Saturday, November 12, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Could you talk about your relationship with the writer Russell Banks?  His name appears in the acknowledgements of MIDDLE PASSAGE."
 I've known and admired Russell Banks since the 1970s. He's one of our grand men of American letters: prolific as a storyteller, influential as a creative writing teacher (as his daughter once said, he has produced many "Russell sprouts" who imitate his realistic stories about working-class Americans), and an author who has unselfishly supported the work of other literary writers.
We probably first came into contact in the late '70s when he was one of the writers publishing with the original (or first incarnation of) The Fiction Collective and I (with the help of a couple of my graduate students) handled the manuscripts submitted to that organization from my office at the University of Washington. We had a nice dinner conversation when his novel Continental Drift was selected as a city-wide read in Seattle. We were on the same panel together in 1995 discussing "History and Fiction" at the 92nd St. Y (with Marilyn Robinson and Allan Garganus). And in 1998 when he published Cloudsplitter and I published Dreamer, we read together at Harvard during our book tours, courtesy of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  
Banks has been very successful, I think, with seeing his fiction adapted as films. Notable among these adaptations is Affliction, a 1997 film based on Banks's 1989 novel; actor James Coburn received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in that film.
And speaking of Academies, Russell Banks is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I have little doubt that he was the prime mover behind my receiving in 2002 an Academy Award in Literature from that organization. You can hear Banks's voice in the citation I received on May 15 of that year:
           "Charles Johnson is a storyteller with a philosopher's intellect and a historian's belief in the power of the past to shape the present. But he is before all else a true storyteller. Johnson's literary intelligence and devotion to his craft have allowed him to explore at a consistently high level of artistry a myriad of narrative forms and modes drawn equally from Asian, European, and African traditions. In his novels, especially Middle Passage and Faith and the Good Thing, and his many short stories, he has ingeniously braided history, philosophy, and imagination in making post-modern fiction of the highest order."
So it has been my great, good pleasure to be able to count as one of my friends in this lifetime a writer as distinguished, talented, big-hearted, and generous as Russell Banks.

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