At the start of the new year, The Coffin Factory made a pilgrimage to Dublin in order to meet a guru of literature, John Banville. In his apartment on the Liffey, we discussed spirituality, the differences between literary and popular fiction, and the craft of writing.
The Coffin Factory: You’ve moved in several directions throughout your career. First you were known as an Irish writer, and then you wanted to be a European novelist of ideas. Later, you went into the domain of thrillers, and now you’ve circled back toward literary art. Can you talk about these shifts in motivation and what you’ve been moving toward?
John Banville: The trouble is you speak as if I know what I’m doing. I don’t. I have no idea until afterwards. This is why it’s always so deceptive when artists give interviews. Because when we’re talking about the past, it’s always with hindsight. So, if I put a shape on my so-called career, it’s an imposed shape. As Henry James says, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” And Kafka said we work in deepest darkness, and I think that’s true. One stumbles along, not really knowing what one is doing. It’s only afterwards that you impose a form. There’s no point in my trying to answer your question. I’m not evading it, I’m simply saying it’s unanswerable for me because I could give you an answer now, but that would be a synthetic answer to a perfectly reasonable question. Certainly when I did Copernicus and Kepler, I made a conscious effort to get away from being just an Irish writer. I was going to give up fiction after Birchwood. I couldn’t see what there was to do in it. I was going to write some kind of history. In fact, Doctor Copernicus started out as a novel about the Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century, some kind of big European novel of ideas. I was going to change myself into that kind of writer, but I didn’t really have the talent for it, the education for it. But one does what one does. I wouldn’t be the writer I am now if I hadn’t done that. It’s foolish to try to say I shouldn’t have done this or that. But I do feel that with Copernicus and Kepler, I had wasted too much time doing so-called research. Trying to get the historical detail right was a great waste of time. Artists should work from the imagination, not from books. My wife always used to say to me, “They’re just facts, John! They’re just facts. They’re not truth. Truth is something else.” She was quite right.