RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Author Russell Banks is known for his clear-eyed explorations of hardship. His books probe some of the starker, sadder parts of the human experience. So, it's maybe not surprising that his sixth short story collection titled "A Permanent Member of the Family" begins in a dim, chilly room.
RUSSELL BANKS: (Reading) After lying in bed awake for an hour, Connie finally pushes back the blankets and gets up. It's still dark. He's barefoot and shivering in his boxers and T-shirt and a little hung over from one beer too many at 20 Main last night. He snaps the bedside lamp on and resets the thermostat from 55 to 65. The burner makes a huffing sound and the fan kicks in and the smell of kerosene drifts through the trailer. He pats his new hearing aids into place and peers out the bedroom window. Snow is falling across the pale splash of lamplight on the lawn. It's a week into April and it ought to be rain, but Connie is glad it's snow. He removes his 45-caliber Colt service pistol from the drawer of the bedside table, checks to be sure it's loaded and lays it on the dresser.
MARTIN: That's Russell Banks reading the opening paragraph of the story "Former Marine." And I asked him how he approaches beginnings, especially for short stories?
BANKS: You start almost like pulling on a thread and unraveling a sweater with it. You don't know where it's going really but it's intriguing, engaging thing. You can't resist pulling on it. It might be an image. It might be a sentence, a voice or something. In my case, it was an older man getting up alone. I knew the image - and in his trailer in the north, and a gun. And I wasn't sure too much more about where it was going to go from there. And I, in a sense, one writes the story in order to find out where it's going.
MARTIN: You say you knew the image, you knew that man in some way. From where?
BANKS: Yeah. Oh, I mean, I think that I live in upstate New York six months a year, and there's a lot of older people living alone up there, as there are anywhere for that matter. But I'm aware of the ones up there because it's in a small town and you know your neighbors and you know the people you live among very quickly and easily and deeply too. So, and he's one of many, many people that I know living in that region - and I know living as well here in Miami too. There's a lot of single, lonely, older men and women getting up in the morning. They don't all have a gun to put on the dresser but...
MARTIN: Another story in this collection is a very different tale. It's called "Big Dog." This is about people at the other end of the spectrum, people of privilege, highly educated. It is an exploration of ego. How do you describe this tale and how it fits into this work.
BANKS: Yeah. It is a story of, I guess, male ego more than any others. But...
MARTIN: You said, not me. Yeah.
BANKS: The big dog - yeah. And the man who is suddenly rewarded, it seems, almost out of proportion to his achievement by receiving a famous MacArthur grant. And instead of it turning him into a feeling of confidence and security, it challenges him and makes him anxious about his own worth. And the people who surround him - his wife, his friends - at first, they're congratulatory and everything but then they become threatened, each in his own or her own way by the change in their friend's lives. And it brings out cracks in the man's marriage that he probably wasn't aware were there before; his wife certainly wasn't aware were there before.
MARTIN: It seems to me this story does stand as somewhat of an exception to the other pieces in this collection that are more about people who are suffering, who are living at the margins of mainstream society. This is different. It is exploring a different kind of vulnerability in a different position in society.
BANKS: Yeah. I think that's true. There are other aspects of this story that it shares with some of the other stories. Many of them have at the center the disillusion to or threat to marriage and family. Maybe I should say they are about often the fragility of marriage and the fragility of family. And that's the title. "A Permanent Member of the Family." It's meant to be ironic. And this story does have that at its center.
MARTIN: You yourself have been married quite a few times, so this is something I imagine you have thought of, reflected on in your own life.
BANKS: Oh, yeah. I have firsthand experience. You know, I'm the child of divorce. My father and mother were divorced when I was 12. I was the oldest of four children and my father essentially disappeared from our life for many years. And so the wound of that - or at least I should say I experienced the divorce as a kind of wounding and a trauma, as did my siblings, as did my mother for that matter. And so it was there early on. And then, as we often do, when you have been traumatized or wounded as a child, you tend to go back to it again and again. And I know most of my career does return again and again to the fragility of family and our terrible and irreplaceable need for it and yet the difficulty of holding onto it.
MARTIN: Your work is known to probe the pain, sometimes hidden pain, and grievance of class, unmet expectations when it comes to the American dream. I wonder if there's something particular about this moment in American history that's providing a rich source of inspiration for you these days?
BANKS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I've been writing about this sort of widening gap between the rich and the poor and the difficultly of crossing it from below. And the work for the last 25 years or so, at least in my work, seems to have been, I don't know, more accurate in some ways about the world we're living in today than it maybe even was back in the 1980s and '90s. I find increasingly that it's important to me - maybe it's my age - but that it's important for me to preserve certain values so that they won't be forgotten. And I think that's what poetry and fiction, drama, art does anyhow - is preserve our essential human values.
MARTIN: Lastly, could I ask you if there's a story in this particular collection that most closely reflects where you are in your life right now?
BANKS: Oh, gee. I guess the story "Former Marine" touches me in some way, partly because I'm 73 years old and I imagine the character as being 73 years old. And he's trying still to be an honorable man in the eyes of his sons, and I'm still trying to be an honorable man in the eyes of my daughters. And so in some important way, that story touches me personally. And some of the others do too. There are bits and pieces in each of them that come out of my life. But that one, I don't know why I just - I like that guy, the former Marine. I admire him.
MARTIN: You'd like to sit in that diner and have breakfast.
BANKS: Yeah, yeah. Have breakfast with him, sure.
MARTIN: The collection is called "A Permanent Member of the Family." Russell Banks joined us from WLRN in Miami. Mr. Banks, thanks so much. It's been just a pleasure.
BANKS: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure for me too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.