Russell Banks was one of our greatest American authors, so you’d think I’d remember the first time I met him. But, the truth is I don’t.
What I remember is how our relationship shifted from him generously tolerating my requests to do things for ACW to us working together with a shared goal, like when I brought him into the men’s federal prison in Ray Brook to give a reading. They almost didn’t let him in actually. His book The Darling had just come out and the protagonist was an American terrorist. The prison was alarmed at the notion of the inmates learning about the extreme and violent politics of a likable character. I had to spend some time convincing them that he was a legitimate author (member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two-time Pulitzer finalist). Eventually they let him in, with strict instructions to read something else, anything else. I think Russell was secretly a bit proud to be deemed too dangerous for a prison. It was a stunning reading with an engaged discussion to follow. The incarcerated audience members were inspired, asking a lot of questions. Afterward, in the parking lot, Russell looked at me—he had a way of making eye contact and holding it for a beat. Russell’s eye contact communicated a lot. After that, we understood each other and worked together on and off for the next 25 years.
The prison was right, in a sense, to be worried about his influence. Russell did have a rare talent for making otherwise reprehensible characters likable, or if not likable, at least deserving of respect. One of the many times I introduced him over the years, this time for when Lost Memory of Skin, a novel about a sex offender, came out, I said that one of the gifts of reading his work is that he makes us more empathetic, compassionate people, he introduces us to despicable people but also gives us a path to loving them.
I remember early on, when he became the New York State Author in 2004, he reached out and asked me to schedule the readings he needed to fulfill his tenure. Usually the NYS writer reads in major venues in NYC, the 92nd St Y, that sort of thing. But that wasn’t Russell’s style. He asked that I set up readings in “the most backwoods places you can think of. I want to read in spaces that don’t normally get to host readings with authors.” He really did walk like he talked. So, I brought him to the library in Speculator, among other small towns. The small library was full to bursting. When we walked in he turned to me and said, “You really know how to pack a house.” I told him that I was pretty sure that it was actually him that was packing the house. Eye contact, and a smile. It was a beautiful night, and he was gratuitous as always.
As with all great thinkers, Russell was wonderful company. I remember having dinner with him and his wife, the poet Chase Twichell, and the poet Corenlis Eady, and the conversation turned to dreams. I told him about one of my many dreams that have stayed with me my whole life. He told me that everyone in your dream is actually just different forms of yourself. You are both the naked kid standing in a highschool classroom and the kid laughing at him. I think about that almost every day. Another time I was rambling about my kids and in a complete non-sequitur I just lowered my shoulders and said, “I worry a lot.” He said, “I know you do,“ then he held my gaze for a beat. And for some reason I can’t explain, I worried a little less, at least for the rest of the day.
Once I met him in the cabin where he writes. He agreed to personalize a bunch of copies of his book for ACW. I felt like I was standing in a sacred space, honored beyond words to be there. Later, he and Chase and I hung out in their kitchen and chatted for a bit, talking with them together like that felt like an even more sacred space. The love they had for each other was palpable and inspiring.
Russell belonged to a generation of writers that saw literature as being as important to the soul as prayers. When ACW presented the author Rick Moody, I asked Russell to introduce him because Rick was his former student. The conversation between the two of them, frankly, was so elevated it was over everyone’s head and yet every person in the audience that night was thrilled to witness this window into the minds of some of our country’s greatest thinkers. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but we were awed to be in the same room. One of his last appearances was at ACW in the fall of 2021, when he came to christen our space and present his novel Foregone. Of course the place was packed, and afterwards he led the best Q&A I’ve heard in the 20+ years of doing my job. I like to think it was because he felt so at home. He stood there with a glass of wine and talked—he didn’t just answer questions, he talked with the audience. Everyone together guessed at what some of his characters would be doing today. He admitted that most of his own characters have different politics than he does, but because he has so much love for them, it made him more empathetic. He too was affected by compassion for his own characters, just as his readers are. It was extraordinary. As I poured him another glass of wine, I tried it out myself this time: eye contact for a beat, “Thank you” I said. He smiled and said, “This is pretty special.” I wasn’t sure if he meant ACW’s new space, our work together, or just the eye contact we shared, but it didn’t really matter, because all of it really was.