Award-winning author Russell Banks has made a career of writing about people who have honorable ambitions but who inhabit rather turbulent lives.
These characters, drawn from the privileged classes and the disenfranchised, also populate his sixth short story collection, “A Permanent Member of the Family” (Ecco, $25.99).
“It helps that when I was young, I felt marginalized,” said Banks, 73. “My home life was characterized by alcoholism and violence … then later divorce. These were shameful secrets.”
In his new book, the 12 previously uncollected stories take readers to the familiar, if sometimes unsettling, place that has housed much of Banks’ fiction – a contemporary landscape of moral ambiguity, societal conflict and the everyday struggle to get by.
Banks is also the author of several novels, including “The Book of Jamaica,” “Affliction,” “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Cloudsplitter.” He’s won O. Henry and Best American Short Story awards for his piercing work in the genre.
Banks honed his skills as a writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. During a telephone conversation, he explains he was an older student when he entered college in 1964. He was 24, married with one child and another on the way. He had worked as a plumber. His mother-in-law at the time paid his $1,500 tuition.
“I didn’t fit the mold of undergraduates,” Banks said.
Daniel W. Patterson, Kenan Professor Emeritus of English and Folklore at UNC, recalls Banks as a “brilliant student” who was “more mature” than most undergraduates. He understood and contributed to conversations about literature on a higher level than many of his classmates.
“He was intelligent and thoughtful about the human experience,” Patterson said of Banks.
During his undergraduate days, Banks and graduate student William Matthews founded the Lillabulero, a small literary magazine. They published the best of the work being done in Chapel Hill at that time. The magazine attracted national readership and contributions from across the country. Banks and Matthews continued to co-edit the magazine until 1975.
“Those were some of the best years of my life,” Banks said.
Stories from experience
Patterson said Banks was always evaluating and probing his characters. He continues to examine the human condition in his new work.
In “Former Marine,” a father turns to bank robbery rather than admit his dire finances to his grown sons. A visual artist newly anointed with a MacArthur “genius” grant squares off with a much younger writer over the validity of this recognition in “Big Dog.” In the title story, a cherished pet’s divided loyalties mirror a family’s fracturing.
He says he sent the title story to his daughter and she said, “Oh, I remember that dog.”
Many stories are derived from Banks’ own life, especially those formative years when his father floated in and out of his life.
“I’ve been a father and a son,” Banks said. “I’m very aware that over the years that has been one of my themes. It’s been a source of pain and great delight. It’s different every time. I evolve as I age.”
All of the stories in “A Permanent Member of the Family” were written in the last two years and echo issues ordinary people are facing right now – issues like unemployment and desperation.
While Banks has lived in many locales, including New England, the South and Jamaica, he’s never forgotten being raised by a single mother with three siblings in Massachusetts.
“We were really poor, we were scrambling,” he said. “I came to find it easy to identify with people who feel invisible and unheard. I still remember that feeling.”