Russell Banks  by Pinckney Benedict

BOMB 52 Summer 1995
Issue 52 052  Summer 1995
Russell Banks Bomb 052

Photo of Russell Banks by Marion Ettlinger.

Russell Banks and I arrived at Princeton University at roughly the same time, in the early ’80s; he as an accomplished novelist and faculty member, I as an undergraduate with an interest in fiction writing. In the narrow confines of the creative writing program, we crossed each other’s paths frequently. Russell was known among the student denizens of the program for his perspicacity, his wit, and particularly for his honesty. Stinging honesty. Occasionally brutal honesty. He brooked no laziness in his disciples, suffered no fools.

He’s like that in his own writing as well. Honest about what pitiful creatures we humans are, honest to the point of bleakness sometimes. And he’s hardworking. He’s produced half a score of solid volumes, Continental DriftAffliction … in addition to his other writing and teaching duties, and he’s still a young man. Relatively young. He turned fifty-five a few weeks ago. He’s a big, vigorous, hardy guy, and he’s got quite a few years of writing left in him. If we’re lucky.

His most recent novel is Rule of the Bone, the story of a kid criminal on the loose in the wide world. It’s a likably brash book, funnier than much of his earlier work, though by no means light reading.

“I don’t know why people write books that normal people can’t read,” says the eponymous Bone in this new book. Me neither. Russell Banks has for years now been writing books that normal people can, and do, read. I only wish more folks did likewise. We spoke at his home in Princeton.

Pinckney Benedict You spend a lot of time in Keene, New York, a rural community where you write, and at Princeton where you have an endowed chair. How do you make that double life work?

Russell Banks Well, they’re like different halves of being and they don’t really work together. I have always lived a bifurcated life, and this is just another manifestation of that. I’m very fond of my life at Princeton but it has little, perhaps nothing, to do with my magical life as a writer. My life in upstate New York, even though it’s a rural community on the edge of the rest of America, is much more a part of the country and has everything to do with my imaginative life. I do like dealing with people who are serious about ideas, either students or colleagues. Nevertheless, I know that’s got almost nothing to do with the real world. And I live in the real world for most of the year.

PB What we’re describing is acting out in life your own psychological dividedness; most writers are profoundly divided. Some years ago we were out drinking and you said, if only your personal life were as ordered as your professional life.

RB If my personal life were as ordered and consistent as my professional life has been, I would probably be a miserable, suicidal, withdrawn man. That’s not something I wish for. I said that only in a frivolous, drunken way.

PB Why did you choose to teach at Princeton, which is exclusively an undergraduate program, rather than a school with an MFA program?

RB When I was young, there was much about me that was despicable. But there were a few things about me which were admirable and which I would like to maintain and retain into old age. And one of them was that a book or a conversation could change my life. I was still open to enormous changes at the last minute: the kids that I end up working with here are at that point in their lives. I’m an agent in the formation of their views on death, sex, marriage … So there’s that opportunity. And then there’s this incredible burden of responsibility because you can, in fact, do exactly that. But the tension between the two keeps teaching alive for me. I was never happy teaching graduate students because they’re beyond that point.

PB So what’s your take on MFA programs? What’s the value there?

RB It keeps young writers off the streets.

PB (laughter) And some old writers, too.

RB As teachers, yeah.

PB Do you talk to your students in a realistic way about what their professional prospects are?

RB I talk to them in a realistic way about life, but not at all about the professional aspects of their life. I’m much more interested in dealing with sex, death, and class issues. One of the most important things that I learned early as a writer was to separate my work from my career and realize that they are two entirely different enterprises. I could deal with my career the same way I could deal with balancing a checking account. The work was something else. If I couldn’t make that distinction, I was either going to be a very confused man or a very harmful man. Finally, what I can say about a writer’s career is relatively little and relatively useless anyhow. So much depends upon luck and superficial social characteristics, the accidents of marketing and how they interface with the accidents of the surface of your work. That’s nothing you can control: all you can control is manners—the tiniest part of a career. One thing that relates in this life to the larger writing life is that the danger for a writer who teaches is the same as for a writer who preaches, like John Donne or Jonathan Swift. You come to identify with the institution which is supporting you and its interests and ambitions, and that is absolutely essential to avoid. It’s fine to be established and connected to a university as long as you continue to view it as an outsider and as long as you continue to feel that you are there under false pretenses. I could not have gone to Princeton, and my colleagues, Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, could not have gone to Princeton either, for gender, race or class reasons.

Universities have become the main agent of patronage for writers in this country in the last 25 years. Real writers who are social critics, outlying figures and loners are suddenly playing a corporate role. How can one do that and still maintain one’s integrity and function adequately as a teacher of the arts? I believe you can only do it if you regard it as temporary and tentative, and mutually exploit the situation. The university is exploiting me and I’m exploiting the university, and I make no bones about it. That’s the only way I think I can function.

PB But you’re tenured!

RB Yeah, which means they’ve already started thinking about my death. (laughter) ‘Til death do us part.

PB That’s right, it is kind of a marriage. You and I have been keeping in touch over the past couple of months through the Internet. Do you use computers to compose?

RB I do about 90 percent of the time.

PB And what’s the other ten?

RB Every now and then I get stuck and I’m frozen by it. It’s so clean and it’s so detached. I have become increasingly sophisticated and have internalized the process so that it’s not really that different, no greater an extension from my body than my hand is. Yet every now and then I find myself locking up, and I have to return to the body in a more literal way and start writing out in long hand. My whole life I’ve had this tendency to close down and withdraw from my writing for various reasons, some of which I understand, some of which I don’t wish to examine.

PB Your books are sizeable books and they’re not infrequent. I would have assumed that you were a 5,000 word a day man.

RB No way. That would be a day of great suspicion. And that’s part of it, I grew up suspicious of language, suspicious of storytelling. I was raised in New England, in a Protestant, restrained and reticent family which had a good many taboos, not in terms of their behavior but in terms of their linguistic expression—the description of that behavior. There was a master-story about the family, a cliché, and any attempt to vary the story or to tell different stories of the family was shot down. So telling stories and talking a lot were both a blessing and a curse for which I was marked. “Oh, Russell is telling stories again. Isn’t he cute, but isn’t he a pain in the ass.” And that kind of ambivalence about storytelling I’ve maintained into my adult life.

So I’ve devised various means of overcoming this psychological disability, given my desires and my needs, this compulsion to go silent and simply observe from the outside and not comment, not describe, and not articulate in any way what I’m feeling or what I’m seeing, and that occurs in this most mechanistic way. I change the technical means by which I speak and shift back down to writing by hand with a fountain pen on lined paper. And when that doesn’t work, I’ll shift the medium and move to a regular typewriter … The computer is the most liberating because it is the fastest: I can sneak up on myself and write things that I would never dare to say or write if I had to write it out long-hand or if I had to say it publicly.

PB Not too long ago, you were joshing Joyce Carol Oates about how in her latest novel, What I Lived For, she knows so much.

RB Male underwear.

PB Exactly. How does she know so much about men and mens’ sexual attitudes? (laughter) Her comment was that there’s this cultural knowledge that we all have … .

RB She’s one of my dearest pals, but she was avoiding the question. What I think happens is that fiction writers’ main gift is to extrapolate. It’s not just the ability to tell a story. Seeing her father’s shorts in the laundry at 13 or 14—from that she could extrapolate the whole history of male sexuality. (laughter) The best fiction writers are the ones who can do that. Not the ones who spend their lives researching meat packing in Cairo, Illinois, but the ones who have the ability to take the tiniest clue, the tiniest piece of evidence, and from that read its history backwards and forwards in time. It’s like taking a tiny bit of DNA and creating a dinosaur; it’s like Jurassic Park.

PB Here you are, in Rule of the Bone, writing about this homeless kid, a criminal who hangs out with bikers. You’re extrapolating his life. Is it right for you to be writing about this kid?

RB Well, if I didn’t I wouldn’t be using the gift that I have. Mark Twain was a middle-aged bourgeois gentleman living in Hartford Connecticut when he wrote Huck Finn; and he wasn’t telling the story of himself as a boy …

PB Do you know kids like your character?

RB Oh, sure. My life was marginally like his in some ways, but that was in the 1950s. I’ve known kids like him too, but only briefly and superficially. It doesn’t take much to find the common bonds and strands that tie us together, a middle-aged white guy and a homeless teenage mall-rat. We have much more in common than we don’t have in common, when it gets right down to it. Part of it is in the genius of the American language. It’s a democratic language. The language that we have available to us as American writers is a chorus of voices; it’s not officially classified as upper and lower or middle, it moves in and out, it invades itself. It converts and alters itself on an ongoing basis. It’s this big, crabby, wonderful, loving family of voices—the English American Language: southern, and northern, upper class and lower class, black and white, Hispanic … That’s the beauty of the American language for writers—access to speakers comes through language, comes through voice. If you can hear the voice, you can speak in that voice, and then you can imagine the speaker. And for me, the access to Rule of the Bone was not through some sociological experience, but really through language. Once I had that voice in my ear, then I had the character in my heart. Journalists can deal with sociology; that’s simple. The hard part is getting the heart of the matter or the heart of the character down.

PB I remember hearing you say that a first-person narrator was like an interview with just the answers. That posits an interlocutor, somebody who’s asking the questions. Is it you who’s asking Bone questions?

RB As I’ve gotten older I’ve imagined myself less and less as a ventriloquist, as somebody speaking through a character, and more and more as someone listening to a character. And I did think: I’ve got to listen to Bone and I’ve got to move around and rearrange myself, I’ve got to invent myself as the intimate, trusted listener, who is, in a sense, the ideal reader. It’s an ego reversal. Only when I could do that, could I then begin to transcribe what Bone seemed to say. It’s very concrete, and it began in a prison workshop that I was teaching in upstate New York, one of these boot camps where most of the inmates were 18 to 22-year-old drug dealers. They were white and black from inner cities and suburban Schenectady and were bright, as bright as my Princeton students. They were really good at math, because to be a drug dealer you have to be good at math. And they had incredibly developed social skills, because to be a drug dealer, you’ve got to be a superbly gifted and practiced salesman. If you gave the SAT to those guys, they would be off the graph. So these were really brilliant guys—and so alive. Access to those voices was the opening for this book.

PB This voice is really different from your other work. It’s wildly funny in places, but it is a stark book in its circumstances. It would have been easy to make it a maudlin horror story, a freak show of contemporary America. But Bone’s commentary is very wise and dry. He’s not ironic, but in the distance between his perception and ours there is a comic tension, a comic energy. The tone of it—light’s not the word. But there is a subtextual humor that I haven’t seen in your writing before this.

RB It’s a violent humor. It’s cold humor, survival humor. Bone knows the world. I was talking to some high school kids in Miami a couple of weeks ago and one of them said, “This is the first book that tells the truth about adults.” And that’s right, it’s not about kids, it’s about adults, about the world these kids are inheriting, about the people who have power in their lives. If the book has any lasting value and power, it’s because it’s the kid’s point of view. Bone sees the lack of power he has, but with a gallows humor. It’s a redemptive book, however Bone is triumphant in the end, spiritually and morally.

PB Yeah, the final passage creates a morality that will last him the rest of his life, regardless of whether he is powerless or powerful.

RB He is finally able to see the adult world realistically and with humor and not identify with it. He’s still seeing: I am different, and I will remain different forever. He doesn’t think he is excused of the responsibility to have morality. But he will never, never say, “I am they.”

PB That outsider stance has unraveled and undone so many people in your early work. They don’t find redemption, there is no knitting back together of the various skeins of their lives. They just come apart. But Bone comes back together.

RB There are several factors involved here. The other protagonists are adults, for whom in a sense the battle is lost. When their story begins the battle is over; they are who they are. Their destiny is closed.

PB Is it predestination?

RB No, but options are closed off very early in this country. Now options are being closed off at age eight, nine and ten. When I was growing up they were closed off at nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. You become commodified, you become a part of the economy and a part of the system at that age. Bone is the first protagonist that I’ve had who was a kid, who still wasn’t bought. And he has a chance to create a morality for himself freely and independently. He has an existential life still available to him that in two years you can’t imagine him having. Bone is free because he is so young. And so he’s not as trapped and not as tragically doomed as Bob Dubois in Continental Drift or Wade Whitehouse in Affliction. He’s a free agent, and he recognizes that, which most fourteen-year-olds don’t. So, if there is a redemptive element to the book, and I do believe he’s triumphant in the end and is morally empowered, it’s because he’s young enough at the start to still have that option available to him. I would hate to have to write a book about Bone two or four years later, as a 16 or 18-year-old kid. It would be a different story completely. But at that moment, when he’s on the cusp of adult life, he’s saying, “If I do it this way, I’m dead. If I do it that way, I’m free. I might be lost, but I’m free.”

PB Bone’s best buddy, a guy who is 16, he’s already lost—

RB He’s an asshole. (laughter)

PB He’s not admirable. You named him after yourself?

RB It’s good to name a minor character after yourself. It puts you in the position of being a spear-carrier in the story and it takes you away from the foreground and into the background. 

PB So then it was conscious. 

RB Oh, yeah, quite conscious. I named a minor character after myself to get myself out of Bone and move out any temptations I might have to over-identify with Bone, or to make his story my story. All that was neutralized by making his asshole pal named Russ have some of my worst characteristics. Russ is a garrulous, fast-talking guy who’s always got a plan, a way to deal, and he’s also, of course, a Tom Sawyer. He’s a slightly idiotic, conventionally smart guy. He knows how to deal with adults in a way that makes adults happy. Bone doesn’t quite get how to do that, but he doesn’t want to get it. But as a strategy for a writer it was useful for me to get myself out of the story.

PB I had that thrill of recognition when I came across in Bone the school bus that in your novel, The Sweet Hereafter, was in a wreck that killed many of the children of the community.

RB And in Bone it becomes a squat for homeless kids. A school bus is a very important image in American social life: it’s emblematic. It’s the first means by which we hand over our children to the corporate state, it’s where they first lose the protection of their parents. It turned out to be central to the story. It seemed silly not to appropriate and use the same school bus that I had wrecked in The Sweet Hereafter, because in some ways the two novels are very related. The Sweet Hereafter is, in parable form, the dramatization of what I view as the loss of our children. That is to say, there has been an abandonment of children in our culture, so that we no longer feel any compunction about not protecting them. And it has occurred most dramatically in the last quarter-century and manifested itself in thousands of ways which we’re only now beginning to recognize. By turning children into a consumer group we colonized and made them into little adults. We sexualized them, because that’s the easiest way to colonize people, to sexualize them and then sell them the goods that will reinforce their sexualization. And we did this primarily through the means of television, which is the first time corporate America invaded the home. Up to then you could always turn a salesman away from the door. Now you can’t. Now you turn on the television and the salesman sits down with you in your living room. A hundred and fifty-seven billion dollars worth of consumer goods were sold to children last year. We’re talking only legal consumer goods, we’re not talking tobacco products, or alcohol, or guns, or drugs. Just legal goods: sneakers, hoodies, clothing, makeup, video games and whatever, sold to children.

PB They make up a big part of Bone’s world. He has this Homeric catalog, but it’s video games, how can he resist?

RB And in order to maintain a moral reality in the world he has got to resist that. The only way he can resist that is to become a homeless person, a marginalized person. If he’s a regular kid, he is completely colonized.

In the past, we refused to sexualize children because we know that makes them vulnerable, we refused to allow them a role in the economy because that made them vulnerable, but somewhere in the fifties all those familial taboos were violated and broken, primarily by TV. And we ended up as a culture entering into the practice of auto-colonization.

We have devoured ourselves. We have eaten our future. Parents control—to such an extraordinary degree that it’s shameful—and relate to their children overall on the basis of their being consumers and parents being providers.

PB I don’t mean it as a contradiction, but by making them into small adults we also infantilize them, it seems to me, well into their twenties.

RB But that’s always true of colonization. They’re not cracked up to be adults, to be autonomous, free and existential human beings. And really, from the point of view of economics, it’s a self-renewing colony. The other colonies dry up or they get independence or have revolutions.

PB I was going to say they get angry.

RB Well, what do we have in front of us now? We’ve got a whole colony which is rebelling, which is refusing to play the game by our rules anymore. And so to go back to the early question of the school bus. The Sweet Hereafter begins with the school bus accident and the children’s death, and then the story is about how a community lives without its children. I view that book as a parable: what is it like to live without your children? And then Bone is what it’s like to be the child in a society that is trying to live without its children. To be an abandoned child, a homeless child, a child no longer protected, who has no sacred space in which to become a mature human being. The two books are meant to fit together. I think of The Sweet Hereafter as a German folktale, an allegorical novel, and Bone is a more realistic and first-person narrative. I’m re-telling the same story but from the point of view of the kids who have been commodified and exploited. So much of what we see happening in Washington today with the “Contract with America” bullshit is the reaction to this delayed discovery that we don’t have many kids who look or act like us. Why is that? The first response is to punish them for it. We’re punishing our children for not being like us, because that’s a way of not admitting that we have done something to our children that previous parents never did. Previous parents protected their children, gave them a sacred space, gave them time and room to become adults. Now we have “Toys R Us”. I love that name, it’s just diabolical. (laughter)

But we don’t need to understand kids better, we need to understand ourselves better, our own nefarious methods and motives. We have to understand our weaknesses and fears and the degree to which we’re manipulated by the culture of corporate America that we live in. We have to build an ideology in order to become moral and caring, custodial, protective human beings. To me, that’s the great secret in American life, this betrayal and abandonment of the children.

PB The American character is convoluted, complex, and multi-layered, and you’ve been taking it on book after book. The project you’re into now concerns somebody who it seems to me is the ultimate adult. How does he fit into your exploration of the American tapestry?

RB He’s an archetypal figure, John Brown the abolitionist.

PB Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, my home state.

RB He’s like the leader of every cult we’ve seen in America, going back for hundreds of years. Someone who with his force and single-mindedness stands in our child-like imagination for what an adult is supposed to be: clear. So the attraction to him is irresistible in a culture like ours. The fact that John Brown is the only white figure who is included in the pantheon of black heroes by black people but almost across the board amongst white people is regarded as a madman, is to me very clarifying about race in America.

PB Hero and madman aren’t mutually exclusive, are they? George Patton, Custer had a little bit of each …

RB Yeah, but they don’t articulate in their lives what Brown does in racial terms. W.E.B. DuBois said the problem of the 20th century is going to be the race line. And the problem of the 21st century is clearly also going to be the race line. We’re still there. A defining event that Brown led up to, the Civil War, was that same race line, and the fact that he’s viewed in diametrically opposite perspectives, depending upon whether you’re white or black, is very clarifying—not about Brown necessarily—but about America.

PB And the book you’re working on now is a novel?

RB It’s an intimate, private, personal novel about John Brown, the man. It’s not about John Brown the historical image, although I’m very attracted to that.

PB I’ve been hearing Brown’s name a good deal recently, but in connection with Paul Hill, the guy who shot the abortion doctor.

RB Well, the anti-abortionists are invoking his name in order to sanctify violence. It’s a parallel between Brown in the 1850s as a radical abolitionist using violence against slavery, and the anti-abortionists in the late 20th century who embrace violence on the same grounds—it’s a clear, easy parallel to draw. Outside of Israel, there is no other nation created out of a moral necessity. Unlike say France, or England, or Russia, we have this moral destiny, which is biblical, and we seem forever doomed to play out our history in moral terms.

PB We’re a nation of Shakers and Branch Davidians.

RB It’s true. We still have this biblical mission to build the New Jerusalem. And not just simply to survive, the way France wants to, or survive and dominate the way England wants to. We want to survive as the City on the Hill. This is our basic religion, and in some ways it’s how we entitle ourselves as citizens. We’re not just patriotic, we’re saved. That kind of patriotism is supra-nationalism. This creates a deep and profound conflict with our idea of ourselves as a nation that is a secular welcome wagon for every goddamned religion in the world. We have this deeply neurotic conflict which is bound to explode in violence every now and then.

PB Tell me about Potawatomie.

RB Potawatomie is historical material. But what I view it as and what I think John Brown viewed it as, was the first example of terrorism committed in this country, perhaps the world. I believe John Brown went to Harpers Ferry with a certain amount of strategy: to begin from that point a guerrilla war which would be maintained in the Appalachians, running from northern Tennessee all the way up to the Adirondacks adjacent to the Underground Railroad. That was in some sense a fairly rational plan, and it might have worked had it been conducted in a certain way. It failed for various reasons, primarily because Frederick Douglass, at the last minute, decided not to join him. It’s the next chapter in his life which is the most puzzling and wonderful chapter about him from the point of view of a novelist. The great puzzle for me is why John Brown, having lost very important elements which would have made Harpers Ferry the successful beginning of a guerilla war, nonetheless continued. He jumped from being a radical planner of a guerilla war to a martyr, consciously and deliberately. He knew he would not get out of Harpers Ferry alive. Puzzle one: why did he choose to become a martyr at that point? And puzzle two: why did he choose to martyr his children? He brought three sons with him, two died there, one escaped. And a son-in-law, and close devoted friends, people who followed him for years. What threw that switch is what intrigues me. What kind of hopelessness, what kind of idealism makes that possible? I can catch him up to that point. But then he steps off into space for me and I don’t catch him. I don’t know what he’s talking about, what he’s feeling, and that’s the great moment for a novelist. That’s where my novel focuses finally.

PB I thought this was a really interesting sentence very early on in Rule of the Bone; it hearkens back to the opening of Huckleberry Finn; “This is nothing but the truth.” It’s very provocative to find that line in the beginning of a novel. What did you feel like, using that sentence as a prologue to a fiction?

RB Of course, it’s stated with a certain amount of self-deprecating irony. And it is a deliberate allusion to Huck Finn. And to Catcher in the Rye, which is in itself a deliberate allusion to Huck Finn. I was trying to get down and let this kid have his story in an intimate, private, secret way, as you tell a story about your life. I imagine Bone as being where I have been in certain moments of my life, lying in a bed looking at the ceiling in the dark, with the person whom I loved next to me, either in the same bed or the next bed. It could have been when I was a boy or when I was a man, and the person in the next bed could have been a woman or a man or a boy, but a person who was also in bed looking up at the ceiling. And you start to talk at that late night hour, and you could lie, or you could tell the truth. And I just imagined Bone at that moment, lying there looking up at the ceiling deciding to tell the truth, even though it might be boring. He was willing to risk that. I wanted to clarify the relationship between the narrator and the reader, clear the decks and say, this is where I expect you, the reader, to be: it’s dark and I trust you, and you’re lying next to me and we’re near sleep and I’m going to risk telling the truth.

Joyce Carol Oates by Stuart Spencer
Joyce Carol Oates. Photograph ©1990 by Norman Seeff.
Jonathan Franzen by Donald Antrim
Jonathan Franzen 01

Jonathan Franzen and I conducted this interview at his dining room table, in his apartment on the Upper East Side, one morning in the early part of summer.

Take Note by Julia Bosson
Joan Didion 01

Unchanging times, in Joan Didion’s South and West

George Saunders by Sam Lipsyte
George Saunders Bomb 01

Historical analogies between the Civil War period and our own time are plentiful in a conversation about the author’s much-anticipated first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Originally published in

BOMB 52, Summer 1995

Featuring interviews with Helen Mirren, Chuck Close, Russell Banks, Todd Haynes, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Charles Ray, Patricia Spears Jones, Kim Dingle, Luis Barragan, and Sacred Naked Nature Girls.

Read the issue
Issue 52 052  Summer 1995