What a fascinating, honest man. Perhaps it comes from the seasoning of decades of respect and positive notoriety as one of America's most respected novelists, however I can't recall ever speaking to any artist in whatever medium who was more reflectively honest about his work.
I don't know if you've had a chance to read his latest book, Lost Memory of Skin. That was where our conversations started. I expressed the hope that readers of our transcribed conversation (in a simpler word - this) will read it after having read the novel. I hate giving away the plot. So I asked Banks, for the benefit of those who haven't read the book, How much would he like them to know about it going in?
He described it as; "A story about a young man who has become trapped by his own mistakes and naivete. He is a convicted sex offender, placing him living with these homeless men under a causeway in South Florida." That young man is known as The Kid.
Although he's known for writing about the fringes of society - to coin a term, the 1% of the 99% - what made him pick this particular plot line? Why the life of a sex offender?
"I didn't pick it; it picked me. It happens that I spend six months of the year in South Florida and I saw these men living under the causeway. I went down there, visited them, talked to them. And I thought, 'Oh my God here we go again - the unintended consequences of good intentions.' Under the rules of their parole, they had to stay at a distance from anywhere children usually were, so this is where they had to live.
"From there, I started doing more research. The Kid appeared to me full-blown as a character, right from the start. We all know someone who could commit, or almost commit but not commit, his crime. I think from the start of the book we all know that it's not a ,,, major crime that The Kid committed.He wasn't a serial rapist, or sex murderer. he's just like a lot of kids today, i imagine, who spend too much time on the internet, maybe get addicted to porn and then their curiousity takes over.
"But to answer your question, basically it's a story. Like Samuel Goldwyn said, if you want a message, call Western Union."
As you've probably noticed, the lead character is just known as The Kid. Other characters include The Professor, The Writer, and The Shyster. The latter begins with a 'real name' until that becomes effectively lost. Why did Banks make that choice.
"The simple answer is that because of their secretive lives, their real names become scandalous ones. But beyond that, that's what these alienated cultures do - street gangs and so on - they give each other nicknames and those become who they are. Also, I was trying to lift the story to the world of fable; to suggest other worlds and other places - take it to a place called Magical Realism. So then it's not just an 'expose of the dark belly of South Florida.'"
South Florida is a fascinating place for literature. I mentioned to Russell Banks the observation I made in the first paragraph of my review. When I pick up a novel and see that the setting is Florida, I know that I'm going to be exposed to scenes of utter depravity. Or (and yes I said this), maybe I just need to get out more. He's a kind man, so he laughed. He's an intelligent man, so he expanded on the suggestion:
"South Florida is right on the edge of the further world. It's right there on farthest tip of North America, opening up to the Caribbean and beyond. And it's still a fairly wide open place; wonderfully corrupt. It's typically American - it's an inverted place where there's all this immense wealth surrounding immense poverty. America is much closer to Las Vegas than the City on the Hill envisioned by the original settlers and founding fathers."
(There's a question I love to ask really thoughtful people. As such, I don't pull it out of the bag very often. It's a question that's like a one iron - only to be used when one is feeling confident that the result will be worth the risk. Here it comes:)
The theatre director and reviewer Harold Clurman said that if a director gets 70% of the original vision he had for a play before it went into rehearsal, if he has that by opening night, he's won. So how do you think you did with this book? Did it give you what you wanted it to do?
"Personally, I've never been able to assess any of my work until five or ten years have gone by. I can't look at it as though through the eyes of a stranger until at least five years out. I don't feel confident - I can't say - although - this was the first time my publisher has had to call me and say, 'Russell, we need to have the book out by September. Stop changing it and re-writing it.' It wasn't that I was unhappy with it. I just kept finding more and putting it in. Actually, I will say this. It was close enough and closer to what I had imagined when I first saw the story than any novel I've ever written in the past."
Where he went from there is why I made the original comment at the top of this piece about Russell Banks' incredible honesty. The supporting character of The Shyster is a disgraced State politician who finds himself under the causeway because he attempted to hire a little girl from her mother for sex. It was a police sting operation.
"I could not get inside the head of The Shyster. I've never felt blocked out before. You know, I've understood people with personality disorders. Sociopaths, schizophrenics, I can live inside them. But The Shyster, I couldn't. I don't know if it's a failure of the imagination or that the nature of his personality just wouldn't let me in."
This to me was a fascinating insight. All writers of fictitious characters claim in one way or another to 'write down what the character says to them'. I know that's exactly how I've described my own process when writing plays. That said, it was intriguing to me that Banks took that a step further. Allow me to explain. I've actually quoted from the book the part where The Professor states that pedophilia is a fairly recent historical phenomenon. Furthermore, this rather scholarly section of the book I completely bought into as the author's own opinion based on research etc. So I asked Banks about it.
"That's The Professor's opinion, not necessarily mine. Actually, he just puts that out there as a possibility, a sociological analysis. He also says that historically, whatever is illegal is what people are doing. My own feelings about it are still unformed. It depends on whether I'm looking at it from the point of view of the victim or the perp. I understand abuse. One of my four daughters was abused. My wife was abused. In fact, she's written a book about it. She's a poet. But we rarely in any literature get the point of view of the perp."
Last but not least, I was interested in the opinion of someone who writes about the 1% of the 99% vis a vis the Occupy Movement. Russell Banks was a signatory of a letter of support to Occupy Wall Street by several esteemed writers.
"It's the first serious statement from a large and mixed population against the vast disparity of wealth that has grown since its start with the Reagan Administration. It's especially significant since it involves the youth of America - well, and really the Western world. The youth has been acquiescent for the last ten or twenty years. I grew up in the 60s, the protest generation. We forget that Martin Luther King was in his 30s, and those other historic figures too. Their followers were even younger. And now they're drawing along other people too.
"You know, I was talking about this just last night with a friend, my British publisher. I hope that this does not become the kind of narrow, single issue protest defined by the media. When the Iraq war started there were huge numbers, thousands in the streets protesting it or just confused as to what the issues were. But (the U.S. government) could still march into Iraq and not worry about it.
"I think there needs to be some kind of sacrifice that identifies the anger people are feeling. The Arab Spring was the start of this movement, and in Tunisia the act was one of self-immolation, or in Egypt the mass violence in the streets. But I don't know.
"The good part of it is that it's horizontal and not vertical. But can it actually really make a difference, affect policy decisions? It'll be hard to make it through the winter. No, I support it, but I don't think it can."
I begged to differ. I believe we live in a wondrous time. In any event, I got to spend a wondrous half an hour in conversation with the voice of a great mind. I meant Russell Banks' voice, not mine.
Be seeing you.