With a writing career that spans more three decades, you could say Russell Banks’ overarching theme is that ‘life is complex and often contradictory.’ In his latest work, the master of hardscrabble situations creates a surprising cast of characters to help us reexamine today’s society and our responsibilities toward each other.


  • Russell Banks Author, "Lost Memory of Skin" (Ecco/Harper Collins)


  • 13:30:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf writer Russell Banks had a motto, it might be there is no such thing as the simple truth. Truth, like life, is full of complexity with shades and nuance. And if something appears black and white you probably just haven't examined it closely enough. For much of the past 40 years, the world knew Banks as an Ivy League professor and an award-winning writer. Maybe you even saw a movie or two based on his work like "The Sweet Hereafter" or "Affliction."

  • 13:31:04

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut Banks' truth is in no way simple. The first-born son in a family torn apart by alcoholism, Banks was divorced and a father by age 20. He worked as a plumber, a shoe salesman and a range of other make-ends-meet jobs. He moved and married often living in locations as seemingly different as New Hampshire and Jamaica. Russell Banks joins us to talk about what he's learned over the years and the way fiction can help us examine the complexity of life.

  • 13:31:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIRussell Banks is an award-winning writer whose work is regularly published in Vanity Fair, Harper's, Esquire and similar magazines. He's author of 17 books including his most recent novel "Lost Memory of Skin." Russell Banks, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:31:47

    MR. RUSSELL BANKSWell, thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

  • 13:31:49

    NNAMDIYour stories often focus on people living on what we would consider the fringes of society, and your latest work "Lost Memory of Skin" is no exception. You take us into a world of people rejected by society often for good reason. Why?

  • 13:32:05

    BANKSWell, I began by sitting out on my terrace in Miami Beach where I live half the year and looking out toward the Miami skyline and the causeway that connects the beach to the mainland, the Julia Tuttle Causeway. And about four years ago articles started appearing describing a colony of men, convicted sex offenders who had served their time and had been released. And with the connivance of local officials and law enforcement, they had been dropped off under this causeway because there was no place they could live legally within 2500' of wherever children might gather, which essentially meant there was no place in the city.

  • 13:32:52

    BANKSSo the absurdity of that unintended consequences of good intentions and the plight of those men, some of whom were psychopathic serial rapists, some of whom were just some old drunk who got busted for indecent exposure for urinating in a parking lot at 3:00 in the morning or a 20-something kid who had sex with his high school girlfriend who was under 18 and broke the law that way were all lumped together. I mean, we distinguish between their crimes when we sentence them. But after they've served their time then we lump them all together as convicted sex offenders.

  • 13:33:36

    BANKSAnd the -- I just sat there and I just started trying to imagine what it must be like for someone to be in that plight, to be down there living -- forced to live under this causeway because of some mistake, some stupidity, some who-knows-what caused him to break the law, yes indeed. But having served his time, having, you know, taken his punishment. Now he's still, in a sense, in an ongoing and unusual way -- unusually cruel way continuing to pay. And so I just started to see the world through that, as I imagined, a young man's eyes, a 22-year-old kid...

  • 13:34:18

    NNAMDIWho -- if I'm hoping not revealing too much, who really hasn't had sex at all.

  • 13:34:23

    BANKSHe's a virgin, yes. A convicted sex offender who's a virgin. And I think -- this is a long answer to your question, but...

  • 13:34:30

    NNAMDII love it.

  • 13:34:31

    BANKS...what I'm trying to get to, I think, is that I feel drawn to look at the world through the eyes of people who are not like me, who are different from me. And I'm a white privileged man in this society, and have been for most of my adult life. And so I -- when I start looking around for people who aren't like me, they usually turn out to be on the margins and the people who are mostly invisible or silenced in some way or other. So I ended up with this kid in particular who's called the kid in the novel, and looking at the world through his eyes and trying to imagine that.

  • 13:35:15

    NNAMDILooking at the world through his eyes sure kept me up all night. If you'd like to join the conversation with Russell Banks you can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website kojoshow.org. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. For people who haven't heard about "Lost Memory of Skin" yet, how would you describe it in just a few sentences?

  • 13:35:37

    BANKSWell, it's the story of the -- a young man who is alienated, lonely and lost in the world and whose life has been -- his erotic life has been digitalized by the internet and then by pornography and who's become addicted to the internet and to pornography. And so he lives in that gray zone between fantasy and reality. And then when he attempts to kind of break out of that into reality, he does it badly, awkwardly and ends up becoming a pariah, a social outcast for it.

  • 13:36:17

    NNAMDIWriting about this individual, the kid, in this book gives you the opportunity once again to highlight complexity. Is it easier to do that when you're writing about people labeled bad by society as opposed to people who are labeled good?

  • 13:36:36

    BANKSWell, I don't know. If you could show the bad side of the people labeled good then, you know, you're doing the same thing in a way by showing the good side of people who are labeled bad. And I'd probably approach it that way as well. I just don't believe in, you know, that all the people with white hats are good and all the people with black hats are bad. And so I see the world in -- I guess in a complex and nuanced way. And I can't help but express that when I sit down to tell a story.

  • 13:37:06

    BANKSBasically, I feel I'm a storyteller. And what does a storyteller do in the larger community? I think what a storyteller basically does is teach us, tell us, show us -- more to the point, show us what it is to be human. You know, we're the only species that doesn't know what it is to be itself. And we rely on our storytellers, whether it's a filmmaker or a poet or a dramatist or a novelist, and I think perhaps we rely most on our novelists -- maybe because I am one -- to tell us what it is to be human, you know, the angelic side and the demonic side as well. And each generation has to have it told over again. And that's how I identify myself most pointedly. And that's what guides me in my work.

  • 13:37:50

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Russell Banks. He's, as I said earlier, an award-winning writer whose work is regularly published in Vanity Fair, Harper's, Esquire and similar magazines, author of 17 books. His most recent novel is called "Lost Memory of Skin." As a society, we seem to be big on second chances and yet we're still very drawn to simple black and white solutions, especially when it comes to crime. Do you think this says something about America or about human nature in general?

  • 13:38:17

    BANKSYeah, I think it describes fear. It's generated by fear. And I would add to what you just said, especially when it comes to sex crimes.

  • 13:38:25

    NNAMDII was about to say that.

  • 13:38:26

    BANKSYeah. And in some level we're still a puritanical nation and -- but we're driven by a kind of fear when it comes to sex crimes. And then so we don't believe that we can allow these -- that these -- that people who commit a sex crime, as we can call them, I guess, can be rehabilitated or can be brought back into society in any way whatsoever.

  • 13:38:50

    NNAMDIThat does seem to give pervasive notion that people who commit sex crimes cannot be rehabilitated.

  • 13:38:56

    BANKSYeah, well, it's probably true for a certain small number of people who are basically psychopathic and have no ability to alter that and -- or even to perceive it as such. But that's not necessarily true. In fact, sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate of any other convicted criminals except murderers.

  • 13:39:26

    NNAMDIBut we randomly paint them all with one broad brush.

  • 13:39:29

    BANKSRight. And we feel as though the constitution essentially can be suspended for them, that after they've served their time and even completed their parole they are still registered on the National Sex Offender Registry. And in many areas of the country legislators are trying to make it possible so that they can remain permanently under surveillance and wear electronic anklets for the rest of their lives.

  • 13:40:01

    NNAMDIAnd depending on what part of the country you are in, if you happen to be a 19-year-old who has sex with a 16-year-old, you can end up on a sex offender registry for the rest of your life.

  • 13:40:11

    BANKSExactly, yeah.

  • 13:40:13

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join our conversation with Russell Banks. His latest novel is called "Lost Memory of Skin." How about forgiveness? What role do you think that plays in an individual's life versus in the life of society?

  • 13:40:32

    BANKSI think that, you know, forgiveness is simply recognizing the humanity of our fellows, of someone of another human being, and when you don't make forgiveness available or possible to you, you're essentially denying that person's humanity, and that's -- which is essentially how we want to approach sex offenders. We want to deny their humanity. And, look, when you deny another human being's humanity, you're in a sense denying your own too. I mean, you can't live without -- with other people without a capacity for forgiveness. You can't live as a society without a capacity for forgiveness.

  • 13:41:12

    NNAMDIYou've dealt with your own acts of forgiveness. Your dad was abusive and an alcoholic who abandoned your family when you were 12 years old, but you realized over time that you couldn't cut him out of your life.

  • 13:41:24


  • 13:41:24

    NNAMDIWhy not?

  • 13:41:27

    BANKSWell, he appeared too often in my dreams, let's say that, and on and on into my adult life there he was still reappearing, more vividly than I could even remember him when I was awake and conscious. So he was clearly a huge part of my imagination and my inner life. And so I sought him out in reality when I was in my 20's, and went to deal with him face up and -- not to confront him and express rage or anger or hurt or pain, but really to kind of get to know him, to find out who he was, and what drew him to commit acts that surely he felt badly about later.

  • 13:42:17

    BANKSAnd in fact that was the case, you know, as I got to know him and understand him, I could see that. It's funny you should connect it in a way when you're speaking of forgiveness because, in fact, that is what went on, you know, that I did forgive him. And what's interesting to me in some ways is that my siblings never did that. My younger siblings never did that, and as a result today, my brother and my sister in a sense don't really know him. They don't really know their own father because of that.

  • 13:42:47

    NNAMDIHow did his life and your relationship with him inform, influence, affect your writing?

  • 13:42:54

    BANKSIt's hard to say. In fact, I would say mother, who is a more natural story teller than my father, had a -- made a bigger influence on me. My father gave me a few things that are incredibly valuable to me, even as a writer, and one is a work ethic. He -- that was in a way his primary value in life, was that he could work hard, he would work hard, that would be the last thing to go would be his work ethic.

  • 13:43:23

    BANKSAnd I know he transferred that over to me at a very young age, and that has, you know, that is an aspect of writing -- of a writing life. You've got to get up every morning and go to work no matter whether you feel like it or not, and it's got nothing to do with money, it's got nothing to do with income or public recognition. It's just what -- what a man or a woman does, and I know I got that from him.

  • 13:43:49

    BANKSBut as far as storytelling, as far as self-expression and creative endeavor goes, I think that my mother encouraged that and, herself, had great gift for it. We used to call it lying, exaggerating, and that sort of thing, but it was really -- you couldn't ask her what did you do today without getting a long story.

  • 13:44:09

    NNAMDIWell, I gotta tell you, the work ethic that your father instilled in you seems to be alive and well, even as you are now in middle age. You seem to be working harder than ever.

  • 13:44:18

    BANKSI'm middle aged, thank you. No. I'm 71 years old. I'm well -- well passed that middle aged curve. Yeah. I think so. Every three years or so, I try to bring a book out.

  • 13:44:29

    NNAMDIOnto Yetta in Fairfax, Va. Yetta, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:44:35

    YETTAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to get back to this discussion and what was being said a little earlier about the notion that, you know, sex offenders pay twice over. I think in some cases they actually don't, and I don't know if your guest is aware of the fact that many sex crimes are not listed on any national registry because they're not considered violent crimes, and specifically that holds true for possession of and distribution of child pornography. At least that's the case in the state of Virginia where I live.

  • 13:45:20

    YETTAAnd people who have been -- have prior convictions can move into any neighborhood, and -- as in the case of my neighborhood, we had a gentleman living two stops -- two houses from a school bus stop who was then again arrested by the FBI in a sting in our neighborhood a couple years ago for the exact same crime that he had committed previously, namely production, possession of and intent to distribute child pornography.

  • 13:45:52

    NNAMDIOkay. Here is Russell Banks

  • 13:45:53

    BANKSNo. She's talking about Virginia, and I'm sure -- I know she's correct. That's quite true. I was talking initially about south Florida where these regulations were applied, and there are other cities across the country where they're trying to do the same thing. No. I'm not trying to excuse anybody, or say that someone didn't do a bad thing when that person did do a bad thing at all, and please understand that. And I'm not trying in any sense whatsoever to justify any crimes of this ilk. I'm really trying to lift up a rock and see what's under it.

  • 13:46:34

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Yetta. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Russell Banks. His latest novel is called "Lost Memory of Skin." If you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. Send a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:48:37

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Russell Banks. He is the author of 17 books. His most recent novel is called "Lost Memory of Skin." Getting quite a few questions from our listeners, but I'll start. You retired from teaching several years ago, but when you were a professor at Princeton and other universities, you said you never really felt comfortable in academic life. Why not?

  • 13:49:01

    BANKSWell, I never really set out to be a professor. I sort of stumbled into it in my 30s and was good enough at it to be rewarded and allowed to stay there, and it was comfortable in many ways for me, and it provided a living when my writing really didn't. But I never identified with the institution. I didn't go to college until I was 24, and I was just there for two-and-a-half-years, quickly got out, got my bachelor's degree, and never had a graduate degree. So in that sense, I never felt as though I was part of the club.

  • 13:49:39

    BANKSAnd maybe more importantly, and more to the point is that I never really identified with the institution itself. I always felt like an outsider. Not that they wanted me to feel that way, or made me feel that way, it was just -- it was just a self-imposed alienation I think in many ways. And I think in some ways it probably kept me healthy as a writer. It's not good for writers to identify with any institution and it's I don't think good for writers to approach and deal with literature with writing and the process itself in an academic format.

  • 13:50:21

    BANKSYou lose the sense of play, the sense of -- the belief in your own intuition, and your own imagination, and your unconscious in a way. An interesting thing happened to me after I stopped teaching in 1998. I had been at it a long time and thought that, you know, it hadn't really affected me, and hadn't affected my thinking or my mind. But within days of not teaching, I was no longer thinking of the cannon. I no longer had any opinions about critical theory, negative or positive. What I was really concerned with was why is that woman down at the bottom of the hill got her television on 6:00 in the morning when I drive by and what happened there last night?

  • 13:51:07

    BANKSI was thinking again about the world and asking questions of the world that I had asked when I was very young and first beginning as a writer, and I had in small step -- with small steps...

  • 13:51:22

    NNAMDILiberated your mind.

  • 13:51:24

    BANKSExactly. It liberated my mind and I hadn't -- I hadn't realized that I needed liberation in a away. But it wasn't, you know, it was really quite revealing to me that without my knowing it, I had in some ways curtailed that creative curiosity that I had as a younger man.

  • 13:51:45

    NNAMDIFor readers for "Lost Memory of Skin" will they be wondering if the professor was a stand in for your thoughts on academia?

  • 13:51:54

    BANKSNot really. He isn't an object of satire quite, although I've known men like the professor well over the years, people who live in their head primarily and have theories about everything, and are willing and happy to let you know what they are, which he does. But basically, he is a type in a sense, but a man with -- also at the same time with secrets, dark secrets that gradually come out. And I think I've known people like that also in the academic world.

  • 13:52:26

    NNAMDIHere is Suda in Falls Church, Va. Suda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:31

    SUDAThank you for taking my call. This has very interesting to me just to listen to your thought process, and especially in what inspires you or the way that you look at the world and your profession, your calling to write. And I've actually not read your book, and I'm definitely inspired to do so now, but without knowing, I'd like to know how your writing has changed over the years as it seems like there's just a lot of wisdom behind the way that you look at the world, and that obviously influences your writing. So I'm wondering how it was when you first started...

  • 13:53:12


  • 13:53:12

    SUDA...and how it changed over the years.

  • 13:53:14

    BANKSThat's a good question, Suda, thank you. I think I can say that I still haven't a clue as to what I'm doing when I sit down to write, and that -- that's a way in which it hasn't changed since I was in my early 20s and first began. I didn't know what I was doing then, and I don't know what I'm doing now every time I sit down to write another book or a short story.

  • 13:53:40

    BANKSBut here's where it has changed. When I was young, I didn't trust that fact that I didn't know what I was doing, and over the years now I know I must trust that fact, that that's a guiding light in a way in my work is not to know what you're doing. A mentor of mine was the novelist Nelson Oliver, the Chicago novelist of the 1940s and '50s primarily. And he used to say, a writer who knows what he's doing doesn't know very much.

  • 13:54:07

    BANKSAnd so what that means to me is that over the years, and now almost 50 years that I've been working at this craft and at this art, I've learned to trust my imagination, my unconscious, my intuition, much more than I did when I was younger, and I think that's a positive thing.

  • 13:54:27

    NNAMDIBut you've essentially said at some point I think that every one of my books is a failure in some way. If I didn't think so, I'd never try to write another book.

  • 13:54:36

    BANKSI think that's true still. Yeah. I don't know when I said that, but I do remember saying that, and I still believe it, that if I wrote that perfect book, I mean, it was an absolutely perfect work of art, it had no flaw, and it realized my -- the platonic ideal that I had in my mind when I first began, I wouldn't have to write another book, it'd be a transcendent mystical experience for me I think.

  • 13:55:00

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Suda. We got an e-mail from Sarah in Silver Spring who says, "Over the years, I've repeatedly recommended Russell Banks to people who want to understand racism. I have a few questions. One, where, as a white man, did he get such an amazing understanding on racism, and two, I find myself recommending several of his books including "Continent Divide." I know that book is more than 20 years old, but I'd love it if he could talk a bit about the story, and if he'd write it differently today."

  • 13:55:26


  • 13:55:27

    NNAMDI"Any truth to the idea that it's being made into a movie" also asks Sarah.

  • 13:55:30

    BANKSMm-hmm. Well, they've been trying to make it into a movie. I say they -- we, I have, with great a great Haitian director, Raoul Peck, and I -- we've been trying to make it into a movie for a decade, and it's been extremely difficult to get anyone interested who has a checkbook. But regarding what she says, thank you for your comments, and I'm glad that "Continental Drift" still has resonance for you.

  • 13:56:00

    BANKSWhat is surprising to me, and disappointing in some sense, I suppose is that the book was published 26 years ago in 1985, and it describes the desperate plight of Haitians struggling to come to the United States to get a piece of that American Dream, and also the plight of white and American men from upstate New Hampshire heading south, desperate and broke and in debt, trying to get a piece of that American Dream for himself too, and the story is about the collision of the two.

  • 13:56:36

    BANKSBut those conditions that the book describes 26 years ago are even more the case today. And the desperation is even greater on the part of people coming to these shores from Haiti and from other lands, and also the internal migration that's generated by indebtedness and poverty and unemployment in this country today.

  • 13:57:02

    NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Norman in Shepherdstown, W. Va., who said, "I've heard it said that Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of your favorite authors. Any truth to that?"

  • 13:57:10

    BANKSYeah. That is true, and although our work certainly doesn't resemble -- my work doesn't resemble Hawthorne's much at all, and I'm not sure why it is, except that I fell in love with Hawthorne's work and life, and that -- when I was very young, when I was in my teens and 20s. And I think that part of that had to do with he was New England, he was tormented by guilt as I was too when I was young. He had a Yankee New England puritan conscious that troubled him as did I, and he grew up poor and invented himself as a writer, which I was trying to do at the same time.

  • 13:57:47

    BANKSBut Hawthorne has remained kind of important to me over the years, and I occasionally revisit his work, but not with the same passion I think that I did when I was younger when I identified with him more than I do now.

  • 13:58:02

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Russell Banks is author of 17 books. His most recent novel is called "Lost Memory of Skin." Russell Banks, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:12

    BANKSThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:58:13

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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