Lost Memory of Skin

Novelists are often celebrated when their books are turned into films. Author Russell Banks is justly acclaimed for the fine writing and deeply involving stories that have become films such as Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. He writes often about race, class, violence, and, sometimes, forgiveness.

His latest work is Lost Memory of Skin. It's a novel that's getting a lot of attention, so I won't re-tell the story except to say it's about a sex offender (technically) who nearly gets crushed by society's impersonal system of justice, which requires registered sex offenders to stay 2,500 feet from places children might be.

For me, what's interesting in a literary novel is rarely only the story itself but the how and why of the story. Russell Banks kindly took time to respond to my questions in the following interview:

Q: When you chose to name your main characters The Kid, the Professor, and the Writer, what did you have in mind? A kind of universality?

I was hoping to lift the story in the direction of fable, without losing the concreteness and mundane details of ordinary daily life, to move slightly away from realism without losing contact with reality. Also, everyone in the novel has several identities and many secrets and lies, and this was one way of reinforcing that point.

Q: The pacing of Lost Memory of Skin is not so different from that of a who-dunnit, yet the main characters don't quite seem to have done what they're being punished for. Are you saying something about how guilt is hard to apportion? About how badly we do that as a society?

I think we see that from the fate of the Kid and possibly that of some of the others living under the Causeway. I didn't intend to convey it with the pacing of the story, however. I was merely trying to spin a yarn in a way that would be interesting and intriguing and, in some ancient story-telling sense, satisfying. Writers of who-dunnits know how to do this better than almost any other type of story-teller, so why not learn from them?

Q: Is the story driven by your outrage over how we deal with sex offenders? It's clear you have no sympathy for the actions of genuine offenders, but this particular novel puts the reader squarely in the viewpoint of a victim of our uncompassionate system.

I can't say it's driven so much by my outrage as it is by my compassion and sympathy for people like the Kid—well, for the Kid himself. We do as a society lump all sex-offenders together, paint them all with one brush. It's what allows us to continue to avoid thinking about the legal, psychological and political aspects and causes of the criminal behavior of people we call sex-offenders.

Q: Did you enjoy writing in the voice of a lower-IQ young man who barely understood himself, much less what was happening to him? I liked that he grew more individuality and courage by the end. I also appreciated the switch when the Professor's point of view, ironic and obfuscatory, was on stage, so to speak.

I'm not so sure the Kid's IQ is lower than mine, though he surely does not test well, unlike the Professor.

Q: Though the character names might be generic, the place is anything but. Thus, it's easy to see the story being rendered cinematically. Now that you've had films made of some of your novels, does that affect how you write?

It doesn't have any affect on my fiction writing—none that I'm aware of, anyhow. I'm a visual person by nature and in fact originally wanted to be an artist, a painter. And I do try to see whatever I'm writing about while I'm writing it down. I believe that if I can't literally see what's happening, then there's a problem with the writing.

Q: Pornography plays a significant role in the story. Were you concerned at any point in the writing that this might alienate some of your more prudish audience?

Not really. I deliberately try not to think about my audience until publication day.

Q: Do we ever really know anyone?

Good question. It goes to the epistemological heart of the novel, perhaps its essential question—the question that all serious fiction raises and has since Cervantes. And the answer? Yes, but not without imagination. Which is why it's so central to the history of the novel.

Q: Can you describe a bit about your creative process? Do you flow, that is, does time stop when you're really into the writing? Is that ever particularly difficult for you, and if so, do you have a trick or two to get yourself moving again?

When the writing goes well, I'm outside of time, enjoying visual and auditory hallucinations, out-of-the-body travel, living in a controlled but not quite controllable dream. Of course, it doesn't always go well. When that happens I simply sit and stare at the blank page or the computer screen (I write first in longhand, then transfer to the computer and revise, revise, revise) and finish the day exhausted anyhow, as if I'd written ten brilliant pages, and then come back the next day and do the same. When the muse arrives, or the Angel of the Roof descends, you want to be at your desk and ready for her (or him).

* For more about Banks' background, career, and writing process, see the very enlightening Paris Review interview from 1998. (They're always excellent.)

* Watch a video interview with Banks on pbs.org.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry