I always think of what a friend of mine said: social media is social incontinence
PUBLISHED: 17:58 12 September 2018 | UPDATED: 18:02 12 September 2018
Booker Prize winner John Banville on alter-ego Benjamin Black, why he hates summer, the beauty of a dishwasher manual and Norwich’s one-way systems
Are you happy?
I’m not usually quite so direct, but there’s a time and place and this seems it. For John Banville – who nearly 13 years ago vanquished Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith and others to take the £50,000 Man Booker Prize with The Sea – seems pretty hard on himself. Forever striving for perfection that will always slip through his fingers.
Then there are the vexations of life. Summer (“boring”). Holidays (ditto). Brexit, nationalism, the grip religion can have on life – all dreadful. Social media? Let’s not go there. Yet.
Maybe it’s because he’s not a lark – the legacy of long years working in newspapers that “turned me into a night person. I can write before noon but I can’t tie my shoelace.”
So, all things considered, is he happy? I’d be doing cartwheels if, for instance, The Guardian called me a “master of high-class crime fiction; literary noir in the tradition of Georges Simenon and Raymond Chandler”.
“Well, I’d like to be younger. I’d like to be taller. I’d like to be more handsome. Erm… but, yes. I’m doing what I want to do.”
That said, “It’s difficult every morning to look at the blank page and think ‘I can’t do this. I don’t know how I did it yesterday.’ By mid-afternoon you’re writing. And then the whole damn thing starts up again the next day.”
A bit of background
Born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. Was a clerk for airline Aer Lingus. Became a sub-editor for the Irish Press, then chief sub editor. In mid-1990s moved to The Irish Times and was literary editor.
Dublin is home. As well as writing under his own name, he pens crime fiction under pseudonym Benjamin Black. It’s as Black he’s coming this way (September 14) for the Noirwich crime-writing festival.
Most readers are now aware he’s both men. There’s some fan crossover, “but not much”.
Reading is far from dead
“I remember when those iPhones came in and I saw people standing on buses and trains, flicking screens with their fingers. I said to somebody ‘What are they doing?’ He said ‘Well, they’re reading.’
“Our civilisation’s based on sentences; on words. Then came new technology and everybody’s reading. Unfortunately, everybody’s also writing. There’s always a downside to everything…
“But because we’ve got used to it (reading), we forget what an absolute miracle it is that we are able to translate black marks on a white background into ideas, images, philosophies, dreams.
“I remember, many years ago, we were able to buy our first dishwasher. The instruction manual was written in beautiful English: clear, precise – even witty in places. Good writing can happen anywhere, and we’re reading all the time. All day long we’re reading, reading, reading. And that’s a tremendous thing.”
“People say to me ‘Oh, why did you become a crime writer?’ It’s because some of the finest writing in the 20th century is in the crime fiction genre.
“If I ran a bookshop it would just be arranged on an alphabetical basis. No ‘biographies’, ‘fiction’, ‘poetry’. What an adventure that would be. It’s like looking a word up in the dictionary: you notice five or six other words. A great adventure.
“And I certainly wouldn’t have what bookshops have now: a corner stamped ‘literary fiction’. You might as well put a sign up saying ‘You don’t want to read this stuff’.”
Twitter, Facebook & co
“Social media is pernicious. I always think of what a friend of mine said: social media is social incontinence.”
John also references “a marvellous line” in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, spoken by narrator the Underground Man – a retired civil servant in St Petersburg. It runs: “I am convinced that we underground folk ought to be kept on a curb. Though we may sit 40 years underground without speaking, when we do come out into the light of day and break out we talk and talk and talk...”
“And that’s exactly what has happened: everybody now has something to say. Though of course 99.9% of people have nothing to say.”
And, I suggest, those with least of note to say often speak the loudest. “They think volume will compensate for lack of content.”
A tip from Glenn Close
John loves cinema and likes TV. He’s written film scripts. It’s a different discipline to literary fiction.
“For screen, you write ‘flat’. I remember Glenn Close* said to me about one of my scripts, ‘John, you don’t need to tell us all this stuff. We’ll do it. We’ll do it.’ And she’s right. The actor does it, the director does it, the make-up person does it. A screenplay, it’s a blueprint.
“When I changed a television script of mine into the first Benjamin Black book I had to change every single line of dialogue, because a line of dialogue on the page has to do all its own work. A line of dialogue on the screen’s going to be spoken by a real person – if you consider actors to be real people. The words are fleshed out.”
* John and the Fatal Attraction star worked together on the script of 2011 film Alfred Nobbs. She told The Irish Times: “The script was very much mine and wonderful John Banville helped me ‘Irishize’ it.”
Hate summer. Hate holidays
Does he ever have new Banville and Black novels on the go at the same time?
“I tried that at the start. I tried to do Black in the morning and Banville in the afternoon, but it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work because I hate summer. If I’m in the middle of a Banville book I will put it aside for two or three months and do a Benjamin Black book – to get over the summer.”
What’s wrong with summer? “It’s the most boring season! Nothing’s happening. In winter, you can see the ground getting ready for spring; and autumn’s an absolutely beautiful season.”
Summer’s also bad because “people go on holiday and require me to go on holiday”, he laughs – and quotes someone en vacances in France, who said: Here for two weeks… one with good behaviour. “That’s my attitude to holidays. I wake in the morning at eight o’clock and think ‘What on earth am I going to do all day?’”
The modern world
Life is becoming more baffling, he says. “I used to think age would bring wisdom. It doesn’t. It just brings confusion.”
All right. If I gave you superpowers for 10 seconds and said you could change the world in a stroke, what might you do?
He chuckles. “That’s a Miss World question…
“Was it (17th century French philosopher Blaise) Pascal who said all of humanity’s problems stem from Man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’?”
Cutting himself some slack
John goes so far as to say – and I hope he’s exaggerating, and talking only about the writing processes – “I quite like Benjamin Black books, whereas I loathe Banville ones.” This compulsion to be hard on himself… is it genuine or simply modesty?
“What one does is never good enough. You have to try to write the perfect sentence. I never will – but you have to keep trying.”
“Most people are a complete mystery to me. Which is probably one of the reasons I write – to find out about them.”
But, generally, “one writes for oneself. Writing for me is a kind of mesh to sieve life through: to get some kind of essence I might understand. It’s interpreting the world for myself; and by some peculiar miracle other people read my books and see something of the same thing I see, and ask some of the same questions I ask. Why people should be interested in the fantasies I dream up…”
East Anglia isn’t virgin territory for John, but it hasn’t always been kind. “I think it was the last time I was in Norwich that I’d hired a car at Stansted, and when I was coming back I got lost in your famous one-way streets. I was driving round for about an hour. I think I went round in concentric circles until I found my way out.”
The state of Ireland
It emerged from the crash of 2008 “in remarkably good shape. We had a wonderful party that lasted 10 or 15 years; now it’s over”.
The “terrible” hold religion has had on national life for centuries is now greatly weakened. “You hardly ever see a priest on the streets now. If you see a priest, they’re dressed in mufti.”
It would be a disaster, in John’s eyes. He hopes there will be another UK referendum, or a General Election, to head it off.
“I think the cynicism of the Brexiteers, people like Johnson, is disgraceful. People like him should have more sense.”
“I have no sense of nationalism whatever. I feel just as at home in Britain, America, Kazakhstan as I do here.”
John doesn’t understand those “I (heart symbol) Ireland” – or any other country – logos.
“Do you love that sewage plant that’s just been built down the road from you? Do you love everything about England or Ireland? Of course, what we love are tiny corners of where we live – places that we know, places where we fall in love. But you can’t love a whole country. It’s impossible.”
The Sea was adapted for a film starring Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack.
There are seven Benjamin Black novels starring Quirke, a brilliant if surly 1950s pathologist. A few years ago, the Quirke stories inspired a BBC TV series starring Gabriel Byrne.
On the BBC
“The BBC is one of the greatest achievements of the British people. An absolute treasure. Radios 3 and 4, absolutely marvellous. Hundreds of absolutely superb documentaries to be found on iPlayer.”
John has no intention of stopping. “There’s a Henry James anecdote. When he was dying, in a coma, his hand was still moving across the sheet, as if he were still writing. I hope that will be me. Die in mid-sentence.
“What else would I be doing? Give up writing and go into politics? Then we’d all be in trouble!”
John Banville meets Benjamin Black” is part of the fifth Noirwich Crime Writing Festival. It’s on Friday, September 14, at 8pm, and is at The Enterprise Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Tickets £10 (concessions £9/student £8). noirwich.co.uk
John Banville novels include Kepler, Ghosts, Athena, The Infinities, Ancient Light, and Mrs Osmond.
The Benjamin Black Quirke series includes A Death in Summer, Vengeance, and Even the Dead. Other Black titles include Philip Marlowe novel The Black-Eyed Blonde, and Prague Nights