G Force

Of Black and Banville

(Douglas Banville)
By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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Q. What will you be reading at Brown?

A. I’ll be reading from a John Banville book that I’ve been working on for four years, not a Benjamin Black. It’s part of a novel about a retired stage actor who is recalling an affair he had when he was 15, with the 35 year-old mother of his best friend, in a small town in Ireland. Not a very frequent occurrence, I would think. The passage describes his first seduction, and his appearance at confession afterward. It’s quite funny and moving.

Q. How do Black and Banville divide their time?

A. I’ve got a schedule now. I do a Benjamin Black in the spring and early summer. I hate summer so this is a wonderful excuse to sit in my room and pound away at a crime book. I write those quickly on the computer, in three to four months. What I want from Benjamin Black is spontaneity; John Banville writes in longhand with a fountain pen. I can’t do them both at the same time. Banville was never much interested in character, dialogue, and plot, and Black is entirely character and dialogue and plot. With the crime novels, it’s delightful to have protagonists I can revisit in book after book. It’s like having a fictitious family.

Q. Who sells better, Black or Banville?

A. I have no idea. I never check those figures. It’s like looking at your bank balance. You’re always shocked and disappointed afterward. Banville had quite a big sale with “The Sea,’’ because it won the Booker Prize. You know what they say [laughing]: you’re only as good as your last Booker Prize. With crime fiction, you have to write a half-dozen before they catch on. I’ve done four Black novels, and one will be published in July, so I certainly hope to get them established.

Q. “Christine Falls’’ is set half in Boston. Do you know this area?

A. I know Boston a little. I visited, and a friend drove me to Cotuit. But I really don’t know anywhere. I don’t know Dublin. Places are much more real if you make them up. I wrote two books in the 1970s about the astronomers Copernicus and Kepler. For the Copernicus book, I didn’t go to Poland and people afterward told me how well I “caught’’ 16th-century Poland. I said, “How would you know what 16th-century Poland is like?’’ They would answer, “Well, you described it as I imagined it to be.’’

Q. Commenting on your own novels, you’ve said: “I hate them all. . . . I loathe them. They’re all a standing embarrassment.’’ Seems a little harsh. . .

A. When I say I don’t like my own work, that doesn’t mean it isn’t better than everyone else’s [laughs]. I mean it’s not good enough for me. I’m very pleased with the Benjamin Black books, they are good solid honest work. The Banville books are embarrassing because they are such failures. Martin Amis once observed that any page of prose is a record of two thousand mistakes. I think that’s a wild underestimate. It’s the struggle for perfection that drives one, and probably what damages one, too.

Q. So is your work getting better?

A. The more you practice the better you get. I’ve been writing for more than 50 years, so inevitably I get a bit better. But you have to beware of facility. The danger is that you’ll say any old thing. Nothing good was ever easily got.

Q. How electronic are you? Do you own a Kindle?

A. I don’t own a Kindle, no. I love books, they are beautiful objects. I’m leaving for a trip to Italy now, and I have four huge doorstoppers in my suitcase. I can’t be without them. I’m a print man. I grew up writing with a fountain pen. I’m barely computer literate. I use the computer as a glorified typewriter. I don’t know what the computer can do. Every now and then I hit a button and weird stuff comes up, for instance the type will change color. But I am addicted to e-mail. I hate weekends. Nobody ever writes to me on the weekend.

Q. I’ll send you an e-mail the day after tomorrow.

A. Thank you very much. I’ll look forward to that.

Interview was condensed and edited. Alex Beam can be reached at

John Banville
The Irish author has written 15 novels, including “The Sea,’’ which won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. A former literary editor of the Irish Times, Banville has also written a series of popular mystery novels under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black.’’
Banville will be reading from his work at Brown University on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Salomon Hall.