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"The ink was not distilled from crows, but from black cormorant feathers and brought all the way from Fukushima because the birds in that prefecture were rumoured to be mute..."

Russell Banks: a discussion

"... New York would be part of Canada, if only we had lithium in the 1850s."
--Russell Banks

Russell Banks is the author of The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone and Affliction (to name just a few titles). He was at Pages on Kensington, in Calgary, on April 3rd, 1998, to read from his new novel, Cloudsplitter (Knopf Canada). This is a transcript of the questions & answers that followed his amazing reading, as part of our ExLibris Author Reading Series. Banks began with an early passage where Owen Brown blunders through an angry mob, alone. Owen presses on--through the mob--and is beaten up, almost to death. In a shock-induced, surreal aftermath, the boy manages to follow his father to church the next day...

BANKS: That's sort of a crucial moment in the novel, for Owen. It's the moment when he is able (for the first time) to imagine himself as a man of action and a man of God. Even without a noble cause and without a God. He's lied to his father. He's lied to himself. He's lied about his reasons for being out there in the common, which I'm sure most of you realize are erotic and not exactly political. But you must remember that this was an era when, literally, his sexual temperament had no name. The word "homosexual" didn't appear until 1867. And he was a naive country man. And a Christian, or raised certainly as a Christian. And then he lies to his father a second time and says "yes," that he was brushed by an angel of the Lord. And yet he knows that something else has happened-something grand, something significant, something psychologically and spiritually large, but in the process of those two scenes--in the park and in the church--he has, in a sense, re-invented himself, re-created himself in a way that will fit and meet his father's demands. His life is altered at that point.

BANKS: I'd love to spend 10 or 15 minutes just to talk with you. If anyone would like to begin by throwing me a softball, or something like that...


...something I can hit...

Q: What does the real history of John Brown have to do with the story you've written? Is there a faithful representation of him? Can we find the true biography of him in your story?

BANKS: You can certainly find the outlines of it, yes. And I didn't violate the received knowledge of him, or the era, in any way. I did make up a great deal. The son, Owen Brown, is a historical character, I mean a historical person. He was born in 1824 and he was his father's faithful lieutenant in bloody Kansas in 1856 and 1858. And he was his lieutenant in the raid on Harper's Ferry. He escaped from Harper's Ferry. There's very little written about Owen Brown. He escaped form Harper's Ferry and disappeared into the abolitionist's underground, and reappears after the Civil war on a mountaintop in California, right outside present-day Pasadena, as a shepherd and lived the rest of his life out as a hermit. Gave no interviews. Wrote no memoirs. And so I had sort of a tablette d' raiser to work with. There were a few things known about him, which I did honour. But generally, as a principle, in the writing of the book I honoured the known facts, for the most part. I altered what I thought were trivial or meaningless or not necessarily useful facts as a storyteller. I used history as a skeleton to build on. I didn't retell the history of John Brown. This isn't a biography. And there are already a couple of very excellent biographies of John Brown out there. And there was no point in retelling what was already known. I was interested in other things, really. First of all: in telling a story. And in telling a story that had resonance and meaning for me, as a white American man in the 1990s, that dealt with issues and themes and questions that mattered to me. And I fell in love with the characters, as one does, in the process. John Brown himself is a charismatic and powerful and incredibly principled man, incredibly intelligent man. And his son is struggling to live with that: a man whose principles were his own. He held them deeply and was compelled to follow. I was interested in the problem of having a powerful father who you agree with. It is one thing to have a powerful father who is a jerk. You can always step aside and get out of his shadow, relatively easily. But what about having a charismatic and powerful father who's committed his life to a mission that you yourself feel obliged to commit yourself to, just on principle. Just abstractly. And so this is what I was interested in, and because so little is known about Owen Brown I was able to enter the story that way and fill it out from his point-of-view.

Q: I have the impression that the majority of the fiction from the civil war period romances the old South and sanitizes slavery. Do you feel that this is true? And do you think that it is changing?

BANKS: I don't see any evidence that it is changing. I think that it is true--first of all, yes--that most historical fiction written by your neighbors to the south about their neighbors to the south, and written by southerners, certainly, does sanitize, romanticize, sentimentalize the antebellum era and I think that it's almost inevitable in some ways, inescapable, in the films that deal with it all. It's difficult to imagine; in some ways this was the most difficult part about this book: to put myself in the state of mind that didn't have the civil war in it, didn't know that the civil war was coming. You know, you have to realize that in the 1840s and 50s in the United States no one knew that a civil war was coming, no one expected it, at that time. And it looked as though the South had won the war, the war between the races. The South had established the control over the executive branch, the congressional branch, the judiciary [branch] in Washington. It was expanding west-ward, the slave states were expanding westward, and each new slave-state that came in would provide two more senators, which would tighten the grasp over government. And it was more likely that the north would succeed from the Union and join Canada--and you would have had Pennsylvania, and New York, and Massachusetts and so on, as part of Canada--that looked like a more likely event. Really, except for the raid on Harper's Ferry, which lit the fuse and made rigid the lines between the two. So this was for me the difficult thing. I think most Americans who write about that era look at it through the prism of a civil war--this great traumatic event in our history--and they see a kind of pre-libertarian state on the other side, where "darkies" were happy and masters and mistresses were elegant, and so on, and they miss entirely the facts of life, I think, the horror of it, the sheer horror of it. Part of it, too, comes from our tendency today to eroticize race and the kind of control and power that goes with being white in a racist society, and there's an erotic dimension to it. And that eroticizing of it, I think, leads to sentimentalizing and sugar coating and so forth, and becomes a kind of teenage fantasy, in a way, of that era.

Q: Would you feel, then, that the tendency to see John Brown as a madman is part of that whole process?

BANKS: Oh sure. It's also a big part of denying his ideals and the clarity of his position. It's interesting to me that Ted Kosinski--the Unabomber--recently refused the insanity defense for the same reason that John Brown, when he was captured and tried in Virginia, refused the insanity defense. [Kosinki's] lawyer said that, "the only way we can get you off is if you say you're crazy. We can probably prove it." And Brown said, and then Kosinski said most recently: "Look, if I plead insane then no one will take my ideals seriously. And I think it's borne out, because regardless of the fact that he refused to plead insane, we still stay, "well, he was mad." I think it's pretty obvious to all of us here that if a black man had sacrificed his life to liberate black people we would not regard that man as insane. We would regard him as a hero.

Q: I don't know if you know Louis Riel...

BANKS: Yes, I do know, yes.

Q: He had the same thing happen; his lawyers wanted to plead him as insane and Riel refused. He said, "what we're doing is not insanity." He may have been insane, but he was smart enough to see what that was about.

BANKS: He wasn't out of touch with reality, which is how I usually define insanity. There are really serious parallels, he comes up again and again as a parallel to John Brown. And a fascinating one. I think what you're saying is quite true: John Brown was never out of touch with reality. I think that--clinically, today--he would probably be diagnosed with having a tendency toward manic depression. And he would have been given lithium. And we wouldn't have had Harper's ferry and we wouldn't have had the civil war. Lincoln wouldn't have been elected. And the Wigs wouldn't have been replaced by the Republicans. And New York would be part of Canada, if only we had lithium in the 1850s!


Q: When did you first learn about John Brown? In school? Because I don't remember learning about him.

BANKS: Are you Canadian?

Q: Yes. So I was just wondering if you were taught about John Brown in High School?

BANKS: Yes. Actually, during the research period of this book I went back and read American history texts, some of the classic ones that they use in College and High Schools to see how he was described, trying to remember that. Because I had kind of a vague image of him in my brain from childhood. And he's given usually about a paragraph--at most two--in most historical accounts of the period by white historians. It's easy to forget that paragraph. And yet he remains vividly present in the imaginations of most Americans, white or black. And everyone knows the song about John Brown's body moldering in the grave. He's an image that once you look closely at it, [he] turns out to be very like Che Guevera, if you romanticize it. Or we abhor it, and back away from it. But he's irresistible. He's been the subject of any number of novels and poems--Steven Vincent Monet's poem "John Brown's Body" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926--movies, plays and so on, and we keep returning to him because for most of us he reminds us of the crime that lies at the centre of our history. The crime of slavery and racism. And this is a 400-year-old crime. This began in 1604 when the first slave was brought ashore in Virginia. And it goes on today. We know that. It's our secret, un-confessed history. And we intuit; we know--unpleasantly, for the most part, for most whites, certainly--that Brown is a reminder of that. And we can't turn our gaze away from him entirely. There's a compulsive return to him, I think.

Q: A hundred years ago--when I went to kindergarten--we learned the song, "John Brown's body lies moldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on..."


Q: And listening to you today, I was wondering why we were singing that song in Canada.

BANKS: Good question! I wonder, too. But you know they sing it in France. And they sing it in England. They sing it in Germany and Italy. That song is known--it's his truth goes marching on--and I don't know why it has that resonance. It's catchy. It's a catchy tune. You can dance to it. No, but there is something about it. Well, it reminds us of death, certainly. You know it's hard to let go of a jingle or a poem or a song that reminds us of death that doesn't make us wince. And it does do that: it turns our attention to death. His body lies moldering in a grave, but his truth goes marching on; [it] is somewhat redemptive and reassuring. Maybe it's as simple as that. The lyrics are the knife to the heart of our basic anxieties, in some way. I don't know. It is curious--you're right--that Canadians and the French and Italians all know that song. I discovered it rather recently and I was surprised.

Q: Perhaps we need a white savior for a white sin...

BANKS: I think that's true, but we keep resisting it, and averting our gaze from him, too. He's also a figure that is invoked--like in my own lifetime, when I was in college in the sixties in the South, and was politically active in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement--he was a figure whose face was invoked by the left. And now in the 1980s and 90s his is a figure whose face, the arc of his life, is invoked by the radical anti-abortionists, by the militia groups, the extreme libertarians of right. I think because he embodies in life (and his career, if you want to call it that) that threat or braid really in American history of religion and politics and violence. They get woven together pretty intimately, in the United States certainly, going back to the Puritans. Where Natural Law above jurisprudence is invoked whenever basic moral questions come up. And in the conflict between Natural Law--which evolves from the Bible--and jurisprudence are in conflict, then the solution is usually violence. You can see this in the anti-abortion issue in the United States, this resort to violence justified by the bible to take a life in order to save many lives.

Q: It's interesting that you've written a book from the point of view of Owen Brown, and here we are talking about John Brown.

BANKS: Yes! Imagine how Owen felt!


Q: You've got John Brown's struggle as the liberation of people from the sins against race, and Owen is trying to struggle with the sins against people by their sexuality. Do you see those two struggles as ultimately parallel or do you see them in conflict, given that Owen is in conflict with his father?

BANKS: I don't see them as parallel. One seems to be very much a social construct--race--whereas sexuality I don't think of in that way, particularly. Owen's struggle with his own sexuality and an attempt to find a way to express it, or thwart it finally, it's really a struggle against his own nature, his own givens. Whereas his struggle to deal with race, as a white man particularly, is to deal with a social condition, a social circumstance and one that he can deal with or not deal with on moral terms. So it's a different kind of struggle, entirely. I hope that the novel is textured and layered enough so that I can dramatize several conflicts and several enterprises simultaneously. Certainly, one is the sexual, one is the familial, the old oedipal struggle. And one is the racial and the historical, the political. That's one reason that the book is so damn long: I'm trying to tell a whole lot of stories at once and keep them in the air at the same time. I don't feel that they are necessarily parallel though, but rather that they are braided together; they're woven together, I think. That's how I imagine them. I mean: one can form the other. And also one can behave in one arena because of the way one is disorganized or neurotic or defensive in another arena. That was one of the things I was interested in: how's a person's public life shaped and determined by his private life? By his psyche, by his emotional life? By his family life? And so I was trying to explore that as well. And so if over here you've got a thwarted, neurotic relationship with your own sexuality, let's say--and it would be very difficult for a man like Owen not to have such--and you have a neurotic, obsession, fixation even, with a powerful father..., the chances are that if you are allowed onto a public stage you are going to behave in an extreme way, somehow or other. And so I was trying to link that together as well.

BANKS: (notices a polite silence in the room) Okay, well, thank you all very much. You've really been a very good audience...

[thunderous applause]

Q: One last question: I was going to ask you about the genesis of the Sweet Hereafter film.

BANKS: Genesis? How long have you got? Ah, well, it began with a phone call from Atom Egoyan. Apparently, his wife had given him the book--his wife is Arsinee Khanjian, the actress who's in the film--and he loved the book and carried it around with him for awhile and [then he] ran into Margaret Atwood in a party in Toronto and was telling her how much he wanted to make the film. She's a mutual friend. And she said, "Well, here's his phone number. Call him up. I'm sure he'll be very interested in talking to you." So he did. And at that time the film rights were owned by Twentieth Century Fox and for two years they'd been trying to develop it and failed, as you might have expected. It's very difficult to pitch a story that begins with a school bus accident and go from there, you know. And so the option was about to expire. And I knew of Atom's name. At that point Exotica was about to come out. It was about to come out in the States. But I knew his reputation and I hadn't seen any of his films, so he sent me all his films on videotape and my wife and I had a kind of Atom Egoyan film-festival for a week. And I realized that this guy is really interesting. He's an extraordinary film-maker. And I could see how each of his films had built on the previous one. I put them in chronological order. And I could see how he--he did what a novelist tries to do, I think, which is to use each work to teach you how to write the next one. And he was using his films to teach himself how to write the next one. When I saw Exotica I said, "Oh, good, I can see now what he sees in my novel. At first I didn't see it because he seemed very abstract. Very cool. Very controlling. And not interested in the same kinds of detail and mundane lives that I was interested in, but we share a lot of the same obsessions. We met in Montreal, and I was just struck by him. He was such an intelligent and imaginative and honest man. A serious man, though funny, as well. So I said, "well, the rights will expire in three months and if you want to do it I'll sign 'em over to you and we'll go from there." And then at one point he came to my place and visited. He went around with a video camera taking pictures of all the places where I had imagined all the scenes taking place in the Adirondacks, in northern New York. The fairgrounds, the town hall where the depositions were made, the garage, the motel and so forth. And then [he] sent me every draft of the script as it evolved. Then he invited me to the set. He even gave me a cameo; I had an Alfred Hitchcock moment.


BANKS: I walked through the set and then he invited me into the editing room to go over scenes again, and again. So I felt very much included in this project all along. Working with him was extraordinarily satisfying and it probably has spoiled me. It was like working with my younger, smarter brother.


BANKS: I really mean that; it was very gratifying. And we became very close friends over the process, and ended up together at the Oscars, which was great fun. Seated just a couple seats down from Gregory Peck. Pretty exciting, you know. It could have been Madonna and somebody...

So: any other questions that you want to throw at me, quickly?

Q: I understand a film is now being made of your book, Affliction?

BANKS: Affliction is made. It's finished. Paul Schrader made Affliction. He's a wonderful director. You probably best know him as a screenwriter. He wrote Raging Bull and Taxi-driver and Last Temptation of Christ. He did the adaptation of Affliction and it was shot in Quebec, last winter and spring, with Nick Nolte and James Coburn and Willem Dafoe and Sissy Spacek, and it was photographed--quite coincidentally--he hired the same director of photography as Atom did for the Sweet Hereafter, Paul Sorassi. So Paul Sorassi shot both films and they look nothing alike. They really look different. It will be coming out in the fall [1998]. There are two other books that are being adapted also, at this time. Copy-cat effect, I think.

So... thanks, very much...

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