Russell Banks: Seeing Is the Goal by Paula Deimling

In the mornings, about six days a week, novelist Russell Banks heads out to his studio. To the right, in the warmer months, is a meadow of wildflowers; on the left, large rocks reminiscent of New England. It’s a short walk, down a hill, to an old remodeled sugar shack that overlooks a river. His studio. “Splendid rural isolation,” Banks calls it.

This land in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains is very much connected to Banks’s work, especially his novel, Cloudsplitter (HarperCollins). The burial site of abolitionist John Brown, one of the main characters of Cloudsplitter, is about 12 miles away; so is a view of Brown’s favorite mountain, Tahawus, so named Cloudsplitter by the Iroquois Indians.

“The mornings are the real work time for me,” Banks says. He writes on a laptop computer, sometimes in longhand, and later types the words. There is no particular pattern to this work process, Banks says – whatever feels right that day. He works four to five hours a day on the novel. Around lunch time, he heads back to the house and spends the afternoon on various projects or hikes around the property – the latter activity, perhaps, the inspiration for the vivid descriptions of landscapes and skies in his writing.

“I believe and have always believed that before all else I want my readers to see,” says Banks, quoting Joseph Conrad. “He meant literally visualize, not understand. That’s the ambition for me as a writer, too – so that my readers can see the world or themselves or other human beings in the world a little differently, a little more clearly.” When Banks takes the train through Westchester County to New York City, he says he can’t see the passing suburbs in the same way he might have had he not read author John Cheever. “I see the men with their hats and briefcases differently. I see them with more compassion, with more understanding, more patience; I don’t stereotype them as easily. A good book makes you see them differently. As a reader, the mark of a good book is that after having finished, I’m a slightly different person. I think a little differently, I see the world a little differently, than before I read that book.”

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