Even though the weather outside was dull with gray skies and rain blanketing the area, the mood inside Bexley High School's Dargusch Black Box Theatre on Wednesday, April 30, was electric.
Students from various 10th- through 12th-grade English classes filled the seats of the auditorium, posing several questions for award-winning writer Russell Banks, this year's Bexley Community Book Club 2014 Selected Author. His responses drew both their laughter and attention.
Students lined up after each address to meet him and ask one last question.
In spite of his fame, Banks' demeanor proved to be very similar to his work -- grounded and accessible. As he stood to answer each question, he exhibited a sense of humor and always responded with insight.
"Writing, like any art, requires a kind of honesty and lack of judgmentalism ... like nothing else does," he told students last week. "I like to keep (my writing) grounded, but at the same time, honor the ancient forms of storytelling."
He admits to keeping drawers full of newspaper clippings, notes and drawings about stories he encounters in his everyday life. Like small treasures, they might sit untouched for years. But in time, Banks told Bexley students, he goes through and re-reads them, after which they may serve as inspiration for a new novel or short story.
He recounted the day he met a woman in an Oregon airport restaurant who proceeded to tell him why she continuously visits the local morgue -- a tale he called both "bizarre and morose." That encounter later became the basis for one of his most intriguing short stories, Searching for Veronica.
He chuckled as he remembered the day he ran over the family dog in his car, children in tow. The story later became the basis for another favored short story, A Permanent Member of the Family, but only after gaining the permission of his daughters whom he did not want to hurt or embarrass.
He touches often on the less glamorous sides of reality, such as divorce, violence, anger, addiction and racism. It is the latter, he said, that became a reality to him when he lived in the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which proved to have a much different racial climate than that which he grew up in just outside of Boston.
But the racial issues he addresses are not part of some agenda, he told students, or a soapbox rant. Rather, they are a part of his fabric because he himself often felt "marginalized" as a child due to his family's struggle with alcoholism, violence and divorce.
"I felt, as a boy, very much on the outside," he told the students. "So I've tried to see, and not blind myself, to the realities that surround me."
Born in March 1940, Banks is no stranger to difficulty, but rose above the strife to become an accomplished author. Banks has written 10 novels, along with five short story and four poetry collections.
Banks has received honors such as the Ingram Merrill Award, the John Dos Passos Award, the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Laure Bataillon Prize for best work of fiction translated into French, for the French edition of The Darling. Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were Pulitzer Prize finalists; Affliction, Cloudsplitter and Lost Memory of Skin were PEN/Faulkner Finalists. Banks was named New York State Author (2004-2008) and the winner of the 2011 Common Wealth Award for Literature.
Two of his novels have been made into major films.
Banks spent the day addressing students and had lunch with a group of student essay contest winners. On April 29, the Bexley Community Book Club hosted "An Evening with Russell Banks," a presentation in which Banks spoke to guests in Bexley High School's Schottenstein Theatre.
Launched in 2007 by the Bexley Education Foundation, the BCBC is celebrating its seventh year of selecting authors and inviting them to speak to the community. Past Selected Authors include Jennifer Egan (2013), Jonathan Safran Foer (2012), Billy Collins (2011), Ann Patchett (2010), Tobias Wolff (2009) and Pete Hamill (2008).