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Mary Gaitskill called Keith Banner’s first collection of stories, The Smallest People Alive, “a perfect jewel of sweetness, ugliness, misery, and light. And it’s funny too.” Now Banner is back with another jewel of a collection, Next to Nothing (Lethe Press, March 2014). Banner’s stories have appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Gay Fiction, Kenyon Review, and many more publications. He’s also the author of the novel The Life I Lead, which was published by Knopf in 1999.
Keith Banner is one of those rare writers who can wow you with his writing—brilliant sentences, dead-on and electrifying descriptions—but also break your heart with his stories and characters. His stories can land like a punch in the gut—but you’ll find yourself wanting more and more. Keith Banner may just be the best writer you’ve never heard of.
Lambda Literary was lucky enough to chat with Banner about his latest collection. This interview touches on everything from his outsider characters, Flannery O’Connor, the publishing world, John Waters, and so much more.
I think one of the things I find so striking and refreshing about your stories is that the characters are not the types of people one encounters much in fiction, especially gay fiction. For one thing, most of the stories feature working-class people, people without much education.They work at factories or fast-food joints, nursing homes or convenience stores. There are tormented (and sometimes married) closet cases, late-blooming lesbians, and people with disabilities.
You open Next to Nothing with this epigraph from Flannery O’Connor: “It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.” You really humanize people that society dismisses as “white trash.” I read your stories and I’m reminded that every person has an interior life–full of hopes, dreams, fear, and heartache. This long-winded intro finally leads me to these questions: How do you see your characters? Do you see them as “freaks?” What draws you to writing about these types of characters?
I see my characters as focal points in a made-up narrative that I am trying to pull together to get at a meaning that can’t be constructed any other way. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious. But truly they are figments, collages I cut and paste from real life, and feelings and experiences and images, my reaction to the way I see actual people. And so yes I think the characters I write are freaks, but that does not mean I don’t completely and voraciously respect and love them. The word itself denotes something on display, as in a carnival or sideshow freak, so I think the way I see “freaks” in what I do is that they somehow cannot hide their aberrations–they have to exist in a world that gawks at them, tries to fix or hide them. They are often at the mercy of people who think of themselves as “non-freaks.” My love for my characters blooms from that status. I want them to be the displacement that Flannery speaks of, because they are. My world view dictates that: I truly try to envision the world without castes or statuses—I try to burn away all that shit even in my real life. That means that the people I come up with to move through my story-world are fanatical examples of people I think most upstanding citizens might view as less than they are (maybe even less than human), but I try to reveal their loves and desires and predicaments with a grace and precision that might melt away that distance, that judgment. I think that’s my form of religion. I hate it when people talk about “social justice” like it’s a thing, a fundraising campaign or a way to “raise awareness.” I see it as a vision of the world that can drive you insane unless you try to do something about it in a way that goes beyond what you think you are capable of. It’s a terrible assignment to give yourself, and I laugh a lot about my own stupid stubbornness, but I’m almost 50 years old now and this fury about unfairness and meanness still bubbles through my bloodstream and it allows me the pleasure of essential displacing. At least in my own mind. And in my stories. When I first got out of grad school 20 or so years ago (with an MA in creative writing), I thought about pursuing a PhD and going all out academic, but I couldn’t. I felt drawn aesthetically and spiritually and morally to trying to figure out how to work out some of that “social justice” crap in the actual world. So I got a job supporting people with developmental disabilities. And that’s been my mission truly since. The writing I do is a way to stay true to myself and what I think I’m supposed to do in a real world which often dictates to you to shut your mouth and do what you are told, no matter how horrible things get.
Do you start with a character in mind, or a plot, or an image—or does it vary with every story?
I usually start with a character and a predicament: desire and obstacle, and then I work out the setting around the way the character lives (job, home, family, etc.). The plot comes from the obstacles and the desires. The characters sometimes actually come from the setting—they tend to “pop out” of their surroundings like birds leaving tree limbs. I journal a lot, and mainly what I write about in the journals (besides bitching about life in general) is scenery, imagery from outside a car windshield, beautiful odd ugly things I am lucky enough to see. That need to keep those things I’m witnessing from disappearing, almost like fervid scrap-booking, fuels the story-writing. Those moments accumulate into the mystery you need to make stories feel alive and worth writing and eventually reading.
Your stories are set in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, even Indiana. Sort of that odd geographic mixture of the South and the Midwest. I think a few of your characters refer to it as the “tristate area.” This is clearly a geography you know well. Is this where you grew up? Can you talk about your background?
I’m re-reading Alice Munro’s Selected Stories right now, and in the intro she touches upon why she writes so often “about the country to the east of Lake Huron.” She says the main reason is because she loves it. No other bullshit about it. You fall in love with it because it’s there, plentiful and odd and astounding. That’s how I feel about the territory I’m in—I just stumbled into this area in Southwestern Ohio where I live. God knows it wasn’t my destination, just where Bill (my partner) and I ended up. It’s halfway between Central Indiana and East Tennessee, both places I grew up, so it kind of felt right from the get-go for some reason, a geographical merging of my roots: Midwestern working-class and Southern Gothic Bible-belt. My childhood was all about those two planes of existence, the exhaustion and powerlessness of working shitty jobs for a paycheck that didn’t really pay the bills, and the off-kilter sanctity of Southern Baptist preachers sermonizing about how great God is, but also how rotten people are. Both of those circumstances foster misery. The only way out, at least for me, was through sarcasm, art, education, and finding a mode of loving and appreciating people that goes beyond what they do and say and tries to decipher who they really are. The landscapes here, and in Indiana and Tennessee, are often open-ended and rural, transforming every once in a while into trash-heaps and little ghost towns and trailer-parks and then back into vast big-tree kingdoms and rolling hills and prehistoric mountains that kind of taunt you with their grandeur . . . So I’m lucky.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing? I ask because if you grew up in the type of environments you depict in your stories, I’d say that the true “freak” in that world is the kid who likes to read and write.
You got it. I learned about freakishness from total firsthand experience. Add in the gay and white-trash part and ka-boom: instant outcast. But being an outlier, freak, or whatever is often a blessing for someone who wants to be left alone to write. It’s hard to figure out what comes first, that need to write things down or the sense of yourself as an outsider, but I think they probably are conjoined twins you can’t separate. And also that understanding of my own freakishness allowed me to not get caught up in the kind of self-hatred that damages your perspective too much. I mean I hate myself a lot, hopefully like most people, but that horrible self-loathing that makes you retreat into a closet or a bottle of booze or a shield of peevish professional meanness—I never got in on that. I try to use all that humiliation and isolation to build a way toward something else, and writing has been about the best way for me to know I’m not alone even when I am. Making up characters and trying to understand how they love/hate/live/die, etc. has truly saved my life I think.
I just love that, because it’s all so true. I honestly think my political transformation came about due to reading and writing. Because in really great literature, you see the gray areas in life, in people. “Villains” are not all bad, and “heroes” are not all good. A lot of your characters embody this—people some might find repulsive, but who you imbue with such humanity. I honestly think “small-minded” people just don’t read enough, or else they might see the world differently. But what do you think about the ability of literature to deepen people, to change their outlooks on life?
I don’t know really, to be honest. It’s my hope because that’s what literature is all about for me–the art of deepening experience, of finding a way to artfully depict/stylize the way life comes at you, and the way you respond to that onslaught. I think it’s about style more than anything else. Flannery called it “moments of grace,” and that’s what I am always after, and by grace I think she meant a departure from self into a new realm of kindness and forgiveness that hardly ever happens because people are people. But once you go through that mystery you are forever altered, forever not yourself anymore. The best example from Flannery’s oeuvre is Mrs. Turpin from “Revelation.” Mrs. Turpin is an old mouthy self-satisfied married racist landowner who literally gets the book thrown at her, and by the end of the story she’s having a vision of the lame entering first–[a scene] so artfully conveyed you can’t mock her or her experience anymore. You can only participate in that moment of grace, knowing you are just as stupid and horrible as she is, but also knowing you are capable of that same exposure to selflessness. Trying to figure out how those moments unfold truthfully is the hardest thing. That is how outlooks on life are altered forever through art I think. You witness something so true and exposing you can only keep your own mouth shut, your mind suddenly free of what is always polluting it.
Your first novel, The Life I Lead, came out from Knopf in 1999. The Smallest People Alive came out a few years later from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Can you talk about your publishing experiences with those two books? What was the reaction to The Life I Lead? I imagine the subject matter was tough for some people. Did you have any qualms while writing the book?
I loved writing The Life I Lead so much. Nabokov, in his afterward to Lolita, writes: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” That’s truly how I felt writing that book—that I was entering a realm of non-judgment, a universe where I could look head on at horrible things people do, but somehow find an ecstatic kindness that allows me to come to an understanding of their existence without their sins and crimes being everything they are. That to me, like Nabokov says, is the reason for art. People who have read The Life I Lead and hear me say all this probably would be astounded because it’s a book that doesn’t turn away from the awfulness. It does not aggrandize it either, or even examine it in anyway. The narrative just simply includes evil acts alongside beautiful sweet acts: the characters are all working-class nobodies who are sweet to each other but also turn on each other. They represent humanity for me, I guess. I wrote The Life I Lead with an innocence I can never get back. The subject matter did not bother me because it wasn’t a book about pedophiles, it was a book about characters I had made up living their lives in a very real way, and this awful obstacle somehow landed in their atmosphere, this specter of evil, and they all had to deal with it, not just the two men in the book who were child molesters, but their parents, children, wives. I guess I assumed when it came out people would have that same sense of innocence when reading it, but nope. It was kind of a nightmare reading the initial reviews in Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. They hated it. I had a few nice responses (Edmund White and Michael Cunningham blurbed it), but the thing was doomed. I don’t regret writing it. I don’t think I regret publishing it. It is what it is. I stand by the book and its intentions. I don’t sugar-coat anything, God knows. That book would be immoral and horrible: a sugar-coated novel about pedophiles.
As far as The Smallest People Alive—it was the greatest experience. Since it wasn’t with a big publishing house, I felt like I was okay because I don’t write big-publishing-house books, and the response to Smallest People was a lot more kind and productive. (Your review in Publisher’s Weekly was the sweetest and smartest one of course.) I like writing short stories a lot more than novels anyway. I love having a bevy of different experiences and characters in one book.
It has been ten years since The Smallest People Alive was published. Did it take you a long time to assemble the new collection, or did you have trouble finding a publisher? You seem to place a lot of your stories in literary magazines, journals, and newer sites online. But do you meet resistance even in those realms?
I have to be honest. It’s been hard as hell to find a publisher for this new book. The agent I work with tried every place possible, and mostly they said it isn’t marketable. Which is probably true. But you know what? You just keep trying. And I wrote a blog post about my frustration, and LA Fields, a great writer who likes my stuff, read it and said she could put me in contact with Steve Berman of Lethe Press, and he graciously said Lethe would publish it. So here we are. The main thing is to keep writing. You can’t let marketability become your muse. Jesus, what an awful thought. I write because I have to. I don’t really publish because I have to. I try to publish stories because I want to share what I write. If you get those two impulses tangled up, you’ll be hurting yourself in the long run. My main mission, I think I said in another answer, is the work I do outside of writing. I know that probably sounds heretical to other writers, but I use writing in so many ways outside of fiction that I’m pretty satisfied at the end of every day that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, if that makes sense.
In the story “I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care,” the narrator says of himself, “Sometimes I actually think people can’t tell, like I could pass as a non-fag. Even though I am a little, shall we say, sissified, I don’t wear flashy clothes or work out all the time, God knows, or listen to techno music or even watch the queer shows on TV.” Your gay characters aren’t the usual sophisticated urban gay guys of much gay fiction. They are misfits in their own “straight” communities, but also sort of misfits in the gay world, making them sort of doubly outcast. Can you discuss this?
Sometimes I think it’s hard for people to think of people singularly, especially when their identities are coded so deeply in culture. “Gay” people are not just people—they are tropes created by politicians and evangelists and others to sway cultural arguments. So I intentionally want to offer up versions of different kinds of people who are gay, not just to counteract stereotypes but also because the characters I come up with come out of my own experiences, and I just really don’t know any gay people like the ones on Looking. I write what I know. I focus on gay and straight people who just live their lives, who have hard-assed jobs or no jobs at all and who make big mistakes that have nothing to do with their gayness or straightness and everything to do with their humanness. “Desire” is a very important aspect to making fiction work, so I have to contend with that, and while the desire of many of my characters can be cast as queer or gay or whatever, it’s a desire that is both understandable and common: they just want to be loved. And they get in all kinds of trouble because of that. So I truly don’t mean for my stories to be seen as critiques of urban gay life or anything like that. I just want them to be read without all the cultural codes. I’ll go back to Nabokov–I want that “sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
You have such an amazing way of describing things, which not only seems so dead-on and original but also true to the characters and their situations and lives. In all your books, I’ve gone through and underlined so many lines, paragraphs, phrases. I’ll share just a few of my favorites from Next to Nothing: “lips as glossy red as spit-out cinnamon candy”; “I love her like you might love a stubbed toe if the rest of your body was numb”; “Eyes like little puncture holes in a cardboard box for some animal that’s already died inside it”; “She was eating her chicken fingers real fast, like an animal that knows another animal is in the vicinity.” I could go on and on. Is this something you labor over or does this come naturally, and easily?
I started out writing lots and lots and lots of poetry, a lot of it pretty bad, but one thing I learned from the poets and poems I read is that the accumulation and depth of meaning often comes from metaphor and simile. It’s the quickest way to get a mood going, to juxtapose things that seem dissimilar and then suddenly “snap to” when you put them together. So I tend not to labor over it. In fact I usually have way, way too many similes and metaphors and have to end up killing a butt-load of my darlings when I edit.
A lot of your stories could be called bleak. The titles alone sound like a litany of depression: “Next to Nothing,” “Lowest of the Low,” “God Knows Where.” But there’s also a lot of humor in them, and also a lot of sexiness. Sure, some of that sexiness stems from some “taboo” situations. Like in the title story, where the narrator has sex with his fucked-up brother-in-law. How would you describe your stories to someone who has never read them?
Love stories that never take the easy way out, that follow love’s course to the bitter end. Does that work? That’s really all I’m writing about, how love and loneliness often intersect without touching, and sex comes from trying to escape both. I think I come up with those “taboo” situations because I want to find out how people negotiate hellishness. Plus John Waters is a main influence, and sometimes when I’m coming up with the most outrageously taboo scenarios I think about how lovely it would be for him to make a movie out of it. No kidding. There’s an odd combination of beauty, truth and hyperbole in all of his movies, and I think that his vision of the world is probably more artful and moral than a majority of the high-class movies and stories I see and read.
I would die and go to heaven if Waters made a movie out of any of your stories. And I will make it my mission to get your books into his hands! Which stories, in particular, could you see as movies? And now that we are on that topic, can you say what your favorite stories are, both in this collection and in Smallest People?
Oh my God. I would give him free rein. His choice. He could change anything he wants to change, too. It would be beyond. I remember watching Female Trouble when I was washing dishes at a steakhouse in Greenfield, Indiana. I was 21 years old and not knowing what the hell I was going to do outside out of dropping acid and writing really crappy poems. That movie changed my life somehow. I don’t know how to explain it except that someone else on this earth understood how wonderfully fucked up life is, and his response to the ridiculousness was pure growling smart-assed art. What is lovelier and truer than Divine in that movie? You got me. As far as my favorite stories I’ve written: “The Wedding of Tom to Tom,” “Holding Hands for Safety,” and the title story in The Smallest People Alive, and “Winners Never Sleep,” “Happy that They Hate Us,” and the title story in Next to Nothing.
I am always curious about the structuring and ordering of story collections. Can you go through the process of how and why you ordered the stories the way you did?
I had help from a couple readers. I really don’t have any insight. I just try to make a momentum happen, and try to see how the whole book can have a feeling to it that kind of last after all the stories have been read. We bookended Next to Nothing with two stories with “sleep” in their titles, just to be poetic I guess, and I also tried to pair up stories that seem to be saying the same things in different ways, kind of expanding on a theme without drawing too much attention to it.
What writers have influenced your work?
Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, Jean Genet, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Your top five books?
What are you working on now?
A couple of short stories. Nothing to talk about though—they are just beginning. My favorite phase.