Russell Banks on Lost Memory of Skin

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First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (22/5/12)

The New York Times called him "the most compassionate fiction writer working today." It seems that author Russell Banks has come a long way from his impoverished childhood in Massachusetts in the 1950s. It took many bumps in the road before Banks gathered the confidence to try his hand at fiction, but once he did, it opened up a whole new world. By focusing on the world he grew up in — poor, blue-collar America — Banks has offered readers intimate and emotionally affecting portraits of characters on the margins of society: Affliction was about an embittered small-town cop, The Sweet Hereafter explored how a community dealt with a terrible tragedy. He's done it again with his twelfth novel, Lost Memory of Skin, which tells the story of a convicted sex offender living under a causeway in South Florida. Banks finds humanity in people who are feared and despised, and asks whether society allows redemption for everyone — or just a chosen few.

As with much of his work, Banks didn't set out to write a novel about a sex offender. It's loosely based on a story he stumbled across. Banks owns a condo in Miami Beach and it overlooks the Julia Tuttle Causeway. A fews ago, the causeway made national news when convicted sex offenders began living beneath the bridge. A Miami bylaw prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of places where there might be children, leaving them little choice about where they could live. This problem fascinated Banks. "There they were, dropped like trolls," Banks said to George Stroumboulopoulos. "I just began to wonder what it would be like to be under that bridge."

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Banks also became fascinated with wondering what it was like for a convicted sex offender to re-integrate into society. The term "convicted sex offender" applies to so many different kinds of people: they vary in race, socioeconomic standing, age and severity of the crime. But once they're released, they are defined by the one label they have in common -- and nothing is done to rehabilitate them once they have served their time. "What if you were a kid, a loser type kid, who crossed a line that you didn't know existed?" Banks asked himself. 

That's the premise of Lost Memory of Skin. The Kid, as he's known, is charged with attempting to have sex with a minor. He's convicted, serves time, then must deal with the ramifications of being labelled a "convicted sex offender" and the fact that, because of this label, society chooses to ignore him. After all, "once we release these offenders from prison, they're all lumped together."

The novel came out just last fall, but there's already movie buzz surrounding it. Several of his films have been adapted into movies, including Atom Egoyan's award-winning The Sweet Hereafter. Banks won't say much about the new project, but acknowledges that working on adapting a novel into a film is a very creatively demanding project. Banks, who is not a fan of the term "adaptation," likens it to trying to turn a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional one. "You think of it as a big round jar with a flat bottom. You throw it on the ground and smash it into pieces. Then you go through the pieces and you pick out the flat ones and leave the rest, because the flat ones you can reassemble into a movie."

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