Lost selves

Russell Banks

On March 1, author Russell Banks will read at the Stieren Theater as part of the Trinity University Arts Enrichment Series. Banks is the author of 14 books, including Cloudsplitter, Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, and his most recent novel, The Darling. Two of his novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, were adapted into feature length films. He is currently at work on a third screenplay, Cloudsplitter, based on the life of revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, which he will produce with Martin Scorcese for HBO.

From his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, Banks spoke to the Current about character development and The Darling's narrator, Hannah Musgrave. Set in Liberia and the United States from 1975 through 1991, The Darling is a political thriller told in hindsight by Hannah, a member of the Weather Underground, who fled America to West Africa, where she and her Liberian husband became friends and colleagues of Charles Taylor, the notorious warlord and now ex-president of Liberia. That relationship triggered a series of events that caused her to abandon her three sons, and, eventually, to return to America. In part, The Darling, is also the present-tense story of her return to Liberia and the effort to find her sons.

Susan Pagani: I was interested to learn that you live in the Adirondak Mountains for part of the year, since that is the opening scene for The Darling.

Russell Banks: Well, the book is framed with her life on the farm in contemporary time. I suppose it is loosely based on the town where I live, Copake Valley, New York. And there is indeed a farm like that one there, though it is not run by women and it's quite a bit different, but I used it as a physical location.

SP: Where did the idea for The Darling come from - female radical, Liberia, monkeys...

RB: It's a little difficult to say where anything comes from; it's like asking where does a dream come from. You can kind of interpret it afterwards and look back, but it's actual sources are hard to name. But I do know this much about the source of the book and Hannah Musgrave:

In my youth, during the 1960s and early '70s, I was very involved in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement. But I knew a lot of people who were more involved and more radical than I, and they kept going. Now that we are middle- and late-aged, I've started wondering, Who were they and where are they now? Especially with regard to the women: What drew them into the movement, and what drew them out to the very far radical end of it, Weatherman and then the Weather Underground? And so that was just a real kind of wondering.

At the same time I became very interested in the contemporary history of Liberia because it was erupting in a particularly violent form of Civil War. I had also been interested in the history of Liberia because in my research of a previous book that I had written, Cloudsplitter, I had learned a lot about its creation by a wing of the American abolitionists and that it was, in fact, linked to the story of race in the United States from its beginning right up to contemporary time.

And then there was a third element, that engaged my imagination quite separately, and that was the chimpanzees; I can't tell you where that came from (laughs).

SP: So far, they've only entered the story in her dreams

RB: They become quite a big presence, and it won't be giving anything away by telling you that, in the past, she ran a sanctuary for chimpanzees in Liberia. I started visiting chimpanzee sanctuaries. There's a really terrific one right across the boarder from my home, in Canada, and then I visited sanctuaries in Ohio, South Carolina, and Sierra Leone. I became more interested in the people who run these sanctuaries for higher primates - whether its mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, or orangutans - because, for one thing, they are almost always white women. But they are also women of privileged background and good educations, who come from a family that is usually progressive, principled, and ethical. In other words, they are very much like the women who were in the radical wing of the political movements of the '60s or '70s. I was struck by those similarities and wondered why.

All these questions were in my mind; the story came as an attempt to answer some of them. And Hannah's personality and character just began to emerge from my investigation into those questions

SP: So, why are women drawn to working with chimps?

RB: I don't know the answer (laughs). With novel writing, you try to penetrate a mystery, and if you are lucky you do, but then it leads you to a further mystery. I think I understand the complexity and the many dimensions of the women who were of that type. But, in the end, Hannah is an individual as much as any one of us. If she is a successful fictional character, than she is her own self, and transcends typecasting.

SP: I found the way she talks about giving herself over to the farm's time schedules interesting. I couldn't help thinking about my friends who have family and say the very same things about motherhood. She seems to have that instinct, the instinct to give yourself over to something, but I know that she abandoned her children, her family, and the chimps - there is a real complexity there.

RB: Oh, yeah, and she's not easy. She's telling you the story, and she's pretty honest and tells you what she knows about herself, but she doesn't know everything, so, in some sense, she's is an unreliable narrator. And she's a little difficult. Some readers have had problems with her because they want to idealize and romanticize her on the one hand, if their politics are similar and, on the other hand, they want to judge and dismiss her if they don't agree with her politics or they think she isn't a good mother. I hope that I've managed to create a character that is believable and intimate enough that you can't idealize her and you can't throw her out. She's like the rest of us; she's a human being. Full of contradictions, complexities, and failings as well as strengths.

SP: There's a point at which Hannah breaks the narrative wall to say, of one of her relationships, "I will eventually tell you about that, too." Who is she talking to?

RB: In terms of the writing, I think of her as talking to me, a person about my age, a white person, who shares her education, experience, and politics. A man, a neighbor, a trustworthy friend. I imagined that I was sitting on her porch and she was telling me her story in an intimate and trusting way. There were things she wouldn't tell a man, but would tell a woman, and things she might tell a spouse, but not merely a good friend. Some things she doesn't tell until later because she needs to feel comfortable enough in the telling to get there. I wanted that sense of the narrator's presence in the company of the reader.

SP: And it's a little frustrating. I thought, Ah, there's something she's not telling me.

RB: You're going to have to wait and pay attention. That's to remind you that this is an unreliable narrator. You've got to look around her and listen with a slight distance in order to truly understand what's happening to her, and what's happened in the past.

SP: Was it difficult to write from the perspective of a woman trying to talk to a man?

RB: Not really, because women have talked to me all my life. I've been married several times, I have four daughters, and I have a very lively mother who talks to me constantly and has since I was born. And I have a lot of women friends who are articulate and forthright, so I'm used to listening; I don't know how good a listener I am, but I'm certainly used to being talked to by women. I know what they sound like, and I know what they are inclined to leave in and leave out. I don't know what they say when there is no man in the room. I'm sure they say different things - 'least that's what they've told me.

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