Drew Banks on His Next Two (!) Novels

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 20, 2009

When Drew Banks set out to write his first novel "Able Was I," the story of a gay man reconciling himself with events from his youth, the author had no thoughts of a sequel. Indeed, the impetus for not one, but two follow-ups came from an unexpected direction.

The happy result is the upcoming publication of Ere I Saw Elba this spring. To call the book a sequel is a bit of a misnomer, as Banks himself explained to EDGE.

"I never intended 'Able Was I' to be a trilogy," wrote Banks in an email from San Francisco recently.

"In fact, it was the person I would have least suspected to read the book, much less inspire its continuance, who suggested it: my father," Banks continued.

"It was August, 2006; I was on my 'Able Was I' book tour. I had flown into Raleigh, NC (where my father lived) for a reading.

"I had to change my flight at the last minute to a red eye because the NC NPR affiliate WUNC had called me and asked me if I could do a radio interview the morning of my reading" Banks related.

"My flight landed around 7:00 a.m. I had no sleep, and just enough time to get to the radio station in Durham.

"My extremely conservative father picked me up at the airport, and on the drive over, he began his usual political prodding, espousing that George W. Bush was the best president this country had ever seen (I kid you not), bait which I uncharacteristically ignored due to my exhaustion and anxiety about the interview."

Banks recollects that, "At some point, this conversation thread waned, and to my surprise, he began another: my book.

"Now I really became nervous, because it became clear that my father had actually read 'Able Was I.' This was a complete and utter shock, and now it was I who did my best to change the subject.

"Before I was able to do so, he asked, 'Have you considered a sequel?' When I tried to brush the question off with a quick no, he asked, 'What about a prequel?'"

Reveals Banks, "Though 'Ere I Saw Elba' is neither a sequel nor a prequel, in that moment the idea of the trilogy was born."

If "Ere I Saw Elba" is not a sequel to "Able Was I"--and not a prequel either--then how would Banks characterize it? And what relation will the third book bear to the first two?

Banks outlined his idea for EDGE, writing, "'The Elba Trilogy' (as I now call it) is a thematic trilogy on the themes of forgiveness, exile, and acceptance.

"The books are not in chronological sequence, but rather are the stories of three different protagonists whose lives intersect on the island of Elba."

The author continued, "'Ere I Saw Elba' is story of Brigitte Cremi?ux, a French woman from a notable half-Jewish lineage whose family narrowly escaped Nazi persecution but after the war, lapsed into dysfunction that resulted in Brigitte's teenage pregnancy.

"She was shipped off to Elba to have the child but chose never to return, and instead built a life in exile from her family and homeland."

As for the planned third novel, "'I before ?' is the story of Paolo Viglietti who, at the age of eight, moves from Elba to New York City after the tragic drowning of his father," Banks explained.

"The novel's central theme is Paolo's longing to learn more about his father and his Italian heritage, pitted against his mother's obstinate silence on the matter."

The first two novels take their titles from the famous palindrome "Able was I ere I saw Elba," a witty little line that makes reference to Napoleon's military successes and his exile to the Italian isle.

The third novel, too, relies on that little ditty for its moniker. Wrote Banks, "The title is a rewording of the center of the palindrome (I ere I), and represents the English/American I before the Italian ?."

Banks shared the moving outcome from the unexpected embrace of his work on the part of his father, writing, "My father and I did make it to the radio station in time. My father was duly impressed by the attention given to us by the NPR personnel (and more impressed that the show I was on, The State of Things, was an hour split between an interview with me and an interview with the ambassador to India).

"There was one awkward moment when I was given the below underlined photocopy of an 'Able Was I' excerpt I was to read, a childhood memory of the novel's protagonist Grey Tigrett:

"It was Christmas morning-midmorning. Grey was twelve. A few years before, the thrill of Christmas had faded. This year he didn't awake in predawn darkness to sneak, heart pounding, into the living room and be the first one to see the presents their parents had stayed up half the night wrapping. His father hadn't slept on the couch as a sentinel against his poaching. Rather he was there because, at some point, the couch went from his Christmas Eve watchpost to his occasional late-night falling-asleep-in-front-of-the-TV spot to his permanent bed."

Confided Banks, "This is one of the few scenes in 'Able Was I' that was pulled from an actual childhood memory of mine, a memory that didn't paint the most flattering portrait of my father."

Banks continued, "The mixture of emotions I felt is hard to describe. As I switched out interview seats with the ambassador, I felt my father's eyes watching as I nervously prepared myself for the interview.

"Afterward, when I asked how he thought it went, he said, 'You did fine son, just fine.' We stood there for an awkward moment, speechless, until he righted the world by adding, 'You said umm quite a bit, but I'm sure no one else noticed."

Banks added, "That night he accompanied me to my reading and the following day we drove together to my book reading in Ashville.

"My dad died this fall," the author wrote. "That road trip to Ashville was the last time we spent any significant time together.

"Over the course of the weekend, I learned that, though we agreed on little, he was still my father and I was still his son."

Banks continued, "As I review the final edit of 'Ere I Saw Elba,' I'm shocked to discover a paternal theme that underscores this sentiment. It is eerie indeed how art often does imitate reality, even though the artist himself is an unwitting accomplice."

Some readers of "Able Was I" had expressed a desire to see more sex in the book, while an agent for the second book would just as soon have had 'Ere I Saw Elba' offer less, "to make the book more palatable to a straight audience," Banks related.

True to his muse, the writer didn't allow anyone else's preferences to dictate his decisions.

"No, I haven't succumbed to this pressure to suppress adult scenes/themes," Banks wrote EDGE.

"Though 'Ere I Saw Elba' does not have a scene as 'risqu?' as the sex scene in 'Able Was I,' there is one incident in particular (or rather the character's treatment of this incident) in the book that has drawn far more criticism from my readers.

"I can't say more, because the incident is central to the novel's plot resolution," teased the author.

Banks, like many writers, pursues a full-time occupation, with the writing of novels occurring in his free time. The President and COO of Pie, a company that enables ease of home networking.

Running one's own business is a time-intensive undertaking, so how does Banks manage to fulfill his creative urges on top of everything else he needs to do in the course of a day?

"With great difficulty," Banks quipped. "My work method is to eke out any time I can."

A few factors that work in his favor there: "I don't have children, and sadly no longer have pets, so that frees up quite a bit of time."

Moreover, "My partner is an OB/GYN, and that helps, because when he is on call delivering babies, I can write guilt-free."

The first two chapters from both "Able Was I" and "Ere I Saw Elba" can be read--or heard as a podcast--online.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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