Its been said that a person living on the right cross streets in downtown New York in the 1950s could get a university-level education just by hanging out in bars. If that’s true, then someone could get a Sorbonne-level education by hanging out in a bar with Russell Banks.
The novelist was approached last year by the French documentary filmmaking team Arte to do an interview about their countrymen’s common misconceptions about American history, so Banks, who has written novels on the Civil War (Cloudsplitter) and ‘60s radicalism (The Darling), invited the filmmakers to his home in Ithaca, New York. The cameras were turned on first thing in the morning, and Banks began talking off the cuff, with no preparation, beginning from pre-colonial times and moving up to the present moment.
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Fourteen hours later he ran out of steam, leaving his French colleagues in a dazed state of je ne sais pas. “I got revved up,” he says. A few weeks later, they called to say they’d read over the transcript of his monologue and wanted to know if they could publish it as a book in French. The English version, titled Dreaming Up America, has just come out in the United States, and anyone who has attempted to recount even the events of the previous day will not believe that anyone spat out all this information in one massive hemorrhaging, especially not someone who has never before published a book-length work of nonfiction. His publisher, also suspicious, sent the book to historian Howard Zinn to fact-check it, but Zinn sent it back with a clean bill of health. The result combines the intellectual rigor of an academic tome with the breezy feel of a one-on-one conversation at the Deuce.
Banks is back to writing fiction these days -- his work-in-progress is about Miami, where he spends his winters -- but he hasn’t ruled out a return to non-fiction. “In a novel you’re dealing with issues and scenes that are more universal,” he says, “[but] with non-fiction, you get to address the political, social, and economic issues of your own time.” He pauses, and then adds. “And then two or three years later, no one cares.”
-- P. Scott Cunningham