Interview with John Banville

TSM: You are always described as being highly critical of your work. Trying to bring back a giant in crime fiction is not an easy task, and you’ll always deal with those who act as if you’re committing blasphemy when that does happen. With all the great acclaim you’ve received for Marlowe, will you at least give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done?

JB: All right, thank you, I will. I am quite pleased with and proud of my Benjamin Black books in general. I was somewhat hesitant about attempting to take on the mantle of Raymond Chandler—what nerve I had!—but when I got going on the book, I stopped worrying. It will seem silly to say, but I had a feeling that Chandler would have encouraged me in the project, and I dare to hope he might not be entirely displeased with the result. TSM: How were you approached to take on this project. 

JB: It was very simple. My ever-inventive agent, Ed Victor, who is always on the lookout for new things for his clients to do—like me, he has a strong fear of boredom—suggested to me a couple of years ago that I might try my hand at a “Phillip Marlowe novel.” He could do this because he also represents the Raymond Chandler Estate, controlled by Graham C. Greene, Graham Greene’s nephew. Greene was enthusiastic and encouraging and gave me a completely free hand in writing the book.

TSM: What is your view on the general state of crime fiction today? I’m often disturbed that there seems to be very little inventiveness, and most crime writers seem to be recycling plots. 

JB: It would be invidious of me to comment on the state of contemporary crime fiction, if for no other reason than that I read so little of it. I hasten to add that I read very little of any kind of fiction these days, a phenomenon well-known among readers in their sixties, alas. The ones for whom I have boundless admiration are all dead: Simenon, of course, but his romans durs, his hard novels, as he called them, rather than the Maigret books; Richard Stark; James M. Cain at his best; and a French writer new to me, Pascal Garnier, a half dozen of whose novels are available in English, and who was recommended to me by Simenon’s son John. Garnier’s How’s the Pain? is masterly, I think.

TSM: I thought Christine Falls was one of the best crime novels I’ve read in years. What are some of the challenges you have faced when writing about crime? Do you find that it is generally easier to write a mystery since you’re relying more on plot and action.

JB: The main difficulty I find is that it is very hard to inject humor into crime novels. And I use the word inject with a reason: somehow, humor doesn’t rise spontaneously in this kind of writing. I’m not sure why this should be—in fact, Pascal Garnier disproves my contention, for he is very funny indeed, but in the blackest of ways. Humor is more easily achieved in first-person narration, which is why I found such satisfaction in writing The Black-eyed Blonde. I loved trying to match Chandler’s wit, so nonchalant, elegant, and dry. TSM: You are an admirer of Henry James, but I have to say that when I’ve read your work, I’d say you’re a huge improvement on James. Your characters are fascinating; I’m always turning pages quickly, while with James I’ve caught myself skipping paragraphs. Give us some names of the other authors who have inspired you.

 
 
JB: Though I take the compliment, I’m somewhat scandalized by the notion that anyone could improve on Henry James. From what you say, you are obviously looking for things in novels that are precisely the things HJ scorns, such as the thrill of the plot, and so on. I think he would rather his readers should linger in his pages than turn them over. What authors have inspired me? Too numerous to list. Joyce was an early inspiration, then Beckett. I used to admire Nabokov more than I do now, when I feel that his style tends towards the cloying. Early on, I read the English masters such as Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Henry Green, and I like to think I learned something about style from them. And speaking of noir fiction, we must not forget Dostoevsky. I recently re-read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—worth a second look, by the way—and was interested to see him wondering ruefully how a writer as bad as Dostoyevsky could be so compelling; it’s a question I often ask myself. TSM: Will you write another Marlowe novel?

JB: I really don’t know at the moment. It depends how this one is received. And perhaps one should only embark on this kind of adventure once, and not try to go over old ground a second time. But who knows? Marlowe is a wonderfully attractive and fascinating character, and perhaps I haven’t finished with him yet. TSM: In terms of voice, how difficult was it to try to capture the voice of another author? We have several reviews of The Black-Eyed Blonde, which have said you’ve captured his voice, and yet in your novels you have a distinct voice of your own.

JB: Well, it’s always easier to imitate a strong style than a more muted one. For instance, I would not attempt to write in the style of J.M. Coetzee, whose strength lies precisely in the limpidity, one might almost say, the willed anonymity of his style. I envy the cleanliness of Coetzee’s prose, but I couldn’t mimic it. Chandler, on the other hand, has a wholly characteristic and, therefore, imitable voice.

TSM: You started reading Chandler when you were a teen. Has any of that magic faded over the years? Why do you think the character of Marlowe has endured for more than half a century 

JB: No, the magic has not faded—Chandler is a marvelous writer who forged a new kind of fiction, and not just a new kind of crime fiction, either. He is entirely original and persuasive. Marlowe is, as I’ve said, a fascinating character. The essential thing to realize about him is his loneliness. Marlowe is defined by solitude, which he faces with the all the calmness and nobility of one of the ancient Stoics. I admire him and his creator enormously and will continue to do so.

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