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One of the World's Greatest Conductors Releases Another Beautiful Recording.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews conductor Pierre Boulez's recording of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique by the Cleveland Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon). It received a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Recording of the Year.



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Other segments from the episode on February 23, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 23, 1998: Interview with Russell Banks; Review of the album "Symphonie Fantastique Op 14; Tristia Op. 18."


Date: FEBRUARY 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022301np.217
Head: Russell Banks
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Russell Banks is generally acknowledged as one of finest living novelist. Two of his novels, "The Sweet Hereafter," and "Affliction" were recently adapted into films. Although much of his fiction is about conflict in contemporary working class families, his new novel is based on the life of the militant abolitionist, John Brown.

In the mid-1800s, Brown moved to Kansas and lead his sons and other followers in a violent fight to stop the spread of slavery. Declaring himself and instrument in the hands of God, he and his sons murdered five pro-slavery men living on the banks of the Potowatomy (ph) River. Brown is most famous for his 1859 raid on the U.S. arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia to liberate weapons for the cause. Then of course there's the son about John Brown's body moldering in its grave.

Russell Banks' novel is told from the point of view of Brown's son Owen, the only son who survived the raid on Harper's Ferry. I asked Banks to tell us more about John Brown's place in history.

BANKS: He was a man who began as an idealist and political activist in the 1830s and '40s in the abolitionist movement and very quickly became extremely aggressively involved in the abolitionist movement. Once one of the most radical white abolitionists, associated with Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman and others and involved in the underground railroad in Ohio and in upstate New York, and then got involved in the Kansas conflict in the 1850s -- middle-1850s, fight the expansion of slavery into the West in a kind of guerrilla war, and then --- which culminated his activities -- his activities culminated in the -- what turned out to be disastrous raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia -- then Virginia, now West Virginia, in which he and his small party of 20 men were either executed afterwards or killed on the spot and with only a couple of -- couple of other men escaping.

GROSS: What were they trying to do at Harper's Ferry?

BANKS: Well, trying to incite -- it's been claimed by many and I think assumed by most that what he was trying to do was incite an insurrection -- a slave insurrection across the South. But I think -- my own opinion, and I think that of some other historians is that -- I should say some historians because I'm not one...


... is that what he was trying to do was to begin a long, drawn-out guerrilla war that would eventually make the price of slavery so high that it would fall, as he said, "like a ripe fruit from a tree."

GROSS: Now what interested you in John Brown's story and the story of John Brown's son? Why go back historically to there?

BANKS: Mm-hmm. Well for me personally, Brown was a figure in the '60s, when I was in college in the South at Chapel Hill and was politically active in the civil rights movement and in the anti-war movement, and he was an emblem in a way -- an icon, whose picture was often on the wall of a college student in that era or an SDS office or something, along side Jimi Hendrix and Che Guevara I guess.

GROSS: Because he was seen as like a guerrilla leader?

BANKS: Yeah, and a man who appealed to higher law, and was willing to put his life on the line for it. And also because of the specific political cause he was associated with, which was abolitionism, and in the era of the civil rights movement that was something with which we identified.

And then he was also associated for me, as a writer, young writer, a college student of literature, with the figures that meant the most to me at that time and to some degree still do, which is the writers of the New England Renaissance -- of Emerson, Thoreau, the Transcendentalists and so on, because he was personally associated with them, and they were his supporters, many of them.

But then he kind of faded from my imagination as the '60s sort of faded from my imagination and time went by. And about 10 years ago, my wife and I bought a house in upstate New York in the Adirondacks, which was intended to be a summer home and has now become sort of a year round home.

And it turned out, to my astonishment, that John Brown's body lay smoldering down the road a ways, right there in North Elba, New York, along with the bodies of 11 others in his party from Harper's Ferry. Men who were killed there or executed afterwards and whose bodies were reinterred upstate New York.

His farmhouse is there. He lived there for the longest period that he lived anywhere in his life. And so, he became kind of a physical reality -- a ghostly and a physical reality was well as a literary and political reality for me.

GROSS: You tell the story of John Brown through his son, his surviving son. The son who was there for Appotowatomy, who was there for Harper's Ferry, survived it all, becomes a hermit, a recluse afterwards. So you have him opening up and telling his story. Why tell the story through the point of view of the son?

BANKS: Well, he's sort of the perfect witness. I mean, he saw it all and he escaped to tell about it and he never told about it. I mean, this is a historical fact. He was old enough, he was a adult through most of the important events of his father's life. He was close to him as his lieutenant in most of the important parts of his life, events of his life and he did it.

He was the only son who escaped from Harper's Ferry. Two were killed and two sons-in-law were killed. And he disappeared into the equivalent I guess of the Weather Underground, the abolitionist underground, and reappeared later on a mountaintop in Altodena, California and lived his life out as a hermit shepherd, unmarried and didn't give interviews on FRESH AIR or anything like that...


And so he was a kind of -- the perfect witness for me. I came to him in a -- by a circuitous route. In the early days of the research, I traced a footnote to a stash of materials in the Columbia rare book room assembled for an early biography, a 1909 biography by Oswald Garrison Gullard (ph), assembled by his research assistant, Catherine Mayo (ph) and she had interviewed the last surviving children of John Brown, which did not include Owen Brown, who had died some years earlier.

But when I read those interviews -- the sort of -- it was one of those hair stands on the back of your neck experiences, I just saw oh, that's the way to tell the story, an old man, turn-of-the-century, the son of John Brown looking back at events a half century earlier.

GROSS: Want you to do a short reading from your book Cloudsplitter, and this from the beginning of the book.

BANKS: Yeah, this is early on.


GROSS: Do you want to set it up for us?

BANKS: Yeah. He's -- it's essentially an epistollery novel -- letters written or perhaps -- and perhaps never sent by Owen Brown to this woman, Catherine Mayo, who's the research assistant back in New York, when he's responding to her earliest request for his version of events.

"The son himself, the hermit shepherd, Owen Brown is mad you would say to your professor and perhaps you're saying to him even now, and we shall never know conclusively if the father was made also. Thus given what we already know of John Brow, you will say, and in the absence of significant evidence to the contrary, we must concur with our century's received opinion, and before the next century begins, ajudge him a mad man.

"I hope therefore that your quick receipt of this first of what shall be several, perhaps many such letters, will slow that judgment and eventually reverse it.

"Was my father mad? I realize it is the only question that can matter to you. Since they first heard his name, men and women have been asking it. They asked it continuously during his lifetime, even before he became famous, strangers, loyal followers, enemies, friends and family alike.

"It was then and is now no merely academic question, and how you and the professor answer it will determine to a considerable degree how you and who ever reads your book will come to view the long savage war between the white race and the black race on this continent.

"If the book that your good professor is presently composing, though it contain all the known and previously unrecorded facts of my father's life, cannot show and declare once and for all that old Brown either was or was not mad, then it will be a useless addition to the head-high piles of useless books already written about him.

"More than the facts of my father's hectic life, people do need to know if he was sane or not, for if he was sane then terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true. If he was insane, then other quite different, and perhaps not-so-terrible, things about race and human nature are true. And yes, just as you said, I am probably the only person remaining alive who has the knowledge and information that will enable you and your professor to answer the question."

GROSS: Russell Banks, have you reached a personal conclusion about whether John Brown was sane...


BANKS: Was sane or insane? I think, by the end he was, I suppose one could say insane, although not out of touch with reality. I think he was driven insane, however. I mean, what the book tries to dramatize is a march from idealism to terrorism and martyrdom. And the circumstances that he encountered, I think, created a sense of frustration and helplessness that was so deep in his bones that -- that I suppose by conventional standards, maybe even clinical standards, we might say he was insane, but yet it's, to me, a perfectly understandable and comprehensible kind of insanity.

GROSS: You know, in many ways your novel Cloudsplitter is not just a historical novel, it's a novel about a father and a son. And father-son relationships have always been your territory as a writer.

BANKS: Yeah, I'm afraid so.

GROSS: And particularly the relationships between fathers who are violent and abusive within the family, and their relationship to their sons.

Now here you have a father who's violent, but he's violent in a way that's kind of politically, socially motivated. He's violent to end slavery and he's got the Bible behind him. I mean, he's righteous. The Bible is telling him to fight this righteous war against slavery, and who could argue how righteous that war is. But is there a connect between his kind of political violence that you're writing about in Cloudsplitter and the more kind of emotional, family abuse type violence that you've written about in the past?

BANKS: Well, I think so. I think that in some ways this book is a further test for me of my notions and understanding and belief of violence, especially within the family, but also in the larger society as well. I mean, what Brown is doing -- what John Brown elects to do and how he justifies himself is that he's committing the lesser violence in order to stop the greater violence, which is what we're doing everyday in national policy and foreign policy, and what any terrorist does to rationalize.

It's also, in some sense what the stern, patriarchal, authoritative parent argues as well, that the lesson -- this is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you -- is that kind of bottom line, emotional reaction to it, and moral reaction to it. So it's a further testing, I suppose, of my beliefs and notions regarding violence as such in the abstract, but also on a very personal level.

And it is too for me an intriguing story -- a version -- I mean, I wanted to explore the Abraham and Isaac story from the point of view of Isaac, the son who is sacrificed -- or willing -- whose father is willing to sacrifice him for a higher principle, or for his God, in that case of the story. When that story was told and I was a little kid in church in Sunday school, it always gave me a kind of frisson -- a little anxiety and chill, because I identified with Isaac, the kid, I never identified with Abraham, the father. And I was always very glad that he discovered that little lamb bleating in the bush, and could substitute it for himself.

So I wanted to tell the story -- ah yeah, the son who believes in his father's righteousness and his father's principles, but who for that, or maybe because of that, belief is -- places himself in a position to suffer enormously for it. The good father in a way, as opposed to the bad father story.

GROSS: My guest is Russell Banks, his new novel is Cloudsplitter. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Russell Banks is my guest. We're talking about his new novel Cloudsplitter, which is about John Brown and his son and the novel that's set just before the Civil War.

I think in your novel you're always juxtaposing, you know, John Brown the leader -- a leader of the fight against slavery and John Brown father. And as far as John Brown father goes, his son says, "father was a genius at legislating rules and regulations for the governance of the numerous members of his family." It's the kind of genius, I think you don't necessarily want.


BANKS: No, that's true. That's true. No, he was a top down kind of father. I mean he ruled from the top down and he was -- he had executive power and he exercised it.

GROSS: And the son also talks abut his father's insistence on reinterpreting all events in biblical terms. And again, I think there's this difference between someone who takes inspiration from the Bible and uses the Bible as a explanation for a larger political and social cause and for someone who at home is just always reinterpreting everything in this biblical way, even though other members of the family aren't even religious.

BANKS: Yes, I think he viewed -- in the book he certainly is -- I cast him as viewing his daily life as being sort of the unwritten book of the Bible. I mean, as if it just was a continuation of the Bible. It isn't that he used the Bible as a gloss on his life, it was his life and he just continued the -- most of the Old Testament on into the life of John Brown in 19th century America.

GROSS: Do you wonder how much of his immersion in the Bible was a sign of his spiritual commitment and how much of it was a sign of his break with sanity?

BANKS: No, I don't -- I never questioned his sanity on those grounds. It seemed to me to be something that's actually quite common, even in the United States today, amongst fundamentalist Christians for instance, or anyone whose life in immersed in a text like that, that's so comprehensive.

Pretty soon you start to view your life as being in the book, not the book in your life. And I mean, this happens to those of us who write books and those of us who read books intensely, and for long periods at a time. Something as comprehensive as the Bible can swallow you up, and I didn't find it to be unusual. I fact, during the writing of the book, I immersed myself in the Bible to such a degree that I was seeing my life, not as having a Bible in it, but rather as being in the Bible.

GROSS: First time you read the Bible that thoroughly?

BANKS: I think so. I read it of course growing up as a New England Presbyterian boy and then at college I studied it a little bit in the kind of literary sense, and have had it around at my side for many years, but I never really tumbled into it the way I did writing this book.

GROSS: Tell me more what it was like for you to read the Bible so often and so carefully, and also about the impact that it had on your language. Because you're writing this novel Cloudsplitter in period language, and it's also the period language of people who have been very immersed in the Bible, so the Bible has to wear off on the language that you're using in the novel.

BANKS: Yeah, the language of the book is very important to me and because it's an attempt for -- by me, at late 20th century, to imitate a kind of secular American prose of the mid-19th century or vernacular American prose, not literary or public prose, which I think is actually the purest and most beautiful prose Americans have ever written, in those letters and diaries and journals that were kept by mid-19th century Americans. You may remember them from the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, how striking they were. I was as struck by them as anyone else and wanted to imitate it.

Connected to the Bible, that was their basic reading. That's why they wrote the way they wrote. Shakespeare, maybe a little Milton, the Constitution of the United States, maybe Jonathan Edwards, McGuffrie's Reader, and usually four or five years of formal education -- gave they a great prose style.

GROSS: Would you feel like finding a sentence in the new novel that you can actually talk about in terms of its inspiration from the Bible or from other period literature?

BANKS: All right. It'll almost be at random here.

GROSS: That's fine. Oh, chance processes. Here's a sentence from Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks' new novel, set just before the Civil War. It's the story of John Brown and his son.

BANKS: Take a couple of sentences maybe. This is after his unfortunate meeting -- Owen's unfortunate meeting with a child prostitute in Springfield, Massachusetts one night -- one sad night. It's actually two sentences.

"It should be she, not I, who could freely return to a warm house hold filled with a loving and upright family, she, not I, who is able to stand alongside her father and mother and brothers and sisters in church, in public meetings, and to walk freely about the town in the day light glow of respect and admiration from the citizenry, she, not I, who performed honest labor and received for it shelter, food, clothing, she, not I whose father, guide, and protector was the good man, John Brown. Let me be the harlot, the hired property of drunken brutal strangers, let me go hungry and cold through the night time alley ways and dark corners of the town, exchanging brief obscene gratifications for a few pennies, let me be the victim.

Those are kind of biblically constructed sentences with the repetitions and -- both of syntax and diction, and the contrast between the two sentences where the one sets up -- it should be she, not I, and then let me, the consequence of the should -- the conditional should, I think.

GROSS: The cadences remind me a little bit of one of the psalms, the "ye thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."


BANKS: Yeah, 23rd Psalm yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So...

BANKS: It just got into my ears really, and I felt for much of the book that I was in a sense taking dictation and once I was in it, once I had the voice, I really -- the problem for me then was not to speak through Owen Brown, but to position myself as a listener if I could, to invent myself as Catherine Mayo, the woman to whom he is writing.

GROSS: I'm always so mystified when a writer says that he felt like he was taking dictation. I have no idea what that would feel like. Is it usually that way when you're writing, or is it the rare occurrence where it's just coming to you?

BANKS: No it's come to be more the case for me as the years have gone on. I'm not sure, maybe it's just because I go to that channel so often...


... that I can get it more easily, but certainly like with "Rule and the Bone," I mean it was a 14-year-old, 1990s mall rat, and his voice came to me pretty much the same way. And I just felt as though I was taking dictation.

Part of it comes from immersing yourself in the world and identifying with the emotional life of the character to such a degree that the voice seems to grow straight out of that.

GROSS: You know it's so interesting that you are writing this new novel, and these, you know, long or ornate kind of sentences out of the period of the 19th century compared to, as you just said, Rule of the Bone, which is about a teenage kid who's got tattoos and so on and listens to heavy metal and is talking in a completely different style, and you get both of them pretty good.

BANKS: Well it was odd that it worked out, because I wrote Rule of the Bone half way through this book. I'd been working on this book for about three years and had gotten rather bogged down by it. I mean, living with John Brown day in and day out was hard enough for his sons, it's particularly hard for a novelist, late 20th century. And so -- also the material had massed up and it was very difficult for me to find my way through it.

So I stared hearing this kid story in my ears and took a year and a half off and wrote Rule of the Bone and then came back to Cloudsplitter, feeling refreshed and, you know, it's like having a weekend away and then came back to John Brown and Owen Brown, and was able to see my way clearly through to the end of it.

GROSS: Russell Banks, his new novel is called Cloudsplitter. We'll talk more in the second half of the show. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Russell Banks. His new novel Cloudsplitter is based on the life of the militant abolitionist, John Brown. The novel is told from the point of view of his son Owen, the only son who survived Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.

Banks' novels, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction were recently adapted into films. Much of his writing has dealt with physical and emotional conflict within contemporary working class families.

Your territory as a writer is so much about father and son relationships, and at some point Owen Brown, John Brown's son, says in your novel that, "many is the time when I grew angry and wished to flee from my father and his harsh demanding God, yet I stayed." Why do you imagine that he stays with his father?

BANKS: Well his father, like most people, and perhaps more so for powerful people, is a mix of qualities. He is a -- you know, an authoritarian, a patriarchal and occasionally even violent man, but he's also custodial and caring. He's highly intelligent, insightful; he's manipulative and he's loving all at once, and so it's very difficult to just walk away. And he has the added virtue in a way or attraction of being right on the crucial defining issue of the time.

GROSS: Now you once said that it seems like it's the hardest thing in the world to become an adult who is not the same adult as your parents were. And I found myself thinking about that while reading about Owen Brown. Completely different kind of context, but nevertheless, someone who is...

BANKS: It's the other side of the coin, but the struggle goes on in this -- you know, with Owen Brown.

It's also, in some ways, it's related to other aspects of my work. I mean, I think the older you get the fewer obsessions you have, or at least that you find you're returning again and again to the same obsessions and not trying on ones that don't really hold your attention.

And in this case, certainly you're right, it goes back to the father/son relationship and the power of it and the difficulty of it. But it also goes back to the issue of race and the kind of interlocking directorate in American culture of race and religion and politics, and how when you brew them together, you come up very often with violence. And so, this is very similar territory, in some ways, to "Continental Drift" and to "The Book of Jamaica" going back to the '70's as well.

GROSS: Getting back to this idea of how difficult it is to get out of your parents' orbit and to become a person separate from who they were, you're a father of several children.

BANKS: Four daughters.

GROSS: Four daughters. And I bet as a parent, you're amazed how different they are from you, right?


BANKS: Yeah, although I'm astonished how alike they are too and how like each other and how like me in some ways. For instance last Christmas, we all quietly, one by one, privately confessed to each other that we had all voted for Ralph Nader, and I thought this was quite remarkable.


I don't know if I done something right or done something wrong, but they had all, each of them, cast their vote or thrown their vote away perhaps, the same way, and I -- that's kind of telling, something going on there.

GROSS: Do you feel that as a son your parents had this control over you or over your identify, that as a father you don't feel you have over your own children?

BANKS: No. I think for better or ill, the parents have such a powerful imprinting effect on children the first few yeas of their lives that it becomes the forces against which they have to content the rest of their lives -- our lives for, to -- you know, for our own fate -- to create our fate.

GROSS: As you get older, does your father's grip on your memory and his abuse toward your mother and you, does that loosen its grip as you get older?

BANKS: I think that the neurotic aspects of it perhaps loosen and fall away. One hopes anyhow. I mean, I am now less in a reactive mode to my father's character than I certainly was when I was younger, and I think the degree to which I've come to understand him and see the world through his eyes has loosened the grip, if you want, or softened me.

GROSS: You mean by writing about characters like him in fiction?

BANKS: Yes, exactly. Yeah, exactly. I mean writing Affliction with Wade Whitehouse, and dealing with Wade Whitehouse, gave me a kind of mercy and certainly forgiveness and understanding of my father that I -- really if I had just turned my back on him and walked way and acted bruised and hurt the rest of my life, I never would have obtained.

GROSS: Your father was probably pretty well known in your neighborhood, right, because he was -- he was a drunk and he'd probably go to the bar room and...

BANKS: And he was charismatic too. I mean, he has a large personality and he was very intelligent.

GROSS: So growing up, you were probably kind of pegged in the neighborhood, you know, Russell Banks, son of -- you know, so and so's kid and that would mean something about who you were and who you were expected to become. But then as a writer it's like your father's identity is controlled by you. I don't know your father. I don't know the neighborhood you're from.

BANKS: Yeah, I might be lying. Maybe he was a concert pianist actually.


GROSS: No, but I mean -- I mean, you get to control the story. You get to control the story where it wasn't controlled when you were growing up. Your identity was controlled by his identity, but now his identity is controlled by you.

BANKS: Well that may loop back to what I was saying earlier about storytelling, saving my life in a sense. It's a way of -- because there is a dimension of storytelling that's power, that's control over reality and you create a reality. May follow certain rules and laws and a certain order, but nevertheless, yes it's true. I have taken a certain power over my -- the story that was given to me.

GROSS: What'd it mean in the neighborhood to be the son of your father?

BANKS: Well actually he was quite charming and admired and liked. He was an extremely likable man amongst his peers and his fellow workmen and in the neighborhood. Women liked him too. He was a good looking guy with a nice quick smile and a good dancer, as my mother always said -- you're father was a wonderful dancer Russell. And there's a kind of lilt in her voice when she says it that let's me know how he was probably viewed as a young man.

GROSS: Which is different from how you saw him as a kid, who was beaten up.

BANKS: Oh yes. He was -- he was this -- he was a huge and threatening figure to me, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, in talking about how difficult it is to escape from the orbit -- to get out of the orbit of your parents and to become whoever you are, you once said, and I think I asked you about this once before in an earlier interview, but it's such an interesting perception that, you said you come from a people who viewed success as a criticism of their life. Because if you're moving up, there's a kind of betrayal to the family. My father made a mockery of anybody who aspired to move up unless you moved up as a wheeler dealer. You're coming from a -- what a...

BANKS: Blue collar family as they say, or working class background, yeah.

GROSS: Now, did that make it hard for you to have aspirations, the sense that you would feel that your father felt that you were betraying the family by actually succeeding?

BANKS: Sure, it would seem presumptuous. I mean, now you internalize those values very quickly as a child, and I certainly used them to criticize myself and to inhibit myself to some degree. Yes, but it's a preposterous expectation that you might become a writer, not even a journalist, but an artist.

I mean that sort of thing seemed absurd and presumptuous. You, the son of a plumber and the grandson of a plumber and so on. So sure that slowed me and inhibited me. I didn't feel entitled or as though I'd been granted permission to do what I just longed to do.

GROSS: Did that also make you feel like a fraud when you did start writing and you got just a little taste of that life and of success?

BANKS: Yes, I think so. I don't think that was quite so unsettling. Later, when my work became fairly well known and I started getting more attention from the press and the public generally, then I think a certain kind of confusion and a sense of inauthenticity began to creep in and I had to make it very clear to myself, at least, that there was two people here: one is the public one and one is the private one, and it's the private one that I have to take care of and have control over and adhere to, and I've tried to do that since.

But I think I'm probably, yeah -- more sensitive to this feeling of inauthenticity than someone born to -- born to rule in a sense, born to be listened to and acknowledged and raised to be. That's definitely had an effect on my behavior and on my sense of self.

GROSS: On the other hand so much of your fiction is focused on the world that you're from, so, you know hardly, from being inauthentic, you're kind of bringing that experience to American literature and broadening it through that.

BANKS: Mm-hmm. Well, yeah, I hope so. But although I'm just plugging into a tradition in American writing, both poetry and fiction, that goes right straight back to Walt Whitman in the 19th century, through Stephen Crane and in the 20th century and Mark Twain in the 20th century, into Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, Nelson Auger (ph), and Richard Wright and so -- I mean, that's what we tend sometimes to call social realism, but only because the modernists took up so much space, we call it something else.

But it's a tradition I feel very comfortable with, and I don't feel as though I'm inventing it by any means.

GROSS: My guest is Russell Banks. His new novel is called Cloudsplitter. We'll talk more after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

Back with Russell Banks. His novels Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter were recently made into films. His new novel is called Cloudsplitter.

I have a question that dates back to -- goes back to something we were talking about earlier. John Brown, the subject of your novel, was in a way a guerrilla fighter to end slavery and I know when you were younger, I think it was like when you dropped out of college, your ambition was to go to Cuba and become a guerrilla in the Cuban revolution.

BANKS: No so much an ambition as a fantasy, I think.

GROSS: Right. You never made it to Cuba...

BANKS: Never made it, no...

GROSS: ... I think you stopped in Florida. But what were -- what were your fantasies then about being a guerrilla fighter?

BANK: Well, being useful, I think for one thing, and being a defender of the downtrodden and the oppressed and a liberator. I think that romanticized role was important to me. But I -- looking back, I can see now, what I was also looking for was approval. I wanted to be -- to gain the approval of Fidel Castro.


The good father as he was in my mind at that time, in 1958. Don't forget, he was portrayed as a doctor. They called him Doctor Castro in Life magazine and he was a heroic figure and he was the good father, and I was fleeing the bad father in a sense, and I wanted the good father's approval and that seemed a way to do it.

So I think that kind of -- that was the psychology driving it. There wasn't any strong political ideology driving it at that time in my life. I had almost no politics. I just had a fantasy life, as I think most young people do when they first enter the larger world from their family, they come trailing clouds of despair and fear and neurosis with them, and then the ideology, the political -- the politics may evolve.

GROSS: Now did that fantasy life come into play in writing Cloudsplitter?

BANKS: I think so. I mean what it did do was early on in my life -- in my adolescence really, kind of focus my attention on a part of the world, the Caribbean, on political insurrection -- the very idea of it, so that I was sensitized to it and alert to it, and then my attention moved to the Haitian revolution and to the Maroon rebellion in Jamaica and I kind of followed these events. These events were alive to me.

And then John Brown is a figure who comes very close to those great figures, Toussaint L'Ouveture and Fidel Castro; great and controversial figures for some of the same reasons.

GROSS: Russell Banks is my guest. His new novel is called Cloudsplitter. He's also the author of Affliction which was recently adapted into a movie by Paul Schrader, The Sweet Hereafter which was recently made into a movie by Atom Egoyan and you're working on the adaptation of your novel Continental Drift. So while you've been immersed in Cloudsplitter for all these years, your novels have had new lives -- a couple of them has had new lives as movies and I'd like to talk about that a little bit.

You're seeing themes from your past, and characters from your past have a new life on screen and in the case of Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter it's those characters as reimagined by other people. Paul Schrader wrote the adaptation for...

BANKS: And then Nick Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse and so you're seeing it adapted by an actor beyond a director as well.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the stories looked different to you when told through others, and when embodied by actors?

BANKS: Yeah, they do. There is a -- naturally a transformation. But one of the more curious aspects though of the adaption process I think is that it threw me back over the book to the sources for the book in a funny way. The...

GROSS: You mean to like family and friends that characters are based on?

BANKS: Yes, family, friends, whatever it was, or fears -- in case say The Sweet Hereafter with my fears as a parent growing up, the experience and the loss of a brother in an accident years ago, and this sort of thing threw me back to that. Not to the text itself, but rather in a sense, the context.

And the same thing with Affliction in an odd way. Just a brief anecdote. When they were shooting "Affliction" up in Quebec, the exterior scenes were set in a barn -- and several scenes were set in a barn which they had constructed -- the art designer had put together, and I went there to spend a couple of days and saw this barn, and it was an exact duplicate of the barn that my grandfather and father used and owned in New Hampshire back in the 1940s and it was shocking.

It was like walking into one of my own dreams; one of those memory dreams you know. It was terrifying in a way. I thought oh god, I'm going to see my father's ghost any minute or my grandfather's ghost any minute. It's a cold, blustery day. It was a chilling, difficult experience for me in some ways.

GROSS: May I say that the barn is burned to the ground, and I'll try not to give away too much of why or how or anything. But is that something that comes from your life?

BANKS: Not the barn burning, no. But that barn figure is largely in my unconscious life in some way. When I was writing that book, Affliction, I kept returning to the barn, I couldn't get the characters away from it. Every time they had nothing to do, instead of giving them a cup of coffee, they'd end up out in the barn you know.


And so I called my brother, who was out west at the time. He was just a couple of years younger than I am, and I said "Jesus, Steve, did something happen, something bad happen in grandpa's barn back in the '40s, when we were little guys?"

And he said, "God I'm sorry you brought that up." He said, "I've been going through therapy for about five years..."


... "and this keeps coming up and I'm trying to get this settled and I thought I had just got it settled."

So, we talked about it and tried to remember. Once again, we couldn't remember, either of us, what had happened, but some -- we agreed -- something happened in grandpa's barn. We weren't supposed to play there. We were playing there, we did play in the haylofts and we saw -- we both felt we must have seen something that occurred, something violent or something erotic or something we weren't supposed to see, and we both have conveniently blanked it out. But in the writing of the book, it reappeared as a kind of resident emblematic image, and it -- and I kept on finding the characters going back out there.

And in the movie, it had that same kind of luminous quality when I was on the set and then when I see the film, it still has. I look at I go oh, it's a chilling resonant figure. I cannot get it out of my mind.

GROSS: Well if this was a movie, you'd have to go into the kind of therapy where they hypnotize you, and then all the memories come out and you understand your life completely because that memory has been uncovered.

BANKS: I know. It's easier to write a novel about somebody else life and let the image lie at the center of it.

GROSS: You've heard some wonderful actors reading lines that you've written or lines that are based on your dialogue in your novels. And I wondering if you've been particularly surprised by any of their line readings, and if it has changed the meaning of any of your sentences for you, or just kind of changed the sounds of the voice in your head. And if so, if you could give us an example, I'd love to hear it.

BANKS: Oh, I think Ian Holm in the Sweet Hereafter delivers some of those lines of the lawyer, Mitchel Stevens (ph) in a way I have never heard them, so that when I heard him read them the first time, I thought "God, that's a good line. Who wrote that?"


You know I really had that feeling, like Atom Egoyan must have written that. That certainly can't be in the novel. But yes, but there are so many little moments. Or Sarah Polly (ph) there where she says -- in her deposition she says, "yes I can remember now that I'm telling it."

And there's a little hitch and a pause between "I can remember" -- "now that I'm telling it," that has -- is such a kind of smart connection, and disconnection, between the two clauses in the sentence, that you can't see with a comma on the page, and you can't hear it when you read it, but she could when she spoke it, put that pause in there, and it was -- it made it clear that she was making it up. Now that -- "I can remember" -- "now that I'm telling it."

And it was -- it was like a threat and a little bit of a brag to the lawyers who were listening to her. And I thought, there is a really smart actor. I wish I had written that.


GROSS: Which of course you had, right?

BANKS: Yes, I had, but I used a comma, not a pause.

GROSS: You have been adapting your novel Continental Drift into a screenplay. And I'm wondering if you've rewritten a lot of the dialogue for the screen, imagine it being spoken instead of being read and if so what those changes are like?

BANKS: Actually not. I went back -- I learned something. I was writing this screenplay for Ignesca Holland (ph) to direct and I had written the screenplay...

GROSS: And her best-known movie is "Europa, Europa."

BANKS: Europa, Europa and then most recently "Washington Square."

GROSS: Of course. Right.

BANKS: Right. I think she's a marvelous director, a wonderful woman and -- but I had written a script for Jonathan Demme back in 1987, and he was trying to develop it with Orion at the time, and it was shortly after the book was published. I was still very much in the book. You hear the words of the book still in your ear, and you're still in a sense married to the characters, or still feel very propriety towards them.

And I think the script is a terrible script, the one I wrote for Jonathan, and one of the reasons why it probably never got made. But now in 1997-98, writing the script for Ignesca, I'm 15 years away from the writing of that book, and very detached from it and distant from it.

So I felt almost if it had been written by a stranger, and I could come into it and rearrange the parts and disassemble and then reassemble the book as a screenplay. And I think I wrote, as a result, a much, much better screenplay. I think as a rule, one shouldn't adapt one's own work until you've been away from it for a decade or so, and you feel sufficiently detached that maybe somebody else wrote it.

GROSS: In revisiting earlier novels now through the film adaptations, do you always feel the same feelings toward the characters as you did then, or do you find that you see the characters differently now? You're judging their actions differently?

BANKS: Yeah, well I've changed so I see them in a larger context. My own world has gotten larger in certain ways. I hope I've gotten a little smarter as the years have gone by. And so you do, yeah, you see them in a bigger world. When I wrote "Continental Drift" I was living in Concord, New Hampshire, and teaching at a small college up there and I was in my early 40s and so I had the world view and the experience of a man with -- in his early 40s. Now I -- you know, Cloudsplitter, if I were to approach that, that's a book that reflects my experience and knowledge and understanding of my middle/late 50s. So naturally, I've changed and therefore I see the characters differently.

GROSS: Russell Banks, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

BANKS: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Russell Banks new novel is Cloudsplitter.

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new CD featuring the person he describes as the greatest living conductor. This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Russell Banks
High: Novelist Russell Banks. His books which often depict working class life include "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Affliction" both of which have been made into films. His newest book is "Cloudsplitter" based on the life of John Brown who tried and failed to ignite a slave rebellion in 1859 in Harpers Ferry, VA.
Spec: Books; Authors; Russell Banks; Clousplitter; The Sweet Hereafter; History; Civil War
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Russell Banks
Date: FEBRUARY 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022302NP.217
Head: Symphonie Fantastique Recording
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz thinks Pierre Boulez is the greatest living conductor. For a while, he stopped conducting in order to compose, but in the past few years, he's been making records again and most of these have been nominated for Grammy's including his latest "Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique."

Here's Lloyd's review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Awards are supposed to honor the person who receives them, but in the case of Pierre Boulez and the Grammy's, it's he who honors the awards. He's already won 17 and this year his recording of Berlioz's most famous orchestral piece, The Symphonie Fantastique, with the spectacular Cleveland Orchestra, has been nominated, both for best classical recording and best orchestral performance, which is only right. Listen to the lilting teasing waltz at the beginning of the ball scene.

After a long first movement devoted to the inner life, the reveries and passions of the suicidal young musician hero, of this dreamlike, semi-autobiographical symphony, he goes out into the world to a party, where once again he sees the beautiful object of his obsession, who might or might not be Harriett Smithson (ph), the Irish Shakespearian actress Berlioz eventual and unhappily married.


The swing and rhythmic life Boulez gives this music is irresistible. As is the extraordinary delicacy Boulez gets from the Cleveland Orchestra. The playing is even better than on his earlier record with the London Symphony Orchestra on Sony. That was one of his most controversial discs, and disappeared from the catalog not long after it was issued.

The controversy was over the march to the scaffold. The hero dreams he's murdered his beloved and has been condemned to hang. In the dream, he's about to attend his own execution. Boulez was criticized for playing this march too slowly.

But I loved its eerie feeling of reluctance and dread. Now the movement is even longer, but only because Boulez takes a section marked for repeat that he omitted before. The tempo is actually faster, crisper. It's more overtly exciting, though it's also a little more conventional. I'm glad both versions are now available on CD.

Many of Boulez's recent recordings have been new performances of works he's recorded before. But this Berlioz disc also includes a fascinating and rarely performed work that Boulez hasn't previously recorded -- Tristam (ph), the musical trip tick for chorus and orchestra, two sections of which, the "Death of Ophelia" and "Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet," are based on the play in which Berlioz first saw Harriet Smithson, as Ophelia. Here's the haunting choral lament for the poor drowned girl.


Boulez is one of the great Berlioz conductors. He gets the real sense of romantic madness in the music and he hears more clearly than anyone else the gorgeous inventiveness of Berlioz's orchestration. Boulez certainly deserves another Grammy. But do the Grammy's deserve to have him win?

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique on Deutsche Grammaphon which is nominated for a Grammy for best classical recording of the year.

Dateline: Lloyd Schwartz, Boston; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews conductor Pierre Boulez's recording of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique by the Cleveland Orchestra. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Recording of the Year.
Spec: Music Industry; Pierre Boulez; Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Symphonie Fantastique Recording
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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