Russell Banks is the author of over twenty books, including the novels Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, The Sweet Hereafter, and Affliction. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous international prizes and awards. Rusell’s most recent novel, Foregone, which is structured around a character’s secret memories, challenges our assumptions about a lost chapter in American history and questions the nature of recollection itself.
On May 14, Russell will give a Word Works talk on how character is defined in Foregone though memories, confabulations, fictions, and dreams. We recently caught up with him to learn more about the book, his approach to listening to characters, and more.
Your latest novel, Foregone, came out earlier this year. It’s also the first novel you’ve published in almost a decade. What prompted your return to the form?
I never really abandoned the form, so much as took a holiday from novel-writing in order to try something different for a while, a collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family, for instance, and a book of memoirist travel writings, Voyager. Also, I was working on several film projects—a screenplay adaptation of my short story “Snowbirds” with the great French director, Bertrand Tavernier—and an opera libretto, “Harmony,” for the composer, Robert Carl. With these behind me, I was ready to plunge back into novel writing, which produced Foregone and another, recently completed, The Magic Kingdom. And now I’m trying yet another form, the long story, 65–70 pages, of which I’ve completed two and am starting a third. I guess you could say I’m enjoying a late-life burst of creative energy.
Foregone is structured around the final confessions of a character who isn’t who he’s believed to be. How did working on this novel inform your own thoughts about truth, particularly in the era of fake news and Trumpism?
The question of whether or how one can ever know the truth about another person, or even, for that matter, about one’s self, has long intrigued me. One of the assumptions for a novelist is that one can get inside another person and truly know that person and then convey that knowledge by means of story-telling to a stranger. I wanted to test that assumption, among others, with Foregone. I think the novel has shown me that it’s a false assumption, and that one can’t really ever know the truth about another person, even by means of a novel, and that we must love one another anyhow. I’m not sure if that relates to “the era of fake news and Trumpism,” however. We can know the facts, whether scientific, historical, political, economic—whatever is observable and verifiable—which is not the same as knowing the truth. Artists are interested in the truth, not the facts, even if one of those truths is that it can never be known.
Your upcoming Word Works talk explores Foregone and how the novel addresses the myths the character has created about his own life. Can you share a little bit about the experience of writing about a character coming to terms with the life he lived?
This is not a book I could have written as a younger man. I had to wait until most of my life had already been lived, my late 70s (now early 80s), when the impulse to know and understand the arc of my past over many decades was inescapable, possibly even necessary. Also in recent years I have lost a number of close lifelong friends. Mortality was staring me in the face. I am not Leonard Fife in disguise, however, and his past as portrayed in Foregone is not my past, though I’ve naturally drawn on a number of my own lived experiences, as I always have.
You’ve stated in interviews that, especially when writing in the first person, you see yourself as listening to your characters rather than speaking through them. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed this approach? What are some strategies you’ve used to develop your sense of who your characters are speaking to?
I think early in my life I realized that I—and just about everyone else—speak differently to different people in different social situations. We shift tone and diction, we include and exclude different types and units of information, we reveal and withhold different facts, depending on whom we’re addressing and who happens to be in the room at that moment. The listener shapes the speaker’s language and therefore shapes his or her story’s content. This was especially obvious to me as a fiction writer when telling a story in the first person. Before I could clearly hear my narrator I had to decide who he or she was speaking to and then imagine that person. Not “the reader” in a generic sense, but a specific listener. A spouse, maybe, or a close friend, or a younger brother, or maybe a Father Confessor or a psychiatrist, or even someone long gone, Faulkner or Hawthorne or Virginia Woolf. Gradually I realized that even a third person narrator was a speaker quite as much as a first person narrator, someone invisible, not a participant in the story, but its teller, whose language and personality and whose story were shaped to a large degree by the person he or she was speaking to. So even here I needed to imagine a specific listener. In the case of Foregone, just as Leonard Fife’s chosen auditor is his wife, Emma, my third person narrator’s listener is my wife, Chase. I did not write anything into the novel that I did not want her to read.
In addition to publishing 13 novels, you’re also the author of six short story collections, three works of nonfiction, and two poetry collections. How, if at all, has working in other genres and forms shaped your approach to the novel?
I’m unsure of how writing in other forms has shaped my approach to the novel—each has its own protocols, formats, restrictions, requirements, and traditions and antecedents. Each provides the writer with its own menu of freedoms and liberties. Possibly, the attention to the individual Word and Rhythm that is required by poetry has influenced the prose of my fiction, and the reliance of the short story on individual scenes and scene sequences for its structure has led me to construct my novels out of scenes and scene sequences more than I would if I had never written short stories. But in general it seems that each form is more or less sui generis and autonomous and taps into a different part of the brain than the others.