Author Keith Banner lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. His works of fiction include the novel, The Life I Lead (Knopf), and The Smallest People Alive, (Carnegie Mellon University Press), a book of stories. He has been published in journals such Other Voices, Washington Square, Kenyon Review, and Third Coast. He received an O. Henry Prize for his short story, “The Smallest People Alive,” and an Ohio Arts Council individual artist fellowship for fiction. In addition, The Smallest People Alive was named one of the best books of 2004 by Publishers Weekly. His most recent collection of short fiction, Next to Nothing (Lethe Press), has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. Banner is also the co-founder of Visionaries + Voices, a studio for artists with disabilities, and Thunder-Sky, Inc., an outsider art gallery.
Gavin Atlas: Hi Keith. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview! Your stories in Next to Nothing portray the bleakness and brokenness of parts of Ohio and nearby states. To me it doesn’t seem like you dislike the area at all, but it does sound like it makes you sad. What aspects of the region, if any, make you feel happy?
Keith Banner: The landscape makes me happy. The seasons hit hard here, and each one is defined and definite to the point of boggling your brain, each season ending so abruptly you get the feeling you’re not going to remember what each one is like. October here is spectacular. I also like the way you can drive five miles and find completely different landscapes: from hilly farmland to flattened nowhere tundra in no time. There’s a bleakness in winter that can’t be matched, and of course a lot of history. Cincinnati is an old river city, so the neighborhoods, suburbs, strip malls, etc. all have a ghostly quality after a while, just from existing together… It’s a feeling maybe not of happiness but of somehow being home. That goes for the people I know here too. It’s just where I live and I like it.
KB: Almost everything. Writing fiction, for me, is about seeing and then finding meaning from what I see. Then the meaning gets turned into narrative so that it’s not “meaning” any more as much as a forward progression toward mystery. Without the setting, landscape, buildings, temperature, smells, etc., there would not be a reason to, or even a way to, write I don’t think. So characters come from apartment complexes I pass on the way to work, or fields on a rainy afternoon, or the way sunlight hits a windshield just so that it somehow jars you into feeling you’re not alone… As far as my characters’ motivations and journeys if you get started on the right track, at the right moment, the motivation and the journey are kind of built into what you’re doing. Sometimes you get that at the beginning of a story, in the first draft, and you can follow through; often, though, you have to revise and revise to get at it. Either way, it all begins with seeing and experiencing what I see.
GA: You broke my heart a little with the story “Happy That They Hate Us.” Can you tell us what it felt like when you wrote the last lines of the piece? And how do you feel about, Gina, your main character?
KB: That’s one of my faves… Gina is one of those characters you can’t aggrandize or even figure out. She just is. And the main fiction-writing gig here is about how to humanize her without overdoing it, without being romantic about the whole shitty situation. She has an innocence and a will to live that’s wild enough to be commendable, but she keeps making the same mistakes willfully and even happily I think. So that ending is very sad because she’s kind of admitting to her own exhaustion with herself. Those last few lines are about her letting us know that she knows what’s wrong with her, that she is cognizant of her selfishness, but that doesn’t really matter to her because “there is no other place to go.” It’s one of those moments I always want to get to when I write stories. Writing sometimes decorates and helps us cherish people and things in that high-end literary way. But I think my version of writing, for better or for worse, gets rid of decoration, and forces you to see beyond “cherishing” into a realm of if not of understanding, at least of realization of how much you have in common with people you think are beneath you.
GA: When specifically thinking about your story, “Lowest of the Low,” how do you feel about the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished?” How much control do you think your character, Dwayne, has to change his situation?
KB: Dwayne is another one of those characters I do that are hard to figure out because he is what he is without a lot of explanation, just action and narrative and gesture, and that can sometimes mystify people, and at the end of day I would rather mystify than explain anyway. There’s no room for judgement, just the reality of his situation, in “Lowest of the Low.” He is openhearted and full of love, but he has a hard time finding a focus for it all, so his love often turns on him, gets him into trouble because it does not have a venue or a voice, just a desire to express itself. “No good deed goes unpunished” is totally a key to Dwayne’s life; he wants to take action but he also doesn’t understand actually how to take action; he’s all feeling. But that kind of also makes him heroic: he does not stop trying. All the punishment in the world cannot separate him from his will to love people in the way he needs too. His kindness both condemns him and allows him escape.
GA: In my view, books like Next to Nothing that show what depression looks like can be cathartic or even life-changing for a reader, but could you finish this sentence? What drives me to depict depression, poverty, and emotional struggle is______.
KB: A need to understand it all without decorating it, without diagnosing it and fixing it. I think poetry comes from that need to find words to distill and distinguish situations and issues that are often codified and regulated with “therapeutic” language and strategies; poetry and fiction can find and even celebrate the wildness, the absurdity that somehow reveals what everything actually is. And since I’ve been around a lot of poverty and depression and struggle for a lot of my life it’s kind of what I’m most comfortable with in a lot of ways, and what I’m most interested in. Plus all of that stuff creates drama, which is the fuel for writing stories really; you need that fuel to make things interesting, to keep things moving.
GA: I read that one of your favorite authors is Mary Gaitskill, and one of my favorite books is her novel, Veronica. Maybe you can help me because when asked what I love about that book, I usually answer, “I’m not sure. It just makes me want to write.” So can you tell us what you love about her writing and the writing of your other favorite authors?
KB: Mary Gaitskill’s writing is skillfully matter-of-fact, but also lyrical and translucent; she gets to a point without getting pointed. The flow of her prose is like dreaming, but then again it’s closer to reality than dream. She reminds me of Nabokov at his best, especially in her stories, a scalpel-edged clarity borne out of the desire to write so well you lose yourself to it. Veronica, her novel, as well has that hypnotic power without being tricky or purple or over-the-top. When you read her stuff, you can trust that she won’t be putting on a show; she’ll just let you have it in a way that’s sadistic and elegant and almost wordless, even though she’s using words expertly. I’ll mention Nabokov again. He’s up there for me for the same reasons: he’s a stylist, a virtuoso with language, but he also knows when to stop, when to let the writing turn back in on itself and become bliss without a lot of fuss. Other writers I love for probably the same reasons I mention in Gaitskill’s and Nabokov’s work: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Jean Genet, Annie Proulx, Fyodor Dostoevsky, JD Salinger, and so on…
GA: Could you tell us about your art studio and the Thunder-Sky gallery?
KB: I’m a social worker here in Ohio, for people with developmental disabilities, and have been doing that since 1993… I truly love this work, and through that I’ve been able to assist in setting up an art studio for people with developmental disabilities called Visionaries + Voices, which supports over a 100 great artists to make and market their work. There are 2 studios in the Cincinnati area, and I helped co-found (along with my partner Bill Ross) and build the board and programs for V+V till 2009, when I started working on setting up a gallery called Thunder-Sky, Inc. The name of gallery is in homage to Raymond Thunder-Sky, a Native American artist who lived in Cincinnati for most of his life, and drew beautiful drawings of demolition sites across the area. No one knew what he was up to (he was also probably autistic), until close to the time when he passed away. Oh yeah: he also had a penchant for dressing up like a clown/construction-worker too. So he was true outsider, and yet he was integral part of Cincinnati’s culture. People knew him, but did not “know” him. We’ve archived all 2200+ of his drawings he left behind, and we curate bimonthly art exhibits in the gallery that sort of echo Raymond’s ethos and aesthetic… I think a lot of what’s in my writing comes from the same need I have to support artists who are often not included in typical cultural circles. I’m always trying to find that old Island of Misfit Toys so I can feel okay with the world. It’s my destiny.
GA: A lot of the “declining” cities in the Midwest like Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis apparently have world-class art museums. Because of your dedication to the arts, may I ask what you think of their collections? Which museums are your favorites, regardless of location?
KB: It’s wonderful how the rust-belt cities you mention (that came of age in the middle of the 20th Century) have some of the greatest collections in the US. Back then civic coffers and private donors were flush, unlike now of course, so art museum curators were able to purchase (and solicit for donation) great works that just can overwhelm you. In Detroit especially – that collection is just amazing. My favorite art museum I’ve been to, though, is the Tate Modern in London. It’s fucking epic. A room full of huge Cy Twombly paintings, a room dedicated to gigantic Matisse paper-cuttings and on and on – just that huge industrial space overtaken by greatness. You can spend days there. Another great museum in the US is the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; it showcases unconventional artists and has some of the smartest snappiest exhibits around…
GA: Besides the areas of the Midwest you describe, are there other parts of the world which intrigue you? A place you want to know so well you could set another collection of stories there? Or simply a destination at the top of your wish list?
KB: Las Vegas. Wrote a love-story to Vegas that was in Next to Nothing (“Winners Never Sleep!”). Would love to explore that weird, phony, glorious, totally America city more. New Orleans – we go there a lot, have friends there, and I’m trying to work out a way to place a story there. It’s so gorgeously old and trashy and wonderful. Top of my wish-list to visit is Spain. We’ve been to London, Paris, Athens, Prague, Rome, Sicily, but we really want to explore Spain. Think we’re gonna go try to go there soon. One more: probably my favorite city in North America is Toronto. Just the best place to go and walk around and have a good time.
GA: Speaking of wishes, here’s the genie question. Not counting world peace or anything wholly altruistic, what magic wish would you want to come true?
KB: Good Lord. That one is hard. I don’t think like that, in magic-wish terms. Maybe to have Flannery O’Connor back. So she wouldn’t have died at 39 from lupus – more stories from her, more insight, more greatness. Of course I’m thinking one of the main sources of her greatness was the fact that she knew she might die at any moment because of the lupus. So wishing that she did not die might eliminate somehow the purpose of bringing her back? Magic wishes just get on my nerves… Ha. Maybe Kurt Cobain not dying? Or Jeff Buckley not drowning in Memphis? That’s where my mind is going…
GA: Last, is there anything you’ve never been asked in an interview you hoped you would be asked? If so, could you answer it?
KB: Your questions were great. Something I’ve never been asked? Maybe just something head-on like Why the hell do you write what you do? And I guess the answer would be I write what I write because when I sit my ass down to write that’s what’s there in my head. And when I’m not writing, that’s what’s there too. I don’t really prize the niceties of life that much. I like the laughter you get going when things go horribly wrong – I tend to focus on the sad and absurd and perverse because it’s always there, like an old friend. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m an unhappy person, not at all. I laugh a lot. I get tickled at just about anything that’s filthy or silly or pretentious. I think I have a punk attitude, a DIY kind of mentality, and it’s getting more prominent the older I get (just turned 50 yesterday). And that off-center, snarling focus tends to be inspired by the people most other people don’t want to be around. The peripheral thrills me. Thanks for asking great questions and giving me a chance to make up one of my own…
GA: Thank you so much, Keith.
Interview by Gavin Atlas