John Banville: 'Every morning I confront the blank page in a state of panic'

John Banville tops the bill at the next La Noche de los Libros book night, planned for the 11 September at  La Térmica, Malaga.
John Banville tops the bill at the next La Noche de los Libros book night, planned for the 11 September at La Térmica, Malaga. / MARTA PÉREZ. EFE
  • The Irish novelist reflects on the current pandemic and the writing profession prior to his participation in Malaga's 'La Noche de los Libros'

He started writing at the age of twelve and since then has produced a host of dazzling books. Their style is quiet and refined when he writes under the name of John Banville, and vibrant when he uses the pen name Benjamin Black in his role as a crime writer. Winner of the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature (2014) and the Man Booker Prize (2005), among other distinctions, Banville (Wexford, Ireland, 1945) tops the bill at the next edition of La Noche de los Libros (Book Night) due to take place at La Térmica cultural centre in Malaga on 11 September, health crisis permitting.

How are you coping with confinement in this health crisis?

I'm afraid I'm perfectly content. We writers are among the few fortunate ones at this time. A writer friend wrote to me the other day to say he had felt an outsider and an outcast all his life; now suddenly he realises that all along he was practising for this.

Do you agree with those who define the current situation as "a war"?

Well, only if you think Mother Nature has declared war on us. Rather, I think she is clearing out the attic - unfortunately, I'm one of the pieces of clutter up there that she is bent on getting rid of.

On the other hand, there are those who see the pandemic as "an opportunity" for humanity. Do you agree or does this seem too naive an approach?

An opportunity for humanity to do what? People don't change. Tens of millions died in the 'flu epidemic - disgracefully dubbed the "Spanish 'flu" - after the First World War, and what followed was the madness and frivolity of the Roaring Twenties. As I say, people do not change, and certainly they don't learn.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the way out of this crisis?

I never use the words optimistic or pessimistic. Things will be as they will be. I mourn the losses of life, loved ones and livelihoods.

Do you think the current situation offers a better literary theme for John Banville or for Benjamin Black?

Neither would dream of writing about the present upheaval in the world. Fiction deals with the everyday, the mean mundane. Catastrophes are best left to the journalists, who are the professionals.

The immediate

There are novelists, even philosophers, who have already published books about Covid-19. Is literature infected by the demand for immediacy?

Are there? How quickly they must write? As I indicated above, the immediate is for the journalists to make sense of. Novelists and poets live and work in the continuum.

In your novel The Sea, Max, the narrator, says: "The past beats inside me like a second heart." As a writer, is imagination or memory more important to you?

Memory and imagination are one. We imagine the past, in the sense that we give shape to past events, as art gives shape to an incoherent reality.

Love, the passing of time, relationship conflicts or guilt arise as recurring issues in your works written as Banville. Do you feel like you are essentially writing the same book in every book?

Yes, I believe every writer writes only one book. Although since I must not presume to speak for others, I shall say that I am still at work on the book I began about sixty years ago. Mind you, that's Banville. Benjamin Black tries to be original every time.

In your books, style seems to set the tone against the plot. How is that creative process?

Form is content, content is form, and both are the product of style.

Is that way of writing different when you approach the process as Banville from when you do it as Black? Do you enjoy writing more in one case than in the other?

John Banville and Benjamin Black are wholly dissimilar writers. This is not the first time I've made this observation. Benjamin Black writes swiftly, spontaneously; John Banville writes as a snail crawls, leaving a glistening trail.

What does Banville owe Benjamin Black?


And vice versa?


'Crossover' readers

Do you feel that readers are aware of this dichotomy? Are one author's readers different from the other's?

I hope we both have some 'crossover' readers. I would like to think that my Benjamin Black readers would risk a John Banville now and then, and vice versa.

Do you think of the readers when you write?

Not at all. How could one write, thinking of the reader? To write with an audience in mind is to write for no one, and those who do are recognisable by the grey writing they produce, a species of porridge.

You have defined writers as "cannibals". Who would be their victims?

Anyone who ventures along the jungle path and enters the clearing where waits the cooking pot.

Is there a difference between writing at the age of 20 and at 74?

Not much. I've learned certain 'tricks of the trade', but every morning I confront the blank page in a state of panic, not knowing how to write, as one didn't know fifty years ago. By the way, I started to write when I was twelve.

What story do you have left to tell?

The best one, the one that will make the world sit back and marvel.