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11/11/2013 09:50 am ET

A Brief Interview With Russell Banks

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Brief Interviews is a new series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.

Russell Banks is the author of 12 novels, six story collections, two poetry collections and two non-fiction books. He was shortlisted for the 2012 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. His new book, "A Permanent Member of the Family," is out tomorrow.

What is your most prized possession?
I have too many possessions and would like to rid myself of most of them with a gigantic yard-sale. But very late to go would be my 1953 GMC pickup truck and my 1987 Mercedes 420 SEL.

Who (or what) do you envy?
I envy my dog’s Buddha-nature. Which is not very Buddhist of me, I know.

Where do you like to read?
Trains, planes, buses, subways, and automobiles driven by someone else. And at home in a large, comfortable, living room chair. But not lying down on a sofa or in bed -- I always fall quickly to sleep. And not in the bathtub -- I’m a shower person.

What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
Though as a child I had no evident talent for anything useful (a talent for story-telling in a child is not considered useful), I did have an observable gift for painting and drawing and early on was praised for it. I enjoyed the praise and decided to become an artist, even though I had never been to a museum or art gallery and had never met a real artist. Then in my late teens and early 20s I fell in love with literature and began to imitate what I loved, and in a few years had stopped painting and had become a writer.

What's your favorite word?
I love them all equally, with one exception (see below).

Which word do you hate?
“Favorite”

If you could have any 5 dinner guests, dead or alive, who would they be?
Herodotus. Virginia Woolf. David Ortiz. Duke Ellington. Michelle Obama. (It would be nice if they could bring their spouses.)

What word or phrase do you overuse?
“as it were”

What is the first book you remember reading?
“Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus” by James Otis Kaler

Who are your literary heroes?
Nelson Algren. Mark Twain. Emily Dickinson. Samuel Beckett. And about a thousand others, living and dead.

Which books are you embarrassed to have never read?
None. As Tennessee Williams said, when asked which of the new playwrights he admired, “Honey, I’m to old to cover the waterfront.”

If you could only recommend one book, which would it be?
The Bible, both Testaments. All the stories worth re-telling are found there.

Print book or e-book?
Depends on whether one reads in the bathtub. I do not (see above), so it doesn’t matter.

What, if anything, do you read while you're working on a project?
Non-fiction, usually, related to the novel or story I’m working on. Which means history, biography, sociology, anthropology, philosophy -- from high to low, academic to pop. The details can come from any source, as they do in dreams.

Do you have a favorite sentence from a book? What is it?
“Call me Ishmael.”

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