A Moment with Russell Banks
I met Russell Banks after I wrote a long letter to the editors of The Nation, responding to a poorly reasoned, incredibly negative review of his novel Rule of the Bone (1995). My letter was never published in the magazine, but I had also sent a copy to Banks' publisher, and was astonished several weeks later to receive a thank-you note from Banks himself. The next winter, he happened to be reading with his wife, the poet Chase Twichell, in the Hope College Visiting Writers Series. I had nothing to do with bringing him to the college; this was long before I taught there. I was surprised that Banks remembered me. I had never followed up on his letter. Frankly, I didn't want to be a pest. Anyway, he proved to be a wonderful man--generous, funny, intelligent. I still have his letter, of course; framed, hanging on the wall of my studio.
That night at Hope he read from Rule of the Bone , his harrowing novel about the exploits of a teen-aged American doper running loose in the hills of Jamaica. H also read from the manuscript of what became Cloudsplitter (1999), his novel about the life of the American abolitionist John Brown, told in the voice of Brown's son. What seemed most remarkable to me was the shift in voice between Banks' characters as he put down one manuscript and picked up another; how perfectly each narrator's voice was pitched, separated (as the speakers were) by more than 100 years of American history, but by only several years in the work of the author.
I am interested in the topic of voice for many reasons, not least because I am writing a series of poems in the voice of the American artist Martin Johnson Heade, attempting to integrate those with poems (in my own voice) on Heade's work and with a series of poems that are not about Heade at all.
Anyway, here's what Russell Banks had to say about voice in an interview published in The Paris Review*:
INTERVIEWER: At the risk of seeming too mysterious, where do the voices come from?
BANKS: It is sort of mysterious. But I think we all at times have buzzing in our heads a whole range of voices, some of them heard early on and retained, some of them taken from the ether, the broadcast ether. I mean it literally. I can hear John F. Kennedy's voice in a second. I can hear my father's voice; I can hear the voices of people I have met only once on the street. So I think the voices are buzzing around in an aural memory bank, and you tap into them the way you can tap into forgotten visual memories. It's analogous to the way in a dream someone who is long dead or from way back in your childhood, someone whose face and voice you can't really call up, suddenly comes back with great clarity and vividness, as if the dreaming self has a more powerful memory than the conscious self. I think writers, to a greater or lesser degree, have the ability to tap into their aural memories more effectively, more directly, than the average citizen. I probably overheard the voice of a kid like Bone somewhere along the line, and, in a sense, recorded it. Maybe it's a mix of several tracks, I don't know.
* "The Art of Fiction CLII, An Interview with Russell Banks," The Paris Review, No. 147, Summer, 1998, pp.74-75.