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Russell Banks, "a great American novelist," 1940-2023

The New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany is deeply saddened at the death of our longtime friend and collaborator, Russell Banks. He truly was a great American novelist who enlivened Writers Institute’s programs on many occasions. -- NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl

(Times Union archive photo)
Russell Banks at his home in Saratoga Springs in 2008. (Times Union archive photo)

The literary world lost a lion with the passing of Russell Banks, who died Sunday, Jan. 8 at his home in Saratoga Springs.

Through his numerous visits to the NYS Writers Institute during the past 40 years and his decades-long friendship with our founder William Kennedy, we could proudly claim Russell as one of our own.

Whether he was alone on stage reading from his works, speaking on a panel discussion, or in his travels as the official New York State Author from 2004 to 2008, Russell's presence ensured a brilliant, lively discussion.

"Russell Banks was a writer of consequence. He also was a major human being," Kennedy said. "His books have changed the minds of people who change the world, which was his purpose in writing them. He was a writer of force and deliberation, and his work stands as an article of faith in the significance of literature. That his voice is now silent is beyond sadness."

“Out of the 2,500 writers we have brought to the (Writers) Institute from around the world, nobody captured the hard-scrabble working class experience like Russell Banks did in his novels,” Grondahl told Times Union reporter Pete DeMola Sunday evening. “It was a world he knew intimately and a world he grew up in and he did it like no other writer.” Story.

The New York Times captured his essence with the headline for his obituary, Russell Banks, Novelist Steeped in the Working Class, Dies at 82. Reporter Rebecca Chace wrote: "The prolific author of 21 works of fiction and nonfiction, Mr. Banks brought his own blue-collar background to bear in his writing, delving into the psychological pressure of life in economically depressed towns in the Northeast, their stark reality often shadowed by the majestic Adirondacks of northern New York State."

“There’s an important tradition in American writing, going back to Mark Twain and forward to Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, whose work is generated by love of people who are scorned and derided,” he told The Guardian in 2000. “I have an almost simple-minded affection for them. My readers are not the same as my characters, as I’m very aware. So I’m glad when they feel that affection too.”

Paul Grondahl, William Kennedy, and Russell Banks pose with an attendee at Banks' final appearance with the NYS Writers Institute at the University at Albany on November 30, 2021.

Two of his novels -- Cloudsplitter (1999) and Continental Drift (1986) -- were selected as Pulitzer Prize finalists. Two of his books were adapted into films in the late 1990s: “The Sweet Hereafter,” directed by Atom Egoyan, “Affliction," directed by Paul Schrader. His also wrote 12 other novels, six short-story collections, two poetry books, and three works of nonfiction. He was also a frequent guest at the NYS Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

2021: Russell Banks' final NYS Writers Institute event

Russell Banks discusses his recently-published novel Foregone with William Kennedy. At the 42:52 mark, he shared a story of the time Jack Kerouac stayed at his home in Chapel Hill, NC. "... one of the the worst weeks of my life... Be careful what you wish for."


Russell Banks sat on a panel discussing "election mischief, cybercrimes, and civil liberties" in October, 2018. The event was part of a two-day during the Writers Institute's "Telling the Truth" symposium held at the University at Albany.


Russell Banks shares thoughts on historical fiction during a talk at RPI's 67th McKinney Writing Contest Award Ceremony and Reading, co-sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute, on April 16, 2008.


On the fifth anniversary celebration of "This American Life," following an introduction by host Ira Glass, Russell Banks reads "The Moor" from his collection of short fiction The Angel on the Roof. (December 29, 2000)


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