Taking on the taboo: Russell Banks, two-time Pulitzer nominee, to speak Thursday at WSU

Mar 27 2011 - 1:01am

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Russell Banks
Russell Banks

Most of us don't want to look at the men living under the bridge.

They're homeless, for one thing. Convicted sex offenders, for another.

But Russell Banks saw them. And visited their encampment under a Miami causeway. And learned their stories of how they came to live there in tents and shacks.

The colony of outcasts is the inspiration for Banks' newest novel, "Lost Memory of Skin," which he says is sure to be controversial when it's published Sept. 27 by Ecco Press, a publishing imprint of HarperCollins.

"It's a taboo subject. We tend to avert our eyes from it if we can," Banks acknowledges in a phone interview from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

That is, unless you're a writer, the two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee adds. It's the writer who "looks at the realities that we probably otherwise turn our gaze away from. I feel like I'm just doing my job."

And Banks -- who speaks at Weber State University on Thursday -- is no stranger to difficult subjects, having tackled family violence, race relations, politics, poverty and tragic accidents in such novels as "Affliction" and "Continental Drift."

The writer just finished three years of work on "Lost Memory of Skin" and says, "Suddenly, I've got a little time on my hands." That's one reason he agreed to participate in this week's National Undergraduate Literature Conference on the Ogden campus.

Plus, the author of "The Sweet Hereafter" says he enjoys the chance to meet and talk to teachers and students of literature.

"That certainly is much more interesting to me than a convention of accountants or dentists or tractor salesmen," he quips. Plus: "I'm learning something about my readers and what they read."

Banks, a recipient of the John Dos Passos Award and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is the latest in a string of notable authors tapped for the Weber State University conference. Since its inception in 1985, the event has welcomed Norman Mailer, Ron Carlson, Ray Bradbury, Alice Sebold, Larry McMurtry, Tess Gallagher and Michael Chabon.

Also on this year's docket are poet Sharon Olds and writer and ecocritic Terry Gifford.

"(Banks) has been on our list for a long time," says conference co-director Mikel Vause, who adds that the writer of fiction and nonfiction, short stories, poetry and screenplays has "kind of done it all."

"The conference itself is eclectic and it's kind of cool that our writers are that way as well," Vause says.

Although Banks has visited Salt Lake City before and served on a jury at Utah's 2010 Sundance Film Festival, he has never been to Ogden.

"That will be new to me," he says.

No epiphanies

It wasn't until he was in his early 20s that Banks realized he wanted to make a career of writing.

"It wasn't an 'aha' moment," says the Massachusetts native who grew up in a working-class family. "It was sort of a gradual discovery that that was what I was doing."

After decades in the field, Banks says, he finds writing "gives me a chance to penetrate something that is mysterious to me, that I might not otherwise be able to understand or get to."

"Lost Memory of Skin," for instance, allowed him to examine those involved in sex abuse and discover what it's like to be convicted of such a thing and become a "pariah" in society.

"I'll never really get inside the mind of a person like that unless I write about it," he explains.

Storytellers

The guys living under Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami ended up there because of laws that wouldn't allow sex offenders to reside within 2,500 feet of any place where children might gather. "As a result," Banks says, "it creates a population of homeless who can't live anywhere in the city."

He discovered in his research the situation was something occurring not just in Miami, but in communities across the country.

Yet Banks says his intent with "Lost Memory of Skin," and all of his novels, is to simply deliver a good story with vivid characters that the reader wants to spend time with.

As he sees it, novelists have always been the storytellers in society -- that's their role in the tribe. "It's not as though I have a message," Banks says.

He'll leave that for historians or psychologists or journalists to impart: "I'll leave the big message and the instruction to other people in the tribe."

One of the hallmarks of Banks' writing is his focus on the struggles of everyday life, says Vause, an English professor at Weber State.

The author's work seems to fit the old maxim that, "Fiction doesn't have to have happened -- but it has to be real," Vause says.

"He also seems to focus on the strength of the human spirit, the ability people have to deal with hard times," Vause says. Even though Banks writes about difficult issues, the professor adds, "There's still a hopefulness there that we have the ability to overcome tragic situations."

Troubled lives

Humor is also evident in Banks' writing, even in the midst of tragedies, Vause says.

Banks explains that by saying, "It's how I see the world, I think. ... Humor is one of the only ways I can endure the horror and the idiocy and the things that surround us. Sometimes all you can do is try not to cry, try not to weep."

The 70-year-old says he isn't an optimistic writer -- his works are often labeled as depressing.

But Banks says he does have compassion and hope for his characters and their lives, especially those some might regard as "lost" or "throwaway" types.

"I have great admiration for human beings," Banks says. Even though people often fail, he adds, they continue to try and try again.

A former teacher at Princeton University, Banks says that besides telling aspiring young writers "Don't quit your day job," he wants to be sure they know that writing must come from reading.

"They can't be a writer unless they become an obsessive and lifelong reader," he says. "You have to be in love with literature and I think with language, too."

For his part, Banks says he still finds plenty of surprises in his writing.

"Every book, every work that I do, I try to arrange it so that I don't know what I'm doing -- so that I'm in new territory each time out. ... Every time I begin, I'm beginning at the beginning and starting over again, in a sense."

 CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Now's your chance to quiz writers Russell Banks, Sharon Olds and Terry Gifford.

The three are featured in a question-and-answer session at 12:30 p.m. Saturday during the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University, 3848 Harrison Blvd.

The session in the Elizabeth Hall Auditorium is one of several chances to hear the guest authors during the annual event spotlighting student presentations in critical and creative writing.

* Ecocritic and mountaineer Gifford kicks off the conference with a community evening reading at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Eccles Community Art Center, 2580 Jefferson Ave., Ogden.

* Olds, the author of eight volumes of poetry, speaks at noon Thursday during the convocation lecture series in the Elizabeth Hall Auditorium and at 11 a.m. Friday in the same location.

* Novelist Banks reads during "My Favorite Poem Project" at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Elizabeth Hall Auditorium. Olds, Gifford and several community residents will also participate.

* Banks also speaks at 3:45 p.m. Friday in the Elizabeth Hall Auditorium. Although the novelist will be the guest speaker for Thursday's opening banquet, no further reservations for that event are being accepted.

* Gifford is featured at 11:45 a.m. Saturday in the Elizabeth Hall Auditorium.

The public may also attend student presentations from 8:30 a.m. to 11:55 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3:10 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. Saturday in various rooms in the Shepherd Union Building.

Admission to all sessions is free. For more information, call 801-626-6600; for a complete conference schedule, visit www.weber.edu/nulc.

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