PW: It's been six years since Cloudsplitter—did you spend most of this time researching and writing The Darling?
Yes and no—I started making notes six years ago, but I was working on assembling my short story collection, The Angel on the Roof, and also doing film projects and political work. The writing took the last three years.
You've ventured into Africa before in short-story form. What inspired you to take on Liberia as a novel-length project?
The character of Hannah Musgrave [the book's narrator] became so large in my mind that I realized it would take a novel to accommodate her—her complications, nuances, the events of her life. I've been interested in Africa for years and particularly Liberia; the interest intensified while I was researching Cloudsplitter, when I discovered how closely Liberia was connected to U.S. racial history. It's fascinating how one book creates the groundwork for the next book to stand on.
I became very interested in women who dedicate their lives to preserving higher primates, chimpanzees in particular—the Jane Goodall phenomenon. This led to the realization that there are a lot of women like this in the world, committing to this type of project and sacrificing their families. And I know women who have committed their lives to politics, and sacrificed their lives to that. It tends to be that women like that are regarded skeptically, their lives viewed as dysfunctional in a way—yet if they were male, they'd be regarded as heroic. I thought, what if women could do both? I wondered how combining radical politics with the chimpanzees would fit together psychologically, politically, and morally.
What kind of research did you do?
I've been in West Africa several times. Last year I tried getting into Liberia but only got as far as the border. I put quite a bit of energy into traveling, as well as personal interviews, and I combined this with reading research—like most novelists, I'm a secret library rat and love the opportunity to learn.
Given Hannah's direct involvement with the fate of Liberia, some readers may wonder if Russell Banks has inside information. Any comment?
Well, I don't really know how Charles Taylor got sprung from prison—but I do know that the Weather Underground managed to spring Timothy Leary and get him to Algeria. So I thought, wouldn't it be possible for a small Weather cell to spring Taylor? And also that there would be CIA involvement?
Is there anything you hope that readers will take away from this book and apply to the perception of Americans in the world today?
During these Liberian civil wars the media referred constantly to the country as having a special relationship with the U.S., as if it had been an entirely benevolent relationship, but one that bore with it no responsibility . . . I hope it brings readers to see that we have a very deep and historical and profound responsibility as a result, that we've used and abused Africans and African Americans for generations, and that when a war like this erupts it happens because of our historical relationship to that region.
Any particular subject in mind for your next project?
It's always good to begin a new book before the last one is published. I'm starting a new novel, and I'll just say that it's set up in the Adirondacks in 1936—I'm trying to understand the Great Depression.
An excuse for more reading and research?