Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter

Remembering Russell Banks

Russell Banks, who died Jan. 7 at age 82, is one of the authors who inspired me to read most of what he had written as well as write my own books. He is also the only famous author I’ve actually met thus far, certainly a more memorable experience for me than him I’m sure.

First, let me tell you some about Banks. He was the author of 14 novels, plus works of nonfiction, books of poetry and short stories. His writing typically reflects the working-class upbringing he had in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Often they involved tragedies and difficulties people face. Two novels were made into feature films, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. Two novels, Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were nominated for Pulitzers. I have four in my possession, including my personal favorite, The Sweet Hereafter. And that book has a connection to meeting Banks.

Russell Banks’ photo on the back of The Sweet Hereafter.

In 2004, Banks was at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Vermont to promote his latest, The Darling with a reading. I went specifically to hear him read. We were living in Worthington, Mass. then. I had an agent and two books written that he couldn’t sell. 

At last minute, I grabbed my copy of The Sweet Hereafter in case I could get him to sign it.

The Sweet Hereafter is a grim book about a school bus accident in which fourteen children die and how those living in a small town in Upstate New York respond. Banks was inspired by a similar accident in South Texas. 

The story is told by four characters: Dolores Driscoll, the woman who drove the bus and survived; Billy Ansel, who lost his two children in the accident; Mitchell Stephens, an ambulance-chasing lawyer; and Nichole Burnell, a teen who survives but can no longer walk. Banks did an expert job capturing small-town life complete with its dark secrets. Didn’t I say he inspired me?

That Saturday, Banks was on stage in an auditorium as he spoke and read from The Darling in an engaging way. The main character is a woman, a ’60s radical who flees to Africa.

After he was done, Banks left the stage and was immediately surrounded by people clutching books for him to sign. I held the first edition hard cover of The Sweet Hereafter I bought for ten bucks as I joined them.

I waited patiently, trying not to groan when one woman presented him with a stack of dog-eared paperbacks. Banks smiled and signed each book without complaint.

I was up next when an eager festival worker rushed down the auditorium’s aisle to inform Banks he was needed right away in the lobby to sign books. Well, there goes my chance I thought. Banks told the woman he would be right there but that I would accompany him. He gestured toward me, “She comes with me.” 

Touched by the moment, I followed Banks to the head of the line, where he crossed out his printed name on the title page of The Sweet Hereafter and signed below it. (You can see it in the photo above.)  I told him how much I loved the book and thanked him. 

I read that novel at least twice more after that, and during each one, I recall the brief moment I connected with the author. Thank you, Russell Banks.


TikTok Goes Tick Tock

Yes, I have gone over to TikTok. But it’s all for a good cause — to win over readers.  I will admit it has been a bit of a learning curve but I’m game for new challenges. Here’s how to find me: @joanlivingston_author. Are you on TikTok? Let me know.

But now, I’m going to back up a bit about connecting with the internet. I can recall when I knew only two people who had email — my daughter, Sarah, and a friend from college, Fred. In those days I got internet that came over my phone line and I paid the local university $25 a year. Even the newspaper I worked for then didn’t have a website. But that whole scene certainly has changed.

My first social media efforts: I signed up for  Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ve kept the first and recently dropped the second since I’m not looking for a job. Next was Twitter and more recently, Instagram. After a fellow author did a zoom class this fall on TikTok, specifically the benefits of BookTok, I joined but didn’t do much.

But fortunately our son, Ezra, who was visiting one the holidays from California, knows a lot about Instagram and TikTok, specifically how to make livelier posts via videos. As an artist and a Burner — as in Burning Man — he is far more skilled. It was time for the son to teach the mother the ins and outs, which he did patiently over the course of a few days. So thank you, Ezra.

Since signing on with darkstroke books five years ago, I’ve learned about promotion. Some of it I pay for, like Fussy Librarian and Written Word Media. On Jan. 10, BookBub will be spreading the word about my new release The Sacred Dog

Then there is the free stuff like posts on the above-mentioned social media plus what I write on my website. I try not to bore people with the “buy my book” mantra. Yes, there is some of that but I want readers to enjoy my observations about life. It’s part of my writing day.

My latest posts? Videos about a secret door in my childhood home, my talking about The Sacred Dog on release day, plus Little Libraries, trains, and waterfalls in my village. By the way, the trains and waterfalls sure has a lot of fans. I just found out the video I posted about the mini-fridge turned into a Little Library had over a thousand views and over a hundred likes. (That’s a photo of it above.) A good start, I would say.

LINKS TO BOOKS: During the past four months, I have had two book releases: Following the Lead, no. 6 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, and The Sacred Dog, which is an independent novel although I am thinking of a sequel.

Following the Lead:

The Sacred Dog:

New Year

Smoke and a Derailed Train for a New Year

Ours was a quiet, stay-at-home end of 2022 although I was charmed to be awakened at midnight, I presume, when somebody in the neighborhood shot off some kind of fireworks. Awoken, Hank and I wished each other, “Happy New Year.”

Other years, we’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve at friends’ parties, First Nights, and bars.

I recall one New Year’s Eve in a small town’s only bar when it seemed everyone in the joint was planning to quit smoking at the stroke of midnight. So naturally, they were all smoking their brains out that night. 

That was before Massachusetts officially banned smoking in bars and nightclubs. But that night the cigarette smoke hung in a thick cloud over our heads. The man in the next table chain-smoked. “Quitting for the new year?” I asked. Yup, he said, although he ended up sticking with the habit.

Here’s another memorable New Year’s Eve: getting stuck on a train from Boston to Philly to meet my future in-laws because another train had derailed. Most of the passengers were headed to Times Square in New York and keenly disappointed they weren’t going to make it. People got drunk. A fight broke out and the cops had to come on board.

Resolutions? I make them year round so why bother tonight? I do hope Hank and I are able to travel.

Reflections? It was a productive year. I retired from journalism for good. I published three novels, thanks to darkstroke books, and started another. (I am a third of the way into no. 7 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series.) I’m glad to see our children and grandchildren doing well. We live in an interesting house, well maintained thanks to Hank, in an interesting village. There have, of course, been challenges, but I will spare you those.

For the past few days, I’ve been saying “Happy New Year” to strangers such as grocery store cashiers and post office clerks. Everyone has been receptive. I wish the same for you. To a Happy New Year. I like the sound of it myself.

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: Our cat, Stella, sits on the front porch table, telling me it’s time for her to come inside.

Secret Passageway

What’s Behind the Door

Who wouldn’t want to live in house with a secret passageway? I did, sort of, when I was a growing up. 

When my industrious parents constructed their Cape-style home, they held off having bedrooms in the attic for years. The door they had built blocking the upstairs wasn’t ordinary, however. It was also a bookcase with paneling at the bottom, and if someone didn’t notice the hinges, they wouldn’t think it was a doorway.

It was our secret passageway. And I always felt it was one of the best features of our house — along with our player piano in the cellar, my father’s gardens, and a huge genie my mother painted on the wall beside it. 

Eventually, the upstairs bedrooms were finished when our family expanded to four children. We three girls slept upstairs. The bookcase door was then moved upstairs to seal off a storage area. Now that no one sleeps there except for visiting family, the door is back where it was originally installed on the first floor. Old books fill its shelves. You can see it in the photo above.

My fascination for secret passageways was intensified as a kid when I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. This book wasn’t fiction, but a moving account of how her family and others attempted to survive the Nazi regime in Amsterdam by hiding in the Secret Annex. That doorway also was disguised as a bookcase. Unfortunately it was not enough to keep Anne and the others safe. Our experiences couldn’t have been more different. 

During my childhood, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and the entire Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. There were other books and movies in which people could escape to some place secret and didn’t know what they would find there. 

The bookcase door in my parents’ home, alas, didn’t bring me to a magical place. But it certainly kindled my imagination, and I thank them for that.

NEW BOOK: I credit the imagination I had as a child and the determination I have as an adult for creating yet another book: The Sacred Dog. This thriller set in rural New England launched Dec. 27. Kindle readers can find it here: The paperback version will follow soon.

The Sacred Dog

The Sacred Dog Goes Live

My next book, The Sacred Dog, is officially released Tuesday, Dec. 27. Publication of this thriller has been a long time coming. Yes, there is a story behind the story.

As I mentioned before, I had a writer’s block that lasted 25 years, largely because my creative energies gladly went into raising six kids. But I eased my way back into writing — I was a poet in college — by reading what others wrote and when I became a reporter for a local daily. And then I got into fiction when I was hired by the newspaper to be an editor. Freed from producing news stories, I began writing fiction. And what better inspiration for me than the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I lived and reported?

I caught the interest of an agent upon the referral of a fellow author. I pitched one book but he took a liking to another that I hadn’t finished — The Sacred Dog. So I got to work. Dan Green, of Pom Literary Agency, tried his best to get it published with an impressive number of tries for several months, but it didn’t work out. This was in 2002.

And so The Sacred Dog sat. After Dan, who is now retired, and I amicably parted ways, I tried getting it published myself. I added chapters, which I’ve since deleted. I went over that book countless times with a critical eye.

In the meantime, the industry changed dramatically. You know what happened. 

But I am a determined person. I attribute that to my grandparents who literally came over the boat to the US from the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores. I went back inside The Sacred Dog, editing it carefully before I queried darkstroke books, which publishes my Isabel Long Mystery Series. I am grateful to Laurence and Steph Patterson for taking it on.

The Sacred Dog is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. But I am hoping fans of that series will want to read this one. Afterall, the setting is very familiar — the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. And once again, I try to capture its flavor through the characters I’ve created.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been giving insights into the book’s plot and characters. I will continue for the next couple of weeks. Afterall, I am trying to entice Kindle readers to spend $3.99. Alas, paperback readers will have to wait a little while.

HERE’S THE LINK: Order it today and it will magically appear in your device after midnight. Or order whenever you please but here’s where to find it —