Questions and Answers with John Banville

‘It's not for me to say which is my best book. They all depress and embarrass me; though naturally I consider them to be better than everyone else's, they are nevertheless far below the standard I aim for'


Which literary prize that you have won has given you most pleasure and why?

The Man Booker Prize, obviously, because it had the most prize money attached, and sold a large, or large-ish, number books. But I'm not sure that “pleasure” is the word –“gratification” might be better.

Which of your books do you think is the best and why?

It's not for me to say which is my best book. They all depress and embarrass me; though naturally I consider them to be better than everyone else's, they are nevertheless far below the standard I aim for.

Do you rise early in the morning and write from 5pm to midday and then drink for the rest of the day or visa versa? You're mixing me up with Philip Larkin's “shit in the shuttered chateau”. I work from 10am to 6pm, five days a week, and sometimes I also work on Saturday mornings, if I have a review to finish.

Do you miss the camaraderie of journalism?

I miss the office. Office life is very peculiar; one will confide to an office colleague the most intimate details of one's life, yet look the other way should one meet the same person by chance in the street. As to the “camaraderie of journalism”, you must remember that I was a sub-editor, a species Tim Pat Coogan used wittily to describe as “people who change other people's words and go home in the dark”.

Did you know of the child abuse that occurred at St Peter's College in Wexford, where you were educated?

I knew the place had very many homosexuals in it, but in those days we accepted the situation as perfectly normal, and mildly amusing.

Was your ambition to be a clerk with Aer Lingus?

My ambition, from the age of 12, was to be a writer. Aer Lingus was a means of going on a lot of cheap or even free foreign travel.

What was your part in the demise of the Irish Press group?

I worked in the Press as a sub, and later, for my sins, as chief sub, but I left many years before the paper died. During my stint there I did try to impose good grammar, so perhaps it was all my fault, in the end.

Did you ever write your books while pretending to work at sub editing at either the Irish Press or the Irish Times?

As a sub I read a lot of books at my desk – subbing was an over-staffed and desultory affair in those days – but I find it impossible to write anywhere other than in my own room, in solitude.

What did you have to do to be elected to Aosdána and why did you resign?

I was invited by a couple of other writers to join Aosdana. I left because I had stopped participating, and felt that, since so many younger writers were clamouring to be elected, I should vacate my place. At the time no one seemed prepared to believe this simple motive, but it was the only one I had.

Your former wife described you while writing as being like “a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing”. Was she right?

I think it's a rather good description, certainly of the physical state of a writer after a day's work: bloody, and bowed.

You have said, “I find women very strange. I don't understand them at all... I don't much like the company of men.” So who do you like?

I find humankind in general extremely odd, but I like, and in some cases more than like, quite a number of the species, of all the various sexes.

You said you were freed by the death of your father, not grieved, freed. Why?

I was grieved, but also freed. This is a natural response, and is felt by everyone, I believe, though in some the grief is stronger than the sense of freedom.

You described your book, The Sea, as “Flocculent... cinereal... crepitant... velutinous”. How then did it win the Booker prize?

I certainly never applied these adjectives to my book – how could a novel be “cinereal”? – though I'm grateful to you for reminding me of the word, which I'm sure you'll agree is a beautiful one. As to the Booker Prize, my novel won because three of the five judges liked it more than they did the other five titles on the shortlist.

You have said that you want to reinvent the novel. How and why?

Any novelist of worth wants to reinvent the novel. My ambition is to make my novels as dense and demanding, and as rewarding, as poetry. Whether by achieving this aim I would reinvent the novel, this is something I very much doubt.

Do you hope to do the same favour for your children that your Dad did for you: die young?

Too late, alas. On my 50th birthday someone sent me a card bearing the legend: “Congratulations, you can no longer die young.”

Who do you most admire (aside from those close to you)?

Samuel Beckett, I suppose, is a model for all writers. One stands before him, as his character Sapo does before the spectacle of the hawk, “fascinated by such extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude.”