With John Banville, you get two authors in one. And now there are three.
Under his own name, the Irish writer creates brilliant, luminous and intellectual literary novels like The Sea, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2005. Hes also a playwright, screenwriter, journalist and take-no-prisoners book reviewer.
Banville, 67, has also published six novels as Benjamin Black, a series of darkly atmospheric noir mysteries set in Dublin in the 1950s. Their main character, a pathologist with a troubled past (and present) and the single name Quirke, appears for a seventh time in Blacks gripping, terrific new novel, Holy Orders. A BBC series based on the books, Quirke, is now in production, with Gabriel Byrne in the title role.
And the third authorial identity? In March, Benjamin Black will publish The Black-Eyed Blonde. The novels protagonist is Philip Marlowe, one of the most revered progenitors of the tough detective character and the indelible creation of the great Raymond Chandler. Blacks novel about him is sanctioned by the Chandler estate.
Banville was kind enough to answer my questions via email from Paris, where he was taking a short break.
Q: Although it shares the vivid settings, evocative mood and striking characters of the earlier Quirke novels, Holy Orders has a tighter, more intricate plot. Was that emphasis on plot a deliberate move, and, if so, why did you take that direction?
I must confess to you that when I finish a book I am always convinced it is the worst thing Ive ever written. Holy Orders was no exception, but Im willing to be persuaded otherwise. I dont think I concentrated on plot in this book any more than I have done in the past. I was interested by the tinkers they are called travelers now but was a little worried that I didnt know enough about their world.
However, recently I met a retired priest I didnt know priests retired, did you? who had worked with travelers and he told me I had got them just right. Very gratifying, of course. I really dont plan much ahead. When I start a Quirke book I have a general outline of the plot in my head, but I trust happenstance to guide me in the details. I hope this gives the books something of the messily contingent nature of real life.
Q: Although many elements in Holy Orders are related to contemporary issues, its set in the 1950s. Why did you choose that era for the Quirke novels?
The 1950s, especially in Ireland, is an ideal period in which to set noir fiction. All that bad weather, cigarette smoke, oodles of drink, and dark, dark secrets, deeply hidden. I was born in 1945, so I had my childhood in the 50s. It is interesting and amusing to trawl my earliest memories to see what nuggets of gold I can come up with from the period. But mainly it is the secrecy of the time that fascinates me. The essential, characteristic gesture that I remember from that time is an index finger pressed urgently to lips: Ssh! Say nothing.
Q: Do you have any involvement in the upcoming BBC series Quirke? How do you feel about the casting of Gabriel Byrne as the title character?
I had no involvement at all in the BBC series. The scripts were written by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson, and I could not have asked for better than that. Gabriel Byrne is superb as Quirke. Ive only seen the first episode, but he is the real thing.
Q: Youve said in interviews that your writing methods as John Banville, author of literary fiction, are very different from those of Benjamin Black, crime fiction writer. Which one wrote The Black-Eyed Blonde, or did another persona emerge for that task?
Nice question. Its certainly Blacks work, but in a new dimension. Ive been reading Chandler since I was a teenager and it was a thrill if slightly unnerving to try to write in his voice. Or no, thats not quite it. From the start I agreed with myself that I would not attempt to parrot Chandler, but would work in what I hope is the spirit of his books. Im absurdly pleased with the result despite what I said above about worrying that everything I write is a fiasco and I feel I havent betrayed Chandler. Though no doubt aficionados will say otherwise. And why not? I admire loyalty to a beloved author.
Q: After the Marlowe book, what will your next book be? Ive been writing a John Banville book for the past couple of years on and off. Also Im mulling over my next Quirke book. I suspect it will feature Quirkes daughter Phoebe in a pivotal role though Im not sure how. What larks, eh?