Novelist found inspiration in the North Country
By Tim Rowland
The upstate writing community is mourning the passing of Keene novelist Russell Banks this week, and also expressing pride and joy at having rubbed elbows, sung songs and chewed the fat with perhaps the Adirondacks’ most talented wordsmith.
Banks, who also lived in Saratoga Springs, died of cancer Jan. 7 at the age of 82. Twice a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, his works frequently gave voice to hard luck cases shoved to the edge of society.
Banks, who moved to Keene in 1987 (splitting time between Keene and Miami), could wield his pen as a scalpel, peeling back the complex psyche of abolitionist John Brown, yet write with tender love and beauty about shopping for candy with his daughter at Hoss’s Country Store in Long Lake.
“He was a kind, quality person who was fun to be around,” said Paul Grondahl, director of the New York State Writers Institute. “He never had that capital W writers’ pretension.”
Not that he hadn’t earned the right to capital anything. His 1998 novel “Cloudsplitter,” told from the viewpoint of John Brown’s son Owen, was a literary thunderclap, a capstone on his already burgeoning reputation. He taught at Princeton University alongside Joyce Carol Oats and Toni Morrison, and traveled the world, from the Andes to the Himalayas.
But it was the Adirondack mountains — and his wife, acclaimed poet Chase Twichell — who eventually won his heart.
He had seen much, but unlike the Adirondacks, he wrote in Adirondack Life magazine. “None of them held for me the undiluted emotional power and mystery of a self-revealing recurrent dream.”
“They viewed themselves as Keene residents,” said Harry Groome, the fiction writer who served as treasurer of Ausable Press, the poetry publication launched by Twichell in Keene in 1999 and acquired by Copper Canyon Press in 2008. Banks was president of the “small but high-quality press,” Groome said. Banks and Twichell have maintained their home in Keene, he said.
Grondahl said Banks was in the pantheon of upstate writers that includes William Kennedy and Richard Russo. In a statement to the New York Writers Institute, Kennedy called Banks “… a writer of consequence. His books have changed the minds of people who change the world, which was his purpose in writing them. He was a writer of force and deliberation, and his work stands as an article of faith in the significance of literature. That his voice is now silent is beyond sadness.”
Recognizing that writing can be a lonely pursuit, both encouraged social support, including sing-alongs at writing retreats, Grondahl said.
Like Adirondack artist Rockwell Kent, Banks used his medium to speak for that segment of the population that was repeatedly kicked by life when they were down. He drew from his own experiences, growing up in New Hampshire with an abusive father. That time shaped him, he would later write, but the Adirondacks did too.
Grondahl said Banks wrote in an outbuilding, a former sugar shack, which seemed appropriate, since he boiled characters down to their essence, like sap distilled into syrup.
Banks and Twichell gave back by writing for local publications and by supporting local writer groups. He praised the Adirondack Center for Writing in Saranac Lake for providing networking, mentoring and offering space “where you can obsess on this terrible thing that nobody else thinks is quite worth doing.”
–James M. Odato contributed to this report.
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