Banks photo by Seamus Kearney from Wikipedia Commons.
With all the attention on tonight’s lavish Scotiabank-Giller Prize banquet and the five authors feted therein, it’s easy to overlook the three people whose combined effort made the evening’s climactic trip to the podium possible: the jurors. This year’s jury was as eclectic (and international) as they come, comprised of Cape Breton author Alistair MacLeod and two non-Canadians, British biographer and novelist Victoria Glendinning and American novelist Russell Banks. Torontoist Books editor James Grainger sat down with Banks, author of such novels as The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction and Cloudsplitter, at the Four Seasons bar last night and asked the author-turned-juror about making the trip north to judge a Canadian fiction prize.
Torontoist: How did you, an American author, get involved with the Scotiabank-Giller Prize?
Russell Banks: I go back and forth between the States and Canada, Montreal and Toronto particularly. I have a lot of friends here – Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, David Young – and I have a Canadian publisher, so I think that (Prize founder) Jack Rabinovitch was probably coaxed by one or more of them to ask me. He called me at my home last winter and just asked me if I would do it and I said I’d be happy to. I knew it would be an interesting immersion in Canadian fiction that I probably wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I probably read more Canadian fiction than most Americans but I do so in a spotty way, depending on who sends me what and what I hear about. But I’d never really immersed myself in the work the way you have to if you’re going to jury an award like this. I thought it would be fun.
TO: You also have a family connection to Canada don’t you?
RB: Yes, three of my four grand-parents were Canadian. My father was Canadian born and only became a naturalized Canadian after I was born, which makes me a Canadian, at least according to Canadian law. He was born in Nova Scotia and didn’t move down to the States until he was 16. My mother’s mother is also Canadian, so that makes me three-quarters Canadian.
TO: You had to read over 90 books before deciding on a long list, didn’t you?
RB: It was 96 actually. The books came in boxes. Just when you thought you’d gotten through the last box another one arrived!
TO: What did your immersion in Canadian fiction tell you about the country and its literature in 2009? Did anything surprise you?
RB: It is a sample of one year’s fiction so I don’t want to generalize too much. I think I was surprised by how many of them were what you probably have to call “immigrant stories,” stories about people whose parents or maybe themselves came to Canada from somewhere else. I began to see that Canada really has become a nation of immigrants, and I don’t think you could have said that even 25 years ago. You have to say it now. People have come from Eastern Europe, from Africa, from the Caribbean, from Asia, from Latin America, from all over. I found that fascinating, and to me very cheering. One of the best aspects of life in the United States is than it’s an immigrant nation and its history is defined by that. I also found that a lot of the novels and short stories showed a very clear involvement with the natural world. I think I probably expected that, but it was certainly born out in the books, whether they were set in Cape Breton or British Columbia or in the North. There was a sense of the physical world in almost all of the the books. The third general thing I would say was that the level of artistic accomplishment in the books was very high. Not universally, of course, but the work held up with any work that I know of from the English-speaking world. It was definitely at the highest level of international fiction.
TO: A lot of Canadians obsess over the question of what separates Canadians from Americans. Any theories on that?
RB: I think that’s impossible to generalize. In terms of fiction, though, I think you could say that American fiction tends to look back at certain classic American models and figures. You have Melville and Twain from the 19th century, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald from the 20th. You have authors plugging into this very powerful tradition. The novel particularly runs back to the 19th century and it’s a very powerful river, you can sense and feel it. Canadian fiction is more international in a way, it looks to British models, to American models, to Irish models. You see all the different international models showing up in interesting ways. Americans are still trying to write the Great American Novel, the White Whale Novel. I don’t think Canadians are trying to write the Great Canadian Novel in the same way. It probably liberates them and allows for a greater variety of fiction.