As I explain in the following introduction to the reading we hosted for Russell Banks at ACW in September 2021, Russell Banks has long been a guiding influence on me as a writer. Since moving to Adirondacks a year and a half ago, I’ve found that he’s also a guiding influence for so many people here, not necessarily in terms of how to write, but in terms of: how to live a life of goodness. Lastly, it’s clear that he’s long been a guiding influence for the work we do here at Adirondack Center for Writing, but I’ll let Nathalie tell those stories later this week.
It was one of my first assignments for my new job at ACW: introduce Russell Banks. Nathalie graciously offered it to me, and I nervously accepted. I already knew Nathalie was a pro at making speeches and telling stories live on the mic, a presence whose humor could bring real warmth to the room—so it felt like no small task. It would also be my first live event with ACW, and a chance to make an impression on our packed audience of ACW friends, family, board members, and locals who had simply come out to witness a legend.
I’m proud of the introduction, but it’s never what I think about when I think about the reading. What I think about is sitting with Russell after the show, eating burgers and fries from Bitters & Bones. I asked him if Sam Dent, the fictional town in my favorite of his novels (The Sweet Hereafter), was based off of Paul Smiths, or maybe Jay? I had lived in the Adirondacks for two weeks, so I was essentially just guessing any town with a man’s name in it. He laughed and said Sam Dent was a composite—a place he created that could hold all of his favorite details of rural, mountain life. “It is a novel, after all,” he said, smiling. I knew what he meant, but I also knew that the truth far outweighed the fiction in his novels, and even if Sam Dent wasn’t a one-to-one alias for a real place, it was—because of Banks’ determination to write to the honest core of his subjects—a real place. Anyone who reads the words of the various members of the Sam Dent community in The Sweet Hereafter can agree with that.
Below is the introduction I gave that night. I invite readers to comment with their own favorite books, favorite passages, favorite memories of Russell Banks.
Introduction to “An Evening with Russell Banks” at ACW on September 24, 2021
When I think of Russell Banks I think of two things: 1) great sentences, and 2) the truth.
The truth is that this week I tried to make a promotional social media post using a line from Foregone, so I went to my heavily dogeared copy and read each page I marked. I wrote down dozens of quotes. Not one of which would work for Instagram. It’s not that they’re not great sentences. It’s not that these lines are particularly sad or misanthropic. They’re not profane or frightening. They’re simply truthful. And the truth is often too heavy, too messy to bring clicks.
Foregone is a story of a single day that encompasses an entire life, following a filmmaker as he gives his final interview for a camera crew. And the book is good, and it’s true, so it’s got sentences like:
I just love this writing. I have since I was a student, studying The Sweet Hereafter ostensibly to learn about perspective in fiction, but wound up reading the book in a kind of dream-state where I was not taking notes or analyzing craft at all–I was trapped in it. What I cherish most about that book is that there are so many characters in the small community of Sam Dent, but not one of them who you can hate. This is the truth.
And soon I’m reading Rule of the Bone, wondering why High School couldn’t give us this instead of Catcher in the Rye (it’s probably all the pot-smoking). I love the way Chappie’s sentences throttle and swerve, mimicking the quick turns and wild leaps of the plot. Banks does both: art at the sentence level, story at the heart. You learn a lot from books that make you feel this much.
I should try to communicate Russell Bank’s accomplishments. He’s published over twenty books in any literary genre you could ask for (including a libretto). His books have been made into award winning movies. Guggenheim, NEA, Ingram Merril, Best American, O Henry, the American Academy of Arts & Letters have all awarded him for his work. He’s a hometown hero for so many readers and writers here in the Adirondacks. He’s no small part of the reason I knew moving here was something I needed to do.
I should try to say more about everything that Foregone is about, but I’ll let its author do that here in a second. For now I’ll leave you with another line that didn’t play on a phone screen:
Ladies and Gentleman, let’s welcome Russell Banks.