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Author Russell Banks on Writing Through the Voices of Outcasts, Criminals and Revolutionaries

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We speak with acclaimed novelist Russell Banks, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist known for drawing on his working-class background to write about criminals, outcasts and revolutionaries. “I know that as a kid in a broken home that was marred by alcoholism and violence and so forth, storytelling was a way, just within the circle of the family, for me and my brothers and so on, and for myself, to save ourselves. We could make sense of an otherwise incoherent life for children.” Banks has written a dozen novels and several short story collections. In “Cloudsplitter,” he focused on the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown; in “Affliction,” a paranoid alcoholic; and in “Rule of the Bone,” a 14-year-old drug dealer. Bank’s latest book, “Lost Memory of Skin,” explores the plight of sex offenders trying to live among society as outcasts. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the highly acclaimed novelist Russell Banks. His new novel explores the plight of sex offenders trying to live among us as outcasts. Banks is a two-time Pulitzer finalist who has written a dozen novels and several short story collections. He is known for drawing on his working-class background to write about criminals and outcasts. In his past novels, such as Cloudsplitter, he focused on revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, and his novel Affliction revolved around a paranoid alcoholic. His book Rule of the Bone was about a 14-year-old drug dealer. Both Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter were adapted into feature films.

I recently spoke with Russell Banks and started by asking him about his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, about a 22-year-old homeless man known as the Kid, who lives with a group of convicted sex offenders under a causeway in Florida.

RUSSELL BANKS: I live about half the year in Miami Beach, and from my—from the terrace of my apartment, I could look out on the Causeway, the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which connects the mainland, Miami, to Miami Beach. And about four years ago, articles started appearing in the Miami Herald about a colony—I really can’t call it much else than that—of men who were convicted sex offenders, who had served their time. And they were dropped off, with the connivance of the local law authorities and parole officers and so forth, underneath this bridge and were living there. They couldn’t live, as you said, anywhere within 2,500 feet of where children gather, which essentially meant there was no place in the city for them to live. So there they were clustered together in this squalid encampment. And I could look out and see it.

And I just started wondering, what on earth is going on? You talk about the unintended consequences of good intentions or blowback, and here we have it, on a very domestic level, because here were, yes, psychopathic serial rapists right alongside some poor old drunk who got caught urinating in a parking lot and was convicted of indecent exposure, which is a sex crime, or a kid who had had sex with his—I mean, a 21- or a 20-year-old kid who had sex with his high school girlfriend who was under 18, which is statutory rape. And they were all being lumped together, thrown into a heap there. And I just started being drawn into the—I mean, what a novelist does is try to inhabit someone else’s life and look out on the world from that point of view. And I just could imagine this kid, who becomes the Kid in the novel, a 22-year-old loser, the kind of kid who kind of slides through life slightly alienated and caught up in the internet and pornography and lost in a kind of dreamscape between—especially regarding his erotic life, between reality and fantasy, and getting caught—

AMY GOODMAN: Served in the military.

RUSSELL BANKS: —crossing a line. Serving in the military and then getting bounced out of the military, a lonely soul, without contact with the real world—but not psychotic, by any means, not mentally ill even. But confused, lost—there are many ways to describe kids like that, and there are millions of them, more and more.

AMY GOODMAN: And then police raid the encampment.

RUSSELL BANKS: Yeah, in the story, the Kid—yeah, the encampment gets raided, and another character appears in here, a professor of sociology, an outsized character—I mean, literally outsized, he weighs a quarter of a ton—and a man who lives in his head, and for whom his body has kind of disappeared, in somewhat the same way the Kid’s body is disappearing, although the Kid’s has become digitalized, as it were, and the Professor’s body is lost in his gluttony and his obsession with food and so forth. And he’s an intellectual who has theories about everything. And his intention is to kind of save the Kid and to test his theories with regarding—with regard to pedophilia and sex offenses and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s the journalist.

RUSSELL BANKS: And later, yes, there’s the Writer, right. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, excuse me.

RUSSELL BANKS: Yes, that’s right, the Writer appears later. And then there’s the wife and the characters, and then there are all these pseudonyms that the characters under the bridge take on. There’s the Shyster and the Rabbit, and so forth, Paco and Fruit Loops and the Greek. And in a way, they’re like trolls living under a bridge. And I wanted to bring the story up out of Miami’s specific mundane reality of Miami, while still making it realistic, and bring it up into the level of fable, so that it could apply elsewhere, not just be a story about Miami, but about the rest of the country, and maybe even the rest of the West in some ways, but make it more universal or more nearly universal, because it is an interesting and a tragic, in many ways, plight. What do you do with convicted sex offenders?

We do make gradations when we convict them, you know, for a second- or third-class crime, depending on the seriousness of it, violence, if that was involved, and so forth. But after they’re out, they’re stuck on the national sex register—National Sex Offender Registry forever. They have usually long periods of parole, 10 periods—10 years where they’re wearing an anklet, an electronic anklet, where they’re under surveillance, essentially. And then, in some places now, they’re trying to extend beyond time served, making it a permanent condition, a lifetime condition. I mean, we’re just not dealing with the social, psychological, political realities. And increasingly, homelessness—the population of homeless people in cities like New York, or anywhere else in America, are being filled with convicted sex offenders who can’t live anywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go to the encampment?

RUSSELL BANKS: Yeah, I walked over, because I could walk from my place, and talked to some of these guys, the kind of research—I’m a novelist, not a social scientist or a historian or an investigative journalist, so I wanted to know what does it smell like, what is like with the sound of vehicles rumbling overhead 24 hours a day, what’s it look like, you know, with the bay right there and the water coming up at high tide, and so forth, and just get a sense of it. And I did a lot of the usual kinds of research, as well, you know, where you read and—legal history and psychological analysis and speculation, and so forth, into the subject.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Russell Banks. His new book is Lost Memory of Skin. Talk about the title.

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, I think that I wanted the title to direct us to the erasure of the hard line which has existed for so long between fantasy and reality, especially when it comes to our erotic lives, our sexual lives, and the erasure that seems to me to have occurred over the last—particularly, at an accelerated rate, over the last decade or so with the digitalization of our erotic life. And as a result of that, we seem to have lost a kind of skin connection we have to other human beings, and instead we’ve become increasingly self-referential with regard to our erotic connections, because the digitalization of it means, of course—is pointing to pornography and the easy, easy access of it, in fact the difficulty of escaping from it, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the eroticizing of consumer goods, and therefore of consumer goods perusers, like children, and how they, I think, oddly feed each other. And it’s a phenomenon that you may have remembered a couple of weeks ago: People magazine had a big piece on the front about children with tiaras and beauty contests and so forth. Well, that’s just another example of it, of this phenomenon.

AMY GOODMAN: You set yourself a very difficult task, because you’re taking the most unsympathetic characters in society.

RUSSELL BANKS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: You are taking sex offenders.


AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you, by meeting them, are showing us all that they deal with this, like the Kid, this young man, who’s 22 years old. Continually, in trying to get a job, for example, he has to see, is there a school around, is there a movie theater around, is there a—is he allowed into a library, he has to ask.


AMY GOODMAN: And anyone being able to check the registry.

RUSSELL BANKS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re taking on the most difficult task.

RUSSELL BANKS: Yeah, it’s a taboo subject. It’s one we don’t want to think about. We would just as soon it went away somehow. And so, when you bring it back up into a novel, you’re also bringing up, you hope, that the reader will feel some of the same affection and sympathy for this character as I do, as the author does. It is a risk, I suppose. But, you know, I didn’t think about it until now, I mean, in a funny way. While writing the book, I was just simply following my own deep personal curiosity and need to understand a life very, very different from my own. Once the book enters the public world, of course, then I have to consider the fact, well, probably not everybody has the same curiosity and interest and desire to understand that I do. And you hope the Kid is sympathetic. And, you know, he’s funny. He’s honest. He’s basically honest and decent, and he wants to be a good person—and is trying very hard. He’s also ashamed and guilty. And a good deal of his effort in the earlier parts of the book is to try to separate out shame and guilt, because he’s internalized society’s view of him as someone who is beneath any kind of civil or personal consideration.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to one of your earlier books that was made into a film, The Sweet Hereafter. The novel tells the story of the impact on a small town of a tragic school bus accident that killed many of the town’s children. In this scene, the father of two of the children confronts an aggressive trial lawyer, who’s shown up in town to organize the families of the victims into a lawsuit. The confrontation is interrupted by a call from the lawyer’s adult daughter, a homeless drug addict.

MITCHELL STEVENS: I can help you.

BILLY HANSEL: Not unless you can raise the dead.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Here. You may change your mind.

BILLY HANSEL: Mitchell Stevens, Esquire. Tell me, would you be likely to sue me if I was to beat you right now? I mean, beat you so bad you [bleep] couldn’t walk for a month, because that’s what I’m about to do.

MITCHELL STEVENS: No, Mr. Hansel, I wouldn’t sue you.

BILLY HANSEL: You leave us alone, Stevens. You leave the people of this town alone. You can’t help.

MITCHELL STEVENS: You can help each other. Several people in the town have agreed to let me represent them in a negligence suit. Now, your case as an individual will be stronger if I’m allowed to represent you together as a group.


MITCHELL STEVENS: The workers have agreed. The owners have agreed. Nicole Burnell’s parents. It’s important that we initiate proceedings right away. Things get covered up. People lie. That’s why we must begin our investigation quickly, before the evidence disappears. That’s what I’m doing out here.

BILLY HANSEL: Listen. I know Risa and Wendell Walker. They wouldn’t hire a [bleep] lawyer. The Ottos, they wouldn’t deal with you. We’re not country bumpkins you can put the big city hustle on.

MITCHELL STEVENS: You’re angry, Mr. Hansel. And you owe it to yourself to feel that way. All I’m saying is, let me direct your rage. [phone rings] That’s my daughter. Or it may be the police to tell me they found her dead. She’s a drug addict.

BILLY HANSEL: Why are you telling me this?

MITCHELL STEVENS: Why am I telling you this, Mr. Hansel? I’m—because we’ve all lost our children. They’re dead to us. They’re killing each other in the streets. They wander, comatose, shopping malls. Something terrible has happened. It’s taken our children away. It’s too late. They’re gone.

AMY GOODMAN: Russell Banks, in your novel The Sweet Hereafter, as in your latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, you write about lost childhood. Can you talk about this recurrent theme in your writing?

RUSSELL BANKS: You’re right. It does. It comes again. Rule of the Bone is really about that. And I’m not sure. I think I’m drawn to, again and again, the story of lost child. The abandoned child may be more the case. The child is not simply lost from home; there is no home in most of these cases. Perhaps, I endured a version of that, myself, as a child. But it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you grow up?

RUSSELL BANKS: In New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts, in a broken family. My father abandoned the family when I was about 12, and I was the oldest of four. My mother raised us from there. But I think, more recently—I mean, in recent years, more—since I’m well along in adulthood, I’ve become increasingly aware of something that’s species deep, it seems to me, having been abandoned. And that’s the need to protect the weakest among us, who are always children, the most vulnerable among us. And in the last half-century—I’m old enough so I can remember the last half-century pretty well—there seems to have been a shift away from that impulse, where we’ve given it up somehow, or we’ve been seduced away from that responsibility now over several generations.

You know all those old jokes about keeping a salesman out of the—out of the house, you know, where you slam the door on his foot, and he comes in over the transom; you close the transom, he comes through the window; you close the window. They’re describing a deep impulse, which is to protect the children against the amoral forces of nature—maybe the climate, the saber-toothed tiger and the tribe over the hill. Well, the amoral forces of nature now really are the consumer economy. And when we allow the salesman to come through the door and sit down in the living room, we’ve abandoned that responsibility to protect the home from that force of nature. And then when we take the salesman in and put it in the bedroom and make it a babysitter for the kids, we’ve really turned the kids over to the salesman and to the consumer economy. And that phenomenon, to me, is a powerfully—it’s a very important and altering phenomenon, one that has taken place gradually, slowly, over several generations. And I think that the abandoned children, the lost children, in some way reflect all that.

AMY GOODMAN: As George Gerbner, the founder of the Cultural Environment Movement, said—he was the former dean of the Annenberg School of Communications—about corporations and children, we have turned our children over to corporations who have “nothing to tell and everything to sell that are raising our children today.”

RUSSELL BANKS: That’s right. That’s right, exactly. Yeah, and it’s brilliant for marketing purposes, because children replace themselves. You know, you sell one group of kids, one group of 11-year-olds sneakers, and then next year there’s a whole new bunch of 11-year-olds who need sneakers, and you just keep on moving.

AMY GOODMAN: Novelist Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter. His new book is Lost Memory of Skin. We’ll come back to our interview with him in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to my interview with the highly acclaimed novelist, the two-time Pulitzer finalist, Russell Banks. I asked him about his historical novel Cloudsplitter, about the abolitionist John Brown.

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, where do we start? It took me 950 or 970 pages to get a novel that tried to encompass his life.

AMY GOODMAN: Cloudsplitter, why is it called that?

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, he broke through the clouds, in a way. It was the name of a mountain in the Adirondacks where he had a farm, and he’s buried just down the road from my house, in fact, along with 13 of the other men who were killed at Harpers Ferry, or executed afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was in the year…?

RUSSELL BANKS: 1859. And in October, as is mostly well known, I mean, in 1859, he went into Harpers Ferry for the—

AMY GOODMAN: Assume no history is well known.

RUSSELL BANKS: That’s true, I suppose.

AMY GOODMAN: As it all goes down the memory hole.

RUSSELL BANKS: Right, right. But Brown sort of stood at that crossroads of religion and violence in American—the American imagination, and righteous wrath, if you will, or principled violence. And he was our homegrown terrorist, but he was a terrorist for a cause that certainly today we’re universally in support of, which is the ending of slavery. And so, his story is still a very complicated one for most Americans. And even to today, he’s regarded by most African Americans as a heroic figure of the first order—among whites, placed even above Abraham Lincoln. I mean, Malcolm X and James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois saw him that way. And among whites, generally, most whites, Americans, view him as a madman—well-intended madman. But nobody disagrees about the facts. The facts have been known since the day of the raid, since, you know, the time the events occurred. But it’s an amazing kind of opposite views of regarding the meaning of the facts. And so, that’s what drew me to Brown’s story, more than probably anything else. It was written well before 9/11, but it does, in a way, deal with the question of terrorism. And what—you know, because he was clearly a terrorist, quite a conscious and deliberate terrorist. He was killing some people in order to strike fear in the heart of many others.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to your sense of place in your writing. We recently interviewed Professor Michael Zweig, who did this thorough study of the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, at the count at the end of 2010, something—more than 1,400. He found the highest casualty rate across the country occurs among white soldiers from rural counties in upstate New York.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the hard life and characters from the north country.

RUSSELL BANKS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, in the town square where I live in upstate, in the Adirondacks, there’s a—I won’t call it quite a shrine, but there’s a memorial to all the townsmen who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they keep on adding a new name every few months. And everybody knows those people there, their families. It’s a small town. You know these kids, you know. They’ve seen them go up through school and everything.

AMY GOODMAN: What town is that?

RUSSELL BANKS: Keene, New York. And you know their parents. You know their grandparents and so forth. They’re mostly working-class, I think. They’re not impoverished. They’re not lost, and so on. And they tend to view the military both as a patriotic opportunity, opportunity to express their patriotism and citizenship, on the one hand, but also a way perhaps to get education, formal education, higher education, because they’re moving in that direction, and they want to enter the middle class. They’re all white. The region is all white. And their parents and families are, by and large, extremely patriotic and vote Republican, and support—supported the policies of George W. Bush right down the line and are critical of the policies of Barack Obama right down the line. Go figure. They—

AMY GOODMAN: Even though Afghanistan is now Obama’s war.

RUSSELL BANKS: Yeah, yeah. And their kids are dying in it, and so on, and are—I mean, beyond that, it’s hard to say. But I think it’s important to note that these are—they’re white and that they’re striving people, strivers, trying to enter the middle class from the blue collar, from working class.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve written fiction. That’s what you’re known for, your novels. You’ve written nonfiction, collections of short stories.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the difference and what you prefer.

RUSSELL BANKS: Also written screenplays, too. Well, I think I’m happiest writing fiction, and in particular, novels. Novels seem to create, for me—or allow the possibility of creating for me—an alternative universe, that’s comprehensive and large enough to let me think in ways I can’t think otherwise. The tradition of the novel and, I think, the rigor and the discipline of the art force me to be smarter than I am any other time and force me to be more honest than I am at any other time and force me to be more attentive than I am at any other time. So in some ways, a novel allows me to be better than I am the rest of the time in my life, and I think that’s why I prefer to work in that large fictional form.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you write the screenplay for your film — there was Affliction, there was The Sweet Hereafter — did you—

RUSSELL BANKS: I’m doing also Rule of the Bone and The Darling, as well, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re controlling a lot of—

RUSSELL BANKS: The person—whoever writes the check out ends up controlling it, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s it like, these figures in your head become real on the screen? What is that like for you?


AMY GOODMAN: And where are novels going these days? Is it all either movies, or it doesn’t happen?

RUSSELL BANKS: No, I think the novel is not being threatened by film, I don’t think, or by visual media. I think what the novel does and what films do, they’re basically delivery systems for story. And the species will always require story. And they’re different, radically different, types of delivery system. Different type of story gets delivered in film than gets delivered in the novel. But I’m not too worried about either one taking over or dominating the other, because we, as human beings, need the form of story that comes in a novel. It’s interactive. We help create the story as we read it. And we also need and relish the form of story that gets delivered by film, where we’re a passive observer and not an active participant, as well. But story is what tells us, finally, what it is to be human beings. And we need to know. I mean, there’s no other way as a species we can know what it is to be ourself. And we’re the only species for whom that’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what do you attribute your need to, your desire for, expressing yourself through writing. You describe coming from a broken home, your dad leaving when you were 12.


AMY GOODMAN: What contributes to—and would you say it’s something you need to do?

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, I do. I think there are several sources for it, and it’s only—there are probably a lot of sources I don’t even know about or aren’t even aware of. I know that as a kid in a broken home that was marred by alcoholism and violence and so forth, storytelling was a way, just within the circle of the family, for me and my brothers and so on, and for myself, to save ourselves. We could make sense of an otherwise incoherent life for children. And then, as I grew older, it continued to function that way. As my world expanded beyond the family and out into the larger world, storytelling still was a way for me to make sense of an otherwise incoherent reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Novelist Russell Banks, author of Cloudsplitter, The Darling, Affliction, Rule of the Bone, The Sweet Hereafter. His newest is Lost Memory of Skin.

Coming up, Alaa Abd El Fattah, the prominent Egyptian blogger and activist. He has just been released from two months in military detention. His wife gave birth to their first child while he was in jail. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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