Birnbaum V.

John Banville

Booker Prize-winner John Banville discusses writing crime novels under a pseudonym, hanging around with authors who own multiple homes, and why literature takes longer to produce than pulp.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Irish writer and Booker-winner John Banville, author of over 20 novels, writes crime books under the nom de guerre Benjamin Black, with the enigmatic Quirke, a Dublin pathologist, as his protagonist. The most recent in the series is Death In Summer

In the chat that follows, Banville/Black decries the ghettoization of genre fiction; extolls James M. Cain and Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake); reminisces about 1950s Dublin, the setting of the Quirke novels; corrects an erroneous New Yorker fact-checker; and reveals his great admiration for the USA.


Robert Birnbaum: Say something, if you would? 

John Banville: Hi, this is John Banville. I’m in the Keltic Krust. Nice place.

RB: That’s good. I made some notes. One-word reminders to myself, and I thought maybe you might just answer whatever questions came to mind from these one-word prompts. [shows him the list]

JB: Well—

RB: No, no just kidding. Is Benjamin Black a person? Do you think of him as a person?

JB: It’s very strange. I constantly mix him up with Quirke, the main character. The two of them seem to be one, physically. I made Quirke the opposite of me. He’s tall, handsome, irresistible to women, clever. All those things I’m not. Frequently, when I am doing a public reading, people come to get their book signed and I can see the disappointment in their eyes. I am short. I am old. I am not handsome. Ah, is there a separate person? I suspect that Black—I have never told this before, it just struck me now—I suspect that Black is the waking version of Banville while he is asleep, dreaming.

RB: When you first started writing the Quirke stories and you chose the name Benjamin Black, did you think about who he was?

JB: The only reason I wrote these books under a pseudonym was that I simply wanted readers to know this wasn’t an elaborate literary effort.

RB: So what do you call these stories? Thrillers? Procedurals?

JB: Ah, you see, I just call them books. I don’t like this ghettoization of books. When I started publishing fiction it is was good, not so good, bad, you know. Now there is a ghetto for crime fiction. I would like to have books listed alphabetically—no distinction.

RB: Joshua Redman, a jazz saxophonist, was asked how he organized his CDs and he said he simply alphabetized—he did not categorize by type.

JB: That’s how it should be done. Superb writing can be found in any genre. There are crime books that I think are masterpieces.

RB: What do you read?

JB: When I was a kid I used to read those English ladies in lovely frocks, with murder in their hearts—Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey—

Banville books take two to five years to make. It takes three or five months to make a Black book. Real crime writers are furious when I say this.

RB: No Irish women (or men)?

JB: No. A peculiar English phenomenon, the polite murder story. You know, taking place in the library, read by people who had never been in a house that had a library in it. So I used to read those. Then I moved on to the really great ones—James M. Cain, Richard Stark. James M. Cain’s The Postman Rings Twice, which I think he wrote on a long weekend, is a masterpiece in any genre. Now it’s rough and it’s not high style, but it’s a wonderful piece of writing. Wonderfully honest. Tough. That’s what good books are, in any genre. Tough and unsentimental.

RB: In recent years people like Julian Barnes and Joyce Carol Oates adopted pseudonyms for their crime writing— 

JB: Lots of people did it before that. Back in the 1930s and 40s there were English academics who were writing—John Dickson Carr as Carter Dickson, and various people like that. It’s a grand old tradition, but they wrote under pseudonyms because they didn’t want people to know who they were. I just have these two people—

RB: Is that fun?

JB: Oh yeah, of course. The writing can be difficult and painstaking but I invented Benjamin Black when I was just turning 60 and I am not sure where he goes but it’s fun, basically.

RB: Writing these books is not any easier than writing so-called literary fiction.

JB: It’s faster.

RB: Because?

JB: Banville books take two to five years to make. It takes three or five months to make a Black book. Real crime writers are furious when I say this. Because they think I am saying it’s easy. That’s not what I am saying at all. Banville books are high literature—it’s a different way of working. Simenon wrote his books in 10 days and produced masterpieces. Speed has nothing to do with it.

RB: Reminds me of Wodehouse, who was quick and prodigious.

JB: Yeah, and look at that stuff.

RB: I like crime fiction and agree that there are masterpieces, but I pretty much avoid reading series. I agree with Philip Kerr that most series writers write one or two too many. Even Chandler.

JB: I suspect that’s true. I hadn’t thought about it. I suspect it’s hard to know when the moment has arrived—when the character has had his or her life and you should really let go.

RB: You have a character that is creeping up in age.

JB: Well you see, what fascinated me are the people around him. In a way I find Quirke quite enigmatic and quite guarded. I don’t really understand him. The figures around him are fascinating—Phoebe, his daughter, Sinclair, his assistant, Inspector Hackett, these people. And it’s wonderful to move them around—like playing with toy soldiers.

RB: Though Hackett seems to emerge as the series progresses he is still not fully expressed. Would you write a separate story for him?

I suspect that Black is the waking version of Banville while he is asleep, dreaming.

JB: I never thought of that. I suspect what probably happens—though I don’t know—is that Quirke will take more and more of a background role and people like Phoebe and Sinclair will come forward. That’s the fascination for me. You know Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe was a very well-rounded character. I don’t think of Quirke that way. He’s not much of an investigator.

RB: He’s doggedly persistent.

JB: He’s persistent. But that’s out of curiosity. If you wanted the opposite of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, he and Inspector Hackett, they are both equally incompetent. [laughs]

RB: One of the stories has someone referring to them as Holmes and Watson.

JB: But ironically.

RB: You are underselling Hackett. He has a clear investigative style—he keeps circling around the facts, making the circles tighter.

JB: Yes, he’s persistent and shrewd and canny. In life we stumble along and it’s only in retrospect we see the things we thought we were planning to do. We supposedly make plans. This is not done in retrospect.

RB: So do you remember all that has happened in the four Quirke novels?

JB: I have a hard time because I never keep notes. I think, “What color eyes does this character have? How tall is this character?” I am hopeless at that. Does that kind of thing matter?

RB: Who knows? But I am sure there are readers for whom it matters. You have not achieved the status of Conan Doyle but if you were in the Sherlock Holmes Society every one of those details would matter.

JB: One of the funniest letters I had—a woman wrote to me and she said, “You keep saying Quirke has blonde hair. He has brown hair.” So over the books, his hair has disappeared.

RB: I thought he was blonde also. I was stumped by a trivial detail: I don’t recall Quirke having a first name. However, when I asked other book people, they say his name is Garrett. My recollection is that Black comes close in one scene where Quirke tells his name to another (but not to the reader) character, Isabel, and she laughs. Where does Garrett come from?

JB: It started in the New Yorker. The reviewer made a mistake. He’s never had a first name. So the fact-checkers at the New Yorker didn’t do too well. In the next book there will be a running gag—people will keep calling him Garrett [laughs]. No, he has no first name. That was sort of an homage to Richard Stark’s Parker.

RB: And you knew this from the beginning of the series? What do you start with when you begin a Quirke novel?

JB: Well, the origin of these books was in the early 2000s. I had been commissioned to do a miniseries set in Ireland and Australia, a collaboration between Irish television and Australian television. I did three episodes, which didn’t get made. I hate to waste anything. I was then reading Simenon for the first time—I hadn’t read him before. I was bowled over by what he could achieve with very simple components, and I thought one day driving into town that I could make the miniseries into novels. I went to Italy and stayed with a friend of mine who gave me a room, and I sat down and found I could do it. Then I thought—I made a two-book contract purposely to make myself write a second one but when I went to write the second book, now I had no support. I had no script. Again, I found I could do it. It started to be fun and continues to be fun.

RB: I assume there is a fifth Quirke novel in the works?

JB: I started it last weekend. I start with the plot. But I don’t see this as a continuing series. Each book is a completely new story. Of course I have to have certain continuity. Even the time is quite vague.

RB: Why did you set these stories in mid-1950s Dublin?

JB: Because it’s a time that absolutely fascinates me.

RB: Because?

JB: I was born in 1945. So in the mid ‘50s I was 12. I was born in Wexford, a little town 90 miles south of Dublin, that may as well have been the other side of the world. Dublin was a great romantic place. My aunt had an apartment in Dublin and my birthday was the eighth of December, and I would be taken to Dublin for my birthday every year. I would be taken to Clery’s, which was the equivalent of Macy’s. It was a grim little city but to me it was Paris.

RB: Not affected by World War II.

JB: We had no war, we were neutral. The war in Ireland was known as the Emergency. No, it hadn’t suffered but we were terribly poor, economically and spiritually.

RB: Spiritually?

JB: The Church had a complete stranglehold on the country. You only have to look at these terrible reports [of past child abuse] to see the absolute power of the Church. A book just published in Ireland, a very good book, called News from A New Republic (Tom Garvin) is a history of Ireland in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The author, a historian, tells a wonderful anecdote: He was standing at a bus stop in the mid ‘50s as a boy. A priest in his car pulled up on a side street and sideswiped a motorcyclist. Everybody rushed to help the guy. The police came, the priest shouted, “Is he alright?” then backed up his car and drove away. When I went to Eastern Europe before ‘89, I saw exactly the same attitude among [Communist] party officials. You mustn’t give a lot of power to petty people, as we have seen all over the world. They will do terrible things. For us it was a neat time, but, of course, we didn’t know that because it was our time.

RB: The reference points you make are international. For instance, in the news of the day the Suez crisis is mentioned.

JB: This would have seemed to these characters like news from outer space. Ireland was always considered by the Irish to be the absolute center of the world. I wrote for a newspaper, the Irish Press, a good newspaper—a bit erratic, but a good newspaper. What you could say was very strictly controlled except in the foreign page. The foreign page editor was an extreme socialist—at a right-wing paper. He had total freedom, because nobody cared.

RB: [laughs] But was it the case that suicides were not reported as such until—the ‘70s? ‘80s? Today?

JB: I’m not sure they are reported still. One of the big problems in Ireland is young men driving into walls and trees. And you know damn well they are gay. Especially down in the country, as we say, in the provinces. They just can’t come out. There’s a lot of that. But yet in those days it was a policy not to report [suicides]. 

RB: You have lived in Ireland all your life?

JB: Well, I lived in London for a year and Holland for a while, and my wife is American, so I probably know America better than Ireland.

RB: I’m talking about what you always consider home.

JB: Oh yeah. Ireland—it would have to be. I love the climate.

RB: In the novels, the summers were very hot.

I remember years ago having dinner in Miami with Donna Tartt. She said to me, “John, do you have a place in NYC?” I said, “Donna, I barely have a place in Dublin.”

JB: I remember that in ‘57, when I was a kid, it was what the Irish considered hot. I have been in NYC the past few days where the temperatures were in the mid 90s. If we had temperatures in the mid 70s it would be considered a heat wave. Ireland looks so beautiful; the early light is so lovely. The only place I’ve known like that is Copenhagen. It has the same kind of gray silvery light. And Paris, of course, in January and February has that misty light that I love as well. I love New York. I think it’s the most exciting city. I couldn’t live there.

RB: Because?

JB: The climate, I just couldn’t take it.

RB: Some people summer in one place and winter elsewhere.

JB: Yes, I remember years ago having dinner in Miami with Donna Tartt. She said to me, “John, do you have a place in NYC?” I said, “Donna, I barely have a place in Dublin.” I don’t have the kind of money to have places. I love reading, “He divides his time between Paris, Vermont, and New York.”

RB: Gstaad and St. Barts and so forth.

JB: I can barely live in one place. I would love to spend three or four months here. I think America is—and I am not saying this because I am in America; I say it over and over again in Europe—I think America is the last great hope. You have your problems and mistakes.

RB: It is an extraordinary place. But the current political climate is beyond insanity. It’s hard to see beyond that as hopeful.

JB: Well, there is a fury abroad now. I remember when Goldwater was running.

RB: I do also. It was not as bad as now.

JB: I agree it is bad. I am firmly convinced that you will solve it.

RB: I hope so but there is a whole coterie of nutjobs who are entering politics and are beyond my experience.

JB: The American electorate is very canny. It entertains ideas from the extremes, but when it comes to voting it rarely votes from there.

RB: What has become centrist is barely acceptable.

JB: You mustn’t get too pessimistic. I remember someone telling me about public radio. More people listen to public radio than all these other stations put together. All these Rush Limbaughs and all these lunatic fringe people on the right, meanwhile the left still listens to NPR—

RB: Too bad they don’t show up in the ratings.

JB: It doesn’t need to—more people listen to NPR, but they don’t make noise. They are people who vote and want a decent country for their children.

RB: Were you pleased when Barack Obama was elected? 

JB: Oh yes. I was in tears. Of course. I remember Little Rock and Mississippi and all that. To see a black man elected. I know in many ways Bush lost rather than Obama winning. He’s having a hard battle. I hope he gets in [again].

RB: I can’t decide. Though the current apparent choices are scary. Obama is brilliant as a speechmaker, which in another time might have been enough. The political ground he is staking out is not hopeful.

JB: He can only do that in his second term. Look at Lyndon Johnson—he stewarded the most far-reaching civil rights legislation.

RB: His personality distracted from his accomplishments.

Power is fascinating. I have no idea about power. If I were given power I wouldn’t recognize it.

JB: And a terrible foreign policy—he allowed Vietnam to just ease away the gains of the country.

RB: I can never forget that David Levine caricature of Johnson showing his post-abdominal-operation’s scar, and it was in the shape of Vietnam. 

JB: That was pure genius. I am reading Robert Caro’s immense biography of LBJ. It’s a great book—there are four big volumes. It’s a great read.

RB: I don’t have the patience and perhaps sufficient interest to read a large biography. I favor those 200-page biographical essays by a skilled writer.

JB: I know, but I am reading the volume where Johnson is in the Senate and what’s fascinating is that he starts out anti-civil rights but by the end of the book he is going to be the man who helps deliver the civil rights legislation. Fascinating. Caro is wonderful storyteller.

RB: Well, it would require that.

JB: Caro’s favorite author is [Anthony] Trollope.

RB: I am not sure many people’s lives warrant such in-depth coverage.

JB: I agree, but as a study in politics—

RB: Sure, if he is using LBJ as a lens into the period.

JB: That’s what he is doing. Even more than the sense of the era, he is showing you how politics works at any given time. Power is fascinating. I have no idea about power. If I were given power I wouldn’t recognize it. Whereas Johnson said about himself, “I am a person who knows what power is.” It’s a fascinating study in that.

RB: It’s probably the case that Kennedy didn’t. Do you write non-fiction besides the small monograph on Prague?

JB: I write book reviews, which I like doing. I don’t think I know how to do non-fiction.

RB: James Atlas has published a series of short biographies, is there one—

JB: I think he did ask me to do one. I’d like to do one on [Samuel] Beckett. He deserves a brief sketch—a monograph rather than one of those huge biographies that there are. He is a fascinating character.

RB: But you haven’t been asked?

JB: I think Atlas asked me to do one of my choice and I didn’t. It wasn’t the time to do it. I was busy doing other things.

No matter how dreadful the person, the art is always honest. Art can’t be made dishonestly. It just can’t. I mean, you can do it but it will be bad art.

RB: How do you decide what you want to write—a novel, a thriller?

JB: The pattern I have is I write one [Quirke] novel a year in the summer because I hate the summer—it’s my least favorite season. So I can sit in a darkened room working away.

RB: Why don’t go to Argentina for the summer?

JB: Ireland is fine. [laughs] I just finished a Banville book and I am about to do a Benjamin Black book. That will be odd. The hare and the tortoise.

RB: Do the Banville books get more rigorous editing?

JB: No, the Banville books are not edited at all.

RB: Who, ostensibly, is your editor? Sonny Mehta?

JB: Yeah. He would make some suggestions, which I would take or leave. I’ve been working two to five years on this thing. There is nothing that anybody can tell me about it that I don’t already know.

RB: You’re honest with yourself?

JB: Of course. You couldn’t write if you weren’t honest. That’s what makes art so valuable. No matter how dreadful the person, the art is always honest. Art can’t be made dishonestly. It just can’t. I mean, you can do it but it will be bad art.

RB: Any talk of either Banville or Black books being made into movies?

JB: Well, the BBC is going to do a Benjamin Black series next year.

RB: Who will be cast as Quirke?

JB: I can’t tell you.

RB: [laughs]

JB: As a rich friend of mine says, “I could tell you but I would have to kill you.”

RB: And will you have any involvement?

JB: No.

RB: Totally someone else’s baby.

JB: Which is fine by me. It’s too much work. But it’s ironic, nicely ironic. The thing started out as a TV script and now there is going to be a television series made of it.

RB: How many episodes?

JB: Three 90-minute episodes. Because they had three books—they didn’t know about this one. If it’s successful they’ll do the new book as well. I think it’ll be successful. There is so much in Dublin that is still there. That’s a time and a place that hasn’t been done before.

RB: It could be a challenge for the production designer. I never heard of the luxury car that Quirke buys.

JB: Alvis.

RB: What is it equivalent to? A Bentley?

JB: Very stylish, very sleek, very British design—about the equivalent of $150,000 now.

RB: Aston-Martin?

JB: Yeah, very like an Aston-Martin.

RB: Where did he get that money? [laughs]

JB: He’s a bachelor, and he’s consultant who is paid very well. He didn’t spend his money on anything, so then he could by a car. And then it falls over a cliff. [laughs]

RB: Uninsured.

JB: Various people said to me, “You didn’t send that car over a cliff, did you?” [laughs]

RB: To add insult to injury you bring back the police who warned Quirke to get his car insured.

JB: [laughs]

RB: Is there an Irish crime writer scene?

JB: Oh yes.

RB: Oh yeah, Ken Bruen—

JB: John Connolly, Declan Hughes—I’d like to see some women. Women are not really interested in crime fiction. But it would be interesting to see them do it.

RB: Is there much original Irish TV?

JB: Too expensive, especially now we are so poor.

RB: How wired is Ireland—everyone has cable?

JB: Wouldn’t be cable—satellite. Nowadays people have broadband.

RB: I sort of speculated before we spoke that you chose the 50s so you wouldn’t have to deal with new technology and social media.

JB: Well, yes, that’s true as well. I have no interest in that. It’s almost like science fiction. People interest me.

RB: It seems to change the tempo of a narrative when people are wired.

JB: Yes, there is an obsession with technology and extreme violence. Almost all stories start with some girl being sexually violated and tortured to death—and that’s just a start.

RB: The writers I read don’t do much violence—Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, and Thomas Perry.

JB: It’s just a phase. And it will be pass. We are obsessed by violence because we are bombarded by scenes of violence and news of violence everyday on the television, in movie screens, on the radio, and in newspapers. And very, very few of us will actually encounter any violence in our lives. Maybe we see someone banging into the back of a car—that’s about it. So we feel violence is authentic—the soft lives that we lead are not. And the crime writers and crime moviemakers are ratcheting up the violence all the time, to impossible levels. I remember going to see that movie Se7en and being absolutely disgusted. Absolutely disgusted. I thought that this kind of stuff should not be conveyed as mainstream entertainment.

RB: Yeah, not my kind of movie. I loved Straight Time, Out of Sight, or Michael Mann’s Thief. Out of Sight has the unlikely occurrence of a bank robber’s car not starting.

JB: Yeah, that kind of thing never happens. Something that infuriates me in the movies is when people are typing they never make mistakes. Its like when you go to a play and they lift up suitcases and you know they are empty. I am going to have to go shortly.

RB: Well, thanks.

JB: Yes.