Russel Banks Interview
by Martha Cinader
April 1998
copyright 1998

Q. In your book Cloudsplitterthe main character likens himself to Isaac in the old testament. Why tell the story of Isaac? What's important about Owen Brown and his point of view of his father, John Brown?

A. Well, in a sense, he's lined up behind his father very much the way Isaac was lined up behind Abraham, and on the further side of John Brown, the father, was God giving orders, and on the further side of Abraham, was the ancient biblical God giving orders to him. I always listened to that story when I was in Sunday school in church as a boy growing up in Presbyterian New England. It's a story that is supposed to be about Abraham and his relationship to God and his willingness to follow God's commands, even to the point of sacrificing his son.

Q. And you're sitting there thinking, "Well, what about Isaac"?

A. I've always identified with Isaac, the kid. Thank God there was a lamb in the bushes there you could slip in front of you. But it seemed to me to be sort of apt in many ways for the John Brown story because John Brown did many amazing things in his life, some of them extraordinarily good and some of them very difficult to justify or understand. But one of the things I found most puzzling and difficult to understand and wanted to get to the heart of was that he was willing, not just to martyr himself at the end at Harpers Ferry, but also willing to martyr three of his sons and two of his sons-in-law. He led them there with pretty nearly complete knowledge that he wasn't going to get out, and he stayed there and essentially waited to be captured and then finally executed.

Q. So this was a holy war, and he was sacrificing his sons just as Abraham had been willing to do.

A. Yeah. Exactly, yeah. I think by the the end of Brown's life, what began as a political war ended as a religious war for him, I think.

Q. Now, as you portrayed Brown in the novel, he knew the bible extremely well.

A. Intimately, yeah.

Q. And, in fact, he used it as some sort of battle plan...

A. Oh, yes. He used it as a guide to his behavior. In a funny way, getting into this material and these characters led me to an understanding that I didn't have before of how bible-based religion...protestant-fundamentalist religion is a particular vision of not just the bible but of one's own immediate reality. Brown didn't think of the bible as a set of images, symbols, stories, and so forth, which he could use as a gloss on his own life thousands of years later. He really thought of his own life as simply another chapter, an unwritten chapter in the bible. The bible was an ongoing living text for him. He lived in the bible in a way that, you know, it's difficult least most of us secular humanist types to understand, until you get close to it.

Q. Would you say he was a Christian fundamentalist?

A. Well, he would come down on that side I suppose today. But not really because, in fact, he was the last of the Puritans.

Q. I think that's an important distinction. I was thinking a lot about that as I was reading the book because here you have a man who by today's vocabulary you might call a fundamentalist, and, yet, with his position, say about slavery, especially in today's world, I think he might fall in a very different line...

A. ...oh, absolutely...

Q. ...from the Christian fundamentalist that we're familiar with today.

A. Oh, I think he'd be very uncomfortable with Christian fundamentalism as we see it around us today. Sometimes I try to think where would John Brown show up in 1998, and it could be on the extreme left, it could be on the extreme right, but it would be in the extremes politically. I mean, he would be I suppose a kind of libertarian. He might be out there with the militias in Montana or something, or on the other hand he could be...

Q. ...I imagined he might be trying to bust prisoners out of upstate New York...

A. That's the other thing. Exactly. He could be there as well. When I know, my first acquaintance with John Brown, beyond the kind of superficial school-boy acquaintance you get early on, was in the sixties in Chapel Hill during the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement where I was politically active, and you would see a big beautiful portrait of John Brown up on the wall of an SDS office or a SNIK office alongside Che Guevara and other figures on the left. But then now in the late eighties and nineties, he's become an icon for the extreme right, and he's evoked on that side of the fence. That's a kind of interesting movement.

Q.Maybe people are adopting what they choose from the story and then molding it to their...

A. ...yeah...

Q. ...maybe to their own uses. And that leads me into a question I wanted to ask you about this because, in a sense, you've done that as well.

A. Yeah.

A. And this is a book about a historical figure, and, yet, it's fiction.

A. Right.

Q. And certainly I've read other novels like this, and I have to say that sometimes they really define for me a period in history, especially if it's one that I may not have been previously very familiar with. How do you think about how you're defining history in that sense for people? When they're reading a fictional portrayal of historical fact, where does your responsibility lie in there?

A. Well, that's a good question, and, obviously, this kind of a novel brings it up, but so does a novel like the "Scarlet Letter" if you think about it, that's a novel that was written in 1849 about New England in the 1690's, and if we read the "Scarlet Letter" as history, we're going to get a very distorted and certainly incomplete view of puritan New England. But if we read it instead as Hawthorne's attempt to see into the human soul I guess, what's universal about human beings, then it will work because then we're reading fiction as fiction.

I think the danger is...there is a danger to reading fiction as history. We might find a great deal of useful and interesting information about the quality of life, the tone of life, the texture of daily life in another period. And we might, indeed, learn something about the politics if we have no other real knowledge of it, but it's a bad way to read history. It's misleading, and it's a bad way to read fiction too, more importantly to me.

Q.So how do we guide ourselves there? Do we read history first and then read your book?

A. I hope you don't have to know a great deal about the period in order to read this story anymore than you have to know a great deal about the English monarchy to read Shakespear or about puritan New England to read the "Scarlet Letter" or about the Civil War to read "Gone With The Wind", I guess, to use a more invidious comparison, but...and that it can be read for a number of pleasures and uses even. It can be read as a story. I hope it's a ripping good yarn.

Q. Well, I have to say that I certainly am enjoying it. I'm about seven-eighths through it. It's quite a long book but well worth the...

A. It is a long book. And I hope that it's psychologically incisive and plausible, because it tells a story of value to me, and important to keep telling in one form or another, about the cruel and sometimes oppressive and sometimes liberating relations that are at play between fathers and sons and fathers and sons and fathers and sons.

Q. Now there's another theme in here. We have the father and the son, and we can use Isaac and Abraham to sort of magnify that story for ourselves. There's also this story between black and white.

A. Yes, very much.

Q. And it's extremely relevant I think to today's situation. What you do is really examine white people's motives for involving themselves in essentially Black liberation, let's say.

A. Yeah.

Q. And there's some surprising answers to that. I mean you can look at John Brown. You can say he did some very admirable things in his politics. He was politically correct.

A. He certainly was, yeah. He was probably the least racist of any figure that I've ever looked at up close from that period.

Q. From that period.

A. Yeah. Or even from this period, for that matter.

Q. Which is exactly my point. And I think, you know, he was very angry often with the abolitionists of the time who he felt just gave lip service to the idea that slavery was a bad thing but certainly were not willing to risk their lives or sacrifice their sons to saving people who really had not much to do with their own lives.

We're in a situation like that today still. I don't think it's changed so much. You know, we look...there's the return of the chain gangs in the south. We have people doing labor in prisons, and those products are being sold at lower costs than other products made by free people, so we still have a problem here.

A. Well, it's a racialized society. Maybe it's not as institutionalized as it was a hundred or even perhaps fifty years ago.

Q. But those same themes are still playing.

A. That's right. The psychology of race still determines our behavior to an enormous degree. That's right. I didn't find when I got up close to the attitudes of the inner life, let's say, of John Brown and his contemporaries and his son, Owen. I didn't find I was moving very far away from what I knew to be the case today in 1998.

Q.But Owen has more trouble than his father in dealing with these feelings that are coming up as he's involving himself and realizing on the one hand, well, why should I sacrifice my life for that Black man over there? What does this have to do with me?

A. Yeah, and he has a kind of liberals longing for color blindness too, and he keeps coming up against that. He can't step around it.

Q. He can't forget that he's white. Yet, because he's involved in this liberation process, he feels isolated from other white people. And, yet, he'll never be Black. I think we all...all us white people, if we're really honest with ourselves, we'll find that we have some of the same conflicting emotions as Owen, and perhaps we have as much difficulty in sorting them out as he does.

A. Yeah, there's a point in here where he comes up against it through his friendship with...even infatuation with the Black man, Lyman Epps, who's living in the household and working alongside him. He wants to love him, but he cannot forget his skin color, which constantly reminds him, again, of his own, but he's separated himself from his fellow whites and cannot appropriate the experience of being Black, so he describes it as a kind of terrible and frightening loneliness. In a racialized society the man who has refused a racial identity is terribly lonely.

Q.But there's always the possibility for him, though, to just leave.

A. Yes. He can light out for the territory.

Q. Be a white person.

A. As he says in the end, "I'm a white American. I can invent myself over again."

Q. Right. And that in the end is the big distinctive factor between black and white.

A. Yeah. It's very exciting for me to take on Brown in a way and indulge myself as it were. It does give myself permission to go ahead and think about race, come up against it, and deal with it face forward without apology and without inhibition really, and just examine myself and examine my characters and examine the American culture on those terms.

Q. Well I think that lack of inhibition is something that makes reading this unique to me among contemporary literature. I find that often we're reading things that are politically correct and not quite so honest in...

A. ...yeah...

Q. the examination of people's emotions and what's really going on in their psychology. Is that very important to you in your writing?

A. Well, it's important to me as a man. It's important to me as an American white man to be able to constantly bring myself as closely as I can to staring it straight in the face, staring at race. I mean, I live in a racialized world, so in order not to be victimized by it myself, not to participate in it, I've got to have an ongoing kind of continuous critique that I can trust, so it's very important to me as a man. And, therefore, very important to me as an artist. I can't step around it that way.

Q. So do you find that you identify with John Brown's character in that sense that you can't just let it go and talk about other things?

A. Actually, I don't identify with John Brown as strongly as I identify with his son, Owen Brown, I guess. After all, it's told from his point of view, and he's the man with the language in his mouth for the entire story, and I think...I spent six years writing the book. I spent six years inside Owen Brown's head. So looking at John Brown from the son's point of view. I love John Brown. Father, as I've come to call him myself.

Q. The Old Man.

A. The Old Man, Father, right. And I love him but with the kind of ambivalence that I think Owen has as well.

John Brown is a man who was...his rage allowed him, in a sense, to become color blind.

His son's rage is more confused in some ways because its origins lie more directly within his family structure and within his sexuality or his ambiguous sexuality and the death of his mother. It's more personalized, in other words. He politicizes the personal, and so, in a sense, he isn't as clear politically as his father is I think.

John Brown to this day, I mean, as a historical figure, astonishes me that he could be so clear on the question of race at a time when very few other white Americans were, and that's one reason why I think he ended up being trusted to such a degree by very wise and very skeptical Blacks like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman and Bishop Logan and so on. I think they saw that this was not a psychotic man. This was not a sociopath. This was a man who clearly saw race for what it was almost as if he came from another planet.

Q. And do you think that's why people perceived him to be somewhat crazy and psychotic?

A. Well, it's interesting, today, you know, if you go out onto the streets, and you interview Americans, even here in New York City, I think you'll find 98% of the white Americans you interview will say John Brown was a mad man, and 98% of the African-Americans you interview will say John Brown was a hero. Now that's an interesting split when the same figure can be seen by one segment of the population, on the basis of their race, as mad and another segment of the population, on the basis of their race, as heroic. That says something about our culture, doesn't it? It tells us more than the O.J. Simpson trial fallout.

Q. Maybe it gives us some way to examine the phenomenon of the trial.

A. Yeah, but Brown was a hero to African-Americans right from the start, all the way up into modern times. I mean, I've got a wonderful taped interview with James Baldwin extolling the virtues of Brown saying he's the only white hero in the pantheon of Black heroes, and Malcolm X saying the same thing.

Q. And, in fact, he used that phrase "by any means necessary."

A. That's right.

Q. And I thought, wow, now that's really interesting. In a lot of ways I found John Brown to be similar to Malcolm X in his views, in asking at what point do you pick up arms and defend yourself?

A. Well his progression is a fascinating one to me and one that I don't think is utterly unfamiliar to us today, although we'd like to avert our gaze from it. The progression from youthful idealist to activist, to what became a geurilla fighter more or less, in the order of Weathermen or Black Panthers, to terrorist, to martyr, and that steady progression has played out over 25 years in his life, his entire adult life. When we look out and see a terrorist today, whether it's in Oklahoma City or Ireland or Sri Lanka, we tend to describe them almost instantly as loners and as mad. We don't think they represent any ideals anywhere. We cut off all the steps that brought them to that point, and refuse to humanize them. We dehumanize the terrorist, and that way we don't have to think about the ideals or the love of justice that that person began with, and don't have to think about what it was in the world surrounding him that brought him to that point. It wasn't just simply psychosis or some kind of brain tumor. It was continuous frustration, a growing sense of helplessness, and this passion...this absolutely consuming passion for justice.

Q. Do you think that passion for justice was in any way fueled by his rather desperate financial situation? Do you think maybe there was a little bit of that in there too that he just felt he had nowhere else to turn and nothing else to do.

A. No, I don't think that's accurate. I think that Brown was like anyone who has a passionate commitment to something that does not turn a dime, whether it's art or justice, He had a divided life, because you still have to, you know, pay the rent at the end of the month, or put food on the table. And so he struggled with that, because he was a man who had led necessarily a divided life. He also was victimized, let's say, by the fantasy...the get-rich-quick fantasy of the 1840's and '50's very like the get-rich-quick fantasy of the 1980's and '90's, and he saw people all around him who seemed much less intelligent than he, making enormous amounts of money. And I think he finally...he thought at the bottom, you know, if I could just get rich, I could really do my work like a lot of artists feel.

On the other hand, had he been born rich, I don't think John Brown would have been so quick to understand and see the plight of, A, of African-Americans but, B, of the poor as he did. He understood and had enormous sympathy for poverty. He was always scheming for ways to make a more equitable division of goods possible. I mean, co-ops and communes.

Q. Right. And in that sense it made it difficult for him to fit in with the abolitionists even at the time in Boston.

A. Exactly. I mean, they were Utopian thinkers but very few of them left their parlors in order to try to apply that thinking to the world.

Q. Okay, so we're talking a lot about John Brown, and in a sense the book is about John Brown, but it's about his son, Owen, as well. Let me ask again, why tell Isaac's story? Why tell Owen's story. Why is that important?

A. To me personally. Oh, I'm not sure in a way, except that, it's a story that...I should put it this way perhaps. The relationship between fathers and sons is a theme that I've gone back to again and again over the years in my work probably because I have been both a father and a son and know it up close, and for me both roles as a father and son have been deeply, emotionally demanding and rewarding and clarifying and confusing. So it's something I come back to again and again the way I come back to race for some of the same reasons I suppose. I also think that it's, you know, it's a universal story. It's one that needs to be told over and retold and retold and retold. I mean, what a storyteller does essentially is retell the old stories so that we in our own time can learn again what it is to be human. I mean, we're the only species that has to constantly learn over and over again what it is to be itself.

Q. Is that the value perhaps of writing a fictional sort of story like this?

A. I think so. I mean, think about why we read. Whenever I try to figure out why I write, I have to remember why I read. When I pick up a novel, a modern American novel, it doesn't matter whether it's set in the past, like Tony Morrison's "Paradise" or just a few years ago like Don Dellilo's "Underground." I'm reading it in order to know better, more clearly, and more satisfyingly what it is to be more human in the world. So I do think, yeah, that's the essential way the storyteller's function is to again and again make it clear to us what we must do or must not do in order to be true to our species.

Q. You told me that you live in upstate New York. Did John Brown's ghost come and haunt you? Is that how this book got started?

A. You're quite right, yes. In 1987 my wife and I bought a house in the Adirondacks near the Canadian border, and it turned out...I had no idea it was the case, but it turned out that John Brown and eleven of the men who had been with him at Harper's Ferry were either killed there, or executed afterwards, were buried just down the road under a big stone in front of a farm house that he had owned and lived in for longer than he had lived anywhere else. He had gone there in the 1840's to assist a small colony of African-Americans who were farming in the wilderness. Freed slaves and escaped slaves had been settled there, given land there by a wealthy New York abolitionist. He had gone there to ostensibly to help them learn to farm and then also to set up a station on the underground railroad into Canada, and fell in love with the region. And as I said, is now buried there. His body lies moldering in a grave in North Elba, New York. And once I was there and we started going to that house, which is quite a ghostly and beautiful spot, and because the much of it, still looks the way it did in the 1840's and 50's, because most of it is state forest. I couldn't get away from it. I was walking those hills and walking through those forests, and they were very much the same hills and forests that Brown had walked.

Q. And what about the Negro settlement?

A. That disappeared over time. Of course, after the Civil War there was no longer any apparent necessity for it, and many of the Blacks there came back to where they had originated, where family and connections existed or went on to Canada. In the early 20th century there were still a few remaining Epps and others...families still there. But now there are no apparent...apparently no direct descendants of those families there. No evidence of it. Although there is in the woods lost and unmarked what they call the old Negro burying ground with the tumbled-over stones and trees sort of taking it back over. That's all that remains.

Q. So the ghosts are roaming around...

A. Yeah, the ghosts are roaming those hills.

Q. And if you tune in, you get the story, and it takes six years to write.

A. Yes.

Q. Is that correct?

A. That's what it took, yeah.

Q. And now it's done, and you're on tour.

A. Yeah. I'm just beginning the dreaded book tour as they say.

Q. But what's next?

A. Well, I'm working on a couple of film projects that I'm pretty excited about. I'm making a film of Continental Drift and I've written a screenplay.

Q. Is that a first to write a screenplay?

A. Yes. It's the first time I've...well, I wrote a screenplay for "Continental Drift" back in the early...middle 80's...1987 I believe for Jonathan Demi. He was originally going to make it. I think it was a terrible screenplay, and it was...I was still too close to the book. It had just been published. Also, it was a difficult thing to get made in the late 80's. So it foundered and floundered and finally it collapsed of its own weight. And now we've sort of breathed life back into it I think, and I think this time we're going to get it made. I'm very pleased with the script and learned something too. I learned adapting your own novel is a very difficult thing to do. Until you have sufficiently detached yourself from that book, that it seems to have been written by a different person, and it really took me about ten years to get that far away from that book....

Q. ...that leap from narration to dialog...

A. ...and to visualization really. I mean, to total and utter visual imagery, and you can't explain anything. You can't digress.

Q. It's almost the opposite of a novel.

A. Oh, it's like being a potter or something. It's got nothing to do with the novel in a way. And so it's been a very useful and instructive time for me. And I do love films, and I've had lucky experiences with two adaptations this year with The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. So I've learned a great deal.

Q.What's your favorite movie?

A. Oh, God. It's hard. It's like saying narrowing it down to one book you know.

Q. Well, one of your favorite movies then.

A. Well, you know, I went to school in the '60's. I grew up really and started reading seriously in the '60's, and that was an era when we also took movies very seriously as high art, you know, the great European directors, Bergman and Antonioni and so forth. And you'd go to a movie the way you opened a novel with the same high expectations. So I guess I approach films that way with those same high expectations.

This year what I have seen that I really loved? I really loved "Butcher Boy" that adaptation of an Irish novel that was quite extraordinary.

But I like films that are commercialized. I really liked "L.A. Confidential" you know. It's really professional and slick and speedy and fun to watch. I think that my taste pretty much runs the gamut.