Peggy and I went to the Margaret Mitchell House last night to hear Russell Banks give a reading and then have him sign a pile of novels. Right now he's on a kind of book tour that I've never heard of in my limited book-tour experience: he's promoting the trade paperback edition of his latest novel, The Darling. Usually the publisher will only shell out that ki8nd of cash for the initial hardcover book tour. So, you know, kind of unusual. Anyway. The accompanying picture is not one we took but one that came up on Google Image search that seemed most representative of Banks the way he appeared last night. In the picture, if you look closely, you can see a small earring. I don't know if he's always had that or if he's gone the way of Harrison Ford, Ed Bradley and others, as an example of a middle-aged man wanting to look as young outwardly as he feels inwardly. He wasn't there when we arrived, but came in shortly after us. He wore a suit, a close-cut beard, and held a worn, softcover edition of The Darling with the hardback cover art in his hand. He came in to the place off the street and said, grinning, ready to be witty and self-deprecating if needed, "I hope this is the right place. I'm Russell Banks." He shooks hands with an employee nearest the door. I, Captain Obvious, turned to Peggy and, as nonchalantly (and quietly) as I could, said, "Peggy, that's Russell Banks!" I was only being half-ironic with my enthusiasm. Though most contemporary, mid-list, literary novelists are hard to get all googly-eyed and breathy about when they become corporeal as they typically look exactly like completely ordinary people, there is something about seeing, in person, big as life, the person who's written so many stories you've spent time with, enjoyed, and been grateful for -- especially if the man is also responsible for maybe one of the best books written in the last 30 years, Affliction. So I wasn't awed exactly, but I did gape. Anyway.
The director of the Center for Southern Literature, a woman of short-stature, shoulder-length dyed-blonde hair, and possessed of a demeanor that seemed simultaneously distracted and forceful, accosted him and they started talking. After a while, Peggy and I were standing in the area where he would be speaking, looking at a wall covered with framed photos of so-called "Southern" authors in their work environments. Lots of no-names, but a lot of damn interesting photos, too, like Richard Ford, William Styron, Shelby Foote, and Anne Rice. One strange one: Mickey Spillane. Anyone know Spillane was a Southern writer? Not me. Anyway, on the whole, pretty interesting stuff. As we were looking, Banks and the woman step down and Russell starts to browse the photos, too. Peggy and I wait off a little to one side so as to let him look unobstructed, when he comes on the photo of Mickey Spillane. "Why is Mickey Spillane on here?" he asks the Director. "I didn't know he was a southern writer." Peggy chimed in with something to the effect that perhaps Spillane had more recently relocated, or only finished certain novels in the south. Then I said, "He certainly doesn't read southern." And Russell Banks turned to me, smiling in agreement, "No," he said. "He certainly doesn't." And then the woman was leading him out to the replica of the Margaret Mitchell House. Ha! I beamed at Peggy. I talked to Russell Banks! I don't know precisely what it says about me that I so enjoy having interactions of even the smallest kind with authors I enjoy, but I really do. So there it is. I think there's a word for it that's not entirely appropriate for a family-friendly blog.
I like Russell Banks. During his talk and his reading, and even during the signing, he comes across as a warm, kind, well-spoken, brilliant man. But his lecture was, sad to say, kind of on the dull side. During his lecture, I wondered what Russell would have to do to make his reading more interesting, more lively for his paying audience, (because you do have to pay $8 if you're a non-member). Dave Eggers told us he'd once hired a stripper to gyrate behind him at a reading because he doesn't like everyone paying such close attention to him while he reads. James Ellroy stalks up to the mic like a rock star, takes off his hat and spins it out against the wall before ripping into a weird kind of poem about himself, describing the neo-noir writer as the "demon dog of American letters", or something to that effect. Barbara Ehrenreich helped herself just by being really brief. But I thought myself an ingrate, over-immersed in a culture that demands from it's artists entertainment, and then some more entertainment, dammit! Here he was, a lauded author, reading to us beautiful, stripped-down prose, rife with meaning, but for some reason it wasn't enough. Why shouldn't that be enough? Had he a more sonorous voice, would that have helped? No. I heard him read a fantastic short story once in This American Life, and his voice is perfect for reading his own fiction. It's a good voice. I don't know. Maybe he'll just have to go the stripper route.
Afterwards, I had all six of the books I brought signed by the man himself. I asked him if there was any action on a possible Cloudsplitter movie. Cloudsplitter was the novel he wrote just before this one, and concerned the life and death of John Brown, the famous abolitionist who raided Harper's Ferry. He said, "I'm working on the screenplay right now. It's due before Thanksgiving. Martin Scorcese is executive-producing it with me and it's going to be a full, 3-hour deal for HBO." I asked him about the director and he told me about some newbie foreign director I'd never heard of, so I just nodded like I knew who he was talking about. "So, we got the whole package together," he said. Peggy and I told them it sounded great and we'd look forward to seeing it. And then he was done signing all our books, and so we left. Good times.
So that was my night with Russell Banks. Thought I'd share.