In Memory of Russell Banks: Rick Moody on an Iconic Writer’s Life, Work and Legacy
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Writer Rick Moody joins V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to celebrate the life and legacy of the late novelist Russell Banks, who died earlier this month. Moody and Terrell, who were previously Banks’s students and became his friends, reflect on his deep working-class roots, his cultivation of his own voice even in his more experimental writing, and his commitment to writing about race in the United States. Moody reads and discusses a passage from Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Rick and Whitney, I’d love to hear about how you met Russell and how your relationships with him were formed. Rick, you’re our guest, so you go first.
Rick Moody: I met Russell at Columbia University where I was getting my MFA from 1984 to 1986. In my second year there, Russell came and did a class on the contemporary short story. We read O’Connor and Welty and Cheever and Salinger. And I liked him so much—he was so warm and effusive—that I asked him to be a thesis reader for me. So we worked together the next semester, as well. After that, we stayed in touch. He was the kind of person who, once you were in his orbit, you were in his orbit. And the warmth was always there. So that’s how I first met him.
Whitney Terrell: Yeah, my story is similar. I walked into a creative writing classroom at Princeton, where he was on faculty, and had a workshop with him, and he was receptive to my work. But not only that, he was… like, Rick was saying, he was friendly. He made writing seem like something you’d want to do; it would be fun to hang out with people like him. And I think students really loved him.
Then, he blurbed my first book, which was really sweet of him to do, and then we stayed in touch. I also remember that he went on some sort of email rampage during the invasion of Iraq, when I was getting a ton of emails from him commenting on the political situation. He always had something to say, you know, and that was always one of the things that I loved about him.
Russell was so original in so many ways that I want to divide his work into categories somehow… it’s hard to talk about its breadth all at one time. I wondered if you two could help me out with this. We can all work on this together. What would you say are the areas where Russell broke new ground as the writer? What did he do best? Where was the most inventive? Rick?
RM: Wow, what a great question, Whitney. I have this whole theory about Russell—not a popular theory, I must say. Russell was really a modernist and kind of an experimental writer. And I can unpack it a little bit later, but the early work especially really rings with a lot of experimentation and a lot of formal ingenuity. That’s really there. That was partly the way in for me because I came from that kind of writing. So that’s one thing I would say. Despite his reputation for being really politically engaged, really socially active, I also saw him as sort of a high artist, high modernist, real literary guy.
WT: Are you talking about a book like Hamilton Stark when you say early on? Is that what you’re thinking of?
RM: Well, there’s Hamilton Stark, but there’s also this really interesting, weird book. Do you know this one called The Relation of My Imprisonment?
WT: That’s one of Russell’s books I have never read. Talk about it, though—I’d like to hear your impression of it.
RM: Well, it’s written in a kind of faux 18th century argot and it’s a little bit about colonial Puritan times, maybe an allegory about marriage. There’s a lot of weird things going on in it. But, for me, it harkens to the period in which Russell was really connected with people from the fiction collective, he knew all those people. Clarence Major, Jonathan Baumbach—he knew those people and was consonant with that kind of experimental wing of American fiction way at the beginning, when he was a poet. Did you know he was a poet at first?
WT: I did know that because we talked about that. I started off in poetry until I went to one of my professors and asked if I could make a living at poetry and he laughed for a really long time. Then I switched to fiction. One of the nice things about Russell—and Russell was experimental, but he also was very lunchpail, as he liked to describe himself. He got his work done, he wrote every day, and he cared about selling books. And he did sell books.
RM: Yeah, I think he settled into a realism later on. Although I would argue that The Sweet Hereafter, for example, is a pretty strange book in some ways. So there are ways that he continued to kind of bear an experimental impulse but also working class—beginning to end, always a guy from the working class. And in the later books, I think, sometimes the idiom was more realistic in order to maintain that one foot in the working class that was so important to him.
VVG: I was thinking about this question… I think I was reading an interview with him in The Art of Fiction that someone—maybe Kaitlyn Greenidge—had retweeted earlier this week. He was talking about writing about race. And I think that that was one of the things where I admired him the most. Now we see a lot of white American writers who are interested in thinking critically about the history of race in the United States, and specifically how they should write about or can write about Blackness.
And I feel like he was one of the standard bearers in this regard. He was one of the first people to talk about this in a way that was complicated and really helpful to a lot of younger writers, including non-Black people of color who are thinking about that. And I also really admired how he wrote about history and groups. I’m interested in writing about collectives, which I think narrative is not great at containing, but his narratives were great at containing groups and collectives.
And then, like you said, he just had wild range. And that is such a great model for a career. To think, “I can be successful, but I can also be weird. I can also be strange. And I can change what I’m doing so that things remain interesting for me; I’m allowed to keep this interesting for myself.” It was an arc of a career that had such a strong sense of self without being selfish. It was an outward-looking, self-critical point of view that was also just interested in strange beauty, which was the thing that I really loved.
You know, as we were talking about, there’s even a book here that Whitney hasn’t read. So he was also prolific—like you were saying, those habits. We’re not going to be able to talk about all of his books here in detail. That’s a 10-episode limited series or something probably much longer.
WT: I just want to say, Kaitlyn Greenidge was on the episode with him—
VVG: Oh, that’s right!
WT: So there’s a nice connection there.
VVG: Yeah. And we’ll put that Art of Fiction quote in the show notes. So we can’t talk about all of his books here in detail—because he was so prolific—but we do want to talk about some. I thought we could start with Continental Drift, which is maybe not the most famous of his novels—that honor probably goes to The Sweet Hereafter or Affliction because both of those were films. But I think Continental Drift was his most ambitious. I wonder if you could talk about what that novel meant to you, Rick, and then read us a section from the opening.
RM: Continental Drift came out when I was in his class—either right before or during—and I read it at that time. It was hugely influential for me, partly for the reasons I’ve already described. It managed to take what I felt like was a real knowingness and a kind of modernist approach to literature and fuse that to a deeply engaged, very story-oriented, somewhat realist kind of aesthetic. He mashed those together in a way that I had not quite seen. It’s beautiful line-by-line—there’s stunning writing in it—but also deeply, deeply sad in a certain way.
So it was revelatory for me at that time. It really, as you were saying, deals with heavy questions and doesn’t shrink from them. In this passage I’m going to read there’s some discussion of the tragedy of American history and the shame associated therewith that I experienced then also as revelatory. I wasn’t reading a lot of fiction where people were openly saying, “I feel shame about this nation,” so it was doing a lot. Dealing with Haiti, dealing with the United States, dealing with race, dealing with sexuality. So very ambitious.
• Hamilton Stark • The Relation of My Imprisonment • The Sweet Hereafter • Continental Drift • Affliction • The Darling • “Who Will Tell the People? On waiting, still, for the great Creole-American novel,” by Russell Banks, from Harper’s Magazine, June 2000
• Russell Banks, The Art of Fiction No. 152 (The Paris Review) • LISTEN: Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 3 Episode 23: Kaitlyn Greenidge and Russell Banks: On the Past and Present of Protest and White Backlash ‹ Literary Hub • WATCH: Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 3 Episode 23: Kaitlyn Greenidge and Russell Banks on the Past and Present of Protest • Flannery O’Connor • Eudora Welty • John Cheever • J.D. Salinger • Clarence Major • Jonathan Baumbach • James Alan McPherson • Ernest Hemingway • Bobbie Ann Mason • Richard Ford • Daniel Woodrell