Meet Your Heroes: John Banville

I picked up the hardcover along with a stack of other books for no other reason than I liked the jacket design — CHRISTINE FALLS, by Benjamin Black. I set it aside not sure when, or if, I would ever get to it, certainly never suspecting this was a book that would change my life. Around that time, an agent (who would eventually become my agent) had passed on my manuscript (that would eventually become my first novel). He was complimentary of the writing, however, and promised a reread if I rewrote the book. As I felt my way through the revisions, trying to strengthen the core mystery plot that anchors the science-fiction premise, I happened to pull CHRISTINE FALLS from my “read” pile — and was immediately absorbed into the atmosphere of 1950s Dublin, following the bearish pathologist Quirke as he investigated a young woman’s suspicious death. The writing was unusually brilliant — I found myself reading the book’s gorgeous, precise sentences aloud to my wife. About halfway through, I realized that not only was CHRISTINE FALLS one of my favorite reads, but that it provided a blueprint to follow for my own writing as I chased my revisions. CHRISTINE FALLS, more than any other book, taught me how to write a mystery.

What I didn’t know at the time but discovered as soon as I read “about the author” on the jacket’s inner flap, was that “Benjamin Black” is the pseudonym of Man Booker winner John Banville, easily one of the world’s greatest writers, and an author whose books I had read and reread. I greedily devoured Black’s Quirke novels that follow Christine Falls, and highly recommend them to mystery readers who savor beautiful writing.

“Heroes Week” is the brainchild of E.A. Aymar, our ringleader here at the ITW Thrill Begins Blog — he thought to give us bloggers the opportunity to interview an author whose work has particularly influenced our development as writers. He mentioned his idea in a Facebook post, and even as I was hitting “Like,” I was thinking, No way is this guy going to get me in touch with John Banville…

Before long, however, I had an email address and instructions to submit a brief questionnaire. Now that I had the chance, what would I ask John Banville?

I’m most curious about how he writes his sentences, the musicality of his prose, so I started there. I wondered if he listens to music as he works. “I could not listen to music when I write, as I need all the concentration I can manage,” he wrote. Do you read your work aloud? “I think I probably do read aloud to myself, but I’m not aware of it.” I had read an interview where he quoted Auden, and I asked if he read poetry. “And yes, I read poetry. But then, we must keep in mind my old friend John McGahern’s nice distinction: There is verse, and there is prose, and then there’s poetry — and poetry can happen in either mode. He was right.”

John Banville: And before we begin, I must tell you of a remarkable coincidence, or indeed multiple coincidences. You mentioned the CHRISTINE FALLS jacket photograph. I’m presuming you meant the English edition? That image, of a woman in the mid-20th century walking down a cobbled lane under an archway, was chosen more or less at random from the many thousands on offer from the Getty photographic agency. When the book was being published in America, my publishers there, Henry Holt, told me they had already used that same photograph for the jacket of a book of memoirs of Berlin at the end of the war. Already, however, I had the niggling feeling that there was something familiar in the scene. Now: in the early 1960s I lived in Dublin in an apartment I had inherited from an aunt, on Upper Mount Street — a very beautiful part of Dublin —- and when I began to write the Quirke books I gave him this apartment. Long after the book was published, my Greek publisher, who had used the same Getty image for his edition, came to Ireland to make a little video with me. I took him to Mount Street to show him where Quirke lived. He pointed to a cobbled lane under an archway and said, ‘But look! It’s on the jacket!’ And so it was. The Getty photo, from the 1950s, was of Stephen’s Place, off Upper Mount Street, about thirty metres from where Quirke lived. And at that time, my wife had her office just past the archway on the left. And all by chance. Life is strange, but fiction is stranger . . .      

Me: I want to ask about how you write — the construction of sentences. Here’s a striking sequence from CHRISTINE FALLS:

“Had she known she was in danger? Was that why she had refused to let him in? Something she had said to him through the door kept slithering through his mind like an insistent worm.”

My wife remembers when I read that passage aloud to her — I was struck by the image of thoughts “slithering,” by how that verb choice contributes to the tension of the scene, and of the final “worm” that colors the moment with a hint of death and burial. Quirke’s puzzling something out here — the action is essentially Quirke’s thought, but it’s an anxious moment. How many drafts did it take you to construct those sentences — do you write quickly and tighten later, or are you more deliberate, writing precisely as you go?

Banville: I’m afraid my answer will disappoint you. When I began to write, a very long time ago, I thought that I should, and would, be in control of everything that appeared on the page. However, the older I got, the more I realized that I really knew very little about what was going on in my mind and, indeed, on the page. I write by instinct, trusting the sentence — the most beautifully formal invention humankind ever made — to guide me forward. I write a sentence, try to get it as close to “right” as I can, then move on to the next one . . . and so on, to the end, or “end.” This is more the case with JB than with BB — the latter is not much interested in sentences, more in plot, character, dialogue, etc. BB is a good and honest craftsman; God knows what JB is, though he tries to be an artist…whatever that may be.

Me: THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE is an excellent simulation of Raymond Chandler — not only in plot, but the rhythm of Marlowe is spot-on. Did you achieve that effect by rereading Chandler and feeling your way through the writing, or did you learn any tics or patterns in Chandler that you could check yourself against?

Banville: Yes, I re-read a few of the Chandler books, but really, his voice had been in my imagination from my mid-teens, when I first began to read him, at the urging of my older brother. I seem, to my surprise, to have a talent for literary mimicry. I’m not sure this is a talent I should cultivate, but it fascinates me. I doubt I will write another “Marlowe” book — one seems quite enough. But who knows?

Me: In FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, Chandler writes, “Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

In THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE, you write, “He waited for a moment, calmly regarding me, then put out his right hand for me to shake. It was like being given a sleek, cool-skinned animal to hold for a moment or two.” 

Did you find yourself revisiting your manuscript, to “turn up the volume” on the similes and wry turns of phrases that Chandler is famous for, or is the danger in writing Marlowe that it’s easier to write too over-the-top, and fall into a tone that’s too comical?

Banville: In fact, I find Chandler least appealing when he is straining after “clever” similes — I’ve always particularly disliked the “tarantula” image, which everyone else seems to think is wonderful. Chandler is at his best when he is low-keyed. What appeals to me most in his writing is the sense it conveys of those smoky — that is, polluted — late-summer evenings in Los Angeles, when the heart sinks, and the only way to buoy it up is to have another gimlet or two . . .

Me: You write your mysteries under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black,” but I don’t believe there was ever a time when you were trying to keep your “real identity” a secret; I read in an interview that you felt the name Benjamin Black would allow readers to take these books seriously on their own terms rather than misjudge these mysteries as a literary game. Now that you have several Benjamin Black books in print, are the pseudonyms primarily for branding? Or is there something else going on?  On your website you feature an interview between John Banville and Benjamin Black, and sometimes you refer to these people as almost living independent lives from you, the author. Are you, in some sense, like a method actor, trying to slip fully into different personas when you write? Does the name you’re writing under change the way you approach writing?

Banville: It’s really much more simple than you imagine. For years — thirty-five or so — I worked in journalism. I didn’t write journalism, but was what we called a sub-editor — what you probably know as a copy-editor. So I wrote my own work during the day, and went into the newspaper office at night. I was two entirely separate working individuals. And that’s what I am now — a crime writer, and . . . as I say, whatever Banville is, or tries to be. But no one is a single, unitary sensibility; we are all manifold beings. 

Me: Your 1989 novel BOOK OF EVIDENCE—written as John Banville — plays with the mystery genre. Do you foresee a time when the Benjamin Black and John Banville personas merge in any way? Would Quirke ever appear in a Banville book?

Banville: What a horrendous notion! No, JB and BB are entirely separate, and must remain so. If a JB sentence strays into a BB page, or vice versa, a great effort of extirpation must be undertaken at once. But yes, you’re right, there are JB novels that certainly foreshadow BB — THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE but also, for instance, THE UNTOUCHABLE, and even SHROUD.

Me: What mystery or thriller novels would you recommend? Who are your favorite mystery or thriller writers?

Banville: The father and “onlie begetter” of Benjamin Black is Georges Simenon. I began to read Simenon about ten years ago, having — foolishly — disdained him before that. The philosopher John Gray put me on to him, for which I’m very grateful. I read mostly Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels”, a score of which are masterpieces of 20th-century literature. The Maigret books are wonderful, of course, but they are not of the same high standard as, for instance, DIRTY SNOW, MONSIEUR MONDE VANISHES, THE STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE . . . Chandler, of course, is the inventor of “literary” crime fiction — I’m not sure what literary crime fiction is — but also James M. Cain is wonderful, and then there is the very great Richard Stark, who is surprisingly little-known among the cognoscenti. And Patricia Highsmith, although I find her work chills me to the bone — I know it’s meant to do that, but I still don’t like being so cold.

(Ed. Note: To read Thomas Sweterlitch’s thoughts on Georges Simenon, click here.)

Me: And, finally, since ITW is interested in assisting new authors in their careers — do you have any advice for writers starting out on their careers, or for writers in general? Any pitfalls to avoid, words of wisdom?

Banville: I have only two pieces of advice for tyro authors, both second-hand. First there is Cato the Censor, of all people, who advised, Rem tene, verbum sequentur, that is, Seize upon the object, the words will follow. The second is the sculptor Rodin to the poet Rilke: Il faut travailler toujours travailler: work; always work.

I asked Mr. Banville what books we have to look forward to. “I have just finished a BB novel,” he wrote, “not a Quirke this time, but one set in, perhaps amazingly, Prague in 1600. Meanwhile Banville is working on a top-secret project, presently to be announced…”

THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.

To learn more about TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, click on the cover below.


Previously: Elizabeth Heiter interviewed Tess Gerritsen.

Next: Jenny Milchman interviews Lee Child.

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