Russell Banks excavates a bare and rugged New England

Russell Banks returned to the University of New Hampshire, to a classroom where he once taught, for the first time in thirty years.

“It’s like dreaming,” he said, “revisiting places you’ve lived in, especially during an intense period of your life … You return through a dream scrim, like returning to a childhood home.”

He came to talk about how to put a book together, how to make a character human, how to make us admit that any character, no matter how broken, is like us — how to drop the defenses and put aside the scrims.

A sense of place

Banks has not written a novel deliberately set in New Hampshire since Affliction came out in 1989, but he has set many recent stories in upstate New York, which he said reminds him of New Hampshire when he lived here. Certain geographic, cultural and historic images reappear: tropical or temperate, his places are all border country.

“Now that I’m old enough to have a long view on my work,” he said, “I can see there’s a bipolarity in my work — New England border area and the Southern Caribbean, West Africa, Florida . . . . . There’s most charge in borderlands where things come up against each other — races, languages, culture. It provides a kind of energy that ends up being fertile.”

He explores shifting edges between classes, groups, old and new ways of living, and forces that allow or prevent people from controlling their own lives. “The most interesting thing about fiction,” he said, “is the way it dramatizes the unequal distribution of power. You can look at a place and see its past in its present.”

‘It’s like dreaming, revisiting places you’ve lived in, especially during an intense period of your life … You return through a dream scrim, like returning to a childhood home.’

Banks’ novels return often to connection to place, to the land, to the question of who has the right to use it and how it is lost. Often, the people who have most say in the fate of the land have no sense of it. Hannah in The Darling defines the dirt roads and jungles of Liberia as places “from another time.” Denying that they exist now, as part of our time and place and culture, makes it easier to lose them.

But Banks’ novels do not let us dismiss places and people this way; they study both with range and depth — as Rolfe in Affliction surveys the history, the land rights, the trees, the ice, the town offices, the conflicts and the grit of the kind of New England former farming community “people sometimes admit to having come from but where almost no one ever goes.”

He writes in intense detail.

“There’s a sense in which fiction is like archaeology,” Banks said. “You have to dig down through the layers — history, geography, flora and fauna, just to understand a single human being. You have to become an archaeologist of that being and then reconstruct it, like a temple or a city.”

Nothing is irrelevant; we cannot dismiss a bruise or traffic cop’s whistle or sore tooth.

His clear detail strikes all the stronger because he writes about people and places who are often dismissed. Some are angry about it too. Banks’ stories come back often to the ways we keep from recognizing people as people.

Rolfe opens Affliction explaining, “we who loved him simply no longer speak of Wade.” Rolfe tells the story to see the man behind the impersonal newspaper clipping of Wade’s last week, before he disappeared. Later, in The Darling, Hannah tells us that the chimpanzees in her sanctuary are the only creatures named “not-us”: chimpanzee means “mock-man.”

Imagine all the people

Banks insists that his people are us, no matter how hurt they are. Banks’ people move too fast, willfully blind, trapped or believing themselves trapped. Like the main characters in Affliction and The Darling, Banks said his characters are often “trying to shape a destiny against the fate that’s closing in on them. Wade’s is determined by violence, class, social forces . . . . He’s trying to be a decent man. Hannah too. They’re both trying to struggle against social forces, trying to make decent lives that do no harm. Both are adrift, loners . . . solitaries. They have been married, they have family, but they are isolated. They can only connect to family on the telephone.”

His characters have different forces at play against them — familial, social, historic.

“You need different forces working in any character,” Banks said, “so that whenever they do anything — get married or divorced, abandon children and set up a chimp sanctuary, they always have a range of reasons. … We never do something just for one reason.”

He explained how he made a violent man, a dangerously angry man, vulnerable and sympathetic and above all, familiar. Those who loved him simply no longer speak of Wade — but after Banks has brought us face to face, we cannot deny that we know him.

“If character’s doing something stupid,” he said, “and you want the reader to believe it, you have to believe you might do it. A character has to have many reasons for any act. When you have that, you know you could do the same thing too, maybe not for these reasons, but for others.”

Direction … and indirection

Banks balances these sweeping overviews of glacial till and pine woods with deliberately, uncomfortably close readings of characters’ minds. He often writes in a voice that sounds like omniscient third, but that comes from one character telling the story of another.

“By indirection you find direction out,” he said, “especially when you’re talking about something morally complicated. Voices are liberating. The only way I can take on the authenticity of a storyteller is indirectly.”

In some stories, the central character does not know how to tell his own story, like Wade in Affliction.

“Wade’s a working class guy who doesn’t know much about his life,” Banks said. “I can get to Wade through Rolfe. Wade would have been harder on himself.”

In other stories, Banks said, he could only reach one character through another. In Cloudsplitter, he told the story of abolitionist John Brown from the point of view of his eldest son.

“Brown was a fanatic on one hand, principled on the other. He was so big, so charismatic, I didn’t feel I could get to him except in an oblique way.”

John Brown’s son fought by his father at Harper’s Ferry and then escaped through the abolitionist underground, the equivalent of the weather underground that shields Hannah in The Darling. Banks said that as he researched Brown’s family, he heard that voice talking to him. Hearing the story from a less driven character with a firm handshake gave the story a certain relevance.

‘By indirection you find direction out, especially when you’re talking about something morally complicated. Voices are liberating. The only way I can take on the authenticity of a storyteller is indirectly.’

Banks heard his most recent novel, The Darling, in the first person though, and from the central character’s point of view.

“First person is more in-your-face than third,” he said. “With Hannah, I don’t need an intermediary because she’s more like her readers; she can tell her own story. In some ways, she’s more honest and more conscious than Wade’s brother Rolfe. She doesn’t know everything, but she tells the truth. … She’s hard, but I like her for her honesty. She’s willing to look at her own life. I trust her in a way I don’t trust Rolfe.”

Even in the first person, his narrators set up barriers between themselves and the stories they tell. They tell stories at a remove, at a later time, and they let us know how difficult the stories are to face. At the end of The Darling, Banks said, Hannah is still underground.

“She won’t reveal even to Anthea what she’s told. We are privy to it. I imagined her as a good close friend, a neighbor, sitting on a porch, telling me something she wouldn’t tell others. Once I realized she was talking to a man, I knew what she’d say and wouldn’t say.”

Plot and place

We asked Banks how he began and how he strung his work together.

“A novel can start almost anywhere,” he said; “most people are aware at the start whether it’s going to be a wedding or a funeral. Like a mountain in the distance — you can see it, but you don’t know how to get there yet. You can start on the track anywhere.”

Mountains also change as you get closer and from different vantage points. Some have false summits. Banks said he works with a changeable outline for novels. He begins with wide arcs of plot. In later drafts, he works with much more detail over sections of 30 pages or so. Things appear in the short run that change the long run, he said. People appear or die.

Those long runs may span decades or only days. Is it easier to tell a story in 40 years or 40 hours?

“If you give yourself 40 years,” he said, “the pacing changes dramatically. You have leisure to include all the backstory. If the story is shorter, you have to imply a lot of the past or flash at it. The structure of The Darling is complicated. … It has three timelines — present, Africa with Woodrow, childhood.”

Banks said he got to Liberia through research from Cloudsplitter. He read about the Liberian civil war in 1990’s and said, “I know why this is happening now, and we’re involved”.

Research gives the sharp detail for Banks’ fictional archaeology. If we need to know how teenagers spend Halloween in northern New Hampshire, we can go there; if we need to know how a Union Army private spent Halloween in 1860, we can piece it together.

“Research for novels varies enormously,” he said. “A novelist’s research is different from a scholar’s or a historian or a journalist.” In a book like Cloudsplitter, Banks had a lot to discover: what did people eat for breakfast in the Adirondacks in 1865, in December? In West Virginia, in mid summer?

“The temptation is to frontload,” he said, “to know everything you’d know if you were a historian, and to know it in advance. You need to know how to research on the run, on a need-to-know basis. If you’re avoiding saying what they ate because you’re too lazy to find out, go look it up.”

But the research should sharpen the focus of the story, not bury it: the breakfast only matters as it reveals the pain around the table.

“Emotions don’t grow old,” Banks said, considering The Darling; “No one may be able to live Hannah’s life now, because she’s a child of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, shaped by a particular form of protest. What do we take from any character whose historical circumstances shaped their character? Her gradual search and failure to find meaning in her life and her dogged honesty despite her failures in awareness.”

Finding the future

We asked, finally, for advice for writers beginning their careers. Banks said he would have liked more self-assurance when he began.

“I came from a family that had little respect for imaginative life,” he said; “I didn’t know anyone like the person I was trying to become.”

Writers in apprenticeship need peers, he said, to take the measure of their own writing and not to be so lonely. And they need a mentor who can stand for the writing life until it clinches. And they need to get out of the economy. That’s what an MFA program does, and it seems to be worth doing. As long as you have those three things, it’s hard to improve on.

‘I came from a family that had little respect for imaginative life. I didn’t know anyone like the person I was trying to become.’

He said he could not save young writers any trouble, but he could point out certain things that had helped him. When he was young, he could separate his work from his career. He kept them separate by knowing that he had complete control over the work — and no control over the career. The separation let him concentrate on the work, and the career took care of itself.

“None of the rules are really rules,” he said; “ . . . every writer has to unfold in whatever shape is available to him or her. Everything you write changes you for the next piece you write.”

We are all like Wade watching the ice melt off the windshield, a shell dissolving between himself and the winter mountains, “as if that were the price he paid for looking out — eyes that allowed him to be seen.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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