Alexandria, VA – If you see Tess Banion walking about Old Town, you may wonder if you’ve had an Anna Wintour sighting. The hair on point with the sunglasses that never quit. It’s the perfect Vogue picture of one of Alexandria’s newest residents.
For six months, Tess Banion, author, activist, and documentary producer, has been learning her way through our Saturday farmer’s market and new favorite haunts that include La Fromagerie, Fontaine Caffe & Creperie, and the Majestic. On one of the first fall evenings of the year, Tess and her husband of 41 years, George, shared the delights of and reasons behind the Kansas to Virginia move.
“I have a lovely daughter who lives here with her husband and three of my grandchildren. As I’ve learned in being here, many people who move to D.C. don’t have family around, and in my careers, I could work from anywhere. My son, who is in Minnesota with his wife and two more beautiful grandchildren, has a lot of support there.”
Leaving a life in Lawrence, KS that she and George “loved, loved, loved” was not easy, but the pleasure of making new friends and becoming a supportive as-needed mother and grandmother in Alexandria is filling her days with surprises and joys. “Helping my daughter, writing, I walk a lot – it’s a very walkable city. You’re not a full-time mom to a grown daughter. I get to help when a nanny doesn’t show or when something goes wrong. A writer can write anywhere.”
James A. Cox of the Midwest Book Review described Tess’s first novel, A Parting Glass, as “A deftly crafted and engaging story of hope and transformations…one of those rare novels that will linger in mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished.”
“It’s really a book of hope,” says Banion. “And if anybody takes anything away from it, it’s that people are resilient, they can be resilient. Usually there is a competent adult in a child’s life who shepherds them through. You can always be a competent adult for a child.”
Writing A Parting Glass was a cathartic process for Banion. She grew up in a home where her father’s presence was always felt until his abrupt death in his early 40s. “I learned things about myself. I thought it would be a story about this family overcoming challenges, of redemption. Mostly of resilience and hope.” With support from her therapist husband and others, she learned to acknowledge her PTSD.
A Parting Glass is written from a child’s point of view. “I hope that people start to understand that we need to pay attention to the things we do with kids. We never really understand how big we are or the trust that needs to exist between parent and child. I hope people get some of this from the book.”
While Banion notes that her book is “based on truths, half-truths, and flat-out lies,” she is well aware of how your surroundings as a child become a part of the adult you become. “Be very mindful of how you come across. I’m different today, and I’ve apologized to my grandkids twice in six months. Kids don’t intend to make people mad. Most of the time, they don’t know. Little kids are not evil – they learn evil. They are just being kids.”
In addition to being an apologetic grandmother, recently acquired skills in Tess Banion’s life include becoming her novel’s marketing and sales department. “The big thing people don’t understand about selling books is that if you sell a million books, maybe you make a million dollars. You pay the printer, the publisher, the online store, and the last person to make money is the author.” Going into the holiday season, Banion will do the heavy lifting by buying her book through her publisher and offering it to local bookstores without any purchase cost to store owners.
“Writers don’t see much profit from their work. Do I want to make money? Of course I want to make money, but I want to feel good about the way I do it. It’s an approach that works here because I have access to a huge metropolitan area where I can stop by in an afternoon and drop off five books and some display information.”
Small businesses will benefit from her approach to selling. “Big box bookstores can order in huge quantities. Smaller bookstores don’t have the space to put a thousand books in the back. Amazon is so huge, they don’t need one penny of my money. They’ll do fine without me.”
Banion has never been afraid of striking out on her own. Her first foray into filmmaking was drafting a stage play about a political campaign with a former co-worker in politics. “I thought I could write a movie,” she says. Collaborating with a writing partner, along with a move to the Twin Cities and joining a writing group, laid the foundation of her documentary, Garden City.
The documentary is based on a 2016 failed domestic terrorist bombing in Garden City, KS, of an apartment complex that included a mosque where 120 Somali immigrants and town residents worshiped. The FBI investigated over eight months before the planned attack and found three White males in their late 40s planned to fill four vehicles with explosives and park them at the four corners of the mosque.
The documentary was produced with release to theaters and festivals slated for the first quarter of 2022. “We didn’t start out to dump on any one person. We started to tell the story of one town and what an event of this kind would have done to this beautiful mosaic of people,” says Banion.
As our interviews came to a close, Tess shared some lessons she’s learned and is still cultivating. “Are we emotionally equipped to deal with change? Some people are, some people aren’t, and it has a lot to do with how you’re treated as a child. Overall, [Garden City] is about a community that’s not perfect, but they do a lot of things right. I tend to think that people who are engaged in some of these really crazy things – it could be what’s happening in their lives. I think their motivation is truly fear.”