If you like novels that take a walk on the wild side – exploring gritty themes like drug addiction, alcoholism and violence – then Russell Banks is probably the writer for you.
Internationally renowned, the award-winning American author is also a left-wing activist and a critical observer of events on both sides of the Atlantic.
Here is his full, unedited interview with euronews.
Russell Banks, Welcome to the Global Conversation.
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Why do you think you are drawn to the darker side of life and to characters on the fringes of society? What does that tell us about you?
Russell Banks: “Well, first of all, I think that I am writing about really not a minority or an obscure element in the larger society but really writing about the majority. I mean, most people’s lives have a dark side and it is the dark side that controls their life to an extraordinary degree. I sometimes have been told that I write about the invisible and the marginalised but then I think, well, actually, I am writing about the majority. There are more people on the planet or even in my own country, in the United States, who are thought to be invisible than there are visible people so I really don’t feel as though I have taken a path that is away from reality. It is a path that seems to me to be central to reality.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: It is not just that you write about them though. It is the way that you write about these people that sometimes is commented on. For example, the fact that people who we could say are ‘morally reprehensible’ – the convicted sex offender in your novel ‘Lost Memory of Skin’ – they are portrayed often in a sympathetic, positive light. Now how can you justify that?
Russell Banks: “Well I don’t think I need to justify it. It is simply a matter of
fellow humanity. My fellow human beings are staring at me and I am trying to see them clearly and see back and see the commonality between them and myself. That is really all it is. But I confess, I know I have a somewhat dark vision of the world. I like to say that, from my point of view: ‘The bad dog always bites and always wins,’ and so it is inescapable, I think, in lives.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Is this linked to your own dark childhood? I have been reading a little bit about your family circumstances. You had a very difficult time as a child, didn’t you?
Russell Banks: “Well I think so. It was in the 1940s and 1950s. My family life was marred and characterised by alcoholism and abandonment. My father abandoned the family when I was 12. I was the oldest of four children, raised in poverty at that point, certainly, by a single mother, a single parent. So through divorce, alcoholism, domestic violence – these factors at play – I think from a very early age, I felt myself marginalised and looked around and identified with others who felt themselves marginalised – whether because of their skin colour, or because of their gender or their sexual orientation or their relation to the larger society. So it wasn’t a huge leap for me to make that sympathetic identification which goes to your earlier question, I think.”
Biography: Russell Banks
- Born on March 28, 1940 in Newton, Massachusetts, USA.
- Prolific author of novels and short stories, as well as poetry and non-fiction.
- Winner of many awards and twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
- Work translated into 20 languages. Titles include ‘Continental Drift’, ‘Affliction’, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, ‘Rule of the Bone’, ‘Cloudsplitter’ and ‘Lost Memory of Skin’.
- Married to fourth wife, the poet Chase Twichell
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Is your writing a form of therapy then for you personally or is that too simplistic?
Russell Banks: “Yeah it is, in a way, because if it is a form of therapy, it hasn’t worked!”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Not even a little?
Russell Banks: “Not even a little! No, you know what it is though…it is a rigorous form of disciplining my attention and my life. I think writing, in a sense, probably did save my life, but not in a therapeutic manner, because it brought me to be more intelligent, more honest, more disciplined and hard-working that I probably could have been otherwise. I know that when I am writing, I am smarter than when I am not writing. And I am more honest than when I am not writing. And I am kinder as a human being, probably, then when I am not writing, so in that sense I suppose – and that is an indirect sense – it has been therapeutic, I think. It has made me a better person than I might have been otherwise.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: That is good to hear. One thing that I know is very important to you is freedom of speech, freedom of expression. And you happened to be in Paris in January 2015, just after the terrible Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, when people were coming out onto the streets to say: ‘Je Suis Charlie’ in solidarity. Looking back now, what are your memories of that time? I suppose you, as an American, were a bit of an outsider looking in, and how did you feel about the fact that fellow artists had been murdered for expressing themselves?
Russell Banks: “Well it was horrific, whether they were fellow artists or not, it was a heinous crime against all humanity and I felt precisely as I felt in New York…I was in New York City on 9/11 in 2001, too, and saw the towers go down and it was a very similar experience being in Paris at this time and seeing and participating in this widespread sense of grief and anger and fear. That mixture of anger and fear was dangerous in the United States in 2001 in an ongoing way and I felt that it was dangerous here as well, too. When anger and fear come together, people do things that they tend to regret later on and they set up institutions and guards, safeguards as they think of them, and security systems and so forth that they may later regret. We certainly, I think, have in the United States, come to regret some of the reactions – fearful and angry reactions that occurred in the United States, starting in 2001 and continuing today and now being exploited by politicians and institutions, in an ongoing way, to the point where anyone who is younger than, say, 20 years old, doesn’t remember it any differently than living in a security state, as we live in today. “
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Of course, here in France, we have an ongoing State of Emergency. Is that a step too far, in your view?
Russell Banks: Yes. That is what I saw happening to us in 2001 and on and I expected it would probably happen here when I was here in January and said to a number of people and to the media: ‘Watch out. This is a road you may regret going down before long.’ And I suspect that is what is happening. In fact, I hear that now from many people here in France.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: You mentioned fear and I know you very much wanted to come here to Lyon for the International Forum on the Novel but it seems that – since Charlie Hebdo there have been sadly other terror attacks in France and Belgium, as you know – a lot of your fellow Americans are nervous at the prospect of coming to Europe now because of the perceived security threat.
Russell Banks: “That’s ridiculous.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: You had no doubts about coming here?
Russell Banks: “No, of course not.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Well, we are glad you did!
Russell Banks: “That is statistically an insane kind of anxiety and fear. But that is the kind of thing I am talking about. Terrorism works to frighten people who are not targets themselves. When you become terrified, the terrorism has worked. And I would refuse to stay home on that account. Also, it is just a statistical absurdity to think about. I would be more afraid of dying of carbon monoxide poisoning or something in a car in a street of Paris than I would be afraid of being attacked by a terrorist. “
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Well, whatever security threats there may or may not be, one thing that is for sure on both sides of the pond is very extraordinary political times – the rise of Populism, the rise of Nationalism, perhaps linked to this atmosphere of anger and fear that you have talked about, linked to terrorism and so on. You are a political animal. How do you perceive what has been going on in Austria, in France, in the United Kingdom and in the United States with Donald Trump, of course, riding high? What are your feelings about the current climate and how did we get here?
Russell Banks: “You know, it is hard for me to address the situation in Europe with great confidence but I can talk, I think, with some confidence, about the situation in the United States and one can draw parallels between what’s happening there, this year in particular, this election year, and see how that is a parallel to what is happening in Western Europe because I think there are similarities. In the United States, both on the left and on the right – on the left with Bernie Sanders and on the right with Donald Trump – I think we are seeing an eruption of fear and fear of the other, fear of people whose language or skin colour or religion is different from the majority, let’s say, and also economic anxiety. For the first time in the United States, people are aware that one percent of the population, basically, controls the economy and that everyone else is only a few weeks away from disaster if they break a leg in an automobile accident or fall ill or are fired or let go from their job, they won’t be able to pay their rent.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: This is Bernie Sanders’ platform – the one percent.
Russell Banks: But it is also…Donald Trump is feeding that flame too and the people are flocking to him instead of to the conventional politicians
and the conventional party lines are flocking to the right and flocking to the left. And it is in response to an enormous number of changes in our culture and in our economy as well as changes that have to do with migration and immigration. They are all connected and I think people on the ground, ordinary, everyday folks – white, black, Asian, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter – are faced with that. Some are flocking to the left and going out around the other side of Hillary Clinton and the centre of the Democratic Party, to Bernie Sanders, and some are flocking to the right and going around to the right side of the centre of the Republican Party and adhering themselves to Donald Trump, for more or less the same reasons. It is a different demographic – they are mostly younger people and more of mixed-race with regard to Sanders but they are not necessarily ideological. These are not leftists necessarily. They are people who are frightened – young college students who are going to exit college, graduate college, owing 70, 80, 100,000 dollars in debt at a high interest rate. So they are younger – they tend to be younger. They tend to be older and white and working-class with regard to the Donald Trump movement. But they are really responding to a very similar set of circumstances, across the board.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: You’ve signed an online petition: ‘#StopHateDumpTrump’ along with tens of thousands of other ordinary American citizens and some more big names …Jane Fonda, Danny Glover…
Russell Banks: “The usual suspects!”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: The usual suspects! How dangerous do you believe Donald Trump would be if he was elected in November and do you think that is a real possibility, that he could be elected?
Russell Banks: “A: I think it is a very real possibility. I think Hillary Clinton, who will no doubt be the nominee for the Democratic Party, is a weak candidate. She has real vulnerabilities as a candidate. She doesn’t communicate that well through the media, through television in particular, and she probably has some secrets that are going to come out and she has weaknesses. Trump has many, many weaknesses as a candidate…”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: But would he be dangerous for the world and for America?
Russell Banks: “And B: I think it would be incredibly dangerous. I think that he is a deluded maniac and suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder of major proportions and is out of touch with reality. He is a master manipulator and he is masterful on television but he is amoral, reckless, ignorant and a blowhard as one corporate titan called him, who had to do business with him.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: We can definitely say that you are not mincing your words here!
Russell Banks: “No, so I think he would be extremely…The idea of Donald Trump in control of the American military, the American State Department, the American economy is, to me, a nightmare.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: A nightmare…Just to turn to the other side, we have mentioned Bernie Sanders and I came across this fascinating article that you will be aware of, that you wrote back in the 1980s…
Russell Banks: “1986, yes.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Yeah. He was a mayor, a provincial mayor at the time. You spent time with him and what is most interesting to me is the way you describe him then, resonates so much with how he is now!
Russell Banks: “Isn’t it amazing. He hasn’t changed in the slightest!”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: You say that, even then, he evoked: ‘from his supporters a kind of passionate loyalty that a party machine or patronage can never generate’. That is exactly what we are seeing now! Did you recognise a future President, perhaps?
Russell Banks: “No, not at all!”
Acclaimed author Russell Banks profiled Bernie Sanders in 1985 but The Atlantic never ran it. Now it's online http://t.co/iEF5fKiIp5— Connor Ennis (@EnnisNYT) 9 octobre 2015
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Are you backing him now?
Russell Banks: “Yes, I voted for him in the state of Florida. I did vote for him in the Primary. And I sent him a little cheque of 25 dollars so that I could be one of those millions of contributors who he likes to brag about! The thing that is so amazing about Sanders, especially in the political world, is that he is incredibly consistent. He has stayed on message probably since he was 18 years old. He seems to have had the same point of view since he read Eugene Debs as a college student or something. He is not exactly a Socialist. I think in a European spectrum he would be regarded as a Social Democrat but in an American spectrum he looks like a communist but in fact he is just a Social Democrat. But he has been saying the same kinds of things all along. His loyalties are, indeed, to the working classes and to the average man and woman in America and his targets have always been the plutocracy as he sees it that controls and manipulates the American economy and therefore American society.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Yes, his sincerity is certainly not in doubt. Just to wrap up, to return to your writing. You have been translated into 20 languages, I think. You are very much an American author but how universal are your stories?
Russell Banks: “Well, that is one of the pleasures, in a way, of coming here to France or to other countries and meeting readers and realising that they have been able, despite the linguistic differences, the cultural differences and so forth, to take the stories and the characters personally – to identify themselves with the characters and with the stories and what transpires in the lives of those characters. And that is a sign that they are universal because people from different parts of the world and different periods – some of those stories go back now 40 or 50 years – I have been around that long so they are not exactly timely – but nevertheless they seem to resonate in the lives of people who are very different from one another and that, to me, is a sign of having some universal life, some kind of a centre that transcends translation, transcends cultural difference.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Well you have been ‘around that long’ as you put it but you are still going strong. Because you have got a new project, just to finish. A new book that is a bit different from the others. Briefly, what is that about?
Russell Banks: “Well one of the things I have never done until now is write about myself, either as an essayist or as a fiction writer. I have avoided it, not for any principled reason. This book is a bit of a memoir and it attempts to look back from the point of view of a 76-year-old man over his life but really over just one aspect of his life which is his married life. I have been married four times and divorced three and so it is an attempt to try to understand how that came about. How on earth did I end up doing that, both to myself and to other people!”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: And you have got to tell us that first line, again, because it is classic!
Russell Banks: “The first sentence…yeah, that tells you more or less what the book is about. The first sentence of the book is: A man who has been married four times has a lot of explaining to do.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: You can’t argue with that, aye! Thank you so much for being part of the Global Conversation.
Russell Banks: “You’re welcome.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Russell Banks, thank you.
Russell Banks: “Thank you.”