15 Questions with John Banville

With his new book “The Infinities,” John Banville, explores the life of a dying mathematician across two parallel universes, as ...
By Michelle B. Timmerman

With his new book “The Infinities,” John Banville, explores the life of a dying mathematician across two parallel universes, as seen from the perspective of the Greek gods.  FM sat down with the author to talk about simpler things: “the gray north,” brandy, and a love for words which has translated into an award-winning career.

1. Fifteen Minutes: You’ve stated that you desire to give your prose the “kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has,” and you’ve published novels and plays, but no poetry. Why?

John Banville:  Well, my old friend, the wonderful Irish novelist John McGahern, used to say that “there’s verse and there’s prose and then there’s poetry, and poetry can happen in either.” Since he was a novelist, he used to say that it happened more often in prose.

2. FM:  Your brother and sister are also published writers. Is there ever a feeling of sibling rivalry or competition?

JB: I don’t think so, but then there’s always a feeling of competition or rivalry within families, isn’t there? No, I’m happy for them and they’re happy for me, I think. But of course, they may be working behind the scenes, destroying my reputation.

3. FM: After you finished school you worked as a clerk for Aer Lingus. How did this travel affect you and your writing?

JB: Well, I went to work for the airline because I could get cheap travel or travel for nothing. I did lots of traveling. My first trip was to Rome and to Paris. I was about 18, 19. For an Irish boy to get to Paris or Rome was no great thing. I don’t know if it had any effect on my writing, but it certainly had an effect on me as a person.

4. FM: Where did you most enjoy visiting?

JB: My favorite country, I suppose, is Italy. I think it’s everyone’s favorite country, really. They’ve sorted out the basics of food and drink and sensuality. If I were given the choice of dying and going to heaven, it would be Italy I would go to. I couldn’t live there. Life there would be too sweet and too soft. I need to live in the gray north in order to work.

5. FM: In what ways do you believe growing up in Ireland and being Irish have influenced the content and style of your writing?

JB: All I can say is the most important thing for me is that I write in a peculiar version of English which we speak and write in here. English is not my first language. It’s my mother-tongue, but I don’t feel at home in it, which is a very good thing for a writer. It’s a good thing not to feel at home in your language because you’re constantly examining it from the outside.

6. FM: You’ve lived in both the United States and Ireland. What would you say are some of the biggest differences between the two?

JB: Ireland is the past; America is the future. I mean, I still think of America as the last great hope. I’m a great admirer of America, you know, for all its faults. I get furious at Europe and the easy criticisms of America that Europeans constantly make. Mostly I think because I’ve been there. And of course the people who haven’t been to America know the most about it, as you know, I’m sure.

7. FM: Describe a typical day in your writing process.

JB: A typical day? I work nine to five. I stop in the middle of the day to have bread and cheese and a glass of water.

8. FM: Did you always want to be a writer?

JB: Well, for as far back as I can remember. I started writing when I was about 12. And if I keep at it for another 20 years, I might actually learn how to do it.

9. FM: You won the Booker Prize for “The Sea” (2005) so I think some people would say that you’ve learned how to do it. How did it feel to win the prize and how has it affected you?

JB: Well, it was great fun to win it, and my bank manager was deeply relieved. It hasn’t affected my work. One would be a very poor writer indeed if winning a prize influenced one’s writing.

10. FM: When asked how you would spend the $87,600 check that accompanies receipt of the Booker Prize, you replied, “Good works and strong drink.” We’d love to know your preferences in both those categories.

JB: I thought that was pretty clever, actually. Good works is taking care of the people one loves and people in the periphery of one’s life. Strong drink of course is good wine and good brandy.  Wine would be...a Tuscan wine and brandy would be Hennessy.

11. FM: Your new novel centers around a dying mathematician and his family, as the Greek gods hover above. What sort of statement, if any, does this make about religion and science?

JB: There’s absolutely no statement at all. My model is taken from Franz Kafka who said, “The artist is a man who has nothing to say.” I have nothing to say. I have no statements to make, I have no messages to deliver. I simply want to recreate the world as I see it and to provide delight to readers. No messages.

12. FM: One of the main characters in “The Infinities” has proved the existence of parallel universes. If you could live in a parallel universe, what would it be like?

JB: Oh it would be like this one. This is an amazing place to live. We have four seasons in a year, which is an astonishing thing. Everything changes. Come the end of February here in Ireland, it’s dark and cold, but things are beginning to move, which is an astonishing thing and it’s the greatest gift we could’ve been given. That the year changes, the sky changes from moment to moment. Who would want to be anywhere else?

13. FM: You have said that “Facility in art, or the appearance of facility, is nearly always suspect,” and that you only write about a hundred words a day when working on literary novels. How does this difficulty contribute to the formation of your novels?

JB: I don’t think it’s a difficulty...it’s to do with concentration. When you concentrate that deeply at that level, it’s impossible to write more than a few hundred words a day because every word is chosen. The cadences of every sentence have to be different.

14. FM: What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?

JB: Learn your craft—as simple as that. Don’t imagine that you can begin to express yourself or say things or deliver messages or any of that stuff, but just learn to write. Work away at it. Work away at getting the sentences right. And learn to love words.

15. FM: You’ve described the fact that you didn’t attend university as “a great mistake...I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love.” Any retrospective advice for students at Harvard?

JB: Oh, yes. Stay in school. Fall in love. Take the odd can of beer. Live as much as you can.

Harvard in the City