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Photo by: Barry McCall

Banville on Black

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Photo by: Barry McCall

"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.

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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.”

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