered skipping the novel form altogether and writing an
original screenplay?

Uh, no, I haven't actually. It's not something that would be entirely out
of the question, because I like the form and I'm attracted to it the closer
I get to it. The more I work with it and the more time I spend with it, the
more interesting it is to me. But I don't think my sensibility really suits
that form.

Ultimately, film is frustrating, because I so dearly love language, and the
sound of the human voice, and you can hear that in film. But I'm a control
freak and I like to be in charge as much as possible, and film is such a
collaborative art that I'd have to give up all the roles I can play as a
novelist. When you're a novelist, you're the art designer, costumer, as well
as the director and the writer. You do everything.

How difficult is it to give up the details in the adaptation? I was
thinking specifically of the Ottos, the hippie family in "The Sweet
Hereafter" -- in the book, they lived in a dome house, which to me said a
lot about who they were --

-- and in the film we put them in an A-frame (laughs). Yes, well, I think
you have to steel yourself for that. Sometimes it's just what's available,
the exigency -- you're stuck with it. But in this case, it approximated the
kind of homemade house that I had in mind. What would have bothered me more
would have been if the house had been of a different economic class, if it
had been, say, a beautiful modern chalet, or something like that, because
that would have violated the class identification that I thought was
important to the story. That gave some kind of dimension to the loss, and
the experience and the quality and the kind of people that the Ottos were.

Your stories all deal in some way with class, and often where class
intersects with race.

I think those things are inescapable, certainly in our culture. So often
race is identified with class, and we often talk about one in order not to
talk about the other. Or we concede to one so that we don't have to concede
to the other.

But, in fact, our "classless" society is riddled with distinctions of
that sort -- of gender as well as racial and class distinctions. It would be
naive at best, I suppose, to ignore them. I don't write about them out of
any commitment to any particular ideology, but out of a simple desire to be
accurate. I look out at the world and see them there. I don't feel I have
any choice but to put them in the book.

In "The Sweet Hereafter," "The Simpsons" is the only TV show the Burnells
can all watch together -- but Nicole hates it because she thinks it's

Yes, it's insulting to family life, in the same way that "Beavis and
Butt-head" is insulting to adolescents.

Do you think there are any truthful representations of American family
life in pop culture today?

Gee, that's a good question -- I'm stymied. I can't think of any. I don't
watch a whole lot of TV, but I do have pretty easy and ongoing access to pop
culture. I used to love "The Honeymooners" when I was a kid. Thinking back,
"Life of Riley" was a good corrective to "Ozzie and Harriet." They were working-class stiffs, and they were buffoons in many ways, but they were clearly
struggling. The economic realities of their lives were present -- you were
aware of them constantly.


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Your characters are always redefining their own American Dream --
trading in what they have to chase it, or realizing those who are living it
can just as easily lose it. Do you think the dream has changed at all since
you began writing?

I don't think the imagery has changed all that much. There was an
interesting piece in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine about the Disney-created
village now in central Florida called "Celebration" -- which is an image of
the American dream, probably in its most carefully packaged and
merchandised form. I think that imagery is incredibly attractive -- you can
own a home, you basically can provide food, shelter and education for
yourself and your family, and you can be employed gainfully and
interestingly all your life -- that's your reward.

But that dream is unreachable for a majority of Americans. Running
alongside of that dream are some interesting stats: The average credit card
holder in the U.S. has $4,000 in debt that they're paying interest on -- 20 to
21 percent interest. What does that say about the American Dream? That you
can have it if you're willing to pay 21 percent interest on it?

So much of the American Dream is used to manipulate people into putting
themselves and their families at risk, and bending themselves all out of shape
in order to chase that dream.

Bob DuBois, the main character in "Continental Drift," is afraid of
blacks -- he doesn't trust them -- but still he's fascinated by them, and in
fact falls in love with a black woman. Do you consider him to be racist?

What he is is a passive member of a racist society -- passive in the
sense that it's mostly unconscious, and he has no sense of the history of
racism. And he therefore has no sense of the role he plays in it.

One of the things I believe is that if you are a member of a society or
culture that is racist and sexist -- as ours is -- and you don't offer an
ongoing critique of that as part of your daily life, then you're inevitably
going to end up participating in it. I mean, I do it -- we all do it --
unless we aggress it. The only way out of it is a kind of constant ongoing
cultural critique. And Bob certainly doesn't occasion that, which leads him
to disaster -- and heartache and heartbreak -- all along the way.

Is that what you're trying to get at with your forthcoming novel,

I'm not consciously trying to write that other side, but certainly the
characters in "Cloudsplitter" are very conscious of that. After all, this is
John Brown, the abolitionist, and his family, and he surrounded himself,
consciously and deliberately, with African-American people. And not just as
colleagues in the abolitionist movement, but as members of his household.
But that's a different kind of man. Bob DuBois is a much more typical man,
of his time and place, than John Brown. John Brown is an exceptional man.

You write with such wisdom about maleness. But you've also written
from a female perspective, though not quite as deeply. Is that something
you'd like to do more of?

I've certainly considered it. In fact, the novel I'm currently gathering
material for is about a woman and is told from a woman's point of view.
As someone who was raised pretty much in a single-parent family from
the age of 12 -- my mother raised four children -- and someone who has been
married several times and has raised four daughters, I'm very much aware of
the differences between men and women. Profoundly aware of them.

So do you find it daunting to write from that perspective?

No, I'm eager to do it. I've tried a couple of times, in "The Sweet
Hereafter" particularly, where two of the narrators are female, one an
adolescent girl and the other a woman. And I found myself extremely
comfortable doing it. In fact, I found it more difficult to write the voices
of the characters that resembled me more closely -- to get inside the lawyer
Mitchell Stephens or Billy Ansel, the Vietnam vet who loses his kids --
their voices were harder for me to hear than it was for me to hear the
voices of Nicole or Dolores, because they overlap with my own.

How do you know when you get a character's voice right?

I think it happens when I feel I'm listening, and not speaking. In this
most recent novel, "Cloudsplitter," which is a very long one, and
narrated from the point of view of an elderly man looking back over his life
at the turn of the century -- in 1900 looking back to the 1840s -- it's a man
who's extremely different from me, the son of John Brown. His voice and
character and circumstances are so different from mine that I could listen
and pay attention. I couldn't speak for him. It's easier for me that way. I
get confused, or my signal gets weak, when I end up trying to speak for

Do you have favorites among the books that you've written?

You sort of love the books nobody else loves, the way you love a child
that nobody else likes -- you feel a special affection for that child
because it has such a struggle in the world. I suppose there are a couple of
books of mine that tend to get overlooked, while the other ones get all the
attention. One of them is called "The Relationship of My Imprisonment,"
which is a very short book, almost a novella, that I've remained loyal to
and fond of for odd reasons. One of them is that, formally, I think it comes
as close as anything I've written to accomplishing what it set out to do. It
realizes its own form; it goes as far as it can go.

It's a peculiar
book -- it's eccentric and has eccentric language and an interesting
publishing history that I'm pleased by. It started very small, and was
eventually serialized in a mimeographed magazine on Manhattan's Lower East Side --
perhaps the '70s equivalent of Salon. I'm really kind of pleased that it
started out that way.

"Affliction" is considered your most autobiographical novel, although
almost all of your novels contain at least some recognizable, and sometimes
detestable, biographical elements. Is writing a way of exorcising the
painful parts of your past?

I wouldn't put it quite that way. But I do know that storytelling has
made it possible for me to make my life coherent to myself. Even though I
haven't been telling my own story necessarily, you can't keep your own life
story out of it, even if you've gone as far afield as I've gone.

There are certain things that writing has done for me
that if I hadn't had them, I probably would have killed myself or somebody
else. Some magazine was asking writers what they would have become if they
hadn't become a writer, and I said what would have happened to me is that I
would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida
at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think
writing saved my life. I was so self-destructive, so angry and turbulent,
that I don't think I could have become a useful citizen in any other way. So
I don't think it worked as exorcism, or therapy, but I think it saved my

Had you always written as a way to vent?

Not really. I didn't write until my late teens, early 20s, and I came to
it kind of piecemeal. Originally, I thought I was going to be a visual
artist, because I had that talent.
As a little boy, people would praise me for it, and it was a way to get
special attention from teachers and parents and other adults. But in my late teens,
I started to read more seriously then and started falling in love with
books. I stared to imitate what I was reading, which was poetry for the most
part, but also fiction -- in order to find my way into that. I tapped into
impulses I really didn't know I had -- storytelling, and also a deep
affection for language, an almost sensual affection for it, that I really
wasn't conscious of having had up to that point.

Your stories are often so tragic that the reader can sometimes feel
betrayed by them. For instance, with "Continental Drift," I wanted more of
the young Haitian boy Claude's story -- I was angry when he died. Does the
story write itself to the extent that you can't change a character's

I didn't want to lose Claude, either -- I was also grief-stricken at the
time. But I think that yes, when you are telling a story, especially such a
long story like that, you open up very many possibilities that you don't know
the conclusion of, and you're just following them. But pretty soon, about a
third of the way into the telling, those lines and possibilities start to
narrow, or curve back in again, and with each turn of the page fewer and
fewer things are possible. You end up compelled by the logic of the form and
the logic of the characters' inner lives -- the givens that have got much
more control over the story than you do. The difficulty for the writer is knowing when to give up that control
and let the story control you. Too many times, you can read a book or novel,
and you can see the writer trying to wrest control away from the story, or
save a much-loved character, or introduce a new character, some kind of
savior, to solve the problem. Twain reintroduces Tom Sawyer in the last
third of "Huck Finn." You can see it happening ... oh no! Don't do that! Let
Huck and Jim go on alone!

Things like that, you can see it happening. And it's very difficult to
recognize that point where you have to give up control to the story itself.
In "Continental Drift," there was really no way for Claude to survive, it
wasn't in the logic of the story. It wasn't his story.

Is that what you meant when you said in one recent interview that you
and Atom Egoyan, director of "The Sweet Hereafter," share the same bottom
line -- that you both "must love the truth"?

Yes, I think so. You have to see what's the real truth of the conditions
that people are living under. You can't idealize it on the one hand or
judge it on the other. You can't narrow it down and foreclose it either way.
And I think that's where most of us as writers fail. Because we simply
cannot stand what we know is true. It's too difficult.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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