Russell Banks' life reads like a picaresque novel, though maybe not his own. He was born in 1940 in Newton, Mass., but was raised in the small town of Barnstead, N.H. His father was a plumber who abandoned the family early on. Russell got a full scholarship to Colgate University, but "fled" (his word) after eight weeks to join Castro's army in Cuba. He got as far as Miami. At 24, he entered UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated with honors in 1967. While living in the Triangle, he co-founded a literary press and magazine called Lillabulero. Banks will return to his alma mater on Tuesday, April 4, to give a public reading at 7:30 p.m. in Memorial Hall.
The author of a book of poetry, nine novels, and four short story collections, Banks' new and selected stories, The Angel on the Roof is due out this summer. He has twice been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the Pulitzer Prize. The film adaptations of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction together earned four Academy Award nominations and one Oscar. Three more of Banks' novels are in development, and this time he's writing the screenplays for two of them, Rule of the Bone and Continental Drift.
The Independent:While you were at UNC in the '60s, you co-founded a literary press and magazine called Lillabulero. How did it begin?
Banks: Actually there were a bunch of us who started Lillabulero, mostly graduate students in the English department, Bill Matthews, Newt Smith, Doug Collins, and a few older late-arriving undergrads like me and Dave Mallison and Steve Hawthorne, all guys, as you can see, and all of us nurturing nascent ambitions to be writers--poets or fiction writers--instead of scholars. This was 1966, and all over the country young writers were cranking out manifestoes, magazines, pamphlets, books, with a kind of revolutionary fervor. Mimeo mags, ragtag offset printed magazines and books stapled together by hand, books printed in garages and basements. We edited, printed, and stapled ours upstairs in the old Campus Y building.
There was Bly's Sixties Press up in Minnesota, George Hitchcock's Kayak in San Francisco, Kulchur, Black Mountain Review, Evergreen Review, United Artists, literally hundreds and hundreds of magazines coming from all over the country, and we were reading poets and fiction writers in these magazines that made us think we could ourselves participate in the enormous re-creation of American writing that was going on then, the work begun essentially back in the '50s by the Beats and the Black Mountain writers like Creeley, Levertov, Olson and Dorn, and San Francisco poets like Duncan, Snyder, McClure, and so on, and by the so-called New York School: Ashberry, O'Hara, Koch, and Berrigan. We wanted to be the next generation, I guess. Of course, not all of us became writers, but all of us learned a lot about contemporary American fiction and poetry that we couldn't have learned in the classroom--partly by reading those magazines and books, which was a nationwide literary "samizdat" of sorts, and then by editing our own magazine and books. Matthews and I ended up sustaining the project, as one-by-one members of the group graduated or got real jobs, and we continued to run the magazine and publish books until 1975, with Bill living and teaching in Ithaca, N.Y., and me in New Hampshire.
We published a number of North Carolina writers--Bob Morgan's first book of poems, stories by Max Steele, Leon Rooke, and the late Ralph Dennis, and all kinds of folks who later became, if not household words, at least well-known, [including] Charles Simic, James Tate, Carolyn Kizer, [and others].
[Lillabulero is] the name of a song and comes from Sterne's Tristram Shandy. A character in the book, My Uncle Toby, whistles it every time someone offers a rational argument that leads to absurd conclusions. It was a political statement for us, I guess, as well as an allusion to a book we all loved then, and still do, I hope. We read it here at UNC, as it happens, in Professor Thornton's novel seminar, which we all took that year.
In the late '60s, you met and actually got to hang out with Jack Kerouac and Nelson Algren, both idols of a sort in American culture and literature, who were influential in your own growing-up as a writer. Can you tell us more about those encounters?
Kerouac's visit to Chapel Hill is a long story, and a couple of the biographies mention it. Nicosia's, I think, talks about it. He and a couple of Lowell cronies, Indians (Kerouac claimed), and his cousins, picked up a friend, Marshall Hay, who was a student at UNC and was hitching back from a meditation weekend at the Meher Baba Center in Myrtle Beach, and Marshall told them Chapel Hill was a cool place and a lot of people there were big fans, so they brought him all the way to town. I got a call late at night from a bar downtown, the old Tempo Room, saying, "Hey, Russ, Jack Kerouac's in town, man, and he wants to party!"
About four days later, Kerouac and his cousins drove on, leaving a large number of very hungover, exhausted hipsters behind. It was just before he died, and he was seriously ill from his alcoholism, and in and out of his mind, one minute the brilliant, charismatic Kerouac of old, the next a raging, homophobic, anti-Semite. It was both exhilarating and depressing to be with him, exhilarating because he was a literary hero of mine and of most of my friends (most of my generation, in fact), and here he was in the flesh. And depressing because he was so sick and dying and deranged.
With Algren, though, I had a very different relationship. I mean, a real relationship, a friendship. It began when I was 22 and a plumber in New Hampshire, and continued into my 30s, until he died, actually. He was on the staff at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont, and I went up there especially to learn something from him, since he was a writer I admired enormously, a type of writer, like Kerouac, I could imagine myself becoming, since he'd come from a background not unlike my own and had more or less invented himself as a writer out of whole blue-collar cloth. And he wrote about people and places and lives that I could imagine myself writing about. Algren read my stuff, pronounced it readable, said that I had "it," whatever that was, and, in an important sense, gave me permission to become a writer. He was a mentor in the old-fashioned sense of the word, whereas Kerouac was more of a road sign that read "Danger Ahead."
I hear you're writing the screenplay adaptation of On the Road for Frances Ford Coppola. Have you discovered anything new about this novel that some call the "Beat Manifesto"?
Coppola is producing it, but we don't know yet who'll direct. Francis bought the film rights outright, not just the option, back in 1968, I think, and never let them go. It's his obsession--or one of his obsessions. He has a lot of them. Anyhow, it's a very exciting project for me, partly because of the difficulty of adapting a book that's not inherently dramatic, or I should say, not obviously dramatic. I do think, if you go back to the novel and bypass the mythology that's surrounded [On the Road] since it was published, you'll see a much more dramatic story than we've been led to believe, led by Kerouac himself, and by just about every critic and writer who's written about the book for four generations now.
And it's not a manifesto. Kerouac himself kept insisting on that much. It's a love story, really, a romance, in which the main character, Sal Paradise, grows slowly and reluctantly and sadly disillusioned by the object of his affection, Dean Moriarty. All you have to do is compare the opening scene of the novel to the last, to take the measure of his disillusionment. And you'll see the consequences of his disillusionment--the kind of life that's lost to him when finally he has to abandon Dean. It's not a Butch-and-Sundance or Huck-and-Tom kind of story. And in spite of what Kerouac and his friends insisted, the book was written and rewritten slowly, over a period of seven years, not in three weeks onto a roll of Teletype paper. He typed it in three weeks, one or two of the later drafts, but he had an early version of the book written back in 1951 and refers to it constantly in his letters. I feel lucky to be able to try adapting the script. Kerouac loved movies, and he wrote and narrated a brilliant little movie in the 1950s, Pull My Daisy, that I'm using as a guide, in a sense. I want to write the script for a film that I think Kerouac himself would have made of On the Road.
You're often typecast as a "blue-collar writer." Is there truth in that, or is it limiting to the point of misrepresentation?
Sure, there's a certain amount of truth to it, inasmuch as it describes quite a lot of my work so far. But it certainly doesn't describe all of it by a long shot. How would you fit books like The Book of Jamaica or The Relation of My Imprisonment or Cloudsplitter under that heading? Same with at least half of my short stories. I think it's a label that got tacked onto my forehead because of the first of my books to gain wide popular acceptance and acclaim, Continental Drift. Some days it feels like a stick to beat me with, however. And yet, there is some truth to it. I come from a working-class background, and I do feel a strong need in my work to witness to the lives and suffering of people most of my readers are unlikely to know personally, people who are unlikely to read my books, in other words.
I found this passage from Simone Weil in Kate Daniels' new book of poems, and at least three of your novels came immediately to mind: "On the whole, our present situation more or less resembles that of a part of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motorcar launched at full speed and driverless across broken country. When will the smash-up occur after which it will be possible to consider trying something new?" If Weil were speaking of America, what do you think the "smash-up" will be?
Beware of writers in their 50s and 60s who too often end up delivering themselves of their opinions--unless on closer examination it turns out that their "opinions" are actually visions. In America, we tend to turn our commercially successful writers into minor celebrities, and we tend to pay too much attention to the opinions held by our celebrities. Anyhow, in my vision of America--and it's a vision, not an opinion--the "smash-up" you refer to has already taken place. It happened in the beginning, when the first African slave stepped ashore in Virginia.