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Author Russell Banks sets new novel near his home

NEW YORK (Reuters) - American writer Russell Banks set out to be a painter but abandoned his brushes for a career as a writer that has spanned five decades.

Banks, 67, who has published five short story collections, 11 novels and four poetry collections, has been described as possibly “the leading voice of the working class experience in modern American letters.”

His newly-released 11th novel, “The Reserve,” has love stories overlapping with social history and mystery in the 1930s America and is set in the Adirondack Mountains where Banks has lived for the past two decades.

One of the characters is loosely based on illustrator Rockwell Kent who lived in the Adirondacks.

Banks, whose novels “Cloudsplitter” and “Continental Drift” were Pulitzer Prize finalists, spoke to Reuters about writing:

Q: Did you always want to be a writer?

A: “Not at all. I thought I was going to be an artist, a painter, not a writer. I didn’t have much of a literary bent but I did for painting because I had a visible talent. It’s like music. If you are talented it shows early on but with writing you might be articulate or tell a lot of lies but that won’t necessarily translate into fiction.”

Q: When did you start to focus on writing?

A: “It wasn’t until I fell in love with books and, like a clever monkey trying to imitate, found that writing was taking over my life and the brushes were put aside. But it took decades and I did not image a career or public life.”

Q: Was it your interest in painting that brought Rockwell Kent into “The Reserve”?

Q: “I knew about Rockwell Kent’s work but I moved in 1987 to the Adirondack region and he had lived most his adult life just down the road from my house. His studio and farm is still there and he was a ghostly presence in that valley. He was radical leftist throughout the 1930s and 1940s and even had his passport pulled. He was an interesting figure to me.”

Q: What was the fascination?

A: “I wanted to write about a kind of conflict that a lot of intellectuals and artists and writers of the left have, especially if they are successful. It turns out that the people with whom they most identity and sympathize with are unfamiliar with their work ... and the people they associate with and who support them in many ways are a class of people who they are committed to oppose. It is an odd kind of conflict.”

Q: You’ve written a movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” for Francis Ford Coppola. What’s happening with it?

A: “It’s supposed to be going ahead but I just hear gossip and rumors. It probably won’t happen until next summer. It is not an easy book to adapt as it is so internal and subjective and depends upon the prose. It was fun and challenging but also took me back to that era in my own life as well. I used it to justify going on the road myself. I thought maybe if Kerouac can invent himself as an artist and bohemian coming from a middle class background then maybe I can as well.”

Q: Two of your novels, “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter” have been made into movies with “Darling” also set for the big screen. Do you get very involved with the movies?

A: “I stay involved in as much as I am wanted but it’s a collaborative project, a film, in a way the novel can’t be. People have a lot more power than the writer ... there is always a point where you say it is mot my movie any more.”

Q: What advise do you have for aspiring writers?

A: “I taught for many years at Princeton and I found some of the most talented and committed young writers gets their work and career confused. The best advice I can give a young writer is to be sure to keep your work and career separate and the only one you can control is your work.”

Q: What do you read?

A: “I read everything. Like most fiction writers I am pretty much always working and reading to see who I can learn from. I am pretty indiscriminate. On the other hand, I also read to fuel what I am writing. I don’t read in any kind of organized fashion like when I was younger and I was scrambling to read the classics.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney