Russell Banks: By the Book

When and where do you like to read? 

I can’t read in bed without falling instantly to sleep. Same thing with airplanes, trains, buses. So I read in a not-too-comfortable chair in my studio, when my daily writing is done, and after dinner in the living room.

Are you a rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

So many books, so little time. When I was young and thought I had plenty of time, I often reread old favorites from start to finish. But these days I reread only bits and pieces, looking for a vaguely remembered tone or mood, a voice, a way of structuring a scene, or in the case of nonfiction, factual details, that I can borrow or learn from for my own work.

What’s your favorite literary genre? 

It would have to be literary fiction, I suppose, both novels and short stories, the genres I’ve tried to master for most of my adult life. On the other hand, maybe it’s lyric poetry, which is what first made me want to try writing myself. Yes, that. Or maybe biography, because of the birth-to-death narrative completeness. Or autobiography, for voice. Right, voice. Memoir, maybe. I love a good memoir. History. Would have been a historian if I hadn’t started writing fiction. Or personal essay. Right, why not personal essay? 

Any guilty pleasures? 

Travel books of all kinds, first-person accounts, travel memoirs, classics from Herodotus to Burton to Kapuscinski, even old out-of-date guidebooks for cities and countries I’ll never visit. Not sure why I feel guilty reading them, however. Maybe because serious travel is difficult and dangerous, and it’s so easy and safe to stay home and read about it instead.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to? 

Stories that I can both see and hear. In other words, stories that provide me with out-of-the-body travel by means of sustained, controlled visual and auditory hallucinations. Joseph Conrad famously said, Above all else, I want my reader to see. If he wrote better dialogue, he might have added, “and to hear.” Sometimes one of the two is enough, however. Elmore Leonard, for instance, lets us hear, all right, but we don’t get to see much.

And how would you describe the kinds of books you steer clear of? 

Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, “Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.” In his brief introduction to “Slow Learner,” Thomas Pynchon says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.

Which might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?

“Climbing: Training for Peak Performance,” by Clyde Soles; “Mexico’s Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide,” by R. J. Secor; “Weight Training for Cyclists,” by Ken Doyle and Eric Schmitz; “Complete Book of Road Cycling Skills,” by Ed Pavelka and the editors of Bicycling magazine. These are as close as I get to how-to books.

Where do you get your books? Do you have a favorite bookstore or library? 

Six months a year I live in Miami Beach, a five-minute walk from Mitchell Kaplan’s Books & Books on Lincoln Road, where I can buy a book and start reading it over a lingering al fresco lunch and every now and then look up and peruse the passing SoBe parade of perfectly honed and tanned human bodies and tiny dogs. The other six months I live in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York where the nearest full-service bookstore is in Saratoga Springs, 100 miles to the south, and honed bodies and small dogs are nowhere to be seen. That’s when I rely on

What’s the best thing about seeing your books (“The Sweet Hereafter,”  “Affliction”) turned into movies? The worst?

The best thing is that they turned out to be such terrific movies qua movies. The worst is that in my imagination the faces, bodies and voices of the movies’ stars have displaced the faces, bodies and voices of my characters, just as they probably have for anyone who has both read the novels and seen the movies, or picked up the movie tie-in editions of the novels and glanced at the covers and concluded that “The Sweet Hereafter” concerns the erotic familial relationship between Ian Holm and Sarah Polley and “Affliction” is about the violent father-son relationship between Nick Nolte and James Coburn.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? 

“The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But it’s probably too late now. He should have read it back in November 2008. 

What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a cherished character or hero from those books?

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