Author Russell Banks offers writing advice to Hoosick Falls students
HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- Critically acclaimed fiction writer Russell Banks visited Hoosick Falls Central School on Wednesday, giving insight into his style of writing and of looking at the world.
Students and faculty gathered in the morning to hear the bestselling author read an excerpt from "The Transplant," the story of a man's decision to meet the widow of the donor who gave him his heart, which will appear in Bank's latest work, a new collection of short stories to be published next month.
Having just received the print copy of the book from his publisher the previous day, Banks gave the first reading to the high school students of HFCS.
The author of a dozen novels and collections of short fiction and nonfiction essays, Banks has contributed poems and stories to The Boston Globe, Vanity Fair and The New York Times Book Review, among others. Two of his works, "Affliction," and "The Sweet Hereafter," were adapted into feature films, and three more are currently in development for the big screen.
Addressing the young crowd, Banks described the art of writing as the subjective experience of a single human being, and said he writes for his ultimate reader -- himself. "Reading a novel is one of the only ways to see the world through someone else's mind," he said.
English teacher David Coffey led the Q&A session. Coffey, who said he counts Banks among his favorite authors, noted that the assembly was one of the things he has been most excited about to date.
"So much of what [the students] read doesn't relate to them," said Coffey, who felt it was important to host an author who has local ties to the New England area. "We invited him and we are so thrilled he accepted."
Coffey began pursuing the literary visit more than six months ago, and thanked the PTA and the student council for helping to fund the event.
Hoosick Falls senior Zoey Haar called the reading an eye-opening experience into the mind of a writer. "We write from a scholastic standpoint: You write for the Regents exam," said Haar. "He taught us how to write to please ourselves, our audience."
Asked about his views on stricter educational assessments leading to a decrease in the study of novels in the classroom, which can result in students studying shorter works of fiction instead, Banks said his own mind and understanding of human beings was shaped more by novels than by short stories.
"Books that are difficult to understand or penetrate quickly, books that make us stretch and rethink our assumptions about race or about class, about gender, about sex, about politics -- these books don't get read much in high school apparently, and I know they don't get read much in college either."
The recipient of many prestigious honors, including the Ingram Merrill Award and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Banks taught creative writing at Princeton University and in 2011 was awarded the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture.
At the conclusion of second period, and his time behind the microphone, Banks headed for a small classroom upstairs, where he would continue his morning in Hoosick Falls with a discussion among 15 students, recommended for their talent and interest in writing by members of the faculty.
Navigating the halls alongside Coffey, between clusters of young students on their way to the next class, the 73-year-old author sported a grey tweed blazer, khakis, and a small diamond stud in his left ear.
Opting to stand rather than sit, Banks answered a steady stream of questions for more than an hour, on subjects including character development, how to overcome writers block and his preference for keeping himself and his loved ones removed from his narratives.
Sharing an example of when he did use a piece of his own life in print, Banks described a time one of his four daughters, then age 1, had an allergic reaction after being bitten by a spider hours from the nearest hospital. Trying to keep her calm, Banks said the character who prepared to open his daughter's throat up, should she stop breathing, was based on his own experience. "I had my Swiss Army Knife out," said Banks. "'Sharpen it before you leave,' the doctor said to me."
The scene is from his popular novel, "The Sweet Hereafter," which was previously chosen by the cities of Seattle and Rochester, N.Y., as a community read, or ‘book in common.'
Banks advised students to set aside a time and place to write every day, and practice writing realistic dialogue by reading it aloud.
"You're surrounded by people who are really interesting, once you cross that line and speak to them," he said, encouraging students to try painting a picture with their words. "Imagine the teller but also imagine the listener. What is fiction after all but a sort of visual hallucination -- you're asking the reader to see things that aren't there."
Banks is married to poet Chase Twichell, and splits his time between their Keene, N.Y., home and a residence in Miami.
"If I were a young man again and wanted to become a writer, it would be a harder choice to make I think," said Banks, who, if he had to begin again, could see himself as a writer of screenplays rather than books.
His new collection of short stories, "A Permanent Member of the Family," will be published by Ecco/Harper Collins in November and is available for preorder on Amazon.com. For more information, visit www.barclayagency.com/banks.html.
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