“Sometimes, in the middle of the afternoon if I’m feeling a little bit sleepy, Black will sort of lean in over Banville’s shoulder and start writing. Or Banville will lean over Black’s shoulder and say ‘Oh that’s an interesting sentence, let’s play with that.’ I can see sometimes, revising the work, the points at which one crept in or the two sides seeped into each other.”
If one happened to overhear John Banville talking about writing under his pen name, Benjamin Black, it would be forgivable to surmise that he was suffering from a mild or slightly whimsical identity crisis.
But suffering would not be the right word at all – he is clearly quite enjoying himself. And from the abundance of work he has produced since beginning to publish under his pseudonym in 2004 – five Black books and two Banville novels, one just finished – he is clearly not a man in crisis.
“It’s wonderful, you know,” he chuckled, sipping an oaky-smelling white at the Knickerbocker Club on Fifth Avenue.
“I started doing this on the brink of being 60 and here I am, suddenly, two people.”
Banville, 65, is compact and refined, with prominent jowls and the ability to speak in engaging paragraphs. He wore a navy suit and a red tie, and a panama hat that somehow did not appear until he exited the room at the end of our interview, like a kind of parting thought.
He was in New York following the July release of Black’s latest, the seasonally appropriate A Death in Summer. It is the fourth of the five books now published under Black’s name to center on
Dr. Garrett Quirke, a pathologist of 1950s Dublin and all it entails. As before, a body he is called on to inspect has died of a cause that is less than natural. This time, the victim is newspaper magnate Dick Jewell, who was respected more for his money than anything else. Similar to earlier cases, Jewell is survived by his wife, the sphinxlike and beautiful Françoise d’Aubigny, who piques Quirke’s interest as he tries to figure out who killed Jewell and made a sorry attempt to disguise it as a suicide.
One of the best developments is that Phoebe, Quirke’s once-estranged daughter and a character Banville palpably enjoys writing, plays a larger role than ever.
“My agent insists that I’m in love with her,” Banville said with amusement. “I say to him ‘No, Phoebe is me.’ If there is anybody in those books that’s me, it’s Phoebe. She has a darkness and an obsessiveness that I feel… I won’t say comfortable with, but that I feel a familiarity with.
“It’s like being a child again, playing games with toy soldiers,” he continued. “It’s wonderful moving characters around in a book, thinking ‘What will I do with them now?’”
It seems, though, that the character he’s having the most fun inventing might actually be Benjamin Black.
It was never a secret that Black is Banville – his author bio spells it out. Some of the early cover designs even state “A compelling new crime series from Booker winner John Banville.” But this transparency has not prohibited Banville from creating a distinct identity for Black.
It started in early 2005, after The Sea had been published (but before it won the Man Booker prize) and while he was at work on The Infinities. Banville returned to a television screenplay he had written some years earlier for a mini-series that never went into production. The script, set in 1950s Dublin and Boston, became Christine Falls, Banville’s first noir novel and his first work published under the name Benjamin Black.
The process of turning the television script into a novel, he said, “marked the birth of Black… I really only took on a pseudonym because I did not want people to imagine that this was some literary joke I was playing.”
He had initially wanted to be Benjamin White, the name of a character in his early works Long Lankin and Nightspawn, but “my agent and my publisher said ‘no, we think Black is better, it sounds better.’”
In a piece Banville recently wrote for The Guardian, his account of the evolution of Benjamin Black is much more epic, involving a moment of inspiration that leads him to stop the car as he is driving along the Black Banks section of the Howth Road, ‘pull over to the side of the road and, for some reason, laugh.’” But it was, he writes “less a laugh than the birth-cry of my dark twin and brother Benjamin Black.”
Like any good dark twin, Black seems to be Banville’s polar opposite.
In Banville’s novels, which are frequently likened to extended prose poems, word choice trumps plot, narration dominates character development, and the sentence is prized over all.
Black’s books, on the other hand, fit cozily into the realm of noir without much complaint, and all of them (save The Lemur) center on Dr. Quirke, your fairly archetypal moody, boozy, womanizing detective by circumstance rather than trade.
The day-and-night differences extend to the writing process, too. When Banville sits down to write, he does so “with a fountain pen on paper, very slowly. If Banville could write 150 words in a morning or even a day, he’d feel he was doing well.”
But when he writes wearing his Benjamin Black hat (which, by the looks of the latest author photo that accompanies A Death in Summer, may very well be a black felt fedora) the process is far more fluid. Black can write “1,500 words in a morning.”
That does not mean, he was quick to add, that writing crime fiction is necessarily easy, just that the fluidity comes with the territory. “Crime writers, after past interviews [of mine], would get furious about this…But I was just saying that writing crime fiction is different. I have to write swiftly and fluently as Black, because otherwise it would get all bogged down. Crime fiction, this kind of fiction – I hate making that distinction – is driven by character, by plot, by dialogue, and by that kind of swiftness and spontaneity that poor old Banville could never manage.”
As priorities, character, plot and dialogue normally rank low for Banville, who is fond of quoting Kafka’s diary entry “Never again psychology!” But in order to write a noir novel, they were things he had to face. “When I write a Banville book, I’m not working in a fixed medium. One of the joys of writing crime fiction is that there’s a medium there and you work with it… the rules are laid down.”
Perhaps creating Black has given him a certain freedom from his Banvillian writerly hang-ups and allowed him to, by their contrasts, better understand his identity as both writers. Though he is insistent upon his two writerly personalities remaining separate, he does acknowledge that becoming Black has influenced the way he works as Banville.
“This is something that fascinates me now,” he said. “At the start it just seemed like a little adventure I was embarking on. Looking back now, I think maybe it was something Banville needed to do. Maybe I needed a sudden jolt, a sudden diversion into some other way of working.”
It will be interesting to see whether this is noticeable in Ancient Light, the Banville book he had just finished three weeks before we met. A return to the Alexander Cleave character from Eclipse and Shroud, it is the first Banville book he has written start to finish since assuming his nom de plume.
“The people who have read it have said ‘There’s a lot of plot in this.’ So I think Banville is learning from Black, something about loosening the tie, you know? Stepping back a bit, letting things happen. Which I think will be a good thing, but I’m not sure. Banville has to write the way Banville writes. He can’t become Benjamin Black, that would be disastrous.”
Both Banville and Black are headed for the screen. Banville recently collaborated with Glenn Close on the screenplay of Albert Nobbs, an adaptation of Simone Benmussa’s play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs (itself an adaptation of a George Moore short story), in which Close plays a woman who pretends to be a man in order to find work in 19th-century Ireland. The Sea is also set to go into production next year, and will star Ciaran Hinds as the grieving, retrospective Max Morden.
The three Quirke books that precede A Death in Summer will be made into a three-part mini-series by the BBC next year. Banville won’t be as involved in the writing or production, but said that he was excited and called it “ironic because the whole thing started out as a mini-series. Now it’s come full circle.”
And since he must always be writing something, he is about to begin the next Benjamin Black book. “I have a plot,” he said, declining to say what it would be about, but confirming that Quirke would be back.
Another Banville book is slowly taking shape, as well. “It’s strange, though,” he mused. “I was supposed to finish the Banville book at the end of this year, but somehow I finished six months early. So now, Banville and Black are both planning books, they’re both at the starting line – the hare and the tortoise, just waiting to go.”