Talking With Booker Prize Winner John Banville

Trouble is his business: Noir alter-ego Benjamin Black returns with The Silver Swan

In 2005, when John Banville heard his name called as the winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, he looked around the hall and thought, Imagine how many people hate me right now. In the 38 years he's spent writing fiction, Banville has certainly acquired a few enemies—many of them stung by his waspish, acute reviews in The Irish Times and The New York Review of Books. He's also obtained a loyal coterie of readers, who celebrate his baroque prose and ambitious structures. But in the Irish writer's latest books, a series of noir novels published under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, he has has let slip some of his stylistic and structural opulence. In 2007's Christine Falls and the just-released The Silver Swan, Banville—or, shall we say, Black—has crafted a set of detective novels set amid the mist-swathed Dublin of the 1950s, both featuring the pathologist-cum-detective Quirke.

On a recent weekday morning, Banville sat in a small conference room at his New York publishers, Henry Holt, surrounded by signed and to-be-signed stacks of The Silver Swan. A demure, handsome man dressed in a checked jacket, striped shirt, and patterned tie, he spoke to the Voice about his literary career, his foray into genre fiction, and his mysterious alter ego.

How did it feel to finally win the Booker Prize after such a long career as a writer? The Booker Prize is still amazingly influential: A book which would sell 5,000 or 6,000 copies in hardback, like The Sea, sold 75,000, 100,000. Of course, one doesn't take it as an indication of the worth of one's work. If there had been five different judges, there would have been six different books on the short list. But it was very gratifying to win it. It was a great surprise. Greatly amusing. . . . I said some things that really annoyed the London literary people. In an interview immediately after the prize-giving, I said I was glad to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize for a change.

A work of art as opposed to a work of craft? Yes, the Booker Prize and literary prizes in general are for middle-ground, middlebrow work, which is as it should be. The Booker Prize is a prize to keep people interested in fiction, in buying fiction. If they gave it to my kind of book every year, it would rapidly die. So it's better that it goes to big books by big names that will sell vast quantities.

Was there some surprise that it was The Sea that you won it for and not The Book of Evidence [short-listed for the prize in 1989]? Oh, yeah, The Book of Evidence should have won. The Untouchable [1997] should have won. That was a real Booker book. But that wasn't even short-listed.

Is it coincidental that you immediately started writing under a different name once the Booker had been won? Well, I didn't, you see. The timing was that I finished The Sea in September 2004. In March 2005, I began to write Christine Falls, and on the day the short list was announced in September 2005, my agent was able to hand over the completed manuscript to my extremely surprised publisher.

That was very fast. You don't always work so fast. Benjamin Black writes very quickly indeed. . . . I'd never written like this before. March of 2005, I went to Italy to stay with a friend of mine. She gave me a room, and I sat down at nine one Monday morning and I thought: I don't know whether I'll be able to do this or not. But by lunchtime I'd written 1,500 words, which for John Banville would have been absolutely unheard of. If I write 1,500 in a week as John Banville, I'm doing very well. I discovered in myself a facility for this kind of writing.

In Italy, on that day when you wrote 1,500 words, were you aware that you were writing not as John Banville? Well, when I write as John Banville, I write with a fountain pen on paper, and then I transfer it onto the screen. I started writing Christine Falls like that, but it was too slow, so I just gave it up. Writing as Benjamin Black, it's halfway between doing long reviews for The New York Review of Books and doing a John Banville book. It's craft work, which I'm quite proud of. It gives me a lot of fun—well, some fun; a lot of satisfaction. I'm quite proud of these books—proud as a craftsman. Whereas I loathe and despise all my John Banville books. I really hate them. They're better than anybody else's; they're just not good enough for me.

When did you decide on a pseudonym? I knew from the start that I would use a pseudonym. It would be an open pseudonym—I wouldn't hide behind it. I simply wanted the reader to know this was something different, that this wasn't an elaborate postmodernist literary joke.

How did you fix on Benjamin Black? My very early books—which nobody reads anymore, thank God—they have a character called Benjamin White. So I was going to use Benjamin White, but my publisher said, "We think Black looks better, sounds better . . . It'll get nearer the top of the librarians' purchase lists, which are all alphabetical." It's funny—the other day, I got a consignment of these from the publishers, and they were addressed to Benjamin Black, and I had to sign the UPS receipt as Benjamin Black. That was a very odd sensation. . . . I'm having much too much fun as Benjamin Black. I'll have to pay for it. I'm Irish. This is what we do—guilt.

You have written, in an essay on your process, that you start with a form, a shape. Is that still true of these Benjamin Black novels? They seem to start with an atmosphere. Yes, I think that's true: They do start with an atmosphere, a sense of time and place. A John Banville book does start with a kind of tension in my mind, then I feel it out and give it characters and plot. But these start from an atmosphere, as you said. That's good—I must remember that.

You've professed to have "little or no interest in characters, plot, motivation, manners, politics, morality, or social issues . . ." John Banville hasn't.

But Benjamin Black has. Yes, he has.

So in writing as Benjamin Black, you can take up themes or issues that may not have been of interest before, you can write much more quickly. Are there other attendant freedoms? Well, looking back, I realized that becoming Benjamin Black wasn't quite the jeu d'esprit that I thought it was at the time. It was a kind of frolic, but I see too that John Banville needed a change—he needed something to shake him out of the first-person novel. Christine Falls was the real transition book. So the book I'm writing now—the John Banville book—the new one I'm working on is mostly in the third person, and it's a very different book. It's a kind of bittersweet erotic comedy. It's set in a house in the countryside on Midsummer's Day. The only first-person voice in it is the god Hermes. My publishers heard this and said: "Oh, yes, John. Another crowd-pleaser."

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