April 22, 2010 / 5:51 PM / in 8 years

Irish author Banville loves being Black

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Award-winning Irish author John Banville has always been highly critical of his own writing, but with the publication of his latest crime novel, he says he loves himself. Well, sort of.

Booker prize winning author John Banville poses in New York November 8, 2005. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Banville is promoting “Elegy for April,” the fourth book published in as many years under his pen name Benjamin Black. In it, Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, takes a central role.

“I had been very interested in the character of Phoebe, Quirke’s daughter,” Banville told Reuters in an interview. “My agent insists I am in love with her, and maybe I am. In a very curious way, she reminds me something of myself.”

Writing as Black is fun for Banville.

As Banville he writes just a few hundred words a day; “I have to write just a few sentences and let them wallow around and sink in.”

As Black, he completes a book in just a few months; “I do the Black novels quite quickly. This always infuriates other crime fiction writers. I don’t know why.”

Banville has two books just published in an unusual situation where he is competing with himself in bookstores.

Black’s latest sees Quirke return from a stretch drying out to track down a missing person. In “The Infinities,” written under the John Banville moniker, a family gathers by the bedside of a dying mathematician as Greek gods hover above.

Banville does not want to know if he sells better as the Man Booker-winning author of “The Sea” and “The Book of Evidence” who has been writing literature for four decades, or as Black who debuted with “Christine Falls” in 2006.

“Asking about sales is like asking your bank manager about your balance. It is always a shock and a disappointment,” he said.

But after just four years in print, Black is almost neck in neck with Banville as a commercial enterprise. Banville’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has 35,000 copies of “The Infinities” in print, while Black’s publisher Henry Holt and Co has printed 30,000 copies of “Elegy for April.”


Banville says he is getting ready to bang out another Benjamin Black book.

“Benjamin Black is free and on the rampage. He is not to be stopped,” he said, adding that the next thriller will start with a bloody suicide and that Quirke’s assistant in the pathology lab, Sinclair, will play a more central role.

“I might even entangle him with Phoebe,” Banville said. “It is a wonderfully childish thing. I feel like a child playing with toy soldiers moving them around on the board, making them have battles and fall in love and all these things.”

Banville says since he has been writing the Quirke books, some readers expect him to look like his lead character — younger, tall, handsome and with an edge of danger.

“When I meet my readers I can see the disappointment dawning in their eyes, especially the women. You can see them thinking, ‘Oh my God, look how old he is and look how small he is and he is not at all,” he said, his voice trailing off in a mischievous chortle.

Banville said while he is much faster writing as Black, he remains a perfectionist. Black, he said, is a highly skilled craftsman, while Banville’s work is art.

“The material itself is not as much interest to Banville as it is to Black. That is the nature of craft,” he said. “Art uses up material, craft allows material to show.”

And while Banville may be in love with his work, he insists he is never pleased with it or resting on his laurels.

“One is never pleased,” Banville said. “It is discontent and annoyance at the mistakes one has made and the imperfect nature of the work that makes you go on. If I did a book I was satisfied with, I would not go on any more.”

But that discontent and annoyance doesn’t make a dent in his confidence or sense of self worth. “I am critical of all my books,” he said. “I think they are better than everybody else’s; they are just not good enough for me.”

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