Arts & Culture

Literary devotion

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Russell Banks talks about fiction as discovery ahead of HDS lecture

Russell Banks, whose work has distilled blue-collar dreams into moving, sometimes violent, portraits of struggle and loss, will deliver Harvard Divinity School’s 2014 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality Nov. 5 at Sanders Theatre.

Banks’ novels include “Continental Drift” (1985), “Affliction” (1989), “The Sweet Hereafter” (1991), “Rule of the Bone” (1995), “Cloudsplitter” (1998), and “Lost Memory of Skin” (2011). Last year he published a collection of stories, “A Permanent Member of the Family.” His Ingersoll Lecture is titled “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism.”

After Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (2012), Banks is the second award-winning author to deliver the lecture in three years. And as with Morrison, HDS has organized a series of discussions about the religious dimensions in his work ahead of the talk.

“I like to develop communities of conversations around these visitors,” said Davíd Carrasco, a longtime friend of both writers who has helped organize the conversations. Banks is not religious in “the traditional way,” added Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America. Rather, he is “aware of the power of religion in the lives of the people he writes about.”

Banks will attend the HDS discussion group’s final meeting on the afternoon of Nov. 5. The Ingersoll Lecture Fund was created in 1893 with a gift of $5,000 from Caroline Haskell Ingersoll in honor of her father, the Rev. George Goldthwait Ingersoll, a Harvard alumnus. Harvard President Charles W. Eliot initiated the lectures in 1896.

Banks, who is 74, spoke with the Gazette about the search for spiritual meaning, in life and fiction, and the craft of writing.

GAZETTE: Is there any early work that really inspired you — a book, or even a moment or an important transition point for you in terms of your writing?

BANKS: There were so many. I am old enough now so I’ve had many transition points over the course of my life, and it’s difficult to isolate one from another in a way. But let’s go way back to early on in my writing life when I was in my very early 20s and I was a college dropout at that time. I had only spent about six weeks in a college classroom, so I was really an autodidact and trying to read and understand what made the great works of literature great works, and like a clever monkey just kind of copying what I got excited about and trying to imitate it.

GAZETTE: Do you remember what you were excited about at the time?

BANKS: Oh, sure, I mean, you know, I would read Faulkner, and then I would write big, long, serpentine sentences with great, elaborate, Latinate diction and realize that it was actually a much more complicated task than that. And so I would read Hemingway, and then I would write short, terse sentences and very plain vernacular English and American English and then realize that was more complicated than I thought, too.

So it was like that, without any sense of the work connecting to my inner self and realizing that that’s where it had to come from. Until I read the work of a novelist who’s not much known these days, although he was very famous in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, really. He was a man named Nelson Algren. He was from Chicago. He had written a couple of novels that are still read and admired. “A Walk on the Wild Side” is one; “The Man With the Golden Arm” is another. And I read these books and I felt a kind of kindred connection to the sensibility of the writer, the deepest part of the writer that I hadn’t felt before, and luckily — I am describing this as a turning point because it was — I was then about 22 years old, and I was living in New Hampshire and working as a plumber and I read about something called a writers’ conference. I had no idea what such a thing was, at Bread Loaf in Vermont, and I saw Nelson Algren was going to be on the faculty. And so I sent a novel that I had been writing up there, a manuscript. They gave me a little scholarship and so I drove up and Nelson Algren read my novel and he went through it with me. He didn’t edit or anything, he simply said, “OK, this is a good passage here, kid. Here’s a good passage here, kid.” And, “There’s a nice stretch of dialogue here, kid.” He said, “Now you’ve got to write a whole book that’s as good as those pieces.” He said also, he kind of laid on the hands and said, “But don’t worry, kid, you got it.” And that was really all I needed. I didn’t need him to edit it for me or to go through with a blue pencil. I needed him to give me permission.

And that was a true turning point for me because at that point I did believe in myself in a way that I hadn’t up to that point. And I had a model in Algren, who was a writer whose attention and compassion as a writer were attached to the lives and experiences of people we normally think of as invisible or as marginalized, and I sort of felt that way myself. And the family that I had come from, I felt they were people like that, and so it allowed me to organize my attention in a way I hadn’t prior to that. And Algren became a kind of mentor. We became friends for many years until he died [in 1981]. We were in touch and corresponded and occasionally saw each other. He lived in Chicago and I lived everywhere, I was sort of bouncing around in those years.

GAZETTE: Was he able to see you become a successful writer?

BANKS: Yes. I began to publish in my late 20s pretty widely and in my early 30s, and he lived long enough for that. He wasn’t a fatherly man particularly, but he was a wonderful literary mentor for me. I don’t know how he would have been for many others, but he happened to be the perfect one for me.

GAZETTE: That’s so important.

BANKS: It truly is. I think when you’re a young writer you kind of need three things: a mentor, and you need to find a way to stay out of the economy if you can to buy time, and you need your peers and your contemporaries too. Although I never was in a writers’ workshop and never got an M.F.A. graduate degree in writing, I managed to find those three pieces on my own, more or less: my mentor; I got out of the economy by basically living a bohemian beatnik life during those years; and then I found my peers in Boston and in New York and in the Florida Keys and wandering around the country back in my early 20s.

GAZETTE: You will be speaking at the Harvard Divinity School. Can you tell me a little bit about your religious upbringing?

BANKS: I was raised New England Presbyterian; three of my four grandparents are Eastern Canadian, old-time Calvinist and Presbyterian people. My mother and father were as well. That was my childhood religious upbringing. It was not, I would say, rigid or particularly disciplined even, but it was serious enough. That was where I would rather say my religious education occurred, in that context. But after the age about 12, I dropped away and never have been in any sense a religious person. … It was not a profound experience for me; more social than spiritual I think.

GAZETTE: Can you talk about the spiritual dimension in your work? Do you ever write with that in mind? How do you feel that it manifests itself in your writing?

BANKS: You know, I’m not very good at analyzing my own work, actually, in that way. I kind of leave that to the reader and the students of the work who have a different kind of freedom to see it maybe more objectively than I can. I’m aware that there are certain spiritual, if not religious longings in the characters that I write about and care about, and there’s a desire among my characters, as there probably is in myself as well, to find some kind of spiritual reality and meaning in the world that surrounds us. But it’s extremely difficult for me personally and therefore extremely difficult for most of my characters as well. I think that’s a common dilemma and quest as well. But I don’t have an agenda or a religious commitment that I am trying to dramatize and use fiction for. In a way, fiction for me is a way of discovery and a process that allows me to find out, to penetrate and then to find meaning in some aspect of human life which is deeply mysterious to me. And I can enter that mystery in a way through my work that I can’t really enter in any other part of my life. And I suppose in a way that’s a spiritual quest, but it isn’t driven by a specific, spiritually defined question.

GAZETTE: You mentioned areas that your work has allowed you to explore, areas that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to in your own life. I am wondering about the notion of suffering, and also death, two recurrent themes in your work.

BANKS: Those are the two main inescapable facts of existence, aren’t they, and I think Buddhism is particularly conscious of that and organizes our attention around those two aspects of human life. Life is suffering and death is inescapable. And so I suppose in that limited sense I could align myself with Buddhism. In a way I can’t think of human life without it being colored by the presence of suffering. And I can’t think of human life without it being defined by death. So I guess, it’s inescapable isn’t it, that my work would reflect that.

GAZETTE: In writing about suffering and death, have you come to any realizations?

BANKS: I think what you’re asking is, how has my work, and the process that it requires, altered or changed my own life. And I think that’s true. It does. I think that in some ways as I’ve grown older and I begin to reach an age where I can look back over a span of half a century or more of writing, I can see that the course of my writing has made me more compassionate and forgiving and less judgmental than when I was younger. It isn’t because I’m a better person or anything, but I think that the discipline and the rigor of the process of making those stories and making those novels has allowed me to suspend the kind of judgment that I might have possessed when I was younger, to understand and forgive people, and acts, behavior, that I might not have understood or been able to forgive when I was younger. And I think that’s a consequence of my work. But you know, I don’t think that’s exclusive to a fiction writer or an artist. I think that that happens as a result of any lifelong attention and discipline to the lives of other human beings. You could do that and be a therapist, you could do that and be a professor, you could do that and be a physicist even, a scientist. If you are paying sufficient attention over time in a disciplined and un-self-absorbed way — well, by definition it would be un-self-absorbed — then eventually it’s going to make you a more compassionate and forgiving person.

GAZETTE: Davíd Carrasco mentioned that theme of the HDS talk, immortality and humanity in our time, was really appealing to you. Can you tell me why?

BANKS: It might seem curious and odd that it would appeal to me. The lecture is endowed with the proviso that it address immortality, the subject of immortality, so I kind of was stuck with that, but I think that I welcomed it because although I am an atheist and certainly don’t believe in the afterlife in a conventional way, I do believe that there is an afterlife and that it exists primarily in the lives of our children and grandchildren. I don’t mean as individuals, I mean as species, really, and the preservation of future generations and the protection of future generations is a way of guaranteeing and shaping and protecting our afterlife. So the subject became one I can enter pretty well because my work has concerned itself over the years with the relationship between adults and children — parents and children in a specific way, but adults and children in a broader human way, and so it wasn’t a great leap for me to try to address this subject. And then, I have a particular view on it, especially with regard to the abuse of children. I think of the abuse of children as consumers, and so one of the things I will be addressing in the lecture is the rise of the child in our society as a consumer and in the gradual appearance of children as the largest single segment in the consumer economy. So I am going to talk a little bit about what are the consequences of that long-range, and also psychologically and socially and historically. What are the consequences of turning children, the weakest, most vulnerable, naïve, and ignorant members of the tribe, into consumers?