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.
Visiting Lyon in France for the 10th edition of the International Forum on the Novel, Banks took time to talk to Euronews about literature, life and the extraordinary US presidential election campaign.
And when it comes to Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump, he didn’t mince his words!
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 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.”
Watch the full, unedited interview here
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…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.”
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 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.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: 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. Looking back now, what are your memories of that time?
Russell Banks: “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.”
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 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. When you become terrified, the terrorism has worked. And I would refuse to stay home on that account.”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: 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. 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?
Russell Banks: “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.”
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 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. He is a master manipulator and he is masterful on television but he is amoral, reckless, ignorant.”
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: 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!”
Lesley Alexander, Euronews: Just to wrap up, to return to your writing. 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…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, thank you.
Russell Banks: “Thank you.”