An interview with John Banville

27 January 2015

As well as giving us a chance to read (or reread) some of the best works of literature from the past forty years, the advent of the Picador Classic series also seemed the perfect opportunity to ask the authors some big questions – about life and literature, their current obsessions and how times have changed. 

John Banville is the author of Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea. The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the same award in 1989. It tells the story of Freddie Montgomery, who stole a Dutch old-master painting from a wealthy family friend and murdered the chambermaid who caught him in the act. Narcissistic, greedy and reckless, he travels through life apparently without remorse. It's a wonderfully dark, insightful and unnerving crime novel and a lyrical exploration of an unreliable mind. Here we go into the mind of Freddie's creator...

What was the last thing you wrote in your notebook?

Notes are merely notes, I’m afraid, and wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. Indeed, sometimes I look at a note I made myself the previous day and am baffled.

Where in the world do you find yourself returning to and why?

Italy. Lucca. And there is a restaurant in Siena, Osteria Le Logge, which is one of my favourites in the world. Also, I have a friend who has a beautiful old house – eleventh century – in the countryside south-east of Florence, where it’s always a delight to visit. Everyone should have such friends, yes?

Tell us your favourite poem.

I don’t think I have one special poem, although I do confess to being haunted by Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple Picking’. The poets I return to again and again are Yeats, Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens, not necessarily in that order. I also think of Nietzsche as a poet, especially in Fröhliche Wissenschaft (Cheerful Wisdom).

What are you currently obsessed with?

Finishing the novel I’ve been working on since January 1st 2012. One of us will have to go. . .

What are you going to read next?

I hope to be surprised by something unexpected and magical. That is the wonderful thing about literature: there is always an author or a book one doesn’t know yet.

Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?

Poetry, philosophy. I like literature that has a thinking brain behind it.

What happens to us when we die?

Pfut.

Which other author would you most like to have for dinner and why?

William James. I cannot imagine anyone being better company.

Print or ebook?

Print, of course.

What’s your favourite film?

The Third Man. Best movie ever made.

And your favourite music or music genre?

What used to be called classical music.

What's your strongest childhood memory?

A nightmare I had at the age of four or five. We were told in nursery school by the kindly nuns that if we told lies, after we die one of our arms would stick up out of the grave. I dreamt that I was walking through a cemetery, and every grave had an arm sticking out of it. A graveyard of bristling arms.

Tell us the first thing you do in the morning.

Well now, take a wild guess.

And the last thing you do at night.

Take another wild guess.

What was the last book that made you cry?

Oddly, it was John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. The death of Rabbit Angstrom affected me deeply, I’m not sure why. I told Updike I had wept at the close, and he remarked with cool irony that he hoped Rabbit’s going wasn’t sadder than the death of Little Nell.

One book you wish you had written.

Molloy, by Samuel Beckett, or almost anything by Nietzsche.

Three things you would want on a desert island.

Fountain pen, paper and a giant bottle of ink. How prosaic.

What continues to inspire you?

Words.

What was your greatest piece of luck?

Winning the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Pure fluke, and no one, but no one, expected it. Very gratifying.

What advice would you give your 15 or 20 year old self?

Don’t become a writer.

What’s the worst or most unusual job you’ve had?

Working in the Telegraph Office in London, back in the 1960s. Four nights week, 7 p.m. to 8 a.m.. My job? To collect bundles of sent telegrams every hour on the hour, punch a hole in the corner and tie them together with string.

If your collection of books was ravaged by a fire and you could save only one, what would it be, and why?

I know a world-­renowned bookbinder, Tony Cains, who lives in Dublin. He’s retired now, but he makes handmade books for me to write in. I’d have to take the manuscript book I’m working in now. The novel I could do without, but it would be a shame to lose such a lovely artefact to the flames.

>>READ AN EXTRACT FROM THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE

The Book of EvidenceThe Book of Evidence (Picador Classic edition) is introduced by Colm Toibin.

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