Novelists spend countless hours in isolation, and some rely on cherished objects for encouragement, companionship, and comfort. Charles Dickens, for instance, placed a row of small figurines on his desk, including dueling bronze frogs and a porcelain monkey, that he had to have arranged in a specific way. Roald Dahl’s desk was cluttered with mementos, including a piece of his own hipbone removed after his RAF plane crashed in Egypt during World War II. Don DeLillo keeps a photograph of the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges on hand and looks at his face—“fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping,” he told the Paris Review—before he settles down to work.
When I asked Russell Banks—whose new story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, is out today—to contribute to this series, he chose to write about his own prized curio. For five decades, he’s shared his office with a gravestone angel. Its inscription, both a mandate and reminder, has been an inspiration throughout Banks’s writing life.
Russell Banks, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is the author of 18 acclaimed works of fiction, including The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction (both adapted into Academy Award-winning films). A Permanent Member of the Family is his short fiction collection in 13 years. The stories here concern the dissolution of relationships and sudden closeness of total strangers: In “Snowbirds,” a woman feels freed by her husband’s fatal heart attack, while in “The Transplant,” a heart recipient meets the widow whose husband’s organ beats inside his chest. Russell Banks wrote this essay from his home in Keene, New York, the small town he has chronicled in these stories and many others.