Writing Class: An Interview with Russell Banks


Editor’s Note: Russell Banks is the widely acclaimed author of over a dozen novels and collections of short stories, including Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, and Success Stories. He helped organize a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of North Carolina in the 1960s. He recently retired from teaching creative writing at Princeton University. Two of his novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, have been made into acclaimed films. A third, Cloudsplitter, is in the works with HBO. Banks was interviewed by Joel Wendland.

PA: How did you get into writing?

RB: I grew up in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts in a working-class family and not consciously setting out to be a writer until my early 20s. At first I thought I wanted to be a visual artist, a painter, since that was the only talent I had that seemed observable. But somewhere along the line in my late teens and early twenties I started reading literature and fiction and before long, by the time I was 22 or so, I had begun to think of myself as a writer.

PA: I read that you returned from a trip to Cuba. I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit about that, why you were there, what you were doing. RB: I went with William Kennedy at the invitation of the Havana Book Fair. The occasion was that both Bill and I had allowed the Cubans to publish a novel of ours: Roscoe, his most recent novel, and Affliction by myself. I was eager and happy, and so was he, to have them do that partly because, even though we’ll never see a penny of it, at least as long as the embargo is up, it makes the book available to a very large audience. What better way to get to know another culture, especially one that may have been demonized? So that’s what took us there. And we had a fabulous time. We were there for eight days, and the book fair itself was just an extraordinary event. We were the only US authors. It was a fabulous event.

PA: Do you think it means that there’s more openness between Cuba and the United States?

RB: Well, there’s no problem at the Cuban end. I mean they are eager for any kind of contact, cultural or economic, that’s available to them. The difficulty is keeping it open and opening it up further on this end. It’s possible for writers, artists and intellectuals to go back and forth down there, but it’s difficult. You have to get a license from the Treasury Department. You have to go through an organization; usually you have to be representing an organization. Also, now, since 9/11 particularly, but in the most recent months especially, the INS’ security has made it increasingly more difficult for Cuban intellectuals, writers, artists and so forth to get visas. In fact, I think it’s in some ways closing and becoming increasingly difficult. We were hoping to bring a few Cuban filmmakers to the Lake Placid Film Forum, which I’m involved with. The difficulties are at the US end more than it has been in the past, despite the fact that the Cubans are really very eager for contact and despite the increase in communication between writers, intellectuals and artists in the United States and their colleagues in Cuba.

PA: You mention that they’re re-publishing Affliction. That book was made into a pretty successful, at least critically, film.

RB: Actually made some money, too [laughs].

PA: Two of your books have been made into films. How close were you to the filmmaking process? And were you pleased with the result? RB: I was very pleased with the result in both cases, even though the films were quite different. The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction are very different, but they reflect the differences of the directors. Paul Schrader did Affliction, and Atom Egoyan did The Sweet Hereafter. But I thought they captured brilliantly the basic themes, the atmosphere, mood of the novels, and were, in there own right and on their own terms, really good and interesting movies regardless of whatever sources they had. I felt great about it, and I was very involved as a consultant from the beginning in both cases. So I got drawn into it, and now I am very involved in the making of several other adaptations from my books and screenwriting and working with HBO to produce Cloudsplitter. I’m up to my knees at least and probably up to my hips and the water may be rising. We’re making Cloudsplitter with HBO. Scorsese is producing it, and Raoul Peck, the Haitian French director, whose last film was Lumumba, is directing.

PA: Speaking of Cloudsplitter, there are a couple of fascinating things that stand out for me. It addresses the pervasiveness of violence, the relationship between an apparently loving father and son where violence determines so much of how their relationship works. And that seems to be a theme that you focus in on a lot. RB: Well the relationship between fathers and sons has always fascinated me. I’ve been both [laughs], a father and a son, for all my life. So they’re central identities. They’re ancient archetypes really. And in my own personal life it’s been a central drama as well. My father was a very important figure to me – both threatening and someone who I felt close to. I know it grows out of my relation to my own father. And then my own reflective years thinking about myself as a father as well. I have four daughters. I have to work hard to avoid that theme. It’s not just Freudian or Greek, it’s Biblical as well. That too is personal. My father was a violent man and an alcoholic, and the book grows out of that as well. As someone once said, violence is as American as apple pie. It pervades our society in so many ways – relations between men and women, parents and children and neighbors. If you are writing about the world that surrounds you, you’re going to end up writing about violence.

PA: Another violent character is Wade Whitehouse in Affliction. I like him, and I despise him. I want him to succeed, but I know that he seems like a bad person. I don’t want to be his friend, but I want him to uncover those secrets he’s encountering.

RB: He’s struggling. I think he is a sympathetic character and most people [sympathize with him] when they read it. In fact, most women do. When the book was first published, I didn’t expect it to be able to touch women very much, but, in fact, my best readers have been women. Whenever I do a book signing or a tour more often than not, women come up with that book. They want me to sign and say they are gonna give it to their brother, or father or son. They feel it’s a sympathetic portrait of a man who’s struggling to be good but can’t, because he is carrying with him a burden that’s passed down from generations of males and the role seems inescapable to him in a way. And yet he is struggling to be a decent and good man. I think Wade is that kind of man. For that reason, we sympathize with him. And yet he fails. He’s doomed. I mean he’s not a conscious man. He isn’t consciously aware of the forces that are beating down on him; they’re like Greek gods standing behind the clouds watching him.

PA: Related to that is the question of a white working-class character in similar kinds of positions as Wade. These characters have ideas about how they are going to get ahead, how they are going to succeed. I’m thinking of a particular story in your collection called Success Stories, called “Adultery.” There is a young man who imagines a relationship between his sexuality, his celibacy, his white racial identity, his working-class status and his ability to get ahead. Those are some themes that seem to be on the edges of just about everything you work on.

RB: The old American dream as it’s perceived by, not an immigrant class, but by the old white Anglo-Saxon working stiff. And then the feeling of frustration and disappointment and inadequacy finally in the face of it. It’s a recurring theme in that story and in Success Stories. The title story of Success Stories is about that dream, too. The whole of Continental Drift really is about that, at least the story of the protagonist Bob Du Bois is about that American dream, and attempting, and failing, to achieve it.

It’s a bitter theme for me. One that I lived with growing up and saw in my father’s life and the lives of my uncles and cousins and so many of the men whose lives I knew intimately. So it was irresistible to try to dramatize it, because I feel a heart-breaking sympathy for those men and their dreams and their frustrations.

PA: And perhaps some of the reasons for the kinds of violence…

RB: Oh yeah, the frustration and disappointment and feelings of inadequacy often do end up getting expressed in violence. Certainly in Cloudsplitter, John Brown’s struggle is an example. It was boom time, he looked around and everybody else was making money on speculation real estate, and trading on the market, and somehow he couldn’t seem to do it [laughs].

PA: You’ve expressed in other interviews a criticism of representations of working-class life in popular culture.

RB: I have a problem with representations of working people as either sentimentalization, softening and sweetening of their lives, or as strictly victims, as people whose lives are not as complex or as subtle or as rich as the upper-middle class or the more empowered people of the United States. I tend to be a little critical of that point of view, whether it is film or TV or advertising, or fiction.

PA: I was thinking specifically of TV, the representation of working people as not very bright…

RB: Yeah, boobs, doofuses, Beverly Hillbillies, that sort of thing. Yeah, it’s depressing in a number of ways. First of all, it’s not realistic. It’s a pipe dream of what working people are really like. And secondly it’s condescending, dismissive and, therefore, exploitative.

PA: What are some of the struggles and problems young or new writers face when they are trying to enter this big vast world of publishing?

RB: It is a struggle, too. I’ve known it firsthand for many years in my own life. There are two things that I find young writers struggling with as they pass through their apprenticeship into a full-blown committed and irreversible life as a writer. The first thing is the temptation to confuse your career with your work. I think it is very important for a young writer to keep the two completely separate. And to remember the only thing you can control is your work and that you can’t control your career. You should let it go on its own and concentrate on your work. When they get confused with one another, you tend to try to control the work and control the career, and pretty soon the career starts shaping the work, and that’s always detrimental to the work. The other thing that’s hardest for a young writer is when they reach a certain point, beyond the apprenticeship years, and you know you’re competent – you may not be an earth-shaking, world-class genius, you may not be a Faulkner or a Hemingway yet – but you know you’re writing competently, and you’re writing well, and you’re a mature human being, and you can read what’s published daily and what’s praised weekly in the Times, and you ay, “You know, I’m as good as that, why can’t my work find its audience?” That’s frustrating and can be a demoralizing period and can often last for a decade or more. For a young writer, it can happen from the late 20s to late 30s or so. Getting through that period is to me the greatest test for any young writer. Enduring the rejection and the inability to find an audience that goes on after you’ve reached a level of obvious and recognizable competence. That’s very hard and lonely. You aren’t any longer in college. You aren’t in graduate school. You’re out here trying to live a life as a writer now, and nobody else seems to want to help you. That can be very, very lonely. I think more writers of talent and gift quit during that period than any other period.

PA: Who do you think are new writers that are saying something fresh and saying something competently and need more of an audience?

RB: Well, you know, it’s funny… I’ll be 63 years old this month. When Tennessee Williams was around my age, he was asked who the really good young playwrights were out there, he said, “Honey, I’m too old to cover the waterfront.” [laughs] Sort of like that, I stopped teaching some years ago, so I’m somewhat disengaged from writers of a really young age, and I don’t have a lot of young kids telling me who they’re reading so much as I used to. But I’ve read a couple of young writers that I think are coming up fast and are doing awfully good work lately. One is a kid named Whitney Terrell who lives out in St. Louis, Kansas. He’s a really terrific and a very bold and brave writer. Another young guy named Stona Fitch up in Massachusetts. Each has just published a book or two, well just one in the case of Whitney. And there are a whole bunch of writers in their late 30s or early 40s. Who else? There’s a big slew of them out there. Cristina Garcia and Stewart O’Nan: they are doing very interesting work. There seems to be a wave of very strong fiction writers, novelists and storywriters who are ambitious.