Island hopping, mountain climbing and soul-searching
Q&A with Russell Banks On His New Travel Book “Voyager”
The arrival of a new book by Russell Banks— whether a novel, story collection, nonfiction or poetry— is cause for celebration. He is, quite simply, one of our finest writers. Even when his game is slightly off, he’s still got better stuff than anyone else in the rotation. To pay him the highest compliment that a Brooklynite can pay someone, he’s the Sandy Koufax of American writers.
My introduction to Banks was his 1980 novel “Book of Jamaica.” Part history, part confessional, the book had such an impact on me that once I finished it, I tracked back and read “Family Life” and “Hamilton Stark” and then impatiently waited three years for “The Relation of My Imprisonment.” Two years later, Banks published the novel that, for me, raised the bar to a height at which very few (Ford, Salter, Stone) could compete: “Continental Drift.” Thirty-plus years on, the book still leaves me astonished and overwhelmed. In re-reading the novel recently, even though I knew the ending, the book, especially in its last 50 pages, is like a time bomb. (Banks has written a screenplay, and at one point, Jonathan Demme was attached to direct; although the subject matter of the book is timeless, if ever there was a time for a film to be made about class and immigration, it is most decidedly now.)
Banks has now graced us with “Voyager,” a new book of travel essays. The title could not be more apropos. The terrain Banks traverses is as much emotional as geographic, as much about his past as his present. Equally fearless in exploring both, he privileges the reader by sharing his discoveries, no matter how unflattering they may be. “Warts and all” doesn’t begin to describe his candor.
Although he now divides his time between a home in the Adirondacks and Miami, in the mid-’80s, Banks lived in Park Slope, and two of his four daughters currently live in Brooklyn.
I began our telephone interview by asking Banks about his Brooklyn days.
Eagle: What do you remember most vividly about living in Brooklyn?
Russell Banks: Gentrification was just beginning in Park Slope. There was a group of writers — Paul Auster, Jonathan Baumbach (I remember meeting Noah [Baumbach] when he was about 16), all of us in our mid-40s, with young families. It was very much a community of writers. We lived on Third Street, off Seventh, and it seemed like I couldn’t leave the apartment for a carton of milk or to pick up laundry without bumping into another writer.
Eagle: Was there any envy, score-keeping, back-biting?
RB: Back in that period, it seemed more collegial and non-competitive than now, maybe it was because none of us had three-book, six-figure deals, and we all paid the rent by teaching. Writers with a higher visibility quotient were mostly older and lived out in the Hamptons or Connecticut.
Eagle: Because class is such an essential element in all your writing, I’m curious to get your take on gentrification.
RB: I think a sign that a city has matured is when it starts to recycle its neighborhoods. A sign that it’s become moribund is when it feels obliged to “preserve” its neighborhoods, upscale or down, as if a neighborhood were a museum exhibit, a tableau vivant. The problem with gentrification in New York, and now Brooklyn, is that the city has given up on recycling its neighborhoods. When the rich move into a new corner of the city, they don’t abandon the old one anymore. Gentrification has become a citywide imperial conquering march from the center to the outer boroughs, all in the interest of real estate speculation.
Eagle: The women in your life figure prominently in “Voyager,” and, in fact, in all your writing. It seems like they are the essential, inescapable piece in the puzzle that is your, or perhaps any man’s, life.
RB: Since my father left our family when I was 12, I was essentially raised by my mother. I have been married four times and I have four daughters. And yet strangely enough, I’ve always felt as though I should avoid writing about women. As with race and religion, gender isn’t something a writer can just do by projection. You have to inhabit the character, overcome your ignorance. Accept your limitations [as a man] in writing about women. Then you can, maybe, get it right.
Eagle: In your penultimate chapter you describe an otherworldly encounter while climbing in the Andes with a beautiful, mysterious Slovenian woman climber (presumably not Melania Trump.) It seems like something out of “Lost Horizon” or “The Razor’s Edge.” Do you think it is precisely because you have, throughout your life, made these far-flung journeys that you’ve had so many remarkable encounters? I’m also thinking of the Graham Greene-like characters John Archbold and Clive Cravensbrooke at the Springfield Plantation on Dominica.
Banks: It’s probably true that my life has been made more interesting by my putting myself in places where I don’t know the rules or norms and consequently have been less likely to avoid danger or surprise or embarrassment than if I had stayed home, where I know how to avoid all three, and mostly do avoid them.
Eagle: And what is the story with those mysterious, spooky nocturnal voices at Leyritz Plantation?
RB: All true, I assure you. My wife Chase was there and I made sure she fact-checked me.
Eagle: Since the book literally spans the globe, and you meet so many difficult people, why no maps or photographs?\
RB: It’s interesting, it did occur to me to have them, but I resisted the impulse. I’m always reading a lot of history books, especially lately. The writer is taking you back in time or to some unknown destination by means of language. He’s weaving a spell. If there’s a map or a photo, that spell is broken. You do get a photo of me on Everest on the back flap and me in 1962 leaning on that old jalopy, smoking, doing my best Kerouac impression.
Eagle: Since you do open a vein in the book, I’m curious about any reactions from your daughters or ex-wives.
RB: I’ve been waiting. I know my daughters were sent the book. Maybe I should be reassured by their silence! I did tell them that I would not use the book as an occasion to settle old scores with their mothers. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I guess, despite my assurance, they may have a little anxiety. As for my ex-wives, the silence is deafening.
Eagle: Key West is an important, and redolent, location in the book. What is it about Key West and American writers? One thinks of Tennessee Williams, Ann Beattie, Tom McGuane, Elizabeth Bishop and Hemingway, of course.
RB: In my youth, in the ’50s and ’60s, the attraction of Key West was that it was far as you could go and still be in the United States. Only it wasn’t like anywhere else in the U.S. You could “leave” the country, while still being in it. Especially when I showed up there in ’59, it was a place where you could escape all the stifling conventions. Sadly, it’s not true anymore; it’s been sanitized, become a theme park, become a cliché, like running with the bulls in Pamplona.
Eagle: I loved your riff on the John Huston film “Key Largo” as you and your friend Tom were cycling past the hotel that’s featured in the film.
RB: Yeah, you know usually I’m in a car just zipping by it, so I never have the leisure to evoke those memories of the film. But at ground level, on a bicycle, it’s a whole different perspective. A perspective that also made me remember that some of my fellow guests at that hotel were Miami mobsters arming and training Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Eagle: I’ve read that after getting a full scholarship to Colgate University, you dropped out after six weeks and went to Florida with the idea of joining the rebel army of Fidel Castro in Cuba.
RB: It’s true. But I only got as far as Miami. By then, Fidel didn’t need me anymore. Which might have been just as well, since I didn’t speak any Spanish.
Eagle: Well, to paraphrase Steve McQueen in “The Magnificent Seven,” it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
RB [laughing]: Yes, that about sums it up.
Eagle: Finally, since he was one of the Eagle’s first editors, and because, as you told Robert Faggen in your Paris Review interview, Walt Whitman was “…the kind of writer I wanted to be, a man of the people but at the same time writing high art,” I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Whitman’s influence on you, in terms of perspective, texture, themes?
RB: It’s nearly impossible to be an American writer and not be influenced by Whitman’s open-hearted, passionate embrace of the American vernacular yawp. Maybe especially for writers of my generation, educated and liberated by the Beats and the poets of the New York School. It’s the same with his equally open-hearted and passionate embrace of the American mix of races, sexes, ethnicities and origins. He is our great, gay, gray papa. And Brooklyn was his beat.
“Voyager” is published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, and is currently available in bookstores.
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