Russell Banks ponders issues of disparate social classes

When Russell Banks began working on his 15th novel, “The Reserve” (289 pages, $24.95, Harper Collins

When Russell Banks began working on his 15th novel, “The Reserve” (289 pages, $24.95, Harper Collins), he set out to explore the time period of the 1930s and also wanted to write a novel about class struggles.

“What surprised me in my research was that there was a whole class of people that wasn’t affected at all by the Depression,” said Banks, in a recent interview from his home in Saratoga Springs.

Russell Banks

WHERE: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

WHEN: Reading at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Darrin Communication Center on the RPI campus; seminar at 4 p.m. at RPI’s Heffner Alumni House


MORE INFO: New York State Writers Institute, 442-5620

On Wednesday, Banks will read from the book as part of the New York State Writers Institute series and be the recipient of the 67th McKinney Award, given annually by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

The story, set in the Adirondacks, revolves around four characters, Vanessa Cole, a notorious 30-year-old, twice-divorced adopted daughter from wealthy parents who is a summer resident of the exclusive Tamarack Wilderness Reserve, Jordan Groves, a famous local artist loosely based on real-life American artist Rockwell Kent, Groves’ wife, Alicia, and Hubert St. Germain, an expert wilderness guide and one of the faceless Adirondack locals who live hand-to-mouth during most of the year and in the summer serve the rich residents of the reserve.

Residents’ view

“Writing this book allowed me to look at the world through the view of these wealthy summer residents. Many of these wealthy families have been entrenched in the Adirondacks now for over a century,” said Banks. “They certainly weren’t the decadent summer rich that one would have found in Newport, Rhode Island. These people loved the outdoors. They were the environmentalists up there, and their agenda was a powerful one.”

Banks acknowledged that things haven’t changed much in the Adirondacks since the 1930s, and the wealthy seasonal residents are still often in opposition with the local people today. “I’ve lived in the Keene Valley for twenty years,” said Banks, “and I’ve found myself through the years being on both sides.”

Banks has struggled for years with the issue of class. The 67-year-old author grew up in working-class towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. His dad was an often violent, hard-drinking man. Before becoming a writer, Banks worked as a plumber and a shoe salesman.

“What class do I belong to?” asked Banks. “I can go down to the local bar and have some beers with the local guys who get up early every morning and work manual labor and live week-to-week scrambling for work to support their kids. Most of them don’t have health insurance, but these aren’t my problems, and I really can’t claim membership with them.”

He also is a member in the exclusive Ausable Club in the Adirondacks and lives part of the year in West Palm Beach. “I don’t belong in that class either,” he laughs. “Just last week Northern Trust Bank paid me a good sum of money to travel to Florida and talk to their clients, but these aren’t my people. Still, the money was good.”

It’s exactly what his character Jordan Groves often felt. “Groves is an ardent leftist,” said Banks, “and yet the people who can afford his paintings are the very people he would like to attack. Groves identifies with the poor and the oppressed, but they can’t support him.”

Writing this book, Banks came to understand that to truly be an artist and a writer, you can’t belong to any class. “I obviously can’t belong if I’m going to write honestly, convincingly and objectively about them,” he said. “This book forced me to view the world through the eyes of the people I’ve never identified with, those with extreme wealth.”

Surprisingly, the character he became closest to was Vanessa Cole. “She was the most wounded of all the characters,” said Banks, “and she had suffered a lot of psychological damage. I also think that despite all her failings, she was the character that really seemed to know herself, and when I was done with the book I felt my greatest grief for her.”

Writing screenplays

In the past few years Hollywood has discovered Russell Banks. Two of his books, “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” were made into successful films. He is currently working with Martin Scorsese, who is producing the film version of “Cloudsplitter,” his novel about abolitionist John Brown, and Scorsese will also direct Banks’ novel “The Darling.” Banks has written the screenplays for both.

“My experience in film has been a good one,” said Banks,” and it’s been fun to learn how to write screenplays. It’s taught me how to tell a story much faster than I could before. Right now, I’m adapting my 400-page novel ‘The Darling’ into a 120-page screenplay. I’m forced to cut out so much as a screenwriter.”

As a novelist, Banks savors writing sentences and paragraphs. “I love the pacing of a novel,” he said, “and the intricacies and complexities of writing a long, detailed story.”

He does admit that writing novels can often take over your life. “Sometimes, I think about a novel all day and all night,” said Banks, “but with a screenplay I can work on it four hours and then get on with other things in my life.”

As a novelist, he developed a long time ago an affection for language. “If I had started as a screenwriter,” said Banks, “I’m not so sure I would have developed that. I actually began as a poet, and that taught me to pay attention to the sound of words.”

He and his wife, poet and editor Chase Twichell, have lived part of the year in Saratoga Springs since 2001. “I live half the year here and half the year in the Adirondacks,” said Banks. “For a few years after I stopped teaching at Princeton in 1997, I stayed up in the Adirondacks for the whole year, which got pretty lonely, and I realized urban life is kind of nice.”

Saratoga has been a good fit for him. “I travel a lot,” said Banks, “and that’s much easier to do from here. I also have a 94-year-old mother who I take care of up in Keene Valley. So I can’t be too far from her. This is an easy place for me to shuttle back and forth from.”

Banks also admits to having quite a few friends in the area. “I’ve had a long association with the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore,” he said. “There are a dozen excellent writers within a 30-mile radius of here, and Chase likes the town a lot. We both realized that good restaurants and good stores do matter.”

Finding audience

When he thinks back to how far he has come as a writer, he finds himself getting a bit superstitious. “This all seems to have happened pretty much outside of my control,” said Banks. “I wanted to be a writer when I was young, but I never imagined this type of a lifestyle.”

He feels very lucky that his books have found a loyal audience. “I’ve been able to write the books that I want to write,” said Banks. “I know some wonderful writers out there that haven’t been so lucky. They’ve labored on some excellent books, and those books have never found an audience.”

When he finds a story to write about, he still gets as excited today as he did more than 40 years ago. “Each one is a new beginning,” he said. “Each story is a new discovery, and I want to know where it will take me.”

Russell Banks is finishing his second draft of the screenplay of “The Darling,” and he has a new novel that he wants to get working on. “I’ll throw myself into the work when I’m up in Keene from May through the fall,” he said. “I love to write up there. That’s when the isolation works for me.”

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