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John Banville on the Utter Mystery of Writing

Five decades after trading paintbrushes for pens, the Irish novelist says writing fiction remains an enigma.

When John Banville was a teen-ager, he wanted to be a painter. Banville was born and raised in Wexford, Ireland, and on weekends his mother would take him into Dublin to go to Combridges, a bookstore that doubled as an art-supplies shop. Along with an easel and paints and brushes, he insisted on making her buy him large tubes of zinc white, a type of white pigment. Back home, he would stand for hours at his easel trying to paint “mythological scenes of great meaning.” But painting never quite clicked, and Banville, still a teen-ager, traded paintbrushes for pens. Five decades later, he still thinks about what his life would have been like had he become a painter.

“I loved the notion of being a painter,” Banville said on the phone from his home, in Dublin. “I loved all the paint, that whole world, all that beautiful equipment one uses. That’s one thing I hate about being a novelist: I have a nice fountain pen and nice big books to write in, but it’s nothing compared to being a painter and all the wonderful brushes and all that paint and all that turpentine and those wonderful smells, all that muckiness—it’s like being a child again.”

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