Novelist Banks Explores Sex Crime Outcasts’ Social, Psychological Issues

September 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the novel "Lost Memory of Skin," author Russell Banks delves into deep issues of American life rarely raised or seen by most people. Jeffrey Brown and Banks discuss the book that explores a fictional group of convicted sex offenders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a novelist looks into a dark corner of contemporary culture.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a squalid encampment under a causeway in an American city that sounds very much like Miami lives a group of outcasts, men convicted of sex crimes, restricted to staying at least 2,500 feet away from anyone under 18.

That’s the unusual and charged setting for a new novel, “Lost Memory of Skin,” which explores some deep issues of American life rarely raised and rarely seen by most of us.

The author is Russell Banks, a much-honored writer whose 17 works of fiction including “Continental Drift,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” and “Cloudsplitter.”

Welcome to you.

RUSSELL BANKS, “Lost Memory of Skin”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think we should start by acknowledging the difficult terrain that you’re working in. What drew you to this story?

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, I think the trigger that kind of got me rolling on this was the fact that I spent a good deal of time in Miami and on Miami beachside in an apartment that looks out over Miami mainland and looks out over the Tuttle, Julia Tuttle Causeway.

And about four years ago, pieces started appearing in The Miami Herald about this colony of men, of convicted sex offenders who were dropped off after they had served their time and were living — were homeless and living there because of the fact that they were prohibited from living within 2,500 feet of anywhere children gather.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is based on real life? This is what you saw?

RUSSELL BANKS: Yes. That started it.

And I could see that causeway from my terrace. And I just started imagining what it must be like to be under there and to have this group of people clustered together. And, I mean, it intrigued me more lots of reasons, one of the ones being a kind of ongoing theme in a lot of my work is sort of the unintended consequences of good intentions and the irony of that and the absurdity of that and the cruelty of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And here you went right into taboo subject — subject matter.

RUSSELL BANKS: I didn’t know that’s where I was going at first. I just wanted to find out more, and began to realize slowly that there were serial rapists and psychopaths alongside men who were confused or stumbled into some kind of a sexual offense, a 22-year-old kid who had sex with his high school girlfriend or something who was under 18. That’s a sex offense.

They had broken the laws alike, but they were very different types of people, and they were lumped together both in our imagination and also legally and socially in the same group of pariahs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in fact, so the main character is called The Kid.


JEFFREY BROWN: He’s 22 years old, a lost soul, technically guilty of a sex crime…


JEFFREY BROWN: … but, in fact, never had a girlfriend

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, he’s a virgin, ironically, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So he’s an innocent who is sort of caught up in an online life, a world that is not a real world.

RUSSELL BANKS: Yes. Well, one thing kind of led to another from — just the fact of this encampment led me then to start investigating and thinking about and trying to understand the psychological and social, you know, causes and consequences of these kinds of crimes.

And that led me to Internet addiction and to pornography addiction, and these various pieces started locking together for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that led you to a kind of dehumanizing aspect of American life, especially online.

RUSSELL BANKS: Right, right, right, and the digitalization of the erotic life in particular, and for so many, and especially younger people perhaps. And that’s where the title starts to come in, “Lost Memory of Skin.”

But that really is also what led me to the novel. I mean, I didn’t set out the write a novel about this and go looking for the material. The material kind of came to me, and then got locked together, until I had a mass of material. And I said I think the only way I can get at this and understand this is to try to imagine a character who is guilty, who is a sex offender, but who is also sympathetic, somebody that I can feel profound affection for and compassion for.

And that’s where The Kid starts to evolve in my mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you said, though, this is often in your work. You’re looking at outcasts, at people on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, that don’t often make it into the reality for most of us.

RUSSELL BANKS: I guess so.

I think, for me, writing fiction, the process of it, the discipline and the rigor of it and the requirements of it, which require basically that I be more intelligent and more honest and more exact than I am in my everyday life, when I’m not all that smart and I’m not all that honest, and I’m only approximate.


RUSSELL BANKS: But the process of writing fiction is really the only way I can penetrate things that are truly mysterious to me. And what’s truly mysterious to me are people who are not like me, who aren’t privileged in the same ways that I am, and who are therefore likely to be marginalized and outcasts, or people who we tend to generalize and stereotype — generalize about in stereotype.

So I think that’s what has led me is really a belief in the process, the use of the process for understanding for myself, and then in turn eventually, one hopes, that you can produce work that will provide the same kind of understanding and affection in a reader.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to ask you briefly, to the extent that you’re looking at technology and how it changes and dehumanizes American culture, there’s a lot of worry about what technology does to literature, your field, you know, the future of the book. Are people going to read? Do they go online?

Are you worried at all about that kind of impact?

RUSSELL BANKS: Not really, not as much as I would if I were a publisher of books and a bookseller.


RUSSELL BANKS: But I’m a storyteller. And human beings require story. We have since the caves of Lascaux and forward. We probably required story even before that just to know who we are.

And — and so I think we will always have stories. The delivery systems will change and evolve. And they have over time. And we’re in the process right now, a radical, revolutionary process of shifting delivery systems from print to digitalized versions, but the story will remain the same.

It will affect how we tell stories, as it always has, but not necessarily in a negative way, just a different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We’re going to continue this conversation online. And I hope that our viewers will join us there.

But, for now, the new novel is “Lost Memory of Skin.”

Russell Banks, thanks so much.