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From Alaska To The Himalayas, 'Voyager' Embarks On Self-Discovery


Do people travel to see new things or to get away from the old ones? The question keeps presenting itself in "Voyager: Travel Writings," a collection of pieces by the respected novelist Russell Banks that ranges from Alaska to the Caribbean to the Everglades to the Himalayas but also through questions about life, love and discovery. Russell Banks, whose last book was a "Permanent Member Of The Family," joins us from the studios of the BBC in Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUSSELL BANKS: Well, thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

SIMON: So you were trying to go towards something or what about the get away from it aspect?

BANKS: Yeah, that's a good question. And that's one of the questions I've tried to deal with. In fact, the book turns out to be much more of a personal memoir than I anticipated because as I got into these old essays and started rewriting them and rethinking them and reliving them, really, reliving the journeys, I was led inevitably and inescapably, I guess, to reflect upon who I was at that time. I mean, many of them took place 15, 10, 20 years ago and sometimes even further back.

SIMON: You write a man who's been married four times has a lot of explaining to do (laughter).

BANKS: (Laughter) I know. Well, I was led as a result directly into a recapitulation, a re-enactment and for me personally and - of how and why I came to be, at the age of 76, a man who had been married four times and divorced three times.

SIMON: Can I get you to read the opening paragraph in a section you have set in Alaska?

BANKS: That's a funny essay. It's called "Last Days Feeding Frenzy," and it begins this way. (Reading) Five minutes out of Anchorage past the karaoke joints and stripper bars, the fast food outlets and flag-flapping car dealers, suddenly there was scree, glacial ice and endless sky above, serrated cliffs and crashing waves below. And I was in the Alaskan wilderness, snow-crested mountains tumbled through fir trees and sedimented rock into the cold, zinc-gray sea and the sight of it took my breath away literally. My chest tightened as I drove and I thought I'm not worthy of this much beauty. No human is. But I'll sure as hell take it.

SIMON: It's a wonderful section of the book, the entire essay, but there seems to be almost a sense of doom in it.

BANKS: Well, it turns out - here I am driving a Hummer doing a - for a magazine, assigned to write about the issue and so the Hummer 2, the first real passenger version of the Hummer. And all the signs of climate change are beginning to appear in the melting of the soil and it was inescapable as I drive a car that gets eight miles a gallon and is the most self-indulgent vehicle perhaps manufactured on the planet at the time. And I'm also at the same time getting a real pleasure out of driving this incredible car. And this is such a sensuous beast as I drive down the - down the peninsula. Yeah, it was a dark trip.

SIMON: Please tell us about your telling interview with Fidel Castro.

BANKS: It was a remarkable afternoon. Initially, it was supposed to be an hour or so long, and it turned into, I think, a seven-hour interlude. I brought a copy of one of my books and we spoke about it. And then Fidel said, OK, we're friends now. You can ask me anything you want. At one point, I asked him do you regret anything? And to my astonishment he said yes, I never should've trusted the Russians, which I thought was kind of wonderfully candid for a moment.

And then he said something very interesting - I thought the revolution would eliminate racism in Cuba, and if you've looked around since you've been here, you've seen that most people in positions of service and labor are black and most people in positions of authority and power look like me. He said, so I was wrong.

SIMON: When you're traveling through some place, do you feel that you've got to explain a place to Americans?

BANKS: Well, yes and no. I don't feel as though I'm much different than the person who's likely to be reading this piece. I'm going to learn as I go, and I like to think these essays kind of unfold in that way. I'm a fiction writer by nature and a storyteller at heart. And so my impulses as a fiction writer, as a storyteller, still dominate how I'm going to write this essay

SIMON: Where would you like to go next?

BANKS: I'm going back to Ecuador. There's an essay, a travel essay in here, and it's about climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, which is the highest active volcano in the world - 19,300 feet. And I went there about 15 years ago and fell and broke my collarbone in three places and had to come back down, and I never completed it. And so I've since wanted to return, you know, to climb back up on the horse that threw me, as it were. And finally decided I better do it now.

I'm 76 years old and pretty soon I'm not going to be able to do this at all. And so I'm planning now to return there in December this year. I've got three friends who are willing to go that route with me, and then that's the next big trek I think I'll take.

SIMON: Russell Banks - his book, "Voyager: Travel Writings" - thanks so much for being with us.

BANKS: Well, thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.